Fidel Castro

Image Courtesy of Alexandre Berthaud, Creative Commons

The relationship of the Cuban people to Fidel Castro’s controversial leadership is complicated. Every Cuban citizen didn’t benefit from the revolutionary’s regime. Remember that as you seek to understand his legacy.

by Armando Garcia

Fidel Castro is dead. People in Miami, Florida, are banging pots and pans, celebrating in the streets. People in the San Francisco Bay Area are posting sentimental and supportive eulogies to him. Me? I’m hiding from all of you and avoiding all of the unrealistic melodrama on the subject.

I am Cuban-American who grew up in Miami. I know that our experience in Miami is unique in the United States and that the reality of my history and heritage is fantastic. But I don’t think many people really can appreciate that, because more often than not, what is circulated about my history is mythology.

Leftist people in the United States like to tell a myth about how Castro’s revolution was a triumph for the Cuban people. Older generations in the Cuban-American community like to spread the myth that Cuba was a grand paradise until Castro ruined it, simply out of a desire to be a tyrant. As if Castro, or anyone, is actually so cartoonish and one-dimensional to leave either sort of legacy.

If you ask Cubans on the island how they feel about this, they will more or less just shrug at you. They are the ones that live through their daily reality in Cuba and see the complexity of it that is hard to explain in few words.

I understand people appreciate Castro’s strong, anti-imperialist stance, and that he managed to stand up to the United States for decades. I know that, under his regime, the Cuban military’s activity in Africa was useful and inspiring to Africans in their fight against colonialism. I also recognize that Castro’s anti-racism rhetoric was inspirational during a time when the civil rights movement was in its stride. He was a thoughtful and interesting man.

But consider also that Castro’s anti-capitalist stance came about from political pragmatism more clearly than it did from any set of principles. Also, the African campaigns he supported came, as well, in large part for strategic political reasons, were undemocratic, and cost the Cuban people dearly.

Castro’s commitment to fighting racism in Cuba wasn’t as much an explicit mission as it was a convenient byproduct of adopting the Soviet model of governance — when you start to eliminate private property, mechanisms of systemic racism are rendered impotent.

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It’s true that universal healthcare is a right for Cubans, and there are some clever features of the Cuban healthcare system that we should replicate in the United States. But don’t tell me how amazing it is. You’re not the one with relatives on the island who need to travel several hours on a bus to see a doctor who can’t guarantee them any time at all and need to pay one-third of their monthly income to pay for treatment.

The point is that history is complex, and Castro’s role in it should be viewed in context. Despite his impact, Castro cannot and should not be the hero we are looking for.

I insist that you do not suspend critical analysis simply because the aesthetics of the situation are a convenient expression of your politics. The history of my people, which I feel very passionate about, is not meant to be an accessory to your identity. It isn’t a tool for you to express vague notions of what you believe in. It isn’t a token to help you “choose a side,” or “stick it to the man.” It is a story and a history in and of itself, full of idealistic heroes, passionate movements, totalitarian villains, and gargantuan sacrifice.

Consuming and propagating my culture and history as if it were an internet meme might seem revolutionary on the surface; but, in reality, it’s just another form of capitalist consumption and isn’t revolutionary, at all.

You wanna be revolutionary? Stick to your principles. Be just as critical of Castro and any oppressive leaders and systems as you are of the United States.

There is a lot to learn from the long history of Cuba. It has an incredible history of vivid activism, political discussion and worker’s movements. It had, at one point, the largest syndicalist movement in Latin America. Anarchist movements in Cuba were among the first anywhere to be explicitly anti-racist. Before President Fulgencio Batista seized power in 1952 for the last time, Cubans put in place the extremely progressive Constitution of 1940, which guaranteed fundamental rights, land reform and labor rights to the people. It came about through an impressively democratic process, unlike anything we could achieve in the United States today.

You might expect that all this activity was empowered by the 1959 revolution, but it was actually suppressed. The Communist Party discreetly offered to help destroy syndicalists, journalists and any critical opposition in exchange for political power, like it had done decades before with totalitarian dictator Gerardo Machado. A large, coalition-based pro-democracy movement to oust Batista was hijacked by Castro. A large part of the Cuban population was just happy to get out from under Batista’s oppressive boot.

It’s hard to accept people lionizing Castro as if he “made” the Cuban people and spirit. My people were pushing boundaries and fighting capitalist imperialism long before he and his cronies insisted that we continue that fight his way at all costs, long before the voices of the people were silenced so he could speak in their name.

So, in the name of the Cuban people, I hope you will consider judging Castro by a higher standard. I hope that you can demand more for Cuba, as you would for our communities here in the United States. I want you to see Cubans who have worked towards a society reflecting their principles, with or without Castro.

I hope that you can see us as a nation of people that had tough choices to make. If you’ve been positively affected by Fidel Castro, my heart is open to you. Many Cubans have been, as well. But I am asking that you open your heart to those of us who have suffered by him. Because, in the end, like the relationship of political leadership to the citizenry in all countries, it’s complicated.

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