Is Castro’s battle to avoid a personality cult destined to fail?
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The late leftist leader Fidel Castro’s dying wish was that his name and image not succumb to a cult following or blind idolatry in Cuba, but it remains to be seen if the country can respect that request.
special correspondent in Cuba
In a final, mass tribute to the leader of the Cuban revolution, President Raul Castro announced that his brother and predecessor had demanded that no streets or public buildings be named after him following his death on November 25. Furthermore, Fidel Castro wanted no statues, busts or other effigies of himself to be erected in the future.
The president added that in an effort to respect Fidel’s final bidding, Cuban lawmakers would soon draft and pass legislation to seal it as the law of the land.
Che Guevara-to-go. A symbol of the Cuban revolution, the guerrilla fighter also helps sell merchandise pic.twitter.com/vIJg0PMGHT— Joseph Bamat (@josephbamat) December 4, 2016
The declaration came as a shock to many in and outside Cuba, especially because Fidel Castro already enjoys a cult-like following in many parts of the world. In Africa he is seen as a key player in the continent’s anti-colonial and anti-apartheid movements. In Latin America, he is often simply referred to as Fidel – his first name enough to invoke a towering figure who proudly defied Washington for decades and outlived 10 US presidents.
His stated refusal to become a cult figure also seems to fly in the face of the many billboards of Castro that have sprouted across Cuba since his death, and the round-the-clock coverage he received on state television radio as the country observed nine days of national mourning.
In fact, from the early days of the Cuban revolution, which toppled dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959, Fidel Castro regularly expressed disdain for the cult status that the Soviet Union bestowed on leaders such as Lenin and Joseph Stalin.
“He considered it to be one of the errors of his Soviet allies, and it’s a position that gained importance for Castro as the years went by. In the end, it became his dying wish,” said Juan Valdes Paz, a Cuban sociologist and a member of the National Federation of Cuban Writers and Intellectuals.
According to Valdes Paz, a cult of personality grew around Fidel Castro despite the leader’s intentions and for reasons particular to the country.
“There was already a long tradition of honouring the leaders of Cuba’s independence, like [Jose] Marti,” the scholar said in reference to the Cuban intellectual who died fighting for independence from Spain in 1895. “It was part of school textbooks, and constantly evoked in political speeches. Neither Castro nor the revolution invented that.”
"I LOVE FREE WI-FI". Cuban independence leader José Martí, a hero for all the ages pic.twitter.com/x5Qrxu1Yeb— Joseph Bamat (@josephbamat) December 4, 2016
Castro and the revolutionary government that came to power in 1959 sustained that tradition and then extended it to its own fallen heroes, including guerrilla fighters Ernesto “Che” Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos.
Valdes Paz said that while the government encouraged, and to some extent exploited, the cult of those heroes, a lot of it came spontaneously from the Cuban people. Castro has enjoyed wide support among Cubans, standing out for his strong leadership and influence across the region.
A new face on Plaza de la Revolucion?
Yet a new, government-sanctioned devotion to Fidel already seems to be materialising. In Havana’s iconic Plaza de la Revolucion, a large picture of the revolutionary leader has been draped for days over the Jose Marti National Library.
The nearby defence ministry, by far the largest building on the square, seems like perfect real estate for Fidel Castro’s face. Huge outlines of Guevara and Cienfuegos’s expressions already adorn other buildings in the Plaza, and it only seems fitting that El Comandante should complete a kind of holy trinity of the Cuban revolution there.
Valdes Paz said it would not be out of the question for Fidel Castro’s face to appear on the defence ministry, but the forthcoming law should prevent such a move in the near future. “It seems like that decision has been deferred for now. It will be up to the next generation to figure it out,” he said.
Others doubt the government truly intends to respect the famous final wish. A bookseller who asked not to be identified, said that Raul Castro and other officials were already hard at work to exploit Fidel’s image in the effort to stifle dissent on the communist-run island and block meaningful reforms.
He pointed to a large poster with a sleek design of Fidel Castro’s silhouette, hanging in the entrance of a local library, as a way to promote the cult of personality. The bookseller said that like the poster the campaign would come in subtle – more insidious – ways.
Be like Che
There is another reason to doubt people will respect Fidel’s post-mortem request.
Che Guevara’s face is everywhere in Cuba, and as tourism skyrockets on the Caribbean island, it appears increasingly present on souvenir merchandise. Che’s face helps sell everything, from cloth bags to refrigerator magnets.
Is it possible that Fidel Castro’s image will be used to similarly help sell products, to bring some added revenue to Cubans who are in desperate need of it?
Since Fidel Castro's death, sales of his books and newspapers with his picture have increased, but it's tourists who are snatching them up pic.twitter.com/B3WVMG4T45— Joseph Bamat (@josephbamat) December 4, 2016
Raul, a young man who also sells books and movie posters in Old Havana, admits items with Fidel Castro’s picture have become more popular in the wake of his death, especially among tourists eager to take home mementos from their visit to Cuba.
He was nevertheless sceptical that Fidel’s image will turn into a trendy logo the way Che’s face has become for many. “We’ll see in a year or two. It’s still too early to say,” he said.