In Miami’s Little Havana, champagne fizzed all weekend. Meanwhile, the rest of us in the free world amused ourselves comparing the barmiest political reactions to the death of Fidel Castro. Jeremy Corbyn is strong in the running for the 'Despot Hagiography Award', though top honours must go to the national statesmen remembering a tyrant as a saint.
‘A giant among global leaders,’ Irish President Michael Higgins gushed, ‘whose view was not only one of freedom for his people but for all of the oppressed and excluded peoples on the planet.’ His statement went on to praise Cuba’s health system as 'one of the most admired in the world’. Yes, the same one where patients reportedly must bring their own sheets, pillows, and medicine to hospital and where, Andrew Roberts notes, ‘doctors earned more moonlighting as tourist guides’.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau gave Corbyn a run for his money in his tribute, in which he highlighted his family ties with the ‘controversial figure’:
I know my father was very proud to call him a friend and I had the opportunity to meet Fidel when my father passed away. It was also a real honour to meet his three sons and his brother President Raúl Castro during my recent visit to Cuba.
On behalf of all Canadians, Sophie and I offer our deepest condolences to the family, friends and many, many supporters of Mr. Castro. We join the people of Cuba today in mourning the loss of this remarkable leader.
His statement has sparked a diverting game on Twitter, #TrudeauEulogies:
@MelissaLantsman 'Mr. Stalin's greatest achievement was his eradication of obesity in the Ukraine through innovative agricultural reforms #TrudeauEulogies'
@FowlCanuck 'Today we mourn painter and animal rights activist, Adolf Hitler. His death also highlights the need for suicide awareness #TrudeauEulogies'
@SohrabAhmari 'Though he didn't shy away from controversy Pharaoh will be remembered for enhancing labour productivity in Egypt #TrudeauEulogies'
It’s unclear whether Trudeau is ignorant or indifferent to the fact that mourning is the only expression allowed for ‘the people of Cuba’ at the moment. In real Havana and across the Caribbean island, the regime has imposed a nine-day period of official grieving. That means no jokes, no celebrations, no public displays of any kind save for the official funeral and other state-organised events. Alcohol sales are currently banned in both restaurants and shops. And in ‘non-tourist neighbourhoods,’ according to 14yMedio, the streets are empty:
There are no old people reselling cigars, people queuing for the newspaper, comadres talking on the corner, children running along the sidewalk. It's as if there was an unspoken agreement to stay inside the house until you see what happens.
Not for everyone, mind you. Cuba’s 'Unión de Jóvenes Comunistas', the Communist-youth league, dispatched themselves in convoys around Havana to ‘reaffirm their adherence to Fidel Castro,’ 14yMedia reports. Meanwhile, the state began a round-up of democracy activists and rights campaigners, according to the US-based Centre for a Free Cuba. In its email to supporters, the centre adds that ‘relatives are told to remain indoors or they will also be arrested’. The detainees include artist Danilo Maldonado, known as ‘El Sexto,’ who spent ten months in prison after spraying ‘Fidel’ and ‘Raúl’ on a pair of pigs in 2014. He was arrested again on Saturday, ‘after painting several graffiti related to Castro’s death,’ per 14yMedia. ‘His whereabouts are unknown, according to relatives close to the artist.’
This blog keeps citing 14yMedio, by the way, because it’s the only digital media outlet in Cuba that is not controlled by the state. The organisation, launched in 2014, has no office to raid. Reporters upload their stories using wifi at hotels and public hotspots. Even so, most Cubans can’t see their coverage: internet access remains illegal in private homes and the 14yMedio site is restricted at state-run cybercafes.
Little wonder, as the site reports, that Cubans are burning up their telephones ‘seeking truthful information’. For all the empty streets, Cuban phones have been ringing off the hook. The island’s most-repeated telephonic phrase over the weekend, according to 14yMedio is ‘¿Esta vez es verdad?’ - or ‘Is it true this time?’. On her personal blog, Havana-based artist Rebeca Monzo Mieres says she’s heard word of government officials ‘visiting the premises of private rental rooms, to find out if among the guests, there are any journalists lodging.’
Outside of Cuba, the likes of Higgins, Trudeau, and Corbyn have no excuse for their cluelessness. Martin Bright wonders how many Labour voters ‘will be ripping up their membership cards after Corbyn’s comments on Fidel Castro.’ More than a few, one hopes, lest Corbyn ever have the opportunity to embarrass Britain as badly as Higgins and Trudeau have Ireland and Canada.