This is why the very first I ever heard of Fidel Castro was a letter from a listener to Radio 4 condemning then-recently-aired criticism of the communist dictator and praising him as a "great statesman" and "anti-imperialist". Later on I was see Cuba under Castro reported again and again by left-leaning journalists from one view point only: the supposedly-wonderful Cuban health care system, the "equality", the deprivation ascribed entirely to the (misguided) US blockade. That we were talking about someone whose rule, in its ultimate nature, varied from, say, Anastasio Somoza or Alfredo Stroessner only in the colour of his rhetoric, could not be seen clearly from these reports.
When Castro visited Nanjing during my time there, security was as tight as it might have been had Kim Jong-Il been visiting, and for the same reasons: vicious dictators have enemies. Castro made a fair number, and not just the "American imperialists" (opposition to whom seemed enough to confer again a red sainthood upon him), but also Cubans upset by his tyranny, and the emigres who left the country before he could add them to the tens of thousands who died as a result of "Revolutionary Justice".
Just like North Korea, Cuba under Castro impoverished its people whilst spending lavishly on a large military armed almost entirely with Soviet equipment. Just like North Korea, Castro was succeeded by a family member. Just like North Korea, Castro ruled for decades without ever allowing the Cuban people a say in whether it should go on. Just like North Korea, when the massive Soviet support on which a supposedly self-sustaining "revolutionary state" was supposed to have been built was withdrawn, massive deprivation and (further) economic collapse was the result.
Foreign adventures of exactly the kind that those who so regularly lavish praise on the former Cuban leader would condemn as "imperialism" occurred at regular intervals - most prominently his dispatch of troops to Angola, which even now wins him praise on the bizarre logic that it was "resistance to Apartheid" (the South African regime supported the opposing side of the Angolan civil war). Some of the same troops, returning to Cuba unwittingly infected with HIV, found themselves being jailed for life in a cruel form of quarantine.
Early last year, just as the reestablishment of relations between Cuba and the US was being announced, I visited Cuba briefly. The poverty and general decrepitude of the country as a whole was palpable. The best that could be said for it was that (as in many dictatorships) petty crime of the kind that plagues the rest of Latin America is kept down.
Only a fool would believe that the US blockade could really be the cause of roughly a third of the buildings in Havana being in a state of collapse - building materials are easily come by - so it was obvious to us that the government that dominates the Cuban economy was to blame. The Cuban health system that wins the country so many plaudits on the left is merely good by regional standards, and does not excuse a dictatorship. The locals that we spoke to all talked of shortages of basic necessities, and of wanting to emigrate.
Fidel Castro's death, reported to day, will no doubt be greeted an outpouring of grief in Cuba. In this, we will see another reflection of the North Korean regime. I'm sure some of it, in a country where Castro is praised in every quarter and where never a word of real criticism of the regime may appear in print, will even be heart-felt.
Outside Cuba, on the other hand, there may also be mourners, but these mourners will have no excuse for not knowing better.
[Picture: Fidel Castro visits another failed Communist dictatorship. Via Wiki]