The Autumn of the Commandante

The death watch for Fidel Castro is something that only Gabriel Garcia Marquez could get right. His novel Autumn of the Patriarch captures perfectly the moral squalor, political paralysis, and savage ennui that enshrouds a society awaiting the death of a long-term dictator.

Commandante Fidel’s departure from power, of course, will be solely a matter of biology, and the few pictures of him that have emerged since he took ill last year clearly show biology at work. When the end comes, change in Cuba could be as vast as any that greeted the end of the last century’s great dictators.

Stalin, Franco, Tito, Mao: all were mostly alike in their means and methods. How they passed from the scene, however, was often very different, and these differences can shape societies for years and decades to come.

Consider the Soviet Union. On March 9, 1953, from the Gulf of Finland to the Bering Sea, everything stood still; likewise in Warsaw, Budapest, Prague, and East Berlin. In Beijing, Mao Zedong himself bowed low before an immense effigy of Joseph Stalin. Huge mourning crowds, crying, nearly hysterical, could be seen all over the vast empire Stalin had ruled.