Fidel Castro 1926-2016

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Castro in a green uniform, a flag in the background.There can be no doubt that Fidel Castro was one of the greatest figures of the 20th century, whether one idolized or despised him.  For me, and many on the left, feelings toward Castro often left one dizzy with conflicting emotions of admiration, disappointment and frustration. Here is what he did: In 1959 he successfully challenged and struck a mortal blow to the social and economic remnants of slavery and colonialism in the tiny island of Cuba; he thrust off the iron grip of the United States’ control of the Cuban economy codified by the Platt Amendment, in place since 1904. Cuba, 89 times smaller than its northern neighbor, prevailed against the Goliath United States in establishing its sovereignty. In this regard, Castro continued the movement toward self-determination of a West Indian people that had begun with the Santo Domingo revolution led by Toussaint L’Ouverture.
Castro was able to lead the Cuban revolution by galvanizing and articulating the desires for freedom on the part of the Cuban people, from rural peasant to urban worker, professional and intellectual. This was particularly evident in the peasant support of the guerilla fighters of the Sierra Maestra, as well as in the support of the urban trade union movement. That ability to engage the masses of Cubans did not diminish. In 1981, I visited Cuba with my mother—the day we arrived in Havana, we attended a speech by Castro in the Plaza de Revolution, a short walk from our hotel. There were hundreds of thousands of people in that square, and when Fidel spoke there was total silence and rapt attention. I had never witnessed anything quite like it, nor have I since.
There were, and continue to be, problems. There have always been conflicting tendencies within freedom movements, and to acknowledge them should not undermine, but rather strengthen, those movements. Amilcar Cabral, the Guinea-Bissauan revolutionary poet said, “…Mask no difficulties, mistakes, failures. Claim no easy victories.” Whether one explains the authoritarian and repressive track the Castro regime took as a response to external pressure from the United States’ nearly constant assault, through assassination attempts, propaganda, embargoes, or as a result of Castro’s economic dependence on Moscow, the fact remains that the Cuban revolution transformed from a movement toward representative democracy to an autocratic one party state, with an entrenched and powerful bureaucracy. The revolution became a regime that has been often repressive to Blacks, workers, intellectuals and artists, and to gender and sexual autonomy. There was no room for dissent or creative artistic expression, let alone a culture that encouraged or allowed people to love in the ways they chose. Even Omar Perez, the son of Che Guevara, was imprisoned for his poetry: “In a revolution riddled with cavities, fillings are constitutional motions by an atrophied organ…” Many of the people imprisoned, and executed in the early years of the revolution, had been supporters of Castro’s movement. For a heartbreaking portrayal of this, see the film, “Before Night Falls,” about the gay poet Reinaldo Arenas, who escaped to the United States in 1980 before his death from AIDS.
The legacy of Fidel Castro, then, is conflicted. On the one hand, he remains a vital symbol of resistance and courage. He survived his revolutionary compatriots like Che Guevara, Patrice Lumumba, and Amilcar Cabral. He galvanized a generation of progressives who witnessed the successes of the Cuban revolution. On the other hand, because of the repressive nature of the Cuban state, a vital and creative new Cuban leadership has not developed.
It is impossible to say how Cuban history might have been different had it not been subject to constant threats. President Obama’s rejection of failed Cold War era policies toward Cuba is encouraging, but the continued control of the government by Raul Castro, always more authoritarian and politically rigid than his brother, is discouraging—although he is slated to step down in 2018. Even more disheartening is the likely reinstatement of a new hostile stance toward Cuba on the part of a Trump administration.
​In the aftermath of Fidel Castro’s death, Cuba’s future remains uncertain.
Martha Sonnenbergs article “Kaddish for Che: The Meaning of History and Memory in Transforming the World” will appear in the Winter, 2017 print issue of Tikkun Magazine (available on line only if you are a subscriber to the magazine). If you don’t yet get the print edition, please subscribe now at