Black America and the passing of Fidel Castro

Black America and the Passing of Fidel Castro

By Bill Fletcher, Jr.

            It is impossible to discuss Fidel Castro outside of an examination of the Cuban Revolution. And, while I hear that there are many Cuban Americans dancing with glee upon news of the death of President Castro, I know that the emotions within Black America are and will continue to be quite different.

For any Black American who knows anything about the history of the Western Hemisphere, both Cuba and Haiti have a special significance.  Haiti, of course, for successfully ousting the French in 1803 and forming the second republic in the Americas; a Black republic.  Cuba, in 1959, kicked out the USA, the Mafia, and a corrupt ruling class that had enforced racist oppression against most of the Cuban population.  In the cases of Haiti and Cuba, their audacity in the face of a racist imperialism brought forth the wrath of their opponents.  How dare the Cubans stand up to the USA?  How could a country of all of these ‘brown’ and ‘black’ people insist that they should determine their own destinies?

Thus, Fidel Castro immediately had a special significance for countless Black Americans.  When I was quite young I remember my father telling me how his brother-in-law, a professor at Johnson C. Smith University, had sat watching the television as pictures were shown of Cuban exiles entering the USA after the 1959 Revolution.  His comment to my father was that all that he saw were white-looking Cubans stepping off the planes or boats.  No brown and black Cubans.  This told him something about the nature of the Cuban Revolution and its leader, Fidel Castro.

Castro further endeared himself to much of Black America when he visited the USA and took up residence in the Hotel Theresa in New York’s Harlem.  It was there that he met another icon, Malcolm X.  It was situating himself in the Black community that shook much of the US establishment and told Black America that something very unusual was unfolding 90 miles off the coast of Florida.

In the weeks, months and years to come there will be exhaustive examinations of the work and life of Fidel Castro and his impact not only on Cuba but the world.  If you have not read Castro’s “spoken autobiography”, Fidel Castro:  My Life [http://www.simonandschuster.com/books/Fidel-Castro-My-Life/Ignacio-Ramonet/9781416562337] I strong recommend it.  I will not try to offer anything approaching an analysis of the man and his times.  What I can say, however, is that there are certainly criticisms to be offered, and differences of opinion of the dynamics of the Cuban Revolution.  That is all fair game.  At the same time, it has been a rare moment when a leader, particularly of a small country, has been willing to thumb his or her nose at the capitalist juggernaut and seek a different path.  Added to this has been, particularly in a Western Hemispheric context, the challenge of taking on racist oppression and approaching it as the cancer that it is, a disease to be removed.

The one and only time that I met Fidel Castro was in January 1999 when I was on a TransAfrica delegation led by the organization’s first president, Randall Robinson.  At the last minute, the night before we were to leave Cuba, we were informed that we would have an opportunity to meet with President Castro.

It was close to midnight when we were informed that we needed to board the bus and head to his office.  When we arrived we walked into a waiting room in anticipation of the meeting.  Suddenly a door opened and out came an old man in an olive green uniform.  Yes, it was Castro.  I think, quite irrationally, I was expecting the young Castro of the 1960s.  But here was someone about the same age as my father.  He circulated around the room and was introduced to our delegation.  We then retired to another room to begin our meeting.

It is hard to describe what happened next, and probably equally hard for anyone to believe it.  We sat in the room with Castro until about 3:30am.  He never lost a beat.  He never seemed tired.  In fact, as the minutes and hours went forward, he seemed to gain energy!  Castro spoke with us about the Cuban Revolution, race, and many other issues.  Yes, he spoke a lot, but we were transfixed.  And, when we asked him questions, he would consider the matter and always offer a thoughtful response, rather than retreating into rhetoric.  It was particularly illuminating when he informed us that the Cuban Revolution had underestimated the power of racism.  As he said at the time, when the 26th of July Movement (the revolutionary organization that led the anti-Batista struggle) took power they thought that it was enough to render racist discrimination illegal and that should settle the matter.  The entrenched power of racism, even in a society that was attempting to root it out, was more substantial than they had anticipated.

Hearing this from Castro represented a special moment.  There has frequently been a defensiveness among Cuban officials about matters of race in Cuba, despite the tremendous advances that they have made, advances probably of greater significance than any other country in the Western Hemisphere.  Yet, manifestations of racism remain and, to our surprise, Castro was prepared to address them.

