I am not Cuban. I would not pretend to be although I may get confused for one based on my looks. I grew up in and around south Florida and have many Cuban-American friends. It is a part of the tapestry of culture we have woven down here and the Cuban identity has become as interwoven as any. As such, the effects of Fidel Castro and his governance in Cuba has also affected our landscape down here in south Florida as well. It is also strange that I should feel very much connected to these events even though I do not claim any direct ties to Cuba or its people. I do feel the impulse to go out into the streets and bang on pots and pans though.
My mother was practicing lunging under desks during the Cuban Missile crisis. My uncle got drafted by the Chicago Cubs out of Hialeah High School – a very different demographic back then than it is today. These are all indirect effects that have shaped me and my family. My friends who have either come from Cuba or whose families have come from Cuba also have had this indirect affect on me as well. So again, although I cannot claim a direct tie in this event, I feel as though I should.
Castro’s death is an important event for not only the Cuban people, but the people of the North and South America. United States foreign policy has been affected by it and, indeed, helped create the canvas from which Castro would do his work for his nation in the 50 or so years of his rule.
There will be many trying to weigh in on the moment and will cast their judgements. Most of which will either range from the relieved to those who are moderate and on the fence to those who will praise Castro’s life work.
Those who will shed tears of joy at Castro’s death will do so mostly from the direct experience of his oppressive rule – many have fled Cuba to seek freedom and opportunity they could not find in Cuba. Many have risked their lives in order to obtain what many of us in the United States take for granted. And those who will have even tempered views will form these views from a standpoint of privilege. At best, they will acknowledge Castro’s oppressive, authoritarian rule but will moderate those comments with caution as they note his accomplishments and advancements for his people.
We cannot be blind to any of this. One man is responsible for Castro’s decisions and that is Castro himself. He led; he did what he wanted to do and was obliged to do. He made decisions that were in his own best interests and the preservation of his own power. This cannot be denied, even by those who would admit admiration for Castro. See former Marlins manager Ozzie Guillen who was lambasted for showing his admiration for Castro – albeit from a standpoint of naïveté. Then again, Guillen does hail from Venezuela where Hugo Chavez was a fixture, to say the least. The political environment in south Florida for a pro-Castro point of view is about as welcomed as an art exhibit on the portraits of the prophet Muhammed.
Well, maybe that was a bit hyperbolic because Guillen is alive and not living in fear of being killed.
And that is precisely the point. Here in the United States, we can be dissidents and criticize the government and its policies without any harm coming to us. At least, not any mortal harm; sure there is the new “social” death we see on social media that comes from this modern form of damnatio memoriae where individuals who criticize a political narrative are turned into lepers, but no one actually dies. Not like in places like Cuba, or Venezuela, at least.
That said, I would like to have an honest assessment of Castro and his policies. The apologists will say he was able to overthrow a mafia/US backed military dictator and also that he was able to rid Cuba of a paralyzing class system. Yet, how has that been a benefit to the Cuban people at all? Communism, outwardly anyway, cannot tolerate the existence of a class system of any kind. It was the mandate of the Marxists that the proletariat overthrow the bourgeoisie – and that this overthrow would not come in a peaceful manner but throw a violent act. It was Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels who asserted this view in their Communist Manifesto – which they based on their own historical observation. Yet, a fundamental part of this brand of political demagoguery was that the state in question would have to be industrialized first. After all, those who produced the goods were being exploited by those who owned the means of production.
This was carried out in places like Russia in 1917 and in Cuba in 1959. The world watched with much anticipation about what would happen next. The Communist societies would proclaim to be friends of man but their altruistic rhetoric would ultimately descend into blood-baths of power grabbing. Millions were killed and removed in the Soviet Union during Stalin’s regime; many more would be cleansed from the earth in Mao’s China. Yet for Castro’s Cuba?
Castro would parade around in his military garb but no one was really buying the formal military vestment as anything other than window dressing. At least, not outside of Cuba. In fact, Castro would be likened in many ways as a friendly form of Communism by those unaffected by his rule. He went on a grand tour of the US prior to denouncing US involvement in his government and siding with the Soviets. Many in the US were amicable to Castro before this bait and switch took place. Even today, many a college student will wear an Ernesto “Che” Guevara emblazoned t-shirt around to show off how politically savvy they are.
Or really, just how naive and impressionable they are.
