For these reasons, the announced death of Fidel Castro on the 25th of November, 2016 received my above-average attention. Yes, I will dedicate this blog post on Castro, but in a broader international and social setting. It is not going to be a tribute or allegory, as I strive toward impartiality and honesty.
The latter is an issue, because I have noticed in many comments – before, and now surrounding his death – in news reports and other pieces (also in the Netherlands and other countries in Europe), that impartiality and honesty are both often dubious. Not always, but often there seemed to be biases. Ideological preferences play a role, both by self-proclaimed sympathizers (communists or not) with Fidel Castro, as by his opponents (in the US and elsewhere). Ideology inherently simplifies reality and human nature. Even the sincerity of such seemingly adhered to “ideology” of some people I doubt, as there exists some kind of “peer pressure” in some Leftist circles toward glorifying Castro and the 1959 revolution in Cuba, also – perhaps: especially – among “armchair socialists”. Likewise, pro-capitalist ideological thinkers consciously exaggerated the flaws or danger of anything seeming too Left-wing and of Communism on the larger Caribbean island Cuba.
More interesting to me are aspects of Castro’s image and legacies that are discussed less in the many comments: social and cultural aspects especially, more than political ones.
I have spoken with many Cubans (I speak Spanish) in Cuba - or heard them speak – in private, behind closed doors, about Cuba’s political situation. This was still possible, despite a known network of political “informers” active at the Cuban neighbour-hood level, effecting censorship. These Cubans, mostly of the poorer sections, were often critical of Cuba’s political caste (personalized by Castro), or were mixed about it. “Mixed”, because several shared the Revolutionary ideals, and some even thought that Fidel Castro once meant well, but was corrupted himself. Some others thought that the people around him were worse. Some were simply fed up with him, others maintained a bit of sympathy. The period between 2001 and 2006 that I visited Cuba was called by the Cuban state a “Special Period”, without USSR funds to depend on, but instead trade relations with Communist countries like China or Vietnam, or developing, partial ones with certain European or American countries like Spain, Italy, Mexico or Canada. These did not solve most problems as such, as availability of goods remained a problem in Cuba, wherever I went. It was definitely a crisis period, affecting most Cubans..
My Cuba trips in the period 2001-2006 (about five if I recall well, related also to friendships) were educational, pleasant, intense, “fun”, even “magical’ during its better moments, on occasion “warm” regarding human relations.. yet.. it was almost never “comfortable”. Comfortable is not an adjective I would add to these to describe my Cuban experiences. People around me in Cuba very often wanted money from tourists, because that was a large need among many sections of the Cuban society: not just among the occasional bum or needy unemployed person, as in Western countries. This brought a tension for having to remain “on guard” in public and social life, also for me. This tension was not constant there, yet somehow seemed the “default mode”, so to speak.
There were, overall, many, many hustlers on the Cuban streets approaching especially - though not only - tourists, some of them more persistent than others. This is not different, of course, from other "poor" countries.
Noting this poverty and the neediness of many Cubans, I found it too simplistic to explain it away as solely due to US power, enforcing its trade embargo against Cuba. Some nepotism, money staying at the top, the dictatorship of a few powerful persons.. that was partly to blame too, I imagined. Many Cubans in Cuba itself commented that too. Besides this, okay, also US policy had a negative influence.
This poverty, combined with the public political propaganda – sometimes repetitive and grotesque – in public places and transmissions, and especially the lack of freedom of speech for common Cubans – the said informers were omnipresent – made it somewhat hard for me to see the Cuba I visited as a “paradise” or “example” for the world. Or as “pure” (as anti-capitalist), as some say (or imagine). Common sense tells me, moreover, that things like corruption, greed, egotism, lust for power, insincerity, are essential human traits that come to the fore in all political systems (from communist to capitalist), especially when it has an inherent inequality (as all “systems”).
LESS LOW BUT EXTENSIVE BOTTOM
True: to a degree the Cuban state took and takes care of its citizens, ensuring (to a degree and not always adequately) basic necessities and education. This ensured that in Cuba the “bottom” of society is not as low as in other countries (even elsewhere in Latin America) – with less intense poverty -, yet on the other hand, that “bottom” is in Cuba proportionally relatively extensive, with many Cubans – even those highly educated – earning too meagre incomes to get by.
