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Fidel Castro, who died Friday night, is a little bit like the film Casablanca or the Eiffel Tower. These are things that, as Roland Barthes explained, figure so centrally in our imagination that one can barely say anything about them. Fidel is like that. His phrases are so much a part of our concept of what it is to be a revolutionary that there seems to be no external point from which to evaluate him. Yet one must make the effort and especially try to determine what Fidel and his legacy means for our moment.
For my part, I think the quality of Fidel that is most necessary in our time, because most lacking in other leaders, is the capacity to see beyond the horizon of what there is. Most of current day politics is totally determined by the balance of forces and by economic dictates. Because he was not this way, some people call Fidel quixotic, but the problem today is an excess of Sancho Panzas and their politics of the stomach (with all due respect to Cervantes’ affable invention).
In 1956, after the 82 revolutionaries of the Granma expedition were reduced to about a dozen by an airstrike, the bedraggled survivors assembled around Fidel and asked what to do. He said: Now we will win the war! Today almost all known leaders would say: We will negotiate and look for some media spin to put on both the bombing and the negotiation! You can call this simply boldness on Fidel’s part, but it is more than that. The important thing is that Fidel’s utterances and projections were (often if not always) sparks that lit up a field. That is because they connected profoundly with other people’s hopes and needs.
Another quality of Fidel that is extremely relevant to our moment, because it risks disappearing from the political scene, is his consistent aspiration to the universal. Socialism — and human emancipation more generally — constitutes a universal project. That does not mean that it was born in one part of the world and the rest must conform to it, nor does socialism involve homogeneity or conformity at all. What it does mean is that it is universally human to want to take charge of our collective destiny and build it in such a way as to promote fairness, justice, and equality.
Fidel was, from beginning to end, loyal to this idea. There was never an ounce of the particularist spirit, of chauvinism, or of vengefulness in his way of thinking nor in his actions. Politics, he said, was the art of joining forces. He was fair and generous to his adversaries. Many testify to how he brought the best out of people — all kinds of people. At the end of his life, this concern of Fidel’s translated into an ongoing reflection on the common fate of humanity and the environment.
This commitment to a universalist perspective is important today because of its precariousness. It is said that the concept of universal justice was born in Ancient Egypt. It later made appearances in Greek and Hellenistic civilization and remains latent in many religious outlooks such as those of Islam and Christianity. Today, we witness a deafening crescendo of particularism — especially eurocentrism and its inverted mirror images and also diverse fundamentalisms — that threatens to leave little space for a shared project of humanity. This situation calls us to further study Fidel’s thought, fortunately collected in an ample body of writings and interviews.
From today’s perspective, Fidel’s biggest shortcoming appears to be his limited or at least late-blooming interest in democratic institutions and practices. This is a case of his not fully overcoming, as he did in the areas mentioned above, the limitations of his moment. From the 1930s up through the 1970s socialists generally underestimated democracy’s importance. They did not see how it was essential to the kind of power that socialism must exercise over the economy and quotidian life, not for reasons of making socialism “attractive” or “human” but for making it at all. Socialism, as Hugo Chávez said on many occasions, is democracy in economics.
To say this is not to argue that Fidel was undemocratic or that he was any less democratic than other contemporary socialist or nonsocialist leaders. After all, he did listen carefully and from the start established a spontaneous dialectical relation with the masses. It is just that in this sense Fidel was a product of his period and its priorities. At that time socialists — not just the leaders but also the bases — had their eyes on other ideals and on other prizes.
Despite what people are now saying with the best intentions, history has not absolved Fidel, nor could it absolve any of us. That is because history is always open and the spirit of emancipation says that we must constantly take an active hand in creating our future. In this project Fidel marches with us. He is not something of the past, but is rather part of us and our conduct. He is a key figure who taught us how to be revolutionaries and gave us a large part of our cherished and of course criticizable grammar of action.