(HAVANA) Cuban President Fidel Castro died yesterday, after a long and uncorroborated illness. His exact age was unknown, but appeared to fall somewhere between the 157 offered by the U.S. State Department and the "young 25" listed on his state-issued passport.
Immediately upon Castro's demise, the reins of government devolved to his brother, Raúl, who was awarded control of the military, absolute authority over the press and custody of Elian Gonzalez.
Castro's passing inspired exultant celebration within Miami's community of frothing, certifiably insane Cuban exiles, who incorporated the burning of his likeness into their morning ritual of publicly praying to President Bush and tallying the number of days since their last power outage. Meanwhile, Castro was mourned as a fallen comrade by many of America's politically active but ill-informed undergraduate students, who erroneously believe it is the Cuban leader's image that adorns one of their favorite T-shirts.
Fidel Castro — in English, it means "true-blue eunuch" — led a life that, almost more than any other, embodied the fears, hopes and disappointments of the 20th century. As a young man, he was an outspoken critic of the "decadent" Cuban government under which he grew up, and focused his outrage on one key figure in particular — a man whose conduct and policies he felt were inordinately responsibility for keeping Cuba from its utopian potential. "If Fredo Corleone wants to see a chick get it on with a donkey, let him go to Tahoe like anybody else!" Castro once famously exhorted a horde of cheering revolutionaries. (Except he said it in Cuban.)
Thanks to a series of cannily executed mountain raids and his personal policy of never paying too much for a muffler, Castro had by the early 1960s wrested control of the Cuban government on behalf of the people. In his famous "Contract With Cuba," he promised he would relinquish this control to them as soon as they were old enough. As an impatient populace fruitlessly waited for that day to arrive, their leader dragged them through such high-profile entanglements as the famous Cuban Missile Crisis, in which Castro nearly brought the world to the brink of nuclear war by agreeing to house Soviet weapons on his country's soil. It wasn't until decades later, in Robert McNamara's book I Still Say We Should Have Nuked the Bastards, that Castro admitted having mistranslated a memo from the Kremlin that had simply read, "Off to Siberia for ski vacation. Please feed goldfish."
The collapse of Soviet communism made Castro a holdout, the last champion of an otherwise abandoned ideal. The opinion-makers of the world's free-market economies were quick to pronounce his regime spiritually and politically bankrupt, though the always-adaptive Castro was able to turn this to his advantage. By declaring spiritual and political bankruptcy, he was able to have most of his spiritual and political obligations discharged and be protected from nuisance action on the part of his spiritual and political creditors, who were forbidden to continue spiritual and political lawsuits against him, garnish wages or contact him by phone.
Throughout it all, Castro amassed a reputation for giving some of the longest speeches on record. One radio address he delivered on the subject of Washington imperialism had to be tailored in midstream when Castro received a note that his intended target, Gerald R. Ford, was no longer in office. In his later years, confidantes said, he was beginning to channel his rhetorical efforts into "blogging like loco."
Compiling an accurate, comprehensive obituary for Mr. Castro is an almost impossible task, as his biography is so awash in myth and exaggeration, much of it self-fostered. At various times, he allegedly claimed that San Francisco's Castro neighborhood had been named after him and took credit for inspiring both the hymn "Adeste Fideles" and the Nick Hornby novel High Fidelity (though not, significantly, the REO Speedwagon album Hi Infidelity).
Castro's final days were marked by controversy that matched that of his heyday — in degree if not detail. In the early-morning hours of a fateful Saturday, a Cuban policeman stopped him doing 95 mph down San Ignacio Street in his Yank tank. Castro, who onlookers described as looking "disheveled, even more so than normal," allegedly responded to his detainment by embarking on a rambling tirade in which he claimed that '50s singer-actress Rosemary Clooney was/is responsible for starting all the wars in the world. "Are you Rosemary Clooney?" Castro reportedly challenged the peace officer while peering at him through failing, mojito-clouded eyes. When the policeman returned an answer of "no," he was let off with a warning.
At the time of his death, Castro had agreed to be a consultant on a proposed off-Broadway musical about his revolutionary years. He leaves behind a daughter, Bernadette, and a warehouse of convertible sofas.[email protected]