People around me (including friends and family members) have expressed sympathy for Fidel Castro’s, and specifically his social and political contributions. From my Left-wing, progressive own mother (who admittedly had bad experiences in a Right-wing, Fascist-like dictatorship: that of Franco in Spain), and friends of mine of African descent (living in the Netherlands), some in the Rastafari movement, who expressed appreciation for Fidel Castro’s/Cuba’s (anticolonial) aid to Africa (military, health care), and his other social contributions, assuring basic needs in Cuba. These friends (or my mother and other Spanish family members) were not totally mistaken or even misinformed, but there are other sides to the story, as with all stories. I am going to discuss these sides.
Be that as it may, I think it would be especially interesting to analyse what makes Fidel Castro unique as a dictator in Cuba, going beyond the ideologically driven “better Socialism” or “Socialism that worked” explanations. Some things got better after the 1959 Revolution, but many mistakes were made by Castro cum suis as well, that’s enough to resume for now I think.
Instead, I would like to discuss social, cultural and racial factors surrounding the person Fidel Castro.
According to more impartial statistics, Cuba has a racially mixed population. It is estimated that about 65 % of the population – at least! - has to differing degrees African blood. About half of which can be considered mostly Black (the rest Mulatto or mixed). Between 30% and 40% is mostly of European descent (“White”), mostly of Spanish origin (and a bit French, here and there). That still makes Cuba one of the “Whiter” islands of the Caribbean, perhaps after Puerto Rico (that had historically proportionally less Africans).
This is relevant, because Fidel Castro is of course a White man, as everyone can see. More specifically, he looks like a Spaniard or South European, with no visible sub-Saharan African traits, unlike many other Cubans. Because of Cuba’s history of racialized slavery, and continued disadvantages after slavery for Afro-Cubans up to the present, it is appropriate to make a point of this Whiteness of Castro.
Someone who does this in context is Carlos Moore, in his book ‘Castro, the Blacks, and Africa’, published in 1988. Carlos Moore (born 1942) is an Afro-Cuban, born in Cuba, but largely of British Caribbean descent, who for a time supported and worked with Fidel Castro (translator English-Spanish), and sympathized with the Revolutionary goals, reason for which he returned to his native Cuba by 1959. Before this he resided in New York, where he met and was influenced by Maya Angelou. She was one of the several Black Power and Resistance thinkers and activists that Moore would have contact with. Others include Aimé Césaire (from Martinique), Cheikh Anta Diop, Stokely Carmichael, and Malcolm X.
Added to this anti-racism and pro-Black credentials, can be added that Moore wrote the authorized biography of Nigerian musician and activist Fela Anikulapo Kuti. This was the work: ‘Fela, Fela, this bitch of a life’, published in 1982.
This all was before Moore published the book mentioned before ‘Castro, the Blacks, and Africa’ (1988). Good to point out, that after joining Castro and the Revolutionary movement, Moore became critical of persisting racial discrimination against Afro-Cubans, and got into conflict with the Castro leadership. Moore was imprisoned, and left Cuba again in 1963, for France, where he obtained some university degrees. Much later, in 2000, he went to live in Brazil.
A quite interesting personality, this Carlos Moore, yet – I gather – relatively unknown. His 1988 book on ‘Castro, the Blacks, and Africa’ had a neutral title, but in fact was quite critical of Fidel Castro’s policies regarding Blacks and Africa. It focusses on Castro’s foreign policy, in particular with regard to Africa, and how Castro used his (self-proclaimed) pro-Black and anti-racism stance to gain support for his missions, and in a general sense ensure support for the (Cuban) Revolution and its spread. Likewise, in the propaganda, Castro opposed US racism to the progressive way the 1959 Revolution led by Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and others fought against racism in Cuba, or even (supposedly) got rid of it.
Well now, Moore looks at other sides of this. At the same time, he does not deny progress since 1959 in Cuba itself, or positive results or effects in Africa of Cuban involvement. The most positive in my opinion is how Cuban military aid helped to ward off (Apartheid) South Africa’s invasion of Angola, after it got independent from Portugal in 1975. Castro sent quite some troops to Angola then. I met some Cubans who served in Angola in their younger years, for some the only place outside of Cuba where they have ever travelled.
