Patria o Muerte. Long Live Fidel!


The symbolic legacy of Fidel Castro will not die with him, and will remain an incentive for political activities in the 21st century. Thus, the very death of Fidel Castro came just at a time when his image and legacy open up new global perspectives.

Fidel Castro’s life and death constitute an entire era in modern history. Eric Hobsbawm famously said that the 19th century was “long”, lasting in the political sense from 1789 to 1914, but the political 20th century was by no means “short’, as he thought. It did not end in 1991, but is coming to an end right now. At least, the 20th century of our generation could last as long as Comandante Fidel was alive, because it has preserved the mythology and romance (and if you like, the poetics) of the revolution. In Russia we felt it very clearly.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union and during the hard economic reforms of the 1990s, Fidel Castro remained an example of interconnection of times (and for some, a symbol of old ideals). Ironically, the opening of borders in the post-Soviet period made Cuba available for the majority of Russian citizens, making the Liberty Island a popular destination for our tourists. And the streets of Old Havana and the Varadero beaches were familiar to Russians not only because of Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s poems, but really and directly.

The revival of Russian-Cuban political relations in the 2000s resurrected the old Soviet mythologems associated with an “early” Castro. Memories of Fidel’s visits became really popular: Castro on the podium of Lenin’s Mausoleum, the “Fidel – Khrushchev” slogans, Castro wearing a winter hat in the freezing Siberia, the song “Cuba - my love” and more and more. Even the famous Fidel’s Havana cigars played their role.

Cigars, which were on sale in the Soviet Moscow from time to time, changed their semiotic value in the Soviet ideology. Previously the cigar had been an exceptional attribute of the cartoon American imperialists, and now it became a symbol of the new revolution.

This “Castro-euphoria”, characteristic of the Soviet society in the early 1960s was connected to the important “cosmic euphoria” of the time. And when in the 2000s Yuri Gagarin’s flight once again became a key element of the new Russian historical memory politics, Gagarin’s heroism in parallel enlivened in memory Castro heroics. And the fact that in 1963 Fidel became Hero of the Soviet Union seemed not a whim of Khrushchev, but quite a logical and natural event.

Therefore, today some subjects from the history and contemporary political life of Cuba remain one of the most popular stories on the Russian television. Experts regularly discuss them at political talk shows, directors make films, and the images of Cuba and Castro (inextricably linked, however, with the image of his revolutionary comrade Ernesto Che Guevara), still play a significant role in the Russian public opinion.

Moreover, contemporary political events in the world made Fidel Castro not just the “last of the Mohicans” in the “Long 20th century”. The images of Castro and the revolutionary Cuba became the symbols of new political movements. It all started from the “left turn” of the 2000s in Latin America, associated with the names of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Bolivian President Evo Morales. Chavez in his political ideology used a kind of “interconnection” with Cuba and promoted the “Chavez is Castro today” slogan. And one of the first events in Morales’ “policy of symbols” was the installation of a monument to Ernesto Che Guevara in a poor suburb of El Alto in the Bolivian capital La Paz.

Furthermore, the economic crisis of 2008-2009 ushered in an era of new civilian protest movements in the US and in the European Union, which also began to use the symbols of revolutionary Cuba in the contemporary political struggle.

Somewhere it was done indirectly, for example, in the “Occupy Wall Street” movement, when it was refracted through the ideology of Slavoj Žižek and his reinterpretations of the French neo-Marxist philosophers of the 1960s. Elsewhere, especially in southern Europe, where, in contrast to the United States, there was no taboo on positive imagery of Castro and Che Guevara, the appeal to the Cuban revolution heritage was more direct during the crisis of the New Left movement, which in parallel gained popularity in Spain and in Italy, and in Greece they could even come to power.

In this regard, today, when after the successful Brexit referendum and Donald Trump's victory, the world is waiting for a serious and long-term transformation of the West, the legacy of Fidel Castro can get even more political relevance. At the Valdai Discussion Club meeting in October 2016, Russian president Vladimir Putin formulated key socio-economic contradiction between the “globalization of elites”, “globalization for the selected elites” and the growing demands of “globalization for all” which can really determine the basic trend of 21st century world politics, and in many Western countries – a movement from the field of sociology to the practice of real political actions.

And in this regard, especially after Trump's victory, the statements about the possibility of a “new revolutionary situation” in the Western countries are not groundless. As a result of the “domino effect”, when Brexit and Trump can launch similar processes in other countries, the process of transformation of the West can turn into in some kind of a “chain reaction”. In this context, when discussing the “third bone” in this “who is next” domino, experts most often name Italy and France, but a similar logic of events will be available to other EU countries.

Surely, it is completely incorrect to compare Trump and Castro directly, as they are representatives of the extreme right and the extreme left wings of the political spectrum. But the dynamics of transformation of the West and the “domino effect” objectively expand the field of possibilities for action not only for the right-wingers, but also for the new left-wing forces, and for them, the romantic revolutionary symbolism of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara looks quite natural.

Moreover, whereas Trump's victory has already been already called a “conservative revolution”, it is clear that the dynamics of the revolution (no matter what ideological coloring it has) make completely understandable and logical the address to the figures and experience of the revolutionaries of the past. And here the image of Fidel Castro is one of the first that comes to mind.

Summing up, we can say that the real and, most importantly, the symbolic legacy of Fidel Castro will not die with him, and will remain an incentive for political activities in the 21st century. Thus, the very death of Fidel Castro came just at a time when his image and legacy open up new global perspectives. The significance of this for the symbolic policy is obvious. Similar to the old Soviet formulas “Lenin died, but his cause lives” and “Lenin lived, Lenin lives, Lenin will live”, we can say that the legacy of Fidel Castro will outlive him, and the image of Castro will not only remain in the history of the “Long 20th Century”, but will also become an important symbol and a call to action in the new political century, which begins today.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.

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