Fidel Castro (born Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz on 13 August 1926) says his enemies think of him as "the great devil". And that was exactly what happened on 19 February when the news broke that he was stepping down as president of Cuba after 49 years at the helm. "Adios, cruel dictator" was the common denominator in much of the Western media.
"Departure of a dictator who had outlived his times", crowed The Independent [of London] in the headline of its leader comment. "Castro is a relic of a vanished age and fossilised revolution, "said another headline in The Independent which prides itself as being a middle-of-the-road newspaper (ideologically). But its take on Castro may have surprised even the rightwing papers! "Some cling to power to the last; some are overthrown, and some have the good sense to know their time," The Independent wrote. "Fidel Castro is an autocrat who, at 81 and in poor health, has just squeaked into the group of graceful farewells ... Put more bluntly, Mr Castro has resigned after almost half a century as the Communist dictator of Cuba. Not only for that country, but, for the rest of us, a distinctive era has closed."
The Times [of London] took up the chant, littering its five-page splash on Castro with "dictator" every few paragraphs. It crowned it all, in a leader comment, which said: "The obstacle-in-chief is leaving the stage at last ... Mr Castro's departure, albeit to a peaceful retirement he scarcely deserves, is half the solution. US engagement is the other half. Its time has come."
In Britain, it was only The Guardian whose left-leaning ideological stance prevented it from joining the "dictator-fest". Even then, "dictator" crept in once, in a piece written from Little Havana, Miami--the anti-Castro capital of the world--by Richard Luscombe, who kindly reminded his readers that two summers ago when "Castro was reported to be at death's door, tens of thousands of Miami's one million or so Cuban-Americans flooded the area to toast the supposed demise of [the] dictator".
This "fact", however, had been neatly rubbished the night before on BBC News 24 television by a young lady analyst who told a disappointed BBC anchorman that despite the TV networks having played over and over again the images of "the tens of thousands" of Castro's opponents jubilating in Miami two summers ago, in reality "the tens of thousands" were made up of only 5,000 members of the two-million-strong Cuban-American population of Florida.
In his memoirs, Castro himself says: "I don't understand why I'm called a dictator. What is a dictator? It's someone who makes arbitrary, unilateral decisions, who acts over and above institutions, over and above the laws, who is under no restraint but his own desires and whims.
"And in that case, Pope Paul II, who always opposed war, could be accused of being a dictator, and President Bush considered a defender of peace, a friend of the poor and the most democratic of rulers.
"That's the way the industralised countries in Europe treat him [Bush], without realising that Bush can make terrible decisions without consulting the Senate or the House of Representatives, or even his cabinet. Not even the Roman emperors had the power of the president of the United States! Any American president has more possibility of giving orders, and decisive, dramatic orders than I have.
"Look, I don't make unilateral decisions. This isn't even a presidential government. We have a Council of State. My functions as leader exist within a collective. In our country, the important decisions, the fundamental decisions are always studied, discussed and made collectively.
"I can't appoint ministers or ambassadors. I don't appoint the lowest public official in this country. I have authority of course, I have influence, for historical reasons, but I don't give orders or rule by decree."