This past week, Fidel Castro, the dictator of Cuba for about 47 years, died at the age of 90. When I heard the news, I was watching a football game. The news of this man’s death, one of the most influential people of the 20th century, simply scrolled across the bottom of the screen. And that was it. No breaking news cutaways. No media circus. Just another piece of news to distract me from my chosen entertainment. And yet this was no ordinary man who had died … or was he?
As I began to read various articles on Castro’s life and legacy, it surprised me to learn that a man like Castro who had so thoroughly trampled upon the liberties of his own people was also a man who had studied law at the University of Havana in the mid-1940’s. In fact, in his famous four-hour 1953 defense speech in court, Castro had even talked about working for the cause of the “vast unredeemed masses to whom all make promises and whom all deceive; we mean the people who yearn for a better, more dignified and more just nation; who are moved by ancestral aspirations of justice, for they have suffered injustice and mockery, generation after generation; who long for great and wise changes in all aspects of their life.” In the same speech, Castro had even declared that “Cuba should be the bulwark of liberty and not a shameful link in the chain of despotism.” And yet the bitter irony is that this student of law, this prosecutor for the poor, became the very one who systematically stripped dignity away from the common Cuban and preserved the shameful chain of despotism in that historic island nation.
If that were not enough, it also amazed me to learn that the man who in 1962 had welcomed the nuclear missiles of Nikita Khruschev and the Soviet Union into his nation and brought the world to the brink of nuclear war was also the same man who years later when asked by Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic whether he thought it would still have been logical for the Soviets to bomb the U.S., said, “After I’ve seen what I’ve seen, and knowing what I know now, it wasn’t worth it all.”
Again and again, as I read, Castro surprised me. He both worked to improve the education and healthcare of the Cuban people, but also simultaneously crippled them. As Krishnadev Calamur noted in The Atlantic, even though, Cuba had near universal literacy, “its citizens couldn’t freely read the books they wanted to.” And Kevin Sullivan and J.Y. Smith in the Washington Post noted that while Castro “dispatched Cuban-educated doctors and Cuban-developed vaccines to the poorest corners of Latin America, Cubans in central Havana found pharmacy shelves empty of medicine, and many lived in apartments in which they used buckets in their kitchens as toilets.”
So, what are we to make of all of this? Isn’t Castro just another ruthless tyrant, an exemplar of evil, a Communist mad-man, a symbol of authoritarian injustice? Yes. A thousand times yes.
But as I briefly surveyed the canvas of Fidel Castro’s life, I also noticed – or better, remembered, that he was a human being, too. A human being made in the image of God, but also sinfully corrupt. A human being who studied and learned. A human being who made decisions and later questioned them. A human being who wanted to do practical good to others – even if it was limited and superficial. A human being who puffed cigars, who loved and was loved, who laughed, who got angry, who adored the aquarium, who was someone’s son, someone’s father, someone’s husband, someone’s sibling. A human being whose body, once strong, grew weak. A human being whose breath, once regular, expired into deathly silence.
In the end, Fidel Castro, for all of his disgraceful deeds, was a man. Yes, a powerful and influential man. But a mere mortal, nonetheless. And I find this both comforting and sobering.
It is comforting, because in this life, Fidel Castro was not going to live forever. He could only do so much injustice. He could only harm so many people. The allotted period of his life and the boundaries of his dwelling place were established long ago (Acts 17:26). The rule of “El Comandante” had an expiration date. And so, while Cuba still suffers under a repressive regime initiated by Fidel Castro for which we should lament and pray, the man himself can no longer exert his wicked rule. In this we should rejoice.
And yet the fact of Fidel Castro’s humanity is also sobering. It’s sobering because you and I are human, too. While neither of us have been the brutal dictator of an island nation for five decades, we, too, sin. We too rebel against our Creator and do harm to those around us. Yes, we may not have committed the horrific crimes of Fidel Castro. But surely our sins are not altogether different. They may differ in degree, but not in kind. We may not have murdered, but we have burned with anger (Matt. 5:21-26). We may not have led a whole nation astray with our words, but we have broken promises. We may not have set-up repressive regimes, but we have been petty tyrants of our own little kingdoms – whether its ruthlessly guarding our “free time” or callously ignoring the stranger in the halls of our church building. When it comes down to it, through Biblically-calibrated lenses, all of us have more in common with Fidel Castro than we’d like to admit. Like Castro, we live in a fallen world in “bondage to corruption” (Rom. 8:21) – where everything – our plans, our relationships, our bodies – can break down over time. Like Castro, and left to ourselves, we are naturally hostile to God and cannot submit to God’s laws (Rom. 8:7). Like Castro, we face endless temptation – the desires of the flesh, the desires of the eyes and the pride of life (1 John 2:16). And one day, like Fidel Castro, we too will die and face our Maker (Heb. 9:27).
And so, what is our hope? Is it that we will leave a better legacy than Castro’s? Is that we sinned in more socially “acceptable” ways than he did? Is that we are “good” people?
Our only hope is found in a true and better ruler – King Jesus. For when it comes to Judgment Day, the only thing that can rescue the dictator of Cuba or this petty typing tyrant will be the shed blood of Jesus – the blood that can cover us by faith in this life – and be our source of unending joy in the next.
“For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might be boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.'” (1 Cor. 1:26-31)