Anyone who’s worked in the obituary or foreign news section of a news outlet has a story or two to tell about the Fidel Castro obituary, otherwise known as Bane of Existence. The endless updating and reworking over the years — no, decades. The bylines long gone from the newspaper by the time the Cuban leader finally died. Even the writers whom Castro outlasted.
I know that when I was the features editor (and thus the obits editor) on the foreign desk at the Los Angeles Times, the Castro obit seemed my Sisyphean rock. There’d be a flurry of dire health news, and we’d go racing to get it ready — again. I’d shake my head, suspecting he’d outlive us all. But I’d roll that rock up the hill, just in case.
Because he was such a towering figure, in more ways than one, writers spent a lot of time, and words, on Castro’s obit. The best obituaries are great features at heart, and a few of them dream large and take on the narrative form. I thought I’d give you a few highlights of some of the top obits.
The Miami Herald obituary is the gold standard, not least because he loomed large over the city and its huge Cuban American population. Here’s a particularly nice graf:
His tall and powerful build was matched by an outsized ego, boundless energy and extraordinary luck that carried him to victory as a guerrilla leader in 1959 against nearly impossible odds, then helped him survive countless plots hatched by his countless enemies.
The New York Times weighed in (with a mighty thump) at 7,900 words, James Warren notes on Poynter. This section seems to draw silent parallels between Castro and President-elect Trump in their mastery at controlling the narrative — the main difference being Castro’s long-windedness and Trump’s 140-character tweets:
Mr. Castro’s understanding of the power of images, especially on television, helped him retain the loyalty of many Cubans even during the harshest periods of deprivation and isolation when he routinely blamed America and its embargo for many of Cuba’s ills. And his mastery of words in thousands of speeches, often lasting hours, imbued many Cubans with his own hatred of the United States by keeping them on constant watch for an invasion — military, economic or ideological — from the north.
Over many years Mr. Castro gave hundreds of interviews and retained the ability to twist the most compromising question to his favor. In a 1985 interview in Playboy magazine, he was asked how he would respond to President Ronald Reagan’s description of him as a ruthless military dictator. “Let’s think about your question,” Mr. Castro said, toying with his interviewer. “If being a dictator means governing by decree, then you might use that argument to accuse the pope of being a dictator.”
Here’s the aforementioned obituary from the Los Angeles Times, written by longtime foreign correspondent Carol Williams, who left the paper a year ago in the massive buyout that saw nearly a hundred journalists leave. She also points out his genius at controlling the masses:
Castro was masterful amid the people, glad-handing flocks of supports and pumping up nationalist energies. In his signature practice of “direct democracy,” he would rile up a crowd, getting them to chant for an action he had in mind all along, but presenting it as his bowing before the will of the people.
One of the writers of the Washington Post obit, J.Y. Smith, died 10 years before Castro. I love the use of the words “chomping” and “monstrous” in this graf:
Mr. Castro, a romantic figure in olive-drab fatigues and combat boots, chomping monstrous cigars through a bushy black beard, became a spiritual beacon for the world’s political far left.
As usual, British newspapers added a little humor to the obituary. Here’s a great graf from the Guardian.
Like most Latin American leftwingers at that time, Castro was influenced by Marxism – whatever that might mean in the Latin American context, about which Marx himself had little to say.