How Should We Grieve Fidel Castro?

By Beatrice Pignatelli

Photo by: Williams Cruz Perdomo
Photo by: Williams Cruz Perdomo

HAVANA TIMES – My husband’s phone rang at 2am. A quick glance at the country dialing code, +53, jolted him out of his haze; an unexpected call in the early hours of the morning has more often than not proved to be the bearer of bad news.

He answered the call, from the other end of the line, we recognized the excitable voice of our former neighbor recounting Raul Castro’s televised speech, confirming the news that no one believed would ever be true: se murió Fidel, Fidel has died.

Parallel scenarios played out across all four corners of the globe, as the Cuban diaspora’s (now 2.4 million strong) facetimes, whatsapps and imos started to buzz incessantly. The cradle of the Cuban exile community in Florida, concentrated in Miami and the Cuban epicenter of Hialeah, quickly gathered outside the emblematic Café Versailles. The area was ignited by the honking of horns, banging of pans, fireworks, flags and other forms of patriotic paraphernalia.

The news travelled like wildfire and by the next morning, Cubans scattered over the world had entered the online debate. What started as initial shock has quickly converted to name-calling and finger-pointing counteracted by lamentations and tributes. Words like “draconian rule”, “hope” and “healing” juxtapose “leader”, “titan”, “revolutionary” and “legacy”. Meanwhile, the general public follows the hastily pieced together Castro eulogies and easy-to-digest, bite-size Cold War historiographies provided by the international media.

There is no clear-cut picture of how we should remember Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz. In fact, throughout his lifetime he passed through a number of metamorphoses: from guarijo to guerrillero, defiant victor to charismatic leader, a Marxist to a Stalinist, a megalomaniac to a decrepit old man.  It is only a figure so contentious in life that could divide opinion so uncompromisingly in death.

Fidel and Raul Castro. File photo/

It is also, in some ways, unsurprising that this event has resurfaced the dichotomies that society has grown comfortable with using: vindication vs. demonization, hero vs. villain, good vs. evil. Even the choice of referring to the deceased by his first or last name is capable of polarization. He may be Fidel, the “bearded revolutionary”, or Castro, “the tyrannical dictator”. The Cuban journalist Carlos Manuel Alvarez articulates this idea of semantic power so assertively in his recent article for the New York Times: “No one like Fidel can create a distance so inexplicable, between his first name and surname. He split a country in two, where people sought refuge in his first name, were exiled in his surname, and others simply left in fear.”

In the aftermath of his passing, his person continues to evoke this binary fracture. On one end of the spectrum, crowds in Miami choose to revel in the death of a 90 year old Castro, their pay-back time for a man who stole their country; on the other end Fidelistas vindicate the achievements of his life-long project. The man who overthrew a dictatorship, stood up to the U.S., survived countless attempts at his life, provided healthcare and education to his countrymen, but due to a combination of flawed ideology, bad judgments and a challenging international context, tumbled the nation and his loyal followers into a severe economic crisis.

The reactions of his opposition groups and their subsequent mobilizations in Miami are hardly surprising, given the ‘absolutist’ nature of Fidel Castro and his model of social reform.

Described by historian Alan Knight, Fidel Castro’s vision for Cuba was a ‘trade-off between Dahlian democracy’ (which has been roundly repudiated) and social rights or benefits, in the form of healthcare and education, (which have been significantly advanced). His demand for iron-clad loyalty stamped out any whiff of political opposition.

But the magnitude and pace of change in Cuba was Herculean in nature, and bears witness to what can be achieved when society is able to unite under a common cause. His ability to round up the troops achieved the 1961 literacy campaign, which saw educators dispatched to rural areas, reducing illiteracy by 23.6percent from to 3.9percent over a nine-month period. By 1963, 70percent of Cuban land had been seized from private land-owners and brought under government control through the Agrarian Reform Law of 1959 and 1963. His radical experiment in sugar production, which aimed to reach a 10-million-ton sugar harvest by 1970, sacrificed much of the rest of the economy and foundered when the international demand for sugar rapidly subsided.

He was all-or-nothing; you’re either in or out, a similarly black and white approach to politics that both his supporters and opponents continue to emulate.

However, the correlation between his passing and the “end of an era”, that so many political leaders have made reference to, has not yet arrived, or at least if it has we hardly noticed it.

Photo by: Williams Cruz Perdomo

This is partly due to the fact that Fidel has been out of the picture for a while. He has long since lost his leading role in the Cuban narrative and Fidel-centrism is no longer a viable justification for the longevity of his regime. The Castro regime has diminished its personalistic nature, proven by the seamless handing over to Fidel’s brother Raul ten years ago. Fidel Castro has been pushed out of the public eye for so long that life in Cuba has been ticking on by for a number of years with limited mentions and appearances. The reality of the Revolution’s survival despite invasion, blockade, economic austerity leading to a grave crisis, political dissent, and a period of estrangement from new socialist allies has shown that the regime has set up roots much deeper into Cuban soil then Fidel Castro ever reached.

Since Raul came to power officially in 2008 there have been significant changes to Cuban society – the opening up of private sector, buying and selling of private property. Cubans can now own phones, cars, and travel with slightly less restrictions (at least from the Cuban side of things). Salaries are still low, bureaucracy is still overriding, and the future of the Cuban economy remains a mystery.

