Last week world headlines lit up with the death of one of the most contentious figures of the twentieth century: Fidel Castro. The Cuban revolutionary’s obituaries ranged from heartfelt sympathy to

open celebration, and sentiments regarding the death of el Máximo Líder have varied widely in tone and content according to both country and language.

The death of the Cuban leader was announced by his brother and current Cuban President, Raúl Castro, on a state television broadcast in which he expressed the country’s sadness and determination in his distinctively Cuban Caribbean Spanish:

2016 has been the year to watch current events in Latin America, but maybe most of all in Cuba. After a half-century standoff with the United States, the two countries made moves towards reaching across the Florida Straits to shake hands, resulting in a wealth of new travel and business opportunities for Americans and an increased cash flow for Cubans.

At the Summit of the Americas the year before, President Barack Obama and President Raúl Castro met in a historic apretón de manos that to many signified the pressures of globalization forcing the Spanish- and English-speaking parts of the Western Hemisphere ever closer together.

obama castro handshake

The historic handshake between Obama and Castro at the Cumbre de las Americas in 2015.   Photo by The White House via Wikimedia Commons under Public Domain.

Still, Castro has been a thorn in the foot of 11 American presidents of all ideological bents, and headlines from papers like the New York Times reflected that. The Miami Herald, published in the heart of the Cuban exile community and the epicenter of anti-Castro fervor in the US, also published a feature-length indictment of the fallen Cuban dictator on the day of his death.

Language and culture are inseparable, and one of the many places we see this is in media coverage of historic events like this one. Shorter and somewhat softer articles appeared in Spanish in both the New York Times (“Fidel Castro, líder de la Revolución Cubana y símbolo de la izquierda, muere a los 90 años“) and the Nuevo Heraldo, the Spanish-language version of the Miami Herald (“Fidel Castro ha muerto a los 90 años“). While the Times gave Castro his due as simbolo de la izquierda and the Nuevo Heraldo did its best to contextualize the man who grew into a world-famous tyrant within the setting of the Cuban Revolution, both publications were still colored with the cultural perspective of Anglophone America.

This is certainly the shared perspective of many Spanish-speaking Americans in South Florida as well. Miami, the de facto capital of the Cuban exile community and hundreds of thousands of other Latin American immigrants, burst immediately into celebration. For many residents of South Florida, Fidel represented the breaking up of families, destruction of livelihoods, and unforgiveable suppressions of human rights and dignity.

Headlines out of Latin America, however, varied widely. One thing most of them had in common was a tone of reverence for the fallen communist revolutionary who for many symbolized resistance and self-determination for the peoples of Latin America.

If we survey some of the main news sources of Latin America, we get a very diverse view of Castro’s legacy in the Spanish-speaking world. At the extremes are outright condemnation and outright hero-worship, but most of the views held by the 625 million residents of the region are a complex mix somewhere in between.

Cuba’s own state-run Granma isn’t the place to start for objective reporting, but it does offer an insight into the official party line in Cuba. The announcement came early Monday morning in the article Hasta la victoria siempre, echoing the words of President Raúl Castro in the broadcast above and reinforcing the Comandantestypical defiant tone.

Cuban news blogs like Martí with an openly critical view of the government tell a different story of course, but each side is a piece of the bigger picture. While many Cubans within and outside the island nation cried tears of joy at the news of Castro’s death, many others cried tears of sadness.

In neighboring Mexico, El Universal published a short and sweet declaration announcing Fidel’s death: “México lamenta muerte de Fidel Castro“, expressing Mexico’s solidarity with the Cuban people and naming their fallen leader “una figura central en la historia del siglo XX“.

On the other end of the American continent, Argentina’s La Nación published a series of stories that seem a bit more representative of pan-American perspectives. Announcing in one article that “El mundo cambió antes que su muerte“, the Argentinian daily sketched a portrait of Fidel’s impact across the continent and ultimately used it to praise progress in the region while critiquing the country’s own government. But rather than to hold up the Cuban communist simply as a symbol of government corruption in Latin America, La Nación went on to publish another piece asserting that “El legado de Fidel es el nacionalismo, no el comunismo” and underscoring Latin American nationalism, not communism, as the Comandante‘s main legacy.

Even in Colombia, where fear of a Castro-style revolution has been one of the biggest stumbling blocks in reaching a peace deal with the FARC, the Bogotá opinion journal Semana adopts the same tone in naming him a “buen tirano” and elaborating on the paradox of the “good tyrant”. In El Espectador, a leading Colombian daily, Fidel was cast as “símbolo latinoamericano de la resistencia a Estados Unidos” and, in the same article, “último de los grandes protagonistas de la Guerra Fría“.

fidel castro

“Fight against the impossible and win”, alongside an emblematic profile image of Fidel.   Photo by Jim via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY 2.0.

From facilitating the Colombian peace talks to sending Cuban doctors across the continent, Fidel was known as a much more complex character in el mundo hispanohablante than in the US and Europe. Where most of our English conversations are dominated by talk of “opression” and words like “tyrant” and “dictator”, Spanish-language coverage includes characterizations of opresión, tirano, and dictator as well as revolucionario, visionario, protagonista, and héroe alongside it.

Spanish even affords a word to the Castro-inspired school of political thought, castrismo, embalming his legacy in the language.

In Venezuela, whose Hugo Chavez was Fidel’s most famous and successful disciple, the headlines read much like they did in Cuba, even announcing “tres días de duelo” to mourn the Cuban leader’s loss in the midst of the country’s own headline-grabbing crisis. There and across the rest of Latin America, the questions is, what will happen now that the last symbol of Latin American resistance and bolivarianismo is dead?

Will there be consequences for the political crisis in Venezuela, the peace process in Colombia, or other ripples across the Spanish-speaking world? Will there be consequences for the tens of thousands of Americans who are planning vacations or family visits or language immersion trips to the island?

No one can say for certain, but those who are living through it all are blogging, tweeting, and writing opinion pieces on it in Spanish, a language that’s increasingly crucial to understanding life in the Western Hemisphere and the world.

Vocabulario:

  • el apretón de manos: the handshake
  • el bolivarianismo: the school of Latin American social and political thought inspired by Simón Bolívar, the revolutionary who helped many Latin American countries gain independence from Spain. Characterized by belief in democratic self-determination, socialism, and Latin American nationalism, it’s both the inspiration for and distinct from castrismo.
  • el castrismo: the school of Latin American political thought inspired by Fidel Castro and the Cuban Revolution, characterized by revolutionary Marxism-Leninism and Latin American nationalism, or the belief that the peoples of the various Latin American nations have a right to self-determination
  • el Comandante: the commander; one of the many names used in Cuba to refer to Fidel Castro
  • la cumbre: the summit
  • el fallecimiento: the death (slightly euphemistic, softer than “la muerte“)
  • la Guerra Fría: the Cold War
  • el homenaje: the homage, tribute
  • el legado: the legacy
  • el Máximo Líder: the supreme leader; another name used for Castro
  • el protagonista: the protagonist or central character (though not necessarily with the typical English connotation of “good guy”)
  • el tirano: the tyrant