The death of the iconic Cuban leader Fidel Castro at the age of 90 – hardly unexpected but, nonetheless, in a year of unprecedented political turbulence one more factor that heralds a new order – was greeted with celebrations on the streets of Miami.
Many, although clearly not all, Cuban Americans ran to the streets to celebrate the passing of “el viejo” and chant the banal “Cuba Libre!” as if a great historical weight had been lifted from each of their shoulders.
But while it is inevitable that Castro’s death will be welcomed by their political masters in Miami – among the most right-wing and instransigent in the Americas – it is curious that ordinary Cuban Americans behave this way, not least because Castro’s primary revolutionary motivation in the 1950s was patriotism. His revolution was against Yankee domination, and only later did he hoist his banner to Marxism.
In fact, this celebration of the death of an enemy whom most of these young people chanting in the streets had only ever read about in biased newspapers or heard about from embittered relatives, reveals much about the political culture in which they are exiled.
This is a materialist culture where ideas and history have been banished and where success – be it political or economic – is defined by whether you live another day. It is a culture in which the best – perhaps the only – way to deal with an adversary is to kill him. In short, it is a political culture defined by death, not dissimilar to that of Aztec Tenochtitlán where human sacrifice was the only way to placate the gods.
This is a culture that Fidel Castro himself understood well. Far from trying to win the war of ideas both in Cuba and Latin America more generally, successive US administrations believed that the only way to deal with Castro was to kill him. The Cuban leader survived more US assassination attempts than any previous figure. His response was generally – through admittedly tedious speeches – to restate the ideas at the heart of the Cuban Revolution.
At times in the long Cold War that President Obama finally resolved to end – and that Donald Trump almost certainly intends to revive – Washington did indeed try to fight an ideological battle. The Alliance for Progress, a US programme of aid supporting reforms that was launched in Latin America in 1961 in response to the continental threat of revolution after Fidel Castro’s triumph, was perhaps the most coherent attempt to nurture reformist alternatives according to the notion that economic development and social progress for the poorest groups could, indeed, generate political benefits.
But like so many other aspects of the US relationship with Latin America, the Alliance was in fact premised upon security concerns that hark back to the the 1820s and are based, at the end of the day, upon a belief in exceptionalism and a fixation with survival in a world that, if you insist on going it alone, always seems perilous. As the Alliance for Progress failed, the US resorted to supporting military dictatorships devoid of ideas whose only real currency was death. Washington did what came naturally.
Indeed, in the long struggle between the US and Latin America that began in 1959, Washington has been singularly unsuccessful in countering Cuban ideas: the neoliberal free-market obsession that coincided with democratization in Latin America and the Caribbean during the 1980s, spearheaded by Washington and their stooges throughout the region, represented perhaps the only counter-ideology following the Alliance that was formulated in any detail.
But that has been in retreat since at least the accession of Hugo Chávez in 1999, and the Americans have offered no original world view since. Not one idea. Even the promotion of ‘democracy’ has quietly withered away as the most functional justification for US intervention, not least because of the obvious lack of this commodity at home.
In fact, it is a youthful and energized Latin America that is now coming up with the new political ideas and formulas, as if its northern neighbour is bedridden with a terminal ideological senility.
Which brings us back to the cult of death. In the absence of ideas, politics is almost devoid of meaning, unable to advance a vision of a preferred world. It becomes a mere struggle for physical survival. Disagreements are resolved through force. Material wealth is all that matters. Death is the ultimate political defeat.
This helps to explain why the style that has become most associated with the way the US now “does” international relations today is war and assassination (albeit mostly through drones, and not using exploding cigars). Delivering death is a way of avoiding the argument. It is the supremely non-ideological solution to all your problems.
As it retreats into its isolationist bunker, the US is being forced to come to terms with its materialism. Some of its more visionary political figures have realised this, and seek to cure its many contradictions with the only vaccine that will work: ideas.
Ideas about social progress, solidarity, a better life, the common good, shared responsibilities.
Given the many, complex facets of the relationship between the US and Cuba, the celebrations on the streets of Miami are clearly just one, small detail in a much more nuanced picture.
But for those young Cuban Americans hailing the death of a man they never knew, those celebrations contain a bitter twist: one of Cuba’s greatest patriots is dead.
Fortunately, if they ever get beyond their chants and start to look at the bigger picture, they will find a cure to the ills of their adopted home: his ideas are alive and well.