Fidel Castro: The Last Funny Dictator
What stands out most in the coverage of Fidel Castro’s death is his multiplicity. As the revolutionary leader of an island nation, Castro famously defied U.S foreign policy intervention and economic sanctions for decades, improving living standards for millions of Cubans and establishing Cuba as an unexpected player in global affairs. He was equally well-known for ruling Cuba with a tight grip, suppressing anything that smelled vaguely of opposition. His tactics included imprisoning human rights workers, journalists, and trade unionists, restricting civilian internet access, and denying the legitimacy of any political party other than his own personal Fidelism. But El Comandante had another side that in some ways eclipses those more talked about images. For U.S. audiences, Castro has long been the most strict and comically ripe dictator, and with his passing, he may have been the last dictator truly worth mocking.
Castro became an ideal target for ridicule because of his consistency. His gray beard — a small forest for safeguarding personal meditations — his olive military fatigue — signaling a readiness to lead soldiers anytime, anywhere, for any reason — and of course, his unending cigar. By rarely deviating from these staples in his five decades in power, Castro molded himself into the most recognizable caricature of a communist revolutionary. On top of his iconic look, Castro’s lifetime of unflinching criticism toward the U.S., even after his brother Raul began expanding U.S. relations, cinched Castro as a personification of defiance on political, ideological, and personal terms.
Having that kind of zealousness to a single cause — in Castro’s case, defying the U.S. — is a great way to set one’s self up to be knocked down. Pigeonholing yourself makes you a target, not unlike the way the most heated debates on Twitter and Facebook stem from disagreements over simple pledges of allegiance to or against any one idea. Voted for Hillary? You must be a chump who hates America. Voted for Trump? You must be an American who loves chumps.
In the realm of U.S. popular culture, Castro was attacked through mockery and impersonation. However, with Castro’s over the top commitment to the public persona of Castro the Defiant, someone’s mockery of him often resembled flattery.
In 2002, when Jimmy Carter became the first American president to visit Cuba since Calvin Coolidge in 1928, Saturday Night Live parodied their interaction. On stage, Will Ferrell as Castro haughtily reminds Carter of all the reasons Cuba had to distrust the U.S., then boasts about the ways he was a more prosperous, well-liked leader than Carter was during his presidency. The defeated Carter concedes to Castro’s bullying, and when it comes time to announce “It’s Saturday Night,” Castro belts it out in Spanish while Carter mopes silently nearby. The skit pokes fun at El Comandante’s conceit, but it only achieves that by playing into it more. Castro could hardly have dreamt of a more self-satisfying outcome for his meeting with Carter.
The U.S.’ more sincere approach toward taking down Castro has long been to overthrow or murder him. However, the U.S.’ defeat in the Bay of Pigs invasion and its more than 600 failed assassination attempts — like Will Ferrell’s impression — ended up reinforcing Castro’s defiant persona. The only plausible takedown scenario for Castro had to be (and ultimately was) something not entirely in human control.
The Simpsons once suggested that Castro might eventually cave when Cuba could no longer afford Fidelism. In one episode, after cartoon Castro tells a room of militantly clad officials that Cuba is bankrupt, he picks up the phone to “tell Washington they won.” Someone then bursts in with the news that millionaire Mr. Burns is there to bail them out. Burns, as a caricature of U.S. capitalism, greed, and the belief in money as the all-powerful salve, proposes to buy Cuba with a trillion dollar bill. Castro, in all his contempt for the U.S., refuses Burns’ offer, but quickly tricks Burns into handing over the trillion dollar bill and kicks him out of his office. Even on the brink of national collapse, it made sense that Castro would still have the power to defy and outwit an American tycoon who has been compared to an actual American tycoon who may likely soon conduct business with Cuba, Donald Trump.
While the U.S. has battled and developed bitter relationships with other dictators, no currently living dictators have been as relentless as Castro. Vladimir Putin is ridiculed for his power hungry machismo, but Russia still has diplomatic relations with the U.S., and Putin has a twisted American ally in President-elect Trump. And since U.S. sanctions on Cuba were lifted in 2015, no other country is on such strictly unfriendly terms with the U.S. as Cuba was. Of the three countries the U.S. has no official relations with — North Korea, Iran, and Bhutan — none of their leaders are as staunchly anti-American as Castro was. Kim Jong Un loves video games, Eric Clapton, and Dennis Rodman. Hassan Rouhani was on the short list for Time magazine’s 2015 Person of the Year award. Tshering Tobgay, the prime minister of Bhutan, studied at Harvard.
The only dictator left who could possibly fill Castro’s shoes is Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad. Given the U.S. sanctions against Syria, its classification of Syria as a terrorist-friendly nation, and Trump’s reactionary approach to dealing with Syrian refugees, al-Assad would have a chance, if only he had a defining characteristic worth mocking. The fact that he looks like a mouse going through puberty isn’t enough material to build an icon around. If he doesn’t get a cigar, he could at least grow a bigger moustache.
The world abounds with narcissistic and duplicitous leaders, dictatorial and otherwise, but none can match Castro in his complete embodiment of a single pursuit. In his absence, Castro left a space for Americans for a narrow-minded, mockable political figure. If Trump would stop mocking himself and the country he’s about to lead, making fun of him might feel more worthwhile.