There are no statues of Fidel Castro in Cuba. No school, street, government building or city bears his name. And while his likeness stares back from billboards and official portraits, it is absent from pesos and postage stamps.
As the island’s unchallenged leader for nearly a half-century before falling ill in 2006, Castro forbade monuments in his honour mere weeks after his rebels toppled dictator Fulgencio Batista on New Year’s Day 1959. He then spent decades railing against the idolatry encouraged by other communist leaders, such as Mao Zedong, Josef Stalin or North Korea’s Kim family.
“There is no cult of personality around any living revolutionary,” Castro said in 2003. “The leaders of this country are human beings, not gods.”
Yet despite his distaste for such honours, the bearded Marxist stood as a globally recognized symbol of resistance to Washington and free-market capitalism, a hero to left-wing Latin American allies whose movements he helped inspire and an evil genius to his foes in Miami.
He was the most dominant figure in Cuba, and Cuban state media amplified his every public act or utterance.
“The personality cult around Castro … is continually enhanced.” He “lives bathed in the absolute adulation orchestrated by the propaganda organs of his regime,” biographer Tad Szulc wrote in “Fidel: A Critical Portrait.”
Over the years, that propaganda machine churned out posters and framed portraits that were hung in government offices and plastered everywhere from pizza parlours to baseball stadiums. His words became catchphrases displayed on billboards along the island’s potholed highways.
Tens of thousands of Cubans were summoned to his frequent speeches, which rambled for hours under the broiling Caribbean sun and were rebroadcast on state television.
Even after turning over the presidency to his younger brother, Raul, Castro still cast a long shadow, publishing lengthy essays that were carried in every Cuban newspaper, incorporated into school curriculums and painstakingly read by newscasters, who ate up airtime slogging through every word.
“Fidel’s presence, through incessant public appearances and repetition in the media of his words, was ubiquitous. That trumps and exceeds the relative absence of Fidel imagery” like statues and monuments, said Brian Latell, a former top Cuba analyst at the CIA and author of the book, After Fidel.
Castro once told filmmaker Oliver Stone that he “never spent one second” thinking about how he would be remembered.
Yet friends abroad, such as the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Bolivia’s Evo Morales, made Castro a sort of living icon, treating him as a mentor and symbol of independence from Washington.
Even many Cuban exiles grudgingly conceded the brilliance of a man who defied 11 different administrations in Washington, survived numerous attempts to topple or assassinate him and outlived many of his most bitter enemies.
The Castro legend will grow in death, predicted Jaime Suchlicki, director of the Institute of Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami.
“He’s always been perceived as infallible, and that will be highlighted even more, his legacy rehashed so its impact on history is greater,” Suchlicki said.
Shortly after Castro’s rebels swarmed into Havana in 1959, sculptor Enzo Gallo Chiapardi erected a marble monument in the new leader’s honour near the Columbia military base.
“To Fidel, who knows how to break the chains of dictatorship with the call to liberty,” read the inscription. A furious Castro ordered it torn down.
Over the years, he instead made other revolutionary figures into icons, most notably Ernesto “Che” Guevara, whose name and face appear on billboards, stadiums, 3-peso bills and a six-story portrait that towers over Havana’s Revolution Plaza.
Yet now that he is gone, will Havana’s Jose Marti International Airport be renamed or statues of Castro erected in public parks?
One sign of possible things to come was the 2009 designation of the rural homestead in eastern Holguin province where Fidel and Raul Castro were born as a national monument.
However, Cuba watchers say a proliferation of Fidel Boulevards and Castro Plazas seems unlikely, at least for now.
There is a good chance that Castro’s rejection of monuments named after him “will continue to be honoured after his death, though probably with some very conspicuous exceptions,” Latell said.
Because Castro lived to be an ailing old man, his mystique will never rival that of the much-romanticized “Che,” said Paul Dosal, a history professor at the University of South Florida. Guevara was killed at age 39, and today his visage graces T-shirts, keychains and refrigerator magnets around the world.
“It will be difficult, if not impossible, for any subsequent government to recast or replace that final image,” said Dosal, who is also vice provost for student success. “A revolutionary who dies of old age is no longer such a revolutionary.”