Fidel: Despot or Hero?

What Americans Don’t Know about the Cuban People

Fidel Castro during a press conference
Fidel Castro during a press conference
26 JAN 2017
by

When the death of Fidel Castro Ruiz was announced by his brother Raul, U.S. newspapers proclaimed that a “brutal dictator” was dead. Crowds of jubilant Cuban exiles cheered and celebrated in the streets of Little Havana in Miami. But in Cuba, the majority of responses to Fidel’s death were revealed a sense of perpetual loss and pervasive grief.

Critics and enemies saw and labelled Fidel as a dictator, while his supporters viewed him as a hero. For them, Fidel had reclaimed their homeland from a hundred years or more of foreign subjugation. Fidel was became the world’s longest surviving and most iconic leader. Many of the world’s proclaimed dictators had been killed, imprisoned, or forced into exile. Why not Fidel? This is a question that critics never seem to broach: they condemn his “legacy of intolerance” and his lording over a “vicious totalitarian regime,”, but never ask why in almost fifty years did the populace did not depose him. This is a crucial question that can be answered easily if Cuba’s demographic make-up, cultural base, and political philosophy is are closely examined.

The present-day Cuban population has grown markedly darker since the Revolution. About two million Cubans emigrated to the United States since 1959, and the vast majority of Miami’s Cuban exile community is white. The majority of Cubans residing in Cuba have African blood. Over 62 percent of the Cuban population is made up of Afro-Cubans and Mulattos. Cuban lore claims that there is some African in every Cuban, and that they are the descendants of either the Congo or Carabali tribes in Africa. Fidel himself, referred to Cubans as Latin Africans.

While racism still persists in Cuba, Afro-Cubans remember the days of when American style racism was the rule. They and praise Fidel for his efforts to make Cuba a more equitable society, and bringing them out of the fields and into the universities. They are grateful for free health care and free education. They are opposed to any efforts to take them back to the days before the Revolution. While they still recognise racism in Cuba, and they may not have agreed with everything that Fidel said or did, but to them he was a hero, the man who because he embraced them fully as Cubans.

An Afro-Cuban member of the Cuban Senate praises the man who made it possible for him to hold such a prestigious position. An esteemed leader in the Cuban education system declares that being black and a female, she grew up in a time that with Fidel's help in becoming educated, - she eventually rose to a position of authority.

Afro-Cuban culture is an integral part of the Cuban national identity. African values of collectivism and religious practices, i.e., Santeria, permeate the Cuban society. While Cuba is said to be a Catholic country, but at least 85 percent of Cubans practice the Yoruba religion. Devotees from Africa and other countries come to Cuba to receive instruction in the purest form of the religion.

Cubans are nationalists before socialists; socialism comes with nationalism. Their socialism is an assertion of economic and political independence from the United States; a goal of Cuban patriots since Cuba gained independence from Spain in 1898. The Cuban people are passionate and patriotic; they are united by a nationalistic spirit and love of country. Since the Revolution, a clear Cuban identity emerged - they reclaimed their culture and national character. The Cuban national character is shaped by passionate struggles, a turbulent history of conquest, slavery, and colonialism. Perhaps, wWith all of his faults, still Fidel promised a better future than the one from which they fought to escape.

Fidel’s greatest crime may not have been turning toward Marxism, having one party rule, or being a dictator. The more one delves into the history of Cuba and its issues of racism evolving from slavery and American style racism from 1898 until the Revolution, his greatest sin was in opening the doors of opportunity to black Cubans. This single act earned him disdain and hatred. One great dame of the old Cuba, now living in exile, said that Fidel was responsible “for bringing the monkeys out of the trees and putting them into government.” For her and those bigots who yearn for the old Cuba, Fidel spoiled the Cuba that was dear to her.

The greatest fear of the old Cuban aristocracy was that Cuba would one day become another Haiti. During the 1870s, white immigrants were imported to insure the demographic dominance of white Cubans. Fidel’s father, Angel Castro, was one of those immigrants., arriving in Cuba. Those in power declared that Cuba would never become a black republic and set about relegating black Cubans to a lower caste.

Perhaps the reason that Fidel was never hated and overthrown by the majority of Cubans is because of his willingness to eliminate the racial caste system in their country. This of course brings up another question: with the generational fear of Cuba becoming another black republic in the Western Hemisphere and only 90 miles from the United States, does racism play a role in the hatred of Fidel Castro and the economic and political isolation of the Cuban people?