Unlike most Cuban-Americans, I did not greet the news of Fidel Castro’s death with joy. Instead, I experienced a vague sense of disbelief. In my imagination, Fidel had been more of an impersonal historical force than a mortal man; the very personification of the revolution that forced my grandparents and young father into exile. To hate him seemed as futile an expenditure of emotional energy as cursing a hurricane for destroying your home.
And so when I saw the crowds of Cuban exiles flooding Miami’s Calle Ocho to celebrate over the weekend, I experienced a strange mixture of discomfort and sympathy. Discomfort because I have always considered it somewhat perverse to celebrate anyone’s death, even that of an enemy. I viewed the celebrations of Osama bin Laden’s assassination with similar aversion. Sympathy because I understood all too well the roots of the deep pain and sense of loss for which these Cuban-Americans held Fidel Castro responsible. My grandparents were not the rich plantation owners and casino magnates of Communist Cuban propaganda.
My grandfather Arturo was a chemist and my grandmother Esther was an instructor of biology at the University of Havana. The final catalyst for their flight from the island was not any nationalization of property, at the time, the nationalization effort was just beginning, but rather a threatening exchange between a local party official and my grandfather. My grandfather had publicly disparaged the new regime and was told as a consequence that if he did not get in line he would be sent to cut sugar cane for the rest of his life. He left the next day, and my grandmother and father soon followed. It was 1960.
My family was not overreacting to an idle threat. Over the past 50 years, thousands of Cubans have been executed without a fair trial and thousands more have been imprisoned arbitrarily for lengthy if not indefinite periods of time. In 1965, prison work camps were established to silence “undesirable” elements such as members of the LGBTQ+ community and Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Even after the camps closed later in the ’60s, openly gay people were barred from official employment and joining the Communist Party. Only in 2010 did Fidel recant his views on the LGBTQ+ community. Fidel might have been committed to socialist revolution, but he still based his public appeal on the same chauvinistic Latin American machismo as dictators on the right. Socialism in measure has many virtues, but the authoritarian interpretation of socialism advanced by Fidel created a new corrupt aristocracy of high-ranking generals and bureaucrats who can hardly claim to represent the will of the people and who use violence to quell dissent.
This system has more or less endured under the reforms of Raúl Castro. So many dissidents have been locked up that the most internationally prominent opposition movement in Cuba, Damas de Blanco (Ladies in White), is made up of the wives and other female relatives of the jailed. Who knows what would have happened to my family if they had remained? Fortunately, the worst occurrence was that when my grandmother left behind her coveted position at the University to rejoin my grandfather, she was profiled in the paper as “una traidora de la revolución” (a traitor of the revolution), as if she had chosen to participate in the revolution in the first place.
But enduring such invective is the common lot of the Cuban exile community. As hundreds of thousands of Cubans abandoned the bleak economic and human rights situation on the island for the United States, Fidel Castro and his government branded them with the label gusano (worm). This slur has also been used against Cuban-Americans by non-Cuban Latinxs sympathetic to revolutionary Cuba.
And yet, despite the ordeals that my family and other Cuban-American families underwent, I still cannot bring myself to totally condemn Fidel. For all his grievous misdeeds, he accomplished much that I deeply admire. Under his leadership, revolutionary Cuba sent tens of thousands of soldiers and doctors to aid in the anti-imperialist struggles in Africa. Cuba’s successful intervention in Angola against South Africa helped bring about the libera- tion of Namibia and hastened the end of apartheid. In Latin America, Cuba provided crucial support for socialist movements seeking to overthrow U.S.-backed dictators and for socialist governments battling against U.S.-funded reactionary insurgencies.
One of the revolutionary government’s first actions was to abolish legal racial discrimination in Cuba, and throughout the Civil Rights and Black Power eras, Fidel granted asylum to radicals like Robert F. Williams and Assata Shakur who were fleeing the false justice of a white supremacist judiciary and police apparatus. Racism still endures in Cuba, but that it took such vast strides against discrimination while Jim Crow still ruled the South is a stunning accomplishment. Furthermore, Cuba has created free high quality systems of health care and education for its citizens. When I see so many members of my generation taking out massive student loans, and when I read that 20 million of my fellow citizens might have the health care provided to them under the Affordable Care Act gutted by the Trump administration, I can not help but feel jealous of certain aspects of Fidel’s legacy.
The health and education systems in Cuba are often strapped for resources, but the right of Cubans to use them is unconditional, unalienable. In that way, the Cuban population has a sense of security that Americans, subjected to the vicissitudes of the market, lack. The knee-jerk reaction of many anti-Castro Cuban-Americans is to dismiss Fidel and say that a Cuba reorganized in the manner of the U.S. would be an immeasurable improvement. This is not only an inaccurate assessment of Fidel Castro’s legacy, but also shows a course disregard for the millions of Cubans whose lives improved in many ways as a result of the revolution and who contributed their tireless labor in the effort.
This disconnect between the Cuban diaspora and Cubans on the island is what troubled me the most when I observed the celebrations in Miami. While Cuban exiles were singing and dancing in the streets, the Cuban government declared nine days of mourning. This has been respected by the people because although not everybody loved Fidel, he was such a presence in the life of the nation that they could not imagine Cuba without him. If they do not mourn Fidel, they at least recognize the need to reflect on the start of a new era in Cuba. For the whole duration of the period of mourning, alcohol sales will be restricted and live music will be banned. Cuba without music (or rum for that matter)… who ever heard of such a thing?
I fear that as long as Cuban-Americans seek to push their diasporic conception of Cuban history and cubanidad (Cubaness) wholesale on those actually living in Cuba, the pan-Cuban identity that we share will be impoverished. The Cuban-American community will continue to support the embargo as long as they refuse to acknowledge the triumphs and failures of the revolution as part of their story as well.
An important step in how Cuban-Americans can foster a more enriching relationship with the Cuban community is in how we appraise Fidel. We must set aside our pain and rage for a moment and commit to remembering him fully and honestly, acknowledging that many of the island have feelings of affection and gratitude towards Fidel that we need to respect. Only the passage of time can reveal if history will absolve him.