News that Fidel Castro may be dead or dying has elicited a variety of sentiments, including an odd grief tinged with an even odder respect. My first reaction, on hearing of Castro’s transfer of power to his equally lethal brother, Raul, was to remember the strange circumstances in which I learned that Castro had publicly denounced me to an international congress of journalists meeting in Havana in late 1999.
I was having Christmas dinner with family and friends in Rome when one of my hosts asked whether I had seen the fax that the Cuban mission to the Vatican was sending around town. I confessed that I hadn’t, and the document was fetched. It turned out that, in the course of a typical four-hour harangue, Castro had devoted a few paragraphs to denouncing the “Yanqui” who had slandered him in my recently published biography of John Paul II. I was touched by Castro’s attentiveness — he actually called me something that can be printed here — but I also was struck by his defensiveness and an insecurity unmitigated by age or manifest power.
What I had written in Witness to Hope was the plain truth: The papal pilgrimage to Cuba in January 1998 was the first time in almost 40 years that Fidel Castro had not been the undisputed center of attention at a public event in Cuba. I also had recounted other aspects of the papal visit that Castro would have preferred to ignore, such as the fact that John Paul II had not mentioned the Castro regime once in five days; that the pope had tried, in various ways, to give back to the people of Cuba the rich spiritual culture that was their birthright; that he had challenged Cubans to be the protagonists of their history, rather than thinking of themselves, as Castro had so long proposed, as victims of “Yanqui aggression.” El Jefe was not pleased.
I had barely made it to Cuba in January 1998 — my first visa application was rejected, and it took an intervention by Cardinal John O’Connor of New York to get me in; the cardinal explained to the Cuban government that blocking the visa of the pope’s biographer would not look good. But once I had arrived, Cuba was unforgettably vivid, the images of its destruction inescapable.
I remember walking the streets of Havana, noting the crumbling buildings and the government office windows held together with masking tape, and thinking that what should have been one of the world’s most beautiful cities had been reduced to a Caribbean Sarajevo — not by mortars and rockets, but by mindless ideology. I remember the Museum of the Revolution, in which the bloodstained sheet that had bound the body of Che Guevara was displayed in an obscene knockoff of the Shroud of Turin. I remember the goofy cartoon billboards all over the country — Cuba kicking Uncle Sam in the pants, with stylized captions roaring defiance against the imperialists. And I remember thinking that this is what a country would look like if it were run for decades by a group of vicious teenagers.
I remember the barren shelves in the pharmacies, with not even an aspirin to be had, despite the propaganda about Cuban healthcare. I remember the teenage waiters and waitresses at my hotel, who told me that 75% of their wages went to the government. I remember talking to the prostitute — a well-spoken medical doctor who, when I asked why she was selling herself, told me that it was the only way to support her children. And I remember the elderly proprietor of a restaurant overlooking the cove from which Hemingway’s old man had set out to the sea, telling me with tears running down his face that he had waited 40 years to hear someone — and now the pope! — defend Christian family life in Cuba.
Whenever Castro dies, the temptation to afford a measure of respect, however grudging, to the man who continued to defy the world’s lone superpower will be strong, at least in some quarters. It should, however, be firmly resisted.
Castro is not a mass murderer in the same league with Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot and Mao Tse-tung, but he is a murderous dictator nonetheless. The stories of the vile and grotesque conditions in which he keeps political prisoners should not be forgotten. Nor should the injustices of previous Cuban regimes be cited as excuses for this wicked man who reduced a proud and vibrant nation to penury and international military prostitution in Africa.
In a statement read after his surgery, Castro assured his countrymen that the defense of the island was secure against the U.S. To the end, it seems, Castro will love the revolution more than he loves Cuba. That is why he destroyed so much of his country, and that is why no tears should be shed for him.
This article was originally published on Los Angeles Times