MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
Today's reports that Cuban leader Fidel Castro is stepping down as president and commander in chief got commentator Andrei Codrescu reflecting on what it means, and recalling his trip to Cuba a decade ago.
ANDREI CODRESCU: Fidel Castro is leaving on his own terms. He is most likely bequeathing Cuba to his brother Raul and he won't give his enemies the satisfaction of dying without resolving the succession. Some people might find his last letter heroic, the last will and testament of an ancient warrior king. Others, the majority I'd say, will breathe a sigh of relief.
Castro's reign broke his people's spirit through demagoguery and poverty, and tore apart almost every Cuban family, sending half of it into exile. He repressed the intellectual life of Cuba, turned its joyous tropical colors over to Soviet grayness, and exported mercenaries all over the Americas and Africa to train killers and torturers.
Senator McCain has said that one of his goals is to find and punish the Cuban who trained his Vietnamese interrogators. Maybe now he'll have a chance. When I visited the Cristobal Cemetery in Havana in 1998 shortly before the historic visit of Pope John Paul II, you could read Cuban history into graves that stood empty with names and birthdates but no death dates. The owners of those graves were not even allowed to return to Cuba to be buried in the resting places they had built before fleeing to Miami. The cemetery had been confiscated and nationalized, property owed to state, and no gusanos - parasite worms - were coming home, maybe now they can.
Still, I wouldn't bet on either John McCain finding his torturer soon or the dead Cubans going home when Fidel's tombstone joins theirs. Raul Castro may have a lot less upstairs than his brother, but years of discipline being head of the army have made him a tough cookie to crumble. He'll hang onto power even more desperately than Fidel because without his brother's charisma, he'll have to work 10 times as brutally to take his place.
The question everyone asked me after I came back from Cuba was, what's going to happen after Castro dies? I never could answer and as it turns out, it would have been unwise to, since the old fox kept on living more than a decade after that. I don't know why some tyrants live so long, think Pinochet of Chile. But that doesn't necessarily diminish their influence. Castro has become iconic, which is a sure way to survive past the physical demise.
His henchman, Che Guevara, became iconic as soon as he died. Because he was young and handsome and made for the good face on a teenage T-shirt. But Castro won't easily go away, either. There is always a new generation of T-shirts waiting to be born, and like it or not, the guy survived some incredible odds. The CIA couldn't kill him, so I doubt if death will.
He'll go on becoming more and more iconic. Until no one will remember what a real tragedy he was and will continue to be for the Cuban people. It's too bad Cuba isn't ancient Egypt where the king was sometimes buried with his whole retinue.
NORRIS: Andrei Codrescu teaches English at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge.
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