On Friday, the world learned that Fidel Castro, at 90 years old, had died. Over the days since, I have learned more about both the revolutionary and the tyrant than I did in school. Honestly, I have more questions than answers.
I am by no means an expert on Fidel Castro or the longstanding political conditions in Cuba but I do believe that we should advance radical ideas in the pursuit of justice; and to do so, we have to study.
Since I have so many questions left to be answered, I decided it’s not my place to comment but is my place to learn.
On social media, I saw Black activists praising Castro, and Cubans – Black, White and in-between – expressing their disdain over both the reactions to his death and the realities they now face. In an attempt to learn more about these varying responses, I started with the obituary from the Miami Herald. The young Castro is painted as a man studying and then practicing law with brave and revolutionary political aspirations but as I was reading, I began to wonder about where he falls on the radical spectrum of politics. His ideas promoting communism and Marxism seemed to be for and about the people, as they should be, but oppression is oppression and like other regimes he used that tactic to hold an ideology in place.
“Millions cheered Fidel Castro on the day he entered Havana. Millions more fled the communist dictator’s repressive police state, leaving behind their possessions, their families, the island they loved and often their very lives. It’s part of the paradox of Castro that many people belonged to both groups,” wrote Glenn Garvin in the Herald’s obituary of Fidel Castro.
Castro’s emergence into power came in 1959, after he organized the overthrow of Fulgencio Batista’s dictatorship. His push back against the United States followed behind quickly when he began to nationalize U.S. owned businesses in Cuba, converting them from private to public and for the people, resulting in the U.S. ban on trade with the country. There were pros and cons to this embargo, limiting the trade economy of Cuba but also lifting an economic dependence from the U.S., the latter being quite admirable to folks that recognize the strong ties between American capitalism and oppression.
While pushing an agenda that invested in human capital through nationalized land, building schools and medical facilities, and tangibly exemplifying a communal and equal lifestyle for Cubans, Castro also made significant efforts to shut down opposition. Over time Castro persecuted political opponents and dissenters, limited the freedom of press, made no room for elections, enforced labor in the sugar fields, and limited opportunities of individual ownership. Essentially, Cuba became a fortress successfully operating without the U.S. but an operation that still utilized the oppression of people.
There are photos and stories of Castro’s relationship to struggles internationally, connecting many current-day Black activists to his radical efforts of the past. In a time when many of our own Black radical heroes were fighting for equity and justice in the U.S. and abroad, Castro and his Cuban Revolution served as an inspiration and support to those fights.
Castro expressed solidarity and provided assistance to Nelson Mandela and the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. He sat down with Malcolm X and saw a need to unify oppressed people across borders. Our heroes loved and respected him. They shared anti-imperialist views and inspired each other around the possibilities. Fidel Castro asserted himself as an ally, and because of that I can understand why so many Black activists praise his legacy, as much as he wanted revolution for Cuba he wanted it for us. But that doesn’t feel like enough for me to ignore the realities of what some Cubans and the generations after them experienced, how did our heroes ignore that?
In a BBC News interview, Dr. Denise Baden who has studied Cuba and the politics of Fidel and Raul Castro described the older generation as seeing him as “a hero of the revolution” whereas the “newer generation who were born under a special period when it was chronically poor, the embargo, Soviet withdrawal of funds. And some of them blame Fidel Castro for the hardships they went through, but some of them blame the U.S. embargo. By no means is Fidel Castro held to blame by most people of Cuba.”
An article published on The Guardian further illustrates the odd imbalance many Cubans have felt, where a 36 year old Cuban woman Elena had waited for his dictatorship to collapse but declared, “We Cubans are Fidelista even if we are not communist.”
There are always two sides to the story and what this has illuminated for me is just how complex it will be to revolutionize America. There will always be dissidents. How do we ensure that the truly democratic society and social utopia many folks are fighting for will leave room for disagreement and the undoubted instance of people wanting those politics to be transformed?
Revolution may sound sweet to us as it did to Castro, but after seeing the politics in action thousands of Cubans fled the country. Along with the very real fight for justice against harmful policies and systemic racism, Black Americans are fighting against the oppression of our voices and the voices of those that don’t fit the status quo. When we create space and come into power, then what? Our voices will be heard, but will we be tempted to drown others out in a way that would further a cycle of oppression?
Let’s imagine for one minute that we are in a more socialist society, or the socialist society of the future: some of us will love socialism to a point that we won’t want to see it dissipate, what will we do when our beloved system is opposed? We see this question and a form of an answer with the deathly protection of capitalism and White Privilege.
Can we guarantee our eventual society will work for everyone? At what cost will it be kept in place? There will come a point where what was revolutionary to some will be challenged. To be ‘about the people’ means to ensure equality and justice and equity and freedom, even if that freedom comes in the form of that revolutionary tradition making room for a revolution led by the next young leaders.
I understand that “gotta hear both sides” can be insulting to folks that feel victimized by Castro, and in no way do I want to diminish any of the hurt or oppression by uplifting the anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist agenda pushed by this leader. My hope here is that for folks that are not directly connected to the Cuban struggle, like myself, that we learn from it and ensure that we are hearing the sides of the story that won’t be praised in our radical political circles.
The legacy he left is exemplary but not perfect, as no person is. Fidel Castro achieved many great things for Cuba and managed to fight off imperialism on levels many of us aspire to. He also left no room for growth or change. To ignore that will not help our case for achieving radical politics in the U.S.
We can praise Castro, but we must also be critical as we build out a movement for ourselves.
Image via Creative Commons