On 9 April 1948, the Colombian politician Jorge Eliécer Gaitán stepped out of his office with a group of friends to walk to Bogotá’s Hotel Continental for lunch. An assassin confronted him in the street and shot him three times in the face and chest. He died shortly afterwards. His supporters caught the 20-year-old culprit, Juan Roa Sierra, and beat him to death. His body, naked except for a blue and red striped tie, was dumped in front of the Presidential Palace. It remained there for two days. ‘El Bogotazo’, the night of violence sparked by Gaitán’s assassination, left more than 3000 people dead and Bogotá half in ruins.
In October 1963, Sir Herbert Stanley Marchant, the outgoing British ambassador to Cuba, sent the Foreign Office a six-page confidential profile of Fidel Castro, now held in the National Archives at Kew. Marchant joked that if it didn’t fit the Foreign Office’s purposes he would sell it to Life magazine when he retired, to keep himself ‘in beer money for a month or so’. He had been ambassador since 1960. For most of that time, he writes, Castro had had ‘nothing whatever to do with Western diplomats’, but the policy changed suddenly after he returned from a trip to the Soviet Union in 1963. Marchant had since spent eleven hours with Castro at close quarters, including ‘two lunches and a farewell interview’. The ambassador couldn’t help but be impressed by Castro’s presence: ‘However much you hear about the Grand Canyon it still turns out to be much bigger than you expected. So it is with Castro – and I do not mean merely his physique. He is in fact a good six feet four inches and he must weigh sixteen stone.’
It has been said both that Fidel Castro was a bad man whose henchmen tortured and sometimes killed dissidents, and that Castro was a good man who gave Cuba a healthcare and literacy programme to rival many in the developed world. The BBC, in its quest for ‘balance’, says that people in Havana and Miami (‘only ninety miles away’), which hosts Trump’s only significant Hispanic constituency, are saying these things. Philosophers chew over the ‘problem of dirty hands’ – thought to arise when a politician does something morally wrong in the name of securing a public good or preventing a public bad. It's notable that the problem is framed in that way, rather than as one that arises when a politician fails to secure the public good or prevent the bad by avoiding doing something morally wrong – the ‘problem of clean hands’, as it might be called. The notion that actors can acquit themselves of blame often relies on the fantasy that they act in a historical vacuum.
On Castro in the 1950s: In July 1955, Che Guevara was introduced to Fidel Castro, who was organising a guerrilla invasion of Cuba, with a view to overthrowing the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. Guevara was soon asked to join the party of insurgents.
From the summer of 1996 until he died in July 1999, I worked for John Kennedy Jr at his monthly glossy magazine, George. ‘There's no one like you, Inigo,’ he said on the phone when he offered me the job. I was always going to take the post if he wanted to give it to me, but he had a way of never making it easy for anyone to say no.