After Castro’s death, too many have a case of ‘Fidelitis’

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The media’s response to the death of Fidel Castro has been surprisingly muted, yet predictably skewed.

Perhaps it was shell shock after the election, or all that turkey the day before, or a chronic condition I call “Fidelitis.”

{mosads}The initial take was of Cubans celebrating that night at the iconic Versailles restaurant in Miami, banging on pots and pans and chanting “Viva Cuba!” Versailles is a vast, folkloric diner on SW 8th Street (known as Calle Ocho or the Saguesera), less known for the quality of its food than the loudness of its clientele.

This coverage fed into the familiar trope of Cubans as cigar-chomping, rum-guzzling revolutionaries, with the ghoulish subtext of them dancing on Castro’s grave.

That may indeed have been the case for some. But the gringo pundits pulled out of bed to go on the air missed that most were celebrating a new dawn for Cuba, rather than the death of a frail, 90-year-old man in a tracksuit who had been out of power for a decade and wrote daffy editorials for Granma, the newspaper of the Cuban Communist Party.

Next came familiar anecdotes of Castro avoiding exploding cigars sent by the CIA, his bromance with Gabo (writer Gabriel García Márquez), press junkets to Cuba, and the usual bromides on the quality of Cuban healthcare and education.

On ABC, Jim Avila jumped the shark by musing that Fidel was regarded as Cuba’s George Washington, and Brian Williams made the bizarre comment that Cubans enjoyed riding in donkey carts.

The narrative had hardened by Sunday morning, when The New York Times headline described Castro as one who “held Cuba in his thrall,” like a bad guy in “Game of Thrones.” On “Meet the Press,” host Chuck Todd described him as a “monumental” figure, echoing President Obama’s awestruck eulogy that Fidel was “singular.” He, too, had caught Fidelitis.

American media has been infected with it since the days of Herbert Matthews, a pal of Ernest Hemingway’s who trekked up the Sierra Maestre in 1957 to write a fanboy profile (again, in The New York Times).

It spread when Ed Sullivan interviewed Castro in 1959, and later when Castro triumphantly visited Harlem in 1960, drawing crowds like Elvis Presley. It later reached epidemic proportions with puff-piece interviews by the likes of Dan Rather and Barbara Walters, as well as beaming biographies such as that by Tad Szulc.

The last time Castro came to New York, in 2000, he was feted by Ted Turner and other media executives.

No doubt we’ll soon see him on the cover of TIME magazine.

One symptom of Fidelitis is a complete lack of perspective, and missing in the coverage was any discussion of what it meant to Cuban-Americans, apart from the pachanga at Versailles. Needless to say, we were not represented on any of the Sunday talk shows, despite cameo appearances by Lyin’ Ted (Cruz, Cuban-American senator from Texas) and Little Marco (Rubio, Cuban-American senator from Florida), President-elect Donald Trump’s vanquished bookends in the GOP primary.

For many in my parents’ generation, Castro’s death marked the end of an era, perhaps mixed with grim satisfaction at having survived him. They rode the roller coaster of the Revolution, and all have friends or relatives who were shot by a firing squad, or spent years in Castro’s hellish prisons, or wasted their lives in bitter exile.

Few believe that anything will change in Cuba tomorrow, or anytime soon. Fidel’s shrewd younger brother, Raúl, has been in charge since 2006, and now holds all the levers of power, from the military to the tourist hotels.

But he’s already 85. In many ways, it would have been more earth-shaking if he had died, since it would have left no one in charge.

For younger Cuban-Americans (such as my sons, now in college), Fidel Castro’s death is little more than a Facebook post. But it’s inspired them to learn more. They want to see for themselves what all the fuss was about, and will soon be on one of the regularly scheduled flights now leaving for Havana.

Also ignored by the newly minted Cuba experts was the issue of how relations between the U.S and Cuba may now change.

In contrast to President Obama, Trump described Castro (quite correctly) as a “brutal dictator.” But it reeked of pandering to hardliners, no more sincere than Trump’s other positions. It was reported in Newsweek during the presidential campaign that Trump may have violated the embargo, though this mattered little to Florida voters.

No doubt there will be a Trump hotel on the Malecón before long.

But Trump has threatened to roll back his predecessor’s policy of engagement with Cuba unless a “better deal” is struck.

Would this mean ending diplomatic relations?

Closing down the embassies?

Tightening travel restrictions?

Cuba is hardly a priority, and Trump may prefer to keep it on the back burner. All that could change abruptly if Raúl were to die, or be overthrown, or flee the island for a comfortable exile (in Russia or Iran?), leaving a dangerous power vacuum.

As they say in Miami, “¿Quien sabe?

Fidelitis can be cured. Castro once claimed that “History will absolve me.” But the judgement of history will rest upon the state of Cuba today, after 50 years of Castro. It’s a sad, dismal place (despite the journalistic cliches of happy-go-lucky natives driving vintage cars on cobblestoned streets) with little hope for prosperity other than increased tourism from the U.S., like in 1959.

Forget about democracy; it’s all about dollars now. As revolutions often do, this one has come full circle.

Before he died, perhaps Fidel Castro realized that history would never absolve him, but simply pass him by. And that’s fitting.

Alfredo Estrada is the editor of LATINO Magazine and the author of “Welcome to Havana, Señor Hemingway” and “Havana: Autobiography of a City.”

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.

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