- Issue March 18, 2017
Fidel Castro—A tribute
By Ben Rutabana
“There are no neutrals. There are only partisans of the revolution or enemies of it” – Fidel Castro
Fidel Castro was an imposing figure. Donning a camo military jacket on his back, a green beret on his head and a cigar at his fingertips, he towered over his fellow soldiers at a height of 6”4. He was an icon and model for his memorable presence and his striking beard (one so impressive apparently, the CIA attempted to poison him so it would fall off, ruining his image).
El Comandante rose to power during the 26th of July Movement. The movement was a coup against the Fulgencio Batista dictatorship. Castro and 82 rebels sailed to Cuba and landed on its shores. In a Spartan-like show of guerilla warfare, the movement progressed through the country and jungle until it reached the outskirts of Havana.
From that point on Castro assumed military and political power. When he spoke, his voice boomed through Cuba. His Marxist-Leninist ties to the Soviet Union only served to anger the U.S., dragging the three countries into a nuclear Mexican stand-off we’ve come to know as the Cold War.
A divisive figure, Castro was the subject of controversy in his own country. Cubans rightfully accused him of running a repressive totalitarian regime. Indeed, he insisted on controlling the smallest details. The color of uniforms, the process of breeding cows, harvest goals, health care (even his own) and many other details were never delegated. He was always in charge.
Even his legacy is questionable. Lack of medical advances and poverty is still rampant. Cubans themselves are divided on their opinion. After being unable to tolerate criticism from the upper class, Castro boldly told it “Anyone who wants to leave, can do so”. And the Cuban people? Well, they did. In fact, there was a mass exodus of skilled Cubans. Doctors, lawyers, professors, businessmen, engineers… gone. They all stormed the ports and sailed for Florida. U.S coast guard had to beg Castro to stop his people, who at the time was using this opportunity to empty his hospitals and prisons and send “undesirable citizens” along. Yet many Cubans also stayed and supported Castro, their “Fidelity” (I’m sorry I had to do this) unwavering. So yes, his legacy to Cubans has mixed opinions based on who you ask.
Yet what’s little known about him is his ties to African liberation. In the developing world, he was a symbol of the fight against American imperialism. Leader of a tiny island nation 90 miles from the shore of Miami, Castro waived a middle finger to 11 consecutive American presidents. This was inspirational to Africans fighting for independence back in the 60’s.
This respect was mutual. The Cubans were very supportive of the Algerian struggle against the French, which succeeded in 1962. They went on to support the various anticolonial movements in Africa, particularly the anti-Portuguese movements in Guinea-Bissau, Angola, and Mozambique. Angolan Marxist guerrilla leader Agostinho Neto who had seized Luanda during a bloody war from the Portuguese, received support from Castro who sent more than 25,000 troops to Angola.
Angola, at the time was seeking independence from Portugal and leaning towards a Marxist-Leninist political system. A South African apartheid government, in coordination with the CIA sought to destabilize and bring down this government. Cubans, many of which had African ancestry resulting from the 18th and 19th century slave trade felt a bond with Angolans. Over 2,000 Cubans lost their lives, but their help was critical. At the Cuito Canavale battle, the 2nd largest battle on the continent since WWII and a decisive moment in the war, an increase in Cuban troops eventually guaranteed Angolan victory, forcing South African forces to retreat. This victory led to the withdrawal of foreign forces in Angola and Namibia, weakening the apartheid regime in the region.
Cuba was also unquestioning in its support of the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa. The relationship between Cuba and the liberation struggle shared deep roots when in the 1970’s and 1980’s, Cuba provided military training and other forms of assistance to South Africans. Mac Maharaj, a South African man and member of the ANC’s military infiltration team describes his time training under Cuban elite forces as an experience that reinforced his purpose.
In Castro’s eye, the African continent was the center stage of the largest liberation movement yet to come. He publicly advocated and supported multiple public figures we’ve come to know as the founding fathers of the independence wave. Among many are Julius Nyerere and Kwame Nkrumah.
This spread to America as well. Castro was an active advocate of the civil rights movement, having endorsed and met Malcom X himself a few times. The two got along well and shared a common vision it seems. Later on, he would end up welcoming Muhammad Ali in Cuba and even taking in Assata Shakur, leader of the Black Liberation Army and domestic terrorist, as fugitive while she fled the FBI. She still lives there 33 years later.
However, when all is said and done Castro’s legacy holds a certain level of cognitive dissonance. Cuba, like many countries in the world was(and some say it still is) fertile ground for antiblackness. According to anthropologists dispatched by the European Union, racism in Cuba is systemic and institutional. Black people are systematically excluded from positions in tourism-related jobs, where they could earn tips in hard currencies. According to the EU study, black people are relegated to poor housing, are excluded from anagerial positions, receive the lowest remittances from relatives abroad, and are five times more likely to be imprisoned. Blacks also complained of suffering the longest waits in healthcare.
Esteban Morales Dominguez, a professor at the University of Havana is quoted saying “There is an unstated threat. Blacks in Cuba know that whenever you raise race in Cuba, you go to jail. Therefore, the struggle in Cuba is different. There cannot be a civil rights movement. You will have instantly 10,000 black people dead”.
This has led to claims that Castro had actually no interest in the liberation of black people and was simply trying to destabilize U.S/British colonies and society to gain an advantage in the cold war. As polarizing as his leadership and policy has been, One quote of his feels like the perfect response to it all:
Condemn me, it does not matter: history will absolve me.