Whether you’re looking at the so-called “liberal” media or more conservative outlets, the reporting of Castro’s death is entirely decontextualized, partial, and overly-politicized
I woke in the middle of the night, as I have nearly every night since the U.S. presidential election, roused by a dream disturbing enough to stir me from sleep but nebulous enough to have lost the most salient details upon waking. I reached for my phone to check the time—3:20 AM–and saw dozens of text, Facebook, and twitter notifications. Friends around the world, from Arkansas to Australia, were checking in to see if I’d heard the news: Fidel Castro had died in Cuba at the age of 90.
Castro’s death, recorded as having occurred at 10:29 PM on November 25, was announced by his younger brother and current Cuban president, Raúl Castro, on state television shortly thereafter. The news spread around the world quickly and international media outlets hit “Publish” as fast as they could on the obituaries and think pieces they’d written years earlier, each eager to score an analytics victory in the never-ending battle of the click. Some, it seems, weren’t even subjected to a final edit before going live; both CNN and The Washington Post had “TKs” for information that might change prior to publication – but forgot to delete those placeholders before rushing them out to the public in the wee small hours.
By morning, A1s and home pages around the U.S. were, for the first time since November 9, less focused on the U.S. election and its aftermath, instead looking outward again, finally. Every outlet, it seemed, led with the story of Castro’s death, perhaps the most anticipated demise of our time. Though Castro had been ill for at least a decade and his age alone was predictor enough that his death was imminent, his passing was hardly anti-climactic, as the cheering crowds in Miami’s Little Havana, shooting off fireworks and banging their cooking pots in the streets, proved. Depending upon which headline resonated most with the reader, the world’s most brutal dictator, America’s arch-nemesis, or the rabble-rousing thorn in the side of the United States was gone, once and for all. And in the end, it wasn’t any among the series of improbable CIA death plots—exploding cigars and literal poisoned pens among them–that killed him, but something utterly mundane: the ravages of time, which none of us will escape.
Regardless of one’s politics or, if Cuban, one’s own opinions forged through the lens of family and first-hand experiences of Castro’s revolution and all it meant, it’s hard to argue that Castro was anything other than one of the most polarizing figures of our time. But even in death, the man and his legacy are proving difficult, if not impossible, for the U.S. to report on in any measured way. Whether you’re looking at the so-called “liberal” media or more conservative outlets, the reporting of Castro’s death is—not surprisingly—being done in exactly the same way his rule and revolution were for nearly six decades, which is to say: entirely decontextualized, partial, and overly-politicized. From A1 of the print edition of The New York Post—“Scourge of Cuba finally gone at 90”—to the home pages of The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, and The Miami Herald—to name just a few—U.S. newspapers described Castro with mere variations on a predictable theme: “one of the world’s most repressive leaders”; “strongman”; “nemesis”; and the perennial favorite: “dictator.” In my quick survey of A1s and home pages, only The Chicago Tribune managed a headline free of charged language, reporting with a “Just the facts, ma’am” approach: “Castro dead at 90: His revolutionary influence was felt far beyond an island in the Caribbean.”
In the 10-plus years I’ve been covering Cuba (and covering coverage of Cuba), a persistent frustration has been the seeming inability of U.S. media to report on Castro, specifically, and Cuba, generally, without resorting to tired terms and tropes that obscure the complexity and nuances of this most compelling—and, yes, contentious—leader, as well as the revolutionary movement he headed for more than 50 years. To say there are one or two generations of Cubans whose members have grown up knowing nothing other than Castro is true, just as it is also true to say that, in the United States, there are one or two generations of Americans who have grown up knowing nothing other than shoddy reporting about Castro and “Castro’s Cuba.” In addition to developing ideas about Castro and the Revolution that are based entirely on biased language, words used so many times that they’ve practically lost meaning, Americans have learned little, if anything, about what Cuba was like before Castro’s “triumph of the Revolution” (and thus, what precipitated it), and know nothing about some of the Revolution’s most significant achievements and global contributions, such as its role in African liberation movements in the 1970s.
“The legacy of any person cannot be reduced to a caricature or we risk losing their worth,” says Ade Oguntoye of Atlanta, Georgia. “Fidel was a friend to many, so while we can castigate both outcomes and strategies [of his revolution], we must acknowledge the times he stood on the right side of history as well: In South Africa fighting apartheid, in Angola fighting colonial rule, and more recently, in Haiti numerous times after the flood, in Jamaica after hurricanes, in Liberia during the Ebola scare. One thing I have never heard anyone condemn Fidel Castro about is him being a bad neighbor.” Oguntoye explains that he was only able to cut through biased American media portrayals of Castro when he made his own concentrated effort to study history and talk with activists involved in global initiatives for social justice. And his understanding “crystalized,” he says, “when I interned at the United Nations in 2000 and heard [Castro] and Hugo Chávez speak. I read more about him and heard of his works globally and his dream for equality at home.” More recently, Oguntoye made his own trip to Cuba in an attempt to cut through the rhetoric. It helped, he says, to see with his own eyes the achievements of Castro’s revolution, accomplishments that weren’t reported in U.S. media. “I saw how people lived and put it into context through the lens of other Caribbean countries. I saw little pollution, crime, or homeless people — things that are glaringly evident in other countries I have gone to.”
While American restrictions on travel to Cuba have eased since December 2014, when President Obama announced a détente of sorts, and Americans’ travel to Cuba has indeed increased, most Americans will still depend upon the media as their primary source of news and understanding (or lack thereof) when it comes to interpreting Castro and Cuba. What they’ll find there is problematic. Focused almost entirely on the voices of exiles, refugees, and a broad category of Cubans on the island referred to collectively as “dissidents,” the U.S. media have failed, for nearly 60 years, to draw out more complex portraits of Castro and Cuba. They have relied upon a stock cast of sources and “experts” and have privileged a few select voices, most notably, the blogger Yoani Sánchez, who is often positioned as the “voice” of “the Cuban people” (as if there is such a monolithic thing). The U.S. media have rarely delved into deeper stories or teased out opinions, ideas, beliefs, and experiences that are, like most people and lives anywhere, varied and complicated and even, at times, contradictory and, to outside views especially, confounding.
Coverage in Cuba, it’s worth noting, isn’t better, though it’s entirely different in nature. State-sanctioned outlets—radio, print, and online—broadcast and publish reports that are breathless, uncritical intonations of revolutionary achievements and resistance against imperialism. They hail party leaders as heroes and steadfastly refuse to report “bad” news unless that bad news originates from the United States. To watch Cuban TV or read the newspapers Granma or Juventud Rebelde is to believe that there is no crime, no dissent, and no difference of opinion . . . all of which my own experiences in Cuba over the course of more than 10 years prove untrue.
In what is probably his most famous speech, Castro intoned “History will absolve me.” Maybe it will absolve him … and maybe it won’t. In my opinion, global absolution is a moot point: Individuals who have experienced Castro’s revolution will continue to praise or condemn him as they always have. His death will make no difference to them or the conclusions they reached long ago and to which they have held steadfastly for years. But now, in the wake of Castro death, what we can hope for most are more balanced reporting about Cuba, more responsible journalism, and reporting that goes INTO Cuba and seeks to speak with a multiplicity of perspectives and voices, rather than merely perpetuating a pro- or con- party line.