President Obama and “President” Castro

News reports about President Obama’s visit to Cuba are regularly referring to his meeting with “Cuban President Raul Castro.” But Castro is not a president in the same sense that President Obama is. He’s not even a president in the dictionary sense. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “president” as “the elected head of a republican state.” Raul Castro was not elected, and Cuba is not a republic. Castro is a military dictator. That may not be a polite thing to say, but journalists are supposed to tell the truth, not worry about the feelings of the powerful. Indeed, according to the distinguished journalists Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, in their book The Elements of Journalism, written under the auspices of the Nieman Foundation, journalism’s first obligation is to tell the truth. The truth is that Raul Castro is, as Fidel Castro was, a dictator who rules with the support of the military.

Even the Wall Street Journal refers to “Cuban President Raul Castro.” I particularly regret this, because back in 2006 I called them out for their double standard on dictators, in a letter they published. They had written in an obituary note:

Gen. Alfredo Stroessner, the military strongman who ruled Paraguay from 1954 until 1989. Among 20th century Latin American leaders, only Cuban President Fidel Castro has served longer.

Why, I asked, 

do you describe Gen. Alfredo Stroessner as a “military strongman” and Fidel Castro as “Cuban president” (“A Flair for Flavor,” Aug. 19)? Both came to power through bullets, not ballots, and ruled with an iron hand. Mr. Stroessner actually held elections every five years, sometimes with opposition candidates, though of course there was no doubt of the outcome. Mr. Castro dispensed with even the pretense of elections. Both ruled with the support of the army. In Cuba’s case, the armed forces were headed by Mr. Castro’s brother. So why does the Journal not give Stroessner his formal title of “president,” and why does it not describe Castro accurately as a “military strongman?”

One could make the same point about Chile’s Augusto Pinochet. He was formally the president, but newspapers generally referred to him as a military dictator. Pinochet ruled with an iron hand for 17 years. After 15 years he held a referendum on his rule. When he lost, he held elections and stepped down from power. That’s more than the Castro brothers have done after 57 years.