The death of Fidel Castro signals more than the end of a vicious dictator who ruled his country with an iron hand for a half century; it also represents the demise of an icon of communism, a form of idol worship that destroyed the lives of myriads of people throughout the globe.
Known in his homeland as “El Comandante” (the commander), Castro was a master propagandist, and despite a long trail of atrocious human rights abuses, managed to cast a powerful spell over many ordinary Cubans.
Word of Fidel’s death was hardly unexpected. Ill and frail, he had been forced to start yielding power to his younger brother a decade ago, and by 2011, he had no formal role in the government. Yet, as their brethren in Miami celebrated joyfully, in Havana, Cubans wept openly when they heard that their longtime leader had left this world.
“His death pains me so much. All Cubans are extremely sad,” Yosnabo Baez, 54, a worker at Havana’s Jose Martin International Airport, told the Los Angeles Times. “We all knew El Comandante was old and that this was going to happen, but, still, his passing causes us a profound grief.”
The notion that ordinary citizen should mourn the loss of a brutal despot may seem perplexing at first glance to some, but for students of history this is hardly surprising.
When Joseph Stalin, a vile anti-Semitic dictator who massacred millions of his own people, died in February 1953, many Russians and communist sympathizers throughout the world — including Jews — shed tears. The headline on a left-wing Israeli newspaper even ran a headline declaring the “The Sun of the Nation Has Set.”
One elderly Russian Jewish woman told Hamodia, “When we heard that Stalin was gone, we sat and cried and cried. We thought it was the end of the world. It was only later that we learned that he had killed so many Jews and deported countless others and we said to ourselves, ‘Why in the world were we crying back then?’”
For the young generation it seems inexplicable how masses of otherwise intelligent human beings allowed themselves to be swept up in what essentially was a type of avodah zarah and blindly vow allegiance to regimes that deprived them of their most fundamental freedoms. Under Castro and other communist leaders, dissidents were routinely jailed, freedom of expression was all but non-existent and, for all practical purposes, any activity not authorized by the government was considered illegitimate and therefore prohibited.
Interviewed by foreign reporters about the death of Fidel, Cubans, especially from the younger generation, said that they were more concerned with earning enough money to buy food than about their human rights. While health care is free in this communist island only 90 miles from the Florida coast and the mortality rate is surprising low, poverty is rampant.
There are many ironies about the life of Fidel Castro.
It is entirely possible that Castro’s fixation with communism was a marriage of convenience. It wasn’t more than two years after he took power, after the Eisenhower administration had slapped sanctions on Cuba, forcing him to turn to Moscow for a lifeline, that he proclaimed himself a Marxist-Leninist. Yet the Marxist model served the dictator well, and as he connived, brainwashed, and forced the people of Cuba to worship the idol called communism, he managed to become a cult-like figure among many Cubans himself.
His relationship with the Jewish community was particularly complex. In the early days of his rule, he maintained good relations with Israel, even declaring three days of mourning upon the death of Israeli president Yitzchak Ben-Zvi in 1963. Though Cuba and Romania were the only two countries aligned with the U.S.S.R. that didn’t sever ties with Israel after the Six-Day War in 1967, Castro was an early supporter of the PLO, and did much to aid that heinous terror group. He then abruptly severed Cuba’s ties with Israel in 1973, yet is said to have been generally protective of the Cuban Jewish community. In 2010 he even scolded then-Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for denying the Holocaust.
Amidst all the contradictions, Fidel was an icon of audacity. It was the Soviet missiles he welcomed in Cuba that set off a crisis that brought America and the Soviet Union to the brink of nuclear war. When Kennedy and Khrushchev managed to negotiate a peaceful resolution to that crisis, Castro was infuriated that he hadn’t been consulted.
What numerous assassins and 10 successive American governments were unable to do, illness and old age did. Fidel Castro is now finally facing true justice, and will pay the ultimate price for those he murdered in cold blood and the many whose lives he destroyed.
As the world marks the death of one symbol of avodah zarah, we are left to contend with many other forms of idol worship.
Over the centuries, a long parade of dictators and the mass movements they used to prop up their rules have come and gone. Ultimately, what lasts forever is only the eternal truth: ein od Milvado.
May we soon merit the fulfillment of the tefillah to Hashem we recite thrice daily in Aleinu, and “soon see Your mighty splendor, to remove detestable idolatry from the earth and false gods will be totally cut off, to perfect the universe through the Alm-ghty’s sovereignty.”