WordPress was attacked by some kind of DOS virus this a.m. making it impossible until now for me to say anything about Fidel!!!! It is a conspiracy of epic proportions . . . just kidding . . . sort of.
So by now, most of the blog world knows that Fidel Castro has decided not to seek re-election this Sunday citing illness and old age. His brother Raul has been running various parts of the country since Fidel’s fall back in 2006 (which I saw and my jaw is still slightly gaping open). It is expected that Raul will continue to be President election or no, which is not what Che, Haydee, and so many others had in mind when they ousted Batista. Fidel will also remain part of Congress for as long as he is able, reminding me of the shadow of the goat which fell across the political landscape of the Dominican Republic until Balaguer finally died. Let’s be clear however, the comparison between Fidel and Balaguer, whose complicity with (authorship of?) anti-haitianismo represents radically different political strategies, ends there.
The U.S. has already refused to lift the embargo citing failure to ensure democratic freedoms like real elections as the reason. Earlier the U.S. government floated a plan Castro’s way about establishing trade and amicable relationships in exchange for: laissez faire neo-liberal world bank like access to Cuban markets, elections overseen by the U.S., and a permanent U.S. presence ala multi-nationals and a possible military base. Castro flatly refused pointing to how U.S. foreign policy is always tied to U.S. neo-imperialist economic policy.
Today the U.S. added to the list, the release of Cuban political prisoners. Despite the widely dichotomous view of Cuba on the part of the right and the left in the U.S. there really is no denying that political prisoners and repression have been a part of Castro’s Cuba. However it seems awfully ironic of the U.S. to try and take the moral high ground on imprisonment given Guantanamo. Not to mention the number of social activists and stigmatized groups who have found themselves over-policed for socio-political reasons in N. America over the course of the same period as Castro’s regime. Both are guilty. Both may be guilty in different ways. But, especially now, under the long arm of the Patriot Act it is hard to take such demands seriously.
The Cuban Revolution much like the Haitian one, represented huge shifts in the geo-political construction of the Americas. Both revolutions promised the end to colonial exploitation of indigenous and African descended peoples and a return of land, labor, education, and prosperity to the masses. Both revolutions failed to meet the full extent of their ideals through a series of global mechanations and internal problems. In Haiti the balance of payments alone bankrupt the hope and the pockets of the first black nation in the Americas leaving in its wake the legacy of poverty, violence, and exploitation from within and without.
In Cuba, the failures were largely about political freedom – ie the right to vote and express certain kinds of disagreement. Those failures ultimately lie with Castro. Fidel was never meant to become synonymous with Cuba nor be president until his deathbed. His inability to relinquish power and trust the process of galvanizing the people for a more equitable society is in essence one of the greatest failures of Latin American style neo-Marxism. (One, not the only.) Dictatorship maybe a sad offshoot of pseudo-communist nations but it is not part of actual communism as laid out by the original author of the process Karl Marx. When Fidel chose totalitarian leadership, he sold out the revolutionary ideals that put him in power in the first place and all though he was able to do many great things in Cuba, freedom to choose one’s leaders is in my mind a fundamental right of free people.
At the same time, we cannot forget that the Cuban revolution brought an end to wide-scale inequality based on colonial distinctions between races, classes, gender, etc. Segregation between Afro-Cubans on one side and white and brown Cubans on the other was officially removed. Female leadership, began in the actual revolutionary fighting, continued into the present; sometimes with more representation and power than other times. Land redistribution may have initially sent some fleeing to Florida but it also put control of their own labor and wealth back in the hands of many disenfranchised people. When the special period threatened Cuba’s economy, the Castro administration implemented additional organic farming techniques and entered in to fair trade agreements based on indigenous production to ensure economic and social viability for the Cuban people. Again, despite these successes it should not be ignored that forced labor, particularly prison labor, was used in agriculture and other industries under Castro; these labor modes co-existed with a largely redistributed system that rested economic control from the elite.
The health care system in Cuba is considered one of the finest in the Americas and it is free not only to its citizens but often to those of other nations. Medical education is also free ensuring that doctors can work free of concern for how they are going to pay back exploitative loans. Castro has offered both to his richer neighbors in the U.S. and as I reported earlier this year, the first N. American citizen graduated from a Cuban medical school recently to Bush’s chagrin. Then of course, there was that time Cuba offered to help in New Orleans and with 9/11 rescue workers since Bush couldn’t be bothered . . . As it is, Cuban doctors train physicians and work on relief efforts in over 68 countries including the war torn Middle East. Even after the fall of the U.S.S.R. and subsequent problems with financing, the health care system managed to continue with the aid of regional and global allies from across the political spectrum and U.S. based programs like Cuba Libre who understand that the failure of the Cuban health system is not a win for democracy but a death sentence for innocent people in Cuba and the 68 countries they aid. The internal and global effort illustrates a profound concern for the well-being of the masses that is lacking in some societies that would judge them.
The Cuban revolution also ushered in a new era of creative arts in Cuba, and influenced the region. Cuban films alone have enjoyed wide acclaim and been influential in the cinematic developments of the LACS region. The Casa de las Americas allowed for the production of both creatively and politically sophisticated art forms from 1959 forward. Cuban music also flourished, with Afro-Cuban musicians and Cuban Hip Hop – which has been praised for its feminist, anti
-imperialist, and socio-economic astuteness – perhaps being the widest known around the world. Cuban jazz’s distinct sounds helped form the backdrop to many late night political discussions around the world. Yet, again, it should be noted that certain art especially those that criticized Castro, current policies, or were produced by targeted groups were repressed and those artists either shut out of production all together or arrested.
The mediated flourishing of the arts under Castro represents only one offshoot of the overall commitment to education and intellectual spaces in general. The commitment to education in Castor’s Cuba has led to one of the most literate, well-educated, and prolific intellectual communities in the Americas and its influence throughout the region cannot be underestimated. While other nations suffered under neo-liberal loan debt to keep their teachers paid and their schools open, Cuba refused such indebtedness in favor of social programs and international collaboration.
Cuba’s influence on revolutionary politics throughout the Americas under Castro is well known despite efforts to suppress the history in the U.S. It was instrumental in the “third world” movement in N. America and the Americas as a whole. Several prominent black leaders were influenced by Fidel directly and by the political and social thinking of Cuba through trips to the island nation and the dissemination of ideas coming out of it. Fidel himself declared solidarity with African-Americans during one of his only sanctioned trips to the U.S. spawning decades of communist presses, literary societies, and political theory from the black intelligentsia in the U.S. Many went on to work closely with important socio-political theorists in the Caribbean, Paris, and Russia as well as for freedom and equality for oppressed people of color in the U.S.
Castro opened Cuba’s doors to Juan Bosch when he was ousted from his duly elected seat as President of the Dominican Republic in favor of U.S. backed dictator Trujillo. Some of Bosch’s seminal writing was done in exile on Cuban soil. He also funded both of Che’s ill-fated revolutionary pushes in Africa and Latin America in order to keep the hope of perpetual revolution alive. He has advised other leaders across the political spectrum looking to form more socialist forms of governance, some times with the ill affect of working hand in hand with repressive regimes but also with those who would free people from oppression. His intellectual influence can be felt most recently in intellectual collaborations with Venezuela y Bolivia. However, Cuban influence is as widespread and varied as China and Ireland whose politics are diametrically opposed. In this way, Cuba itself has stood as the most successful alternative to U.S. imperialistic global capitalism to date.
At the same time, Castro’s Cuba has been a place of widespread homophobic repression. The GLBTQ community supported the revolution and even experienced a publishing boom in its early days. However, less than two years in to Castro’s presidency prominent publications like Lunes de Revolucion were shut down and prominent authors were refused publication or arrested. In the 1960s widescale roundups of the community led to mass migration as well as ridiculous prison sentences in work camps and the like. Castro himself was once quoted as saying “there are no gays here [Cuba]” and it became common to denounce queer identity as bourgeois decadence. It was not until 1979 that homosexuality was decriminalized in Cuba staunchly standing in opposition to the ideals of the revolution that promised freedom and equality for everyone. Yet from the 1980s onward, and somewhat in the 1970s, a relaxing of anti-gay sentiment has defined the leadership, if not Castro, and certainly made space for open expressions of queer culture once again. In the early 1990s Cubans formed the largest GLBTQ Pride organization in its history, which was then raided and all of its members arrested by the end of the century. Raul Castro officially referred to homosexual repression in the nation’s past as “a mistake.” And legislation was recently introduced to solidify rights for the Cuban transcommunity. Mariela Castro Espin, Raul’s daughter, has been spearheading efforts for GLBTQ equality as well as an open discussion and examination of the nation’s homophobic past. As Raul’s power becomes official, one hopes Mariela’s influence cannot but expand in this arena.
The Special period was also seen by outside observers to exacerbate racial divides in Cuba that have remained despite the desegregation of the nation. Many Caribbean and Spanish observers commented privately and in print on the rise of Afro-Cuban sex work and the exploitation of the black body akin to that of other sex tourism dependent nations. Some have argued that racial equality in Castro’s Cuba also largely passed over Haitian immigrants, again except in the ways in which Haitian traditions and ceremonies could be exploited for tourist dollars. Like other tourist nations, some hotels have also been accused of denying entry to Cubans, particularly Afro-Cuban and indi@s oscur@s except as laborers.
The triumphs and the failures of Castro’s leadership are impossible to unpack in a blog post. And as experts in the region have surely noted by now, Cuba is sadly not my area of expertise. I have watched and studied Cuba with the same interest I think many Latin Americanists do. I can only say that this recent turn of events promises to be an important one in the long term history of the region.
Castro’s resignation has been somewhat expected since that shocking day in 2006 but what happens next is really anyone’s guess. As much as I have seen Raul’s proposed changes and moves to make amends as progressive steps, I cannot help but side with the idea that the Cuban people deserve free elections. Like other progressive nations, Cuban@s deserve a chance to pick both the leadership and the direction they want their nation to go in, unhindered by the leadership of a man who was never imagined to become the President for life when the revolution occurred nor by the “Good Neighbor” to the North whose calls for freedom are more about their own interests than that of the Cuban@s. They also deserve the room to speak freely about the politics of their nation and act for reforms where needed without fear of repression. Finally, they have a right to their basic needs being met without super powers or internal struggles erasing their humanity for the triumph of one political system over another and with Castro gone, I can only thing that this latter right will become all the more tenuous.
Pessimists have stated that nothing will change given that Raul has been handed the leadership without question since 2006. Cubans in Florida have stated they hope this change will bring reform while the U.S. government remains pessimistic. As for me, I just hope the intellectual, artistic, humanitarian, and political contributions that came from Cuba remain in tact and that we are not witness to either a horrible repression or the transformation of another isla into a tourist trap. And as an academic, I would like to see my brothers and sisters in academe from Cuba be allowed to move freely in the U.S. again.
I think it will be a while before we know for sure if in fact “history will absolve [him].”
– – – –
This biased, though provable, post has been brought to you by a Marxist. You can read other people’s reactions, including world leaders: here.