Looking beyond – or rather: through – these achievements, Moore points in his 1988 work at the opportunism in play in Castro’s racial proclamations, as well as at Castro actually stimulating the persistence of anti-Black racism, by silencing critical voices from Afro-Cubans, even former allies.
To be short, any proposal for specific Black upliftment within Cuba, specifically for Afro-Cubans, was thwarted and halted by Castro and his regime. It is there where Moore relates this to Fidel Castro’s background.
Moore refers to this background – as well as of most leaders in the 1959 Revolution in Cuba – as White and “Hispanic”. Personal biographies more or less confirm this.
Fidel Castro was born in Birán, in a relatively “White” province in Northeastern Cuba. His father, Angel Castro y Argiz, was a wealthy landowner born in Galicia, in Spain. Galicia is in the Northwest of Spain, a “green” region, with less “drought” issues as other parts of Spain, but with long anticuated, agricultural hereditary customs, increasing poverty for a part of the population and (thus) relatively much migration. Fidel’s Galician father actually ended up in Cuba, after being sent there by the Spanish government as a soldier in the Spanish-American War, thus to maintain this colony for Spain (eventually Spain lost, and the US took over in 1898, giving only cosmetic self-rule to Cuba itself). Through sugar cane Castro father/senior became rich. Castro’s mother worked in the farm (as household servant) for Fidel’s father, and was of Canarian (Canary islands) descent. Most Canarians (differing from island to island) have some Berber/North African blood, mixed with Spaniards and others (like Portuguese).
It is this largely Hispanic background, also of other Revolutionary leaders like Ernesto “Che” Guevara (who had Basque, Spanish, and Irish blood), that Carlos Moore addresses to explain some racial choices Castro made.
The historical denial of racial discrimination in Cuba – a mythical and largely unreal racial unity -, was continued by the 1959 Revolution’s leaders, even after making race and “ending discrimination” a rhetorical goal. Thinkers or activists continuing to protest this racism in Cuba were repressed and sidelined under Castro. If Castro addressed this matter, it had to be under his (quite authoritarian) terms, namely: making no issue of “race” as such, as all are supposedly “nonracial” Cubans in the New Revolutionary Cuba, with a claimed “racial democracy”.
The problem with this is obvious: historical slavery and lack of compensation for former slaves meant that Afro-Cubans remained at a historical disadvantage since the final abolition of slavery in Cuba in 1886, with formal and informal racist practices continuing by the overall more wealthy and powerful White Cubans, sometimes supported by very light-skinned Mulattoes. The US became very influential in Cuba by the early 1900s, and brought some US racism to Cuba (part of the Americans that went to Cuba were White Southerners), but a racist base was already there, albeit with a particular Hispanic Cuban twist.
Denying racial inequality was one such persisting “twist”, which proclaimed a living together of different races, a greater ease of the mixing of races in Latin American colonies, when compared to the more socially segregated British and Anglo-Saxon colonies or contexts. To a degree this is true, explaining racial mixture (of Black and White) being relatively much more common in former Spanish and Portuguese colonies.
Moore relates this further to a “paternalistic” approach inherited specifically from Spain and the Hispanic world, which – he argues – Castro also showed in his attitude toward Blacks in Cuba as well as in Africa. In other words: speaking and acting for Blacks, rather than as equal with Blacks.
The difficulty for Castro to actually and truly relate to the plight of Afro-Cubans – instead “drowning” it in a claimed “racial harmony” – is explained by Moore also in cultural terms. Castro’s Catholic (though Castro would denounce the Catholicism he was taught), Hispanic, and European upbringing and mindset – including initially European/German Marxism -, made that he could not understand the cultural “Africanness” of Afro-Cubans, but neither really Africans in Africa.
The closest relations of Castro in Africa – Moore indicates – were either mixed-raced or culturally very European-influenced African leaders, such as in Portuguese African colonies. Also the much-heralded Che Guevara had some critical, almost-racist remarks about the behaviour of Africans in Congo, that he did not understand or appreciate.
Moore, however, does not exclude the actual presence among the Revolutionary leaders like Fidel Castro of “good intentions” in the willingness to help Black people and Africans. A willingness that seemed on occasion sincere and humane. Castro’s cultural formation and paternalistic outlook limited however these good intentions, he contends, while in other cases the intentions were rather “opportunistic” for his own power, rather than really “good” or pro-equality.
The quote by Malcolm X that “Fidel Castro is the only White man I ever liked” is well-known, but at least partly a myth. In reality, Malcolm X mistrusted White Liberals “speaking for Blacks”, and in time got to mistrust Castro as well, largely due to the White leadership of the Revolution, and in general in higher places in Cuba. Afro-Cubans stayed socially below Euro-Cubans in Cuba, also after 1959 (and up to the present). Malcolm X noted, however, that some policies by Castro and Cuba were certainly beneficial for Black people worldwide and in Africa. He therefore became opportunistic as well, in turn “using” Castro, if it could benefit the pro-Black cause, instead of letting Castro use Black people for his own benefit. Malcolm X remained critical, though, of the White leadership in revolutionary Cuba, as well as of the persisting disadvantaged position of Afro-Cubans. This is related in Moore's book.
Equally telling examples in Moore's book relate to the Black Panther members. The Black Panther Party was a somewhat Left/Socialist-leaning, Black power organization, of which members sought contact with Fidel Castro's Cuba. Black Panther members Eldridge Cleaver and Huey Newton (and others) found temporary refuge in Cuba, but got into conflict with the Castro regime precisely because of this continued Afro-Cuban disadvantage in Cuba. This was also noted by Stokely Carmichael, who conferred with Castro in 1967, yet was disappointed with the continued racism, Afro-Cuban disadvantages, and the all-White leadership in Cuba. After a critical speech, Carmichael became (as some other US Black leaders) even "persona non grata" in Cuba under Castro. Not too many people know this.
The authoritarian dictatorship that Cuba became after 1959 has been criticized by many, even initial sympathizers. The specific “caudillo” type of dictatorship common historically in both Spain and Latin America was partly also personified by Fidel Castro, even if Left-wing and nominally Communist. Other caudillo-dictators were Right-wing, like Franco in Spain, Perón in Argentina, or Trujillo in the Dominican Republic. Interestingly, in Moore’s 1988 book, this typically Hispanic type of dictatorship is related to Spain’s complex history, and said to have both Roman and Arab (Moorish) antecedents, as cultural influences brought by Spanish colonizers. Many early Spanish colonizers came from Andalusia and bordering parts of Spain (like Extremadura), where there were Roman (as elsewhere in Europe), but also Moorish/Arab cultural and social influences.
In short, Carlos Moore’s work ‘Castro, the Blacks, and Africa’ from 1988, is an extensive, scholarly study of Cuban foreign policy especially with regard to Blacks and Africa, with as one important conclusion: Castro seemed to support social and political rebellion of Blacks, but did not feel too culturally connected with Blacks, causing a distance in goals and partly results. Even a trivial fact that Castro personally did not like drumming (music) – as he according to some said - becomes relevant in this regard.
Carlos Moore was imprisoned and left Cuba in 1963, as said before, and came into conflict with Castro and other revolutionary leaders. This might shed doubt on the total neutrality of the work. An element of “spite” and subtle revenge might be there, who knows. Besides this, Moore has his own ideological stances, and pro-Black agenda and connections shaping his views. The 1988 book, however, did not come across to me as “vengeful” or small-minded, neither in its tone, nor in its content. It gives a broad, often neutral overview of events. At least in part. There may be – as so often - partisan choices in “fact selection” though, as ironically also Castro and other opponents did/do.
Despite the mentioned critique, it does not fully discredit the positive effects of some of the Cuban Revolutionary policies since 1959, of which Fidel Castro was an important leader: some advancement for Blacks in Cuba, strengthened independence movements in Africa, other aid to Africa and other developing countries, including crucial medical and educational assistance that really, de-facto, helped poor countries and students there. Several Facebook posts/links I read referred to such achievements during Castro’s reign, in that sense eulogizing the deceased Fidel Castro, perhaps to question the simplified negative portrayal in the US and elsewhere. Maybe these positive advancements were achieved by Castro, but: – as the expression goes - “despite himself” (and his limited cultural, pro-European mindset, according to Carlos Moore).