Farewell then, Fidel. You used to matter to us

So long in coming, the Cuban leader's departure did not even have the power to divide opinion here

"Hurry to Cuba," urged a short piece in the Sunday Times. If you want to see it before the US embargo is lifted and the Americans pour in, then "you'd better go soon". In the Independent, the travel writer, Simon Calder, was of a similar mind, warning grimly that McDonald's and Starbucks were probably already scouting for locations on "the Caribbean's most seductive island". A two-page spread alerted us to the best hotels, museums and beaches, all beneath the message: "Go now".

Long ago, after his first attempt at revolution in Cuba ended in failure, Fidel Castro stood before a court and declared, Blair-like, that history would be his judge. Very few imagined then that he might go on to enjoy almost half a century in power, and it is a safe bet that no one could have dreamt that the ending of his epic reign would be recorded not as a milestone for revolutionary socialism, but as a tourism opportunity.

It was a big story in our papers for sure, but there was no great clash of ideologies, none of the confrontation that Castro loved to provoke - indeed, almost no debate. He went, not with a bang, but with a whimper.

Only Simon Heffer tried to pick a quarrel over it. "I wish the unhappy people of that island an early liberation from this vile family with its self-serving Leninist doctrines," he wrote in his Telegraph column. "How amusing, though, to read the thoughts of our own leftists on this historic moment, what with their having to deal with the abundant evidence of Castro's savagery and failure."

Heffer was tilting at windmills, for so blurred were the old battle lines that it was often hard to tell from the words alone which newspaper you were reading.

It was the Mail and not the Guardian, for example, which introduced a stirring two-page spread about the Bay of Pigs invasion with the words "How Castro humbled Uncle Sam".

And it was the Independent on Sunday and not, say, the Sunday Times that carried a piece by Chris Walker beneath the line "Let's get real about Cuba". In modern Havana, Walker wrote bitterly, doctors beg tourists for aspirins and people are locked up for the crime of "lending books".

The Telegraph pointed out that it was the Americans rather than any ideological enthusiasm that drove Castro into the arms of the Soviet Union. The Independent's Mark Steel, meanwhile, poignantly observed that a leader who inherited a country where black people weren't allowed on the beaches was leaving to his successor a country where the poor of all colours were barred from anywhere they might spoil the view for foreign tourists.

And yet, for all that, the departing Castro was not reviled as another Saddam or Franco, and the reasons had nothing to do with leftists turning a blind eye to the sins of a socialist dictator. The old autocrat won credit pretty well across the board because of the way he stood up to the United States.

The Mail had that Bay of Pigs spread, while the Mirror report of the resignation began: "He's seen off nine US presidents and survived 638 assassination attempts, but yesterday Fidel Castro stepped down as Cuba's president."

The Sun noted: "He survived more than 600 US-led plots to kill him - including bids to hand him an exploding CIGAR and jab him with a poison pen." The Telegraph called him one of the great political survivors and in the Times an academic critic of the regime, Mark Falcoff, said: "Fidel Castro was the first leader from a small, vulnerable country - one very much in America's historic sphere of interest - to confront Washington and live to tell the tale."

Some of this, no doubt, is the respect given to any David who sees off a Goliath, and some is a response to Castro's flamboyance and PR talents. But some of it, there can be no doubt, reflects a satisfaction to be found right across the political spectrum at this living proof of the limitations of US power.

The goldfish effect

BBC Television news bulletins on Sunday evening led with very full reports of the suicide bomb in Iskandariya, south of Baghdad, in which no fewer than 56 Shia pilgrims died. The next morning no newspaper, not even the broadsheets that have the space, mentioned it on the front page, though several reported it inside.

In a similar way, Turkey's military incursion into Iraqi Kurdistan, while it has certainly received more coverage than the Iskandariya bomb, does not hold our attention as you might think it should, given its implications for the stability of the region.

Soon it will be five years since British and American forces invaded Iraq, and it looks as though we care less and less about the place as the months, good and bad, roll by. Perhaps five years is the limit of our attention span.

Brian Cathcart is professor of journalism at Kingston University

Brian Cathcart is Director of Hacked Off. He tweets as @BrianCathcart.

This article first appeared in the 03 March 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Gas gangsters