This morning I woke up to hear the news that Fidel Castro, the longtime leader of Cuba, had died at the age of 90.
He was unquestionably a very important figure in the history of the 20th century, so he’s worth a look.
When news broke of his death, the large Cuban community in Miami, centering on Little Havana, took to the streets in celebration. Cuban communities elsewhere expressed great joy and relief. The reaction to a man’s death is one of the surest measures of the impact of his life. If huge crowds are celebrating a man’s death, it’s a good sign that he was a polarizing figure at best, and Fidel Castro certainly stretches the limits of the word “polarizing.”
We must say that Fidel Castro was a consummate power player and a dogged survivor. He survived 10 American presidents who would have liked to see him go and many assassination attempts. The fact that these attempts failed on a man only 90 miles off American shores while they succeeded all throughout the world is remarkable. Fidel Castro couldn’t have pulled this off without a clear understanding of the way that power works, how to wield it, and how to maintain it. He was cunning from the beginning to the end. He was also undeniably charismatic.
He certainly knew how to create and mold his image. The iconography of Fidel Castro, relaxed in the face of danger, while smoking a cigar is viscerally potent. This is not a man whose masculinity you would question. His image was cultivated to look almost like a Bond villain…or even James Bond himself.
But at the end of the day we must ask ourselves…to what end was this power, charisma, and seductive charm used? Unfortunately in the case of Fidel Castro, it was to establish a tyranny over his country. He did introduce universal healthcare for instance, but at what quality, and at what price?
How much of this did Fidel Castro squander? Why do Cubans only seem to be driving 50 year old cars?
Surely, some of Cuba’s despondency comes from a decades-outdated American embargo, but certainly not all of it.
Are the people in Cuba free to speak? To think their own thoughts without, as Elizabeth I once remarked so justly for her own time and presciently for ours, others “making windows into their souls?” I think the answers to those questions are no.
Fidel Castro unfortunately used his undeniable talents to impose a destructive Year Zero ideology onto his people. He was a descendant of Akhenaten – a deconstructivist ideologue whose chief aim was to purify Cuba of “unwanted elements” and rebuild it in the image of his own utopian dream.
His accomplishments in healthcare or education or the like must be squared with this. All the prisoners, the deaths, the censorship, the secret police, the refugees (including the 1980 Mariel Boatlift) – these things must be squared with Fidel Castro’s personal qualities.
Did Fidel Castro Achieve Kleos?
As longtime readers of this site will know, the lifestyle challenge posed by the Masculine Epic (hence, its name) is to achieve a state of True Glory, a state where your name will live and more, be celebrated forever on the lips of those generations that come after you. By achieving this state, you haven’t really died. This state relates to, and I’ve used it interchangeably with, the Greek notion of kleos, which was the aim of all the heroes of Homer.
To the Greeks, kleos was loosely defined as “glory” or “renown.” More specifically, it was related to “what others hear about you.”
So the question becomes – what do you want to be heard in association with your name?
Fidel Castro’s life, as seen by the strong reactions after his death, was certainly consequential. He has certainly achieved fame. What about “glory” or “renown?” Is he likely to be celebrated down through the centuries?
I think not. He’ll have his sympathizers now, but history is likely to remember him for his vastly negative qualities. His name will live on. He absolutely existed. He won’t be doomed to the fate of all those anonymous souls of the past who may as well have never lived.
But Fidel Castro won’t have achieved renown, much less glory. He won’t be celebrated in undying memory by song or story. He won’t even have left behind glittering gems that obscured some of his negative tendencies, such as Louis XIV did with Versailles.
Fidel Castro understood branding, but perhaps not for the ages.
In the end, we can see Fidel Castro as a deeply diametrical figure, and we can learn from him as we write our own stories that we hope the ages will read. He was unquestionably a talented individual and he used those talents to achieve the first step on the road to True Glory – fame. Unfortunately, he threw away all those qualities in creating something monstrous. His Great Work was undesirable. Though people in Cuba may mourn now, those fond memories are likely to be erased by history. His eternal memory is likely to be as feeble as he appeared in his final days, and not mimic the bold, brash, masculine man with the cigar.
Such is the fate of even those with the greatest gifts if they fail to apply their talents properly in the quest for kleos.