By the time you read this, Fidel Castro may already be dead, taking with him to the grave one of the sorriest legacies in 20th century politics. Despite the immiseration (to use an apt Marxist term) of his people, his ruthless censorship, his omnipresent informants, and his prison camps for dissidents, homosexuals, and anyone else who aroused his ire, Castro is still venerated by many on the left. A little free health care, it seems, goes a long way toward excusing all manner of tyranny.
Such love is as understandable as it is misguided. Long after the Soviet Union collapsed, China embraced a misshapen form of capitalism, and even diehard lefties gave up on the grimly comic North Korea, Castro's Cuba represented the last shimmering mirage of communism. As Contributing Editor Glenn Garvin notes in his masterful cover story, "Fidel's Favorite Propagandist" (page 50), many of Castro's ostensible accomplishments have been oversold. Long before Castro, "Cuba was one of the most literate countries in Latin America," writes Garvin, who has covered the region for The Miami Herald and The Washington Times. Meanwhile, "countries like Costa Rica, Panama, and Brazil have posted equal gains in literacy without resorting to totalitarian governments." And pre-Castro Cuba "already had the 13th lowest infant mortality rate in the world."
If it's not surprising to see leftists infatuated with Fidel, it's shocking that many in the mainstream media adore the man and the tropical gulag he created. (And let's be clear: Notwithstanding conservative rants to the contrary, the American left and the American media are two separate entities.) He's "Cuba's own Elvis," enthused former CBS anchor Dan Rather. Eleanor Clift of Newsweek argued that the orphaned Elian Gonzalez should have been returned to Cuba not simply to be reunited with his father but because that country offered him a brighter future than he had in the United States. ABC's Barbara Walters hosted a dinner party for the dictator where he joked with bigwigs from Time, NPR, The Washington Post, and other elite media outlets.
Discussing Anthony DePalma's recent book The Man Who Invented Fidel, Garvin explains that the press's romance with Castro began even before he took power, when New York Times reporter Herbert Matthews interviewed him at a guerilla camp in the Sierra Maestra mountains. Matthews fell in love with what he considered Fidel's "new deal" for the Cuban people, and his gushing, uncritical accounts in the paper of record were instrumental in the creation of Castro's mythic persona and his rise to power. No amount of subsequent political and cultural repression could shake Matthews' faith in the maximum leader. Even after Castro nationalized industries and bedded down with the Soviets, Matthews remained convinced Fidel was not a communist.
Matthews, writes Garvin, substituted passion for skepticism, a fatal flaw in a reporter. Sooner or later, Castro will exit the world stage. Sadly, the credulity that surrounded him is likely to persist for a long time to come.