The year 2016 has been a politically polarizing year, and the passing of Fidel Castro has only added to my angst. Within minutes of surfacing reports of his death, the Internet erupted with various claims that Castro had been a tyrant, a hero to Africa, a Third World demagogue, Mandela’s loyal comrade and a homophobe who sent gays to the gulag. In Miami, Cuban-Americans took to the streets banging pots and pans and waving Cuban flags in celebration. On the opposite end, I saw a university student call Castro a “god” on Cuba’s teleSUR YouTube channel: “Fidel is one of the gods of the poor and exploited peoples of the world…Fidel is eternal, because Fidel lives amongst us and will continue living.”
Opinions also varied widely within the network of Cuban friends and associates that I built while attending University of Matanzas and conducting anthropological research in Havana. One Facebook one friend posted that celebrating the death of a man you couldn’t defeat is nothing more than evidence of your failure to conquer his ideals. Another friend en route from London to visit her mother in Havana messaged me, “It was a great surprise for everyone, [Fidel] was old…but at the same time, he still has impact.” And another now living in Connecticut, told me on the phone, “His ideologies were dead or dying long before he died…Funny that the day he died I was cooking arroz con pollo a la chorrera, the last dish my mother ever made for me.”
As an African-American woman I am ambivalent. Like many I was first drawn to Cuba by the island’s arts and culture. And as a priestess in the Yoruba-Lukumi tradition (Santería), I had also been inspired to learn more about the history of my religion. I experienced Cuba in very personal ways, sharing spaces with Cubans of my faith both on and off the island. Yet in spite of this and my academic credentials, I had remained silent for a long time. For all the beauty of its people and its global significance, Cuba had become an emotionally exhausting subject for me.
I was living in Havana when Fidel abdicated power to his brother Raul in 2006, and I remember standing in the long, dim-lit hallway of my building, peering through the peephole with my next door neighbor. As we watched people gather for a candlelight vigil in front of the university Alma Mater, she whispered, “He might be dead this time, and they haven’t found a way to tell us yet.” But instead, the days stretched on end and I watched my peers, many of them Black and multiracial artists, discuss stagnation and the possibility of staging their own vigil to interject an Afrocuban voice in prevailing discourses. Their unconventional ideas at the intersection of art and religion reminded me that in spite of its atheist veneer, the Revolution has always held a deeply spiritual connotation for many people.
Now, as the chief minister of this revolutionary edifice departs the earthly world during a nine-day period of mourning observed by the Cuban State, I sympathize with friends who came of age under the Revolution. Not because they have lost a leader, but because everyone has something to say (including myself). The Cuban Revolution and Castro have come to symbolize so many different things to different people around the world, this has often come at the expense of granting space to acknowledge the good, the bad, the real. We have all been complicit—from liberal foreign academics to the American government, the Cuban state, tourists, conservative think-tanks and Cuban-Americans—in constructing an ideological battlefield where ideas suffocate upon themselves, till the air is stagnant.
Ironically, on this battlefield, the greatest pressure to distill both the successes and failures of the Cuban Revolution have fallen most heavily to people of African descent, as they (and we) are considered the natural beneficiaries of its campaigns for literacy, of universal healthcare, of Cuba’s role in African liberation movements, in the war against the South African apartheid regime, and of Castro’s alliances with Black American activists and revolutionaries.
There is no doubt that Cuba under the leadership of Castro has played an indispensable role in the advancement of African and Afro-descendant causes worldwide. In fact, many of the social fissures and frightening acts of hate we’ve witnessed since Brexit, the U.S. presidential election and the incursion of the Dakota Access Pipeline onto sovereign Native American territory are very much an extension of unfinished colonial business and forms of global White male supremacy that Castro famously resisted.
However, the most damning side effect of these ideological battles is that Cubans of African descent have often become objects of our gaze and our narratives of political resistance with little recognition of their agency, their complex position, and the daily sacrifices upon which their revolutionary realities have been hinged. Beyond the endless Che merchandise, the slogans, the Buena Vista Social Club and rumba circles, and the anti-Castro rhetoric imposed from without, there is a danger of flesh-and-blood, multifaceted people living in the shadows of others’ ideals.
Yet, it is in the nuances of daily life that important details lie. Elaborating further about his mother and the importance of arroz con pollo a la chorrera, my friend in Connecticut commented ”Yes, the spoils of the country became more available to what I guess you can call the colored classes, mulatos and negros. And some will try to demonize Castro without mentioning these good things, but the conversation has to be more nuanced in both directions in order to give it perspective. The Revolution figuratively killed my abuela, Omi Saya, una santera de Yemaya. She was always there with a big casuela providing nourishment to her community and all that changed when they instituted a ration system. Her purpose in life and role were transformed forever.”
Amidst this nuance, my greatest show of solidarity with Cuban peers living on the island and abroad is to resist recycling stale Cold War narratives. I can also reflect on the stories of my Nigerian, Jamaican, Bahamian and Brazilian classmates, our conversations on the stoop of the dormitory at the University of Matanzas. I think about friends who are now working as doctors in the Bronx, a cultural promoter in Miami, a computer scientist in Lagos. It is through these stories that I have come to better understand my own, and how our realities globally intersect. One may say that this is part of Castro’s legacy. And perhaps that’s true. But for me, highlighting personal narratives feels much like ushering fresh air into spaces that haven’t exhaled in years.