So, what of Castro’s Cuba? Is he the friendly, misapplied do-right we are led to believe? Many of those who would make such a claim, again, do not have their ideas rooted in any reality. They are not basing their opinion on experience. Those who have been in direct contact with the Castro and his regime were desperate to flee it. So desperate that they would send their children, along with strangers, on “sea vessels” to get to the US coastline – mostly the friendly shores of our Sunshine State. Forget not that the Cubans had a special arrangement with US immigration laws – the so called “wet foot, dry foot” clause that meant as soon as they touched US soil they were safe to seek US citizenship.
This is, in fact, one of the reasons why immigration reform needs to be examined and why the inequity creates so many hard feelings across those from Latin America.
The apologists will try to dance around such realities. They will dance around the damage that Castro has done to his own people through jailing and liquidation of his political opponents.
Fidel Castro was a symbol of the struggle for justice in the shadow of empire. Presente!
— Dr. Jill Stein (@DrJillStein) November 27, 2016
Please read my statement on the passing of former Cuban President Fidel Castro: https://t.co/vIYCZrJGfg
— Justin Trudeau (@JustinTrudeau) November 26, 2016
— The White House (@WhiteHouse) November 26, 2016
Evil serves its own purposes and Castro’s seat of power has long looked after its own construction and maintenance. Yet, we tend to overlook a major fundamental problem within the political sphere of so-called Latin America, and that would be its cultural roots formulated by the conquistadores of imperial Spain.
Simon Bolivar, in his Jamaica Letter, was very critical of formulating new nations within the collapsed sphere of the Spanish empire of the New World. “El Libertador” would pose the question that would lay bare the problem that continues to plague much of the region even to this day – that of culture. In the founding of the United States, there was an escape from religious persecution that led to the establishment of our Constitution and the Bill of Rights. The natural rights that each person was born with were not to be guaranteed by the state, but rather were to be protected by the government. The natural rights that each person was born with could not be denied. The founding fathers of the US were very dubious of the sustainability of their creation, they often remarked about the moral fiber of their fellow citizens. They were students of history and students of humanism. They were pragmatists as much as they were idealists. They knew power corrupts and government is in the business of brokering power.
In the former Spanish New World, the people there were subjugated by force, an imperial force that exploited its land and peoples for its resources. It was the origin of the Atlantic Slave Trade as the native population proved to not be up to the physical task – most of which were wiped out due to disease. (In fact, the conquest of the Aztec would not have happened if not for the disease that the conquistadors were carrying with them via Cortez and his men.) It was the use of force, and advanced technology, that kept the native populations in check – this was the land of the caudillos. Spain and Portugal created a hierarchical society in which opportunity was determined by blood: the peninsulares were those born in Spain and Portugal on the Iberian peninsula (aka European); the creoles were those descended from Europeans; then came the mestizos and mulattoes which were both of mixed racial blood (native and African slaves, respectfully); and finally, on the bottom of this social pyramid were the natives and slaves themselves. This is the legacy of imperial Spain, one soaked in blood at the tip of the sword (more likely, a musket) which divided their society along strict racial lines. The more white you were, the better your life would be as you ascended to the top of the pyramid. It was social pre-determinism.
When we look at Castro and his “reform” of Cuba, we see a similar trajectory in that his political impulse and desire to grab power followed. It was not to reform and free Cuba of this entrenched identity, but rather to simply turn it to his favor. The regime of military dictator Fulgencio Bautista was replaced by the military dictatorship of Castro, a supposed freedom-fighter who claimed to represent democracy. Bautista, it should be noted, was of mixed race and descended from slaves.
In Castro, we do not have a Simon Bolivar who simply used a method to liberate his own people. Castro was another caudillo, who dressed the part, and used force to assert his will on his island. He used the USSR to leverage his position from an internal coup staged by the US and other anti-Castro elements that were sure to rise up and try to take back their island and their way of life. Let’s be honest, Bautista had to also implement coercion to maintain control – but this is also an unfortunate effect of the Spanish legacy in the region. Could a bridge be built in which the people of Cuba could gain the ability for self-governance? Of course, but it would take time. This was something Bolivar understood. This is something, perhaps, Puerto Rico has begun to learn under the protection and tutelage of the US (even though economically they are in deep trouble). Yet, it cannot be argued, that Castro’s control over Cuba has set back his island nation quite literally almost 50 or so years. What rises from this remains to be seen, but Raul Castro will not right the ship as he was in on the ground floor with his brother as El Comandante.