Fidel Castro’s demise comes as no surprise.  He had been facing health challenges for some time.  Nevertheless, given the number of attempts on his life and the other challenges that he had faced, there has been a bit of magical thinking for many people, believing that he would, somehow, always be there.

For many of us in Black America, Castro represented the audacity that we have desired and sought in the face of imperial and racial arrogance.  While it is unfortunate that some of us have withheld concerns and criticisms out of respect for Castro and the Cuban Revolution, it is completely understandable.  After all, this was the country that deployed troops to Angola that helped to smash the South African apartheid army and their Angolan allies.  This was the country that has deployed doctors in the face of countless emergencies, to countries that could never afford such assistance.  This is the country that has studied and come to understand hurricanes in a way unlike most in the hurricane region, so much so that it offered assistance to the USA in the aftermath of the 2005 Hurricane Katrina, assistance that the then Bush administration turned down.

Let his soul rest easy.  And, let the Cuban people continue on their way free of outside interference.  Theirs path has been one upon which they have insisted.  Fidel Castro was one important component in making that happen.  And, if that was not enough, he and the Cuban Revolution shook the world of the 20th century.

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Bill Fletcher, Jr. is a talk show host, writer and activist.  He can be followed on Twitter, Facebook and at www.billfletcherjr.com.

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36 thoughts on “Black America and the passing of Fidel Castro

  1. a voice of reason among the noise of anti castro US sentiments. i am an italian national and we love cuba. hasta la victoria!

  2. My 87 year old mother, a mid-western American of Swedish and German ancestry, worked at a mission school in the early 50’s in pre-Castro Cuba. The narrative in our home about Castro when I was growing up, was that he allowed poor people to have access to resources previously unavailable and to live in dignity. Thank you for sharing an angle I hadn’t been aware of. I plan to share this with her.

  3. As a lifelong Miamian I have read many op-eds about Castro over the decades.

    Those who speak against Castro rarely mention the brutal right-wing dictatorship that he overthrew. They rarely mention the advances in health care and education for the population.

    Those who speak well of Castro rarely mention the brutal left-wing dictatorship that he created and ruled for decades. They rarely speak of his broken promises of free elections, or his suppression of basic human rights such as freedom of assembly and free speech.

    • Brutal left-wing dictatorship? There were errors; there were things done with which i disagree. I, for instance, believe in the need for term limits on leaders.
      But i also look at every effort that the USA undertook to undermine the Cuban government. I look at the impact that this had on the government and the people. So, then the USA has the audacity to accuse the government of being undemocratic after a campaign of destabilization?
      None of this means that i withhold disagreements or criticisms. But it does mean that i put them in context.

  4. Thank you for this thoughtful commentary on Fidel Castro. It offers a wonderful testament in the face of the vilifying onslaught presented by corporate media.

  5. Thank you Bill for the balance and context! I had the pleasure and honor of meeting Fidel Castro as part of a UCC delegation in 2005. He was an undisputed proponent of social justice.

    • For whatever criticisms one might have of Fidel Castro and the years in which he was the dominant political force in Cuba, the fact is that he challenged the forces of global injustice in a way that won him the support of millions.

  6. As a candidate for a doctorate in history at the University of Miami in 1975, I couldn’t but help notice that by far the students identifying themselves as Cuban-Americans were not in any outward appearance way of some African ancestry. Apparent also was the older women held umbrellas over their heads. This was done to make sure they wouldn’t get darker in appearance, i.e., seriously tanned, hence to avert any idea that they worked in the sun at one time cutting sugar cane. Racism and classism were in that mix. Bill wrote an insightful piece that hits the nail on the head.

  7. Obviously there was no “brutal left-wing dictatorship.” That’s nonsense, and thank you Bill Fletcher for saying so (more politely than I did). And there are free elections in Cuba; some consider their electoral system more democratic than our own, and we have some recent evidence to support that.
    Let me just say with regard to term limits that the Sandinistas took that path and look where it got them and the Nicaraguan people who needed them to stay in power. You can’t continue building a revolution if you don’t have a substantial amount of time. Maybe 50 years is a little TOO long, but Castro, as a great statesman and architect of the socialist revolution that produced so much benefit for so many, was a special case.
    Thanks for telling this story, compañero Fletcher

    • Thanks for this.

      I do not think that the problem that the Sandinistas faced was about term-limits. The USA waged a brutal war against them and the majority of the voters saw no way out. The USA destabilization effort worked.

      I think that term limits are very important because i have seen what happens when they are missing. There is a “bubble” that develops around leaders and it becomes more and more difficult to criticize them. Also, their ideas frequently become stagnant. Reasonable term limits offer channces for other leaders and, especially, the younger generation to emerge.

      In either case, thanks for your posting.

  8. Thank you, Bill, for this commentary.

    The importance of the Cuban Revolution hit home when I was actually in Cuba, while my abuela, Esperanza Guzman, passed away in Puerto Rico in 1989. I rushed back as soon as I could, and could not help notice several highway signs in Puerto Rico, in route, ruta 3, which emphasized the importance of Fidel and the impact of the Cuban Revolution…a few signs, ‘we spik English here’ to attract Anglo-Americans, compared to the cultural richness and power that I saw and felt in Cuba…Fidel’s message of cultural and political empowerment has been so important for so many people across the planet…

    James

    • Indeed. And the ruling forces in the USA have gone out of their way to ensure that the influence of the Cuban Revolution was kept as far away from Puerto Rico as possible. Despite this, as you know better than I, the Revolution proved to be a significant factor in the redevelopment or reshaping of the Puerto Rican independence movement.

      • Good writing Mr. Fletcher,,i want to add that USa have gone way out of their way to keep Castros Legacy to be almost unknown in Puerto Rico, also there was a great number of white looking cubans like your father describe so well during the revolution exodus that landed in Puerto Rico, and immediately started the contra revolution propaganda helped and sponsored by the USa,,,,,so the story in PR has always been rotated , twisted , deny, or change to the point that nowadays PR, being an invaded country turn colony and in bankruptcy due to Washington’s imperialist mode which have bulldoze the small culture and idiosyncrasy the Puertoricans had left,,,i believe Castros prevented this result to all cubans the ones in the exodus included,,,one Castro legacy ,in my opinion, has been preventing the USa from taking away the identity the culture and the spirit of the cuban people,,prevented the cubans from speaking spanglish,,prevented the cubans to loose their savings as there is no voulchers investors in Cuba,,, prevented the cubans from forgetting the family and friends and community life instead of shopping malls and falling in debt and drug and violence,,we as a USa colony have ten times the crime rate of Cuba,,and we have one third the population of Cuba,,we have more drug addicts in one region than in the whole island of Cuba,,the education of Cuba is like 10 times better than in PR and free,,,government corruption is off the charts in PR,,while there is barely none in Cuba,,,Cuba is now one of the few caribbean paradise because of pristine natural state,,while PR is an ecological disaster,,wnd a toxic ticking time bomb,,,all because we have been impose as a colony a style of living and purchasing impose by the USa,,,again Castro prevented that to happening to Cubans,,,i believe Castros legacy can be described as visionary,,,and indeed if Obama won the Nobel price ,,Castro should have been the one handling that nonsense trophy to Obama,,,,

        • Thanks for this. You should turn this note into an essay. You are making some very important points about the contrast of Puerto Rico and Cuba. I would add to what you note here, that there is a strong right-wing in Puerto Rico that i can only assume has received the support of Cuban exiles.

        • Javi, Such an important point about the way the US has destroyed the paradise that was P.R. and has not been allowed to do the same to Cuba. I guess that’s what US-based corporations and the USG have been so p.o.’d about for the past 50+ years!

  9. Thanks for clearing up many of the misconceptions about Fidel Castro circulating in the corporate mainstream news media and the way in which he was perceived by many in Black America.

  10. I believe that Bill Fletcher has been honest and poignant in his assessment of the relevance of Fidel and the revolution he led to the issue of race not only for Afro-Cubans but all Africans including those in the US.

    I also think he touched on the complexity of race in Cuba and the evolution of the ideas of the unforgettable revolutionary icon Fidel Castro on the subject. Hopefully as the revolution evolves with its zigs and zags like all social processes, the issue of race in Cuba will be given further analysis to enhance the unity of all Cubans as well as provide more insights to end the disparities between the racial groups in Cuba.

    Frankly, I believe that the latter will be a lasting tribute to the legacy of struggles of the extraordinary leader Fidel Castro Ruiz.

    RIP Fidel Castro! Love Always

  11. Thank you for honoring Comrade Fidel and the amazing work he did. I spent 3 months in Cuba many yrs ago with the first Venceremos Brigade and found the people, their spirit and optimism humbling and inspiring. Comrade Fidel has earned his rest but we should never forget him and his dedication to the people

  12. So many great responses to your piece on Fidel! Here in Guanajuato, México, in coffee shops, at the university, on the street, people are talking about Fidel. Young people are eager to learn about this man old enough to be their great-grandfather. Did he really take off from Tuxpan to launch a revolution in his country? Does Cuba have the same problems with the USA as we do? Can’t we make change in our country, too?

    • Yes, great responses and indicative of the need for more reflection on both history but also strategy in the face of a very vicious global capitalism. Thanks for your note!

  13. The left, though, somehow has discovered the wonders of the cruelest capitalism in the new Cuba.
    It is disheartening to watch how those who criticize the worst aspects of an individualistic system that devalues the communal efforts and penalizes the poor for being so can’t find enough excitement to show about the transformation of Cuba from a dictatorial socialist country to a dictatorial free market one.
    The positive reaction from the left and the business segments of the right to this process of “rapprochement” and Obama’s position have shown us that José Martí was right but not quite about “the brutal and turbulent North which despises us.” It reminds me of Casablanca, when Ugarte says to Rick “You despise me, don’t you?” to which Rick replies: “If I gave you any thought I probably would.”
    https://wardiaries.me/2015/07/30/cuba-u-s-left-acquiesces-with-repression-believes-in-neo-cons-economics/

    To me this is very personal. I was a poor, black, unconnected Cuban, and that became very apparent to me when compared to my whiter and richer – and also beloved and most decent – University classmates. However, despite everything else, I didn’t lack most of the things that would grant me an even playing field. In another ironically cruel twist, it was a much more egalitarian society, but it was criticized a lot more. I wonder how girls like me would fare now. How I, myself, would fare had I stayed in Cuba, since my job prospects were bleak, given my stubborn lack of acquiescence with the politics of Cuba’s illustrious leadership? I wonder how the people in my Habana Vieja hood are faring? I’m sure neoliberal reporters would cover that next.
    I can’t shake the images of the Arab Spring, where people under brutal dictatorships – some of which we had happily supported when they served us, but, again, I digress – were covering the rebellion by Twitter. I’m sure the Castros can’t shake it either.
    https://wardiaries.me/2015/07/04/the-neo-liberal-media-coverage-of-cubas-opening/

    • Thanks for this note.
      I find it difficult to offer a reply. On the one hand I think that I have a different assessment of Cuba than do you but at the same time i appreciate your comments that suggest that there is insufficient attention to what has actually been going on in the transition.
      I think that Cuba was, from 1959, in a very complicated position since the USA was going to deny the nation self-determination regardless. There were several key moments when there could have been peaceful coexistence, but the USA was determined to squash the experiment.
      I am deeply worried about the impact of the current transition, though i am trying not to jump to conclusions. I think that Cuba had to make certain concessions to capitalism but at the same time, there are dangers latent in this course, not the least being the disproportionate harm that it will probably do to the distinct Afro-Cubans.

      • Bill, I agree with your last statement. I see capitalism as an economic system which requires an underclass for its economic imperative to seemingly serve a greater good – as those not part of the underclass see it. Capitalism thrives on the premise do whatever is necessary to make a bigger profit than your competitor. Whatever is necessary usually means setting elements within the underclass to be suspicious of each other and prevent thinking about commonalities. Racism, unfortunately, gets interjected to obscure the bigger question, endemic to capitalism, how much financial compensation should go to the toiling underclass.

        • Capitalism is constructed with racism. This is something that we must emphasize. One mistake that is often made is to assume that there is a pure capitalism onto which racism is added (I am not suggesting that you are saying this; i am just making the point).
          Racism serves to both structure the oppression of specific populations as well as to guarantee social control over those at the bottom. I believe that is the spirit of your comment.

  14. If you’re saying capitalism is aware of racism and wants to perpetuate it to use as a means for capitalism to thrive and, hence, not be willing to address racism, then I believe we’re on the same page. Essentially, racism is part and parcel to capitalism’s scheme of how to achieve and sustain its objectives.

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