The Revolution has matured, and Raul Castro’s older brother can no longer be viewed as the problem itself for its downfalls apart from being symbolic of conservatism. Although civil liberties continue to be construed by elimination of the opposition, there is not a systematic repressive regime in place. Mass migration continues, but the Cubans that leave the island today are mainly forced to do so for economic reasons as the island doesn’t offer viable opportunities for young professionals. The mass political exodus of the 80s and 90s is a painful memory but not the driving force behind Cuba’s current brain drain. The new generation of Cubans have a different set of dreams and priorities – to work, to better their lives and the improve the lives of their families back home.

The quiet streets of Havana reflect this political distance. It brings to mind something a professor of Latin American History and Politics once mentioned when asked about what would happen after Fidel Castro passed. He predicted that the first thing Cubans would do is wake up and have breakfast. And at least in Havana, they did just that and went to work, just as my mother-in-law did yesterday morning in order to write us an email confirming that all is well.

Now the initial shock trickles away, we begin to deal with our own personal sense of grief and catharsis. As with any death, we look through old photos, recall the golden years and begin to piece together the pieces of a curtailed narrative. And although it may take longer for some than others, it will soon be time to look towards the future and to seek understanding and compliance.

As one person doesn’t really change the world, but rather the people who unite under them, for a common cause.

32 thoughts on “How Should We Grieve Fidel Castro?

  • December 4, 2016 at 6:07 pm

    Don’t guess, read Nick and then respond.
    You indicate that I should know of “the gross violations and abuses perpetrated in the name of that cause” by those in the free world who opposed communism.
    That view demonstrates that you have but surface knowledge of the reality of communism. either because of comparative youth or no experience of it other than a brief amount of time in Cuba.
    I merely point out that when the USSR Empire rotted from within, thirteen countries achieved freedom and when following being freed held democratic elections, not one of them elected a communist government. Free people do not seek the oppression which is inherent in the Marxist/Leninist ‘faith’.
    Marx wrote when a resident of London in the mid-19th century and is as you will know, buried in Highgate cemetery there. The world has moved on from those times, just as in the 19th century it had moved on from the time when Hogarth painted his ‘scenes of London’.
    I hope you get the opportunity in the future to spend a lot of time in Cuba as I do.
    I say again, don’t guess about what I have written – read it. How much do you know of Spanish persecutions in Cuba against which Cespedes, Agramonte, Maceo and Marti revolted? The US activities at Guantanamo although inexcusable, pall into insignificance compared with the barbarity of General Weylen of Spain in crushing the Cuban people.

  • December 4, 2016 at 9:54 am

    Thatcher got rid of councils that opposed her, she ran down cities that opposed her and caused many people in Wales, Scotland and other regions to immigrate – again just because they didn’t vote for her. She also tried to cut off the funding of other parties and would have done all the things you mention above if she could. Her idol – Pinochet.

  • December 4, 2016 at 6:58 am

    Mr MacDuff, I thank you for this explanation of your reasoning.
    As I mentioned, I agree with you regarding the embargo being counter productive given the stated aim.
    However nothing in what you say contradicts my point that the only way in which the embargo is actually ‘democracy related’ is the following:
    The ‘exile community’ in Florida have had an historic ability to get out the vote and are therefore crucial to which way the state’s Electoral College Votes go.
    Florida is an absolutely key swing state.
    Any prospective US president is therefore very careful regarding the policy on Cuba and the embargo. My view would be that the way in which this minority interest group (some of the key figures within that group have a history of sponsoring and harbouring terrorists) hold way too much influence over US Government position on Cuba.
    It’s perhaps not the best example of the merits of US democracy.

    You are obviously well versed in the History of Communism and I can see you have a family connection to the anti-communist.
    So surely you have an understanding of some of the gross violations and abuses perpetrated in the name of that cause?
    I would gladly read your book Mr MacDuff.
    If the book is on the History of USA in Cuba then I would make the presumption that the horrific spectacle of Camp X Ray, Guantanamo is referred to.
    With all the mention of oppression in Cuba, it must surely be pointed out that the worst human rights abuses in Cuba, certainly this century, have been carried out by the USA. People from my country were tortured there.
    And subsequently released without charge.
    My guess would be that this would indeed get a mention in your book.

    Regarding oppression carried out by the Cuban government, I have stated in my other comments here that I do not entirely disagree with you.
    But there is a very real context that you either fail to see or choose to deny or discredit.

    I have also lived in Cuba and would hope to spend a lot of time there in the coming years. The country is like a second home to me.
    I look forward to changes there and hope that changes are for the better and not for the worse. Perhaps they will be a mixture of both?
    Many dear Cuban friends of mine share your viewpoints to a greater or lesser extent.
    However, having said that, it is undeniable that Fidel was an extraordinarily popular man in his country.
    Many dear Cuban friends of mine have told me that they would defend their revolution until their last breath.

  • December 3, 2016 at 1:35 pm

    I pray for the people of Cuba!

  • December 3, 2016 at 1:34 pm

    I believe that Fidel’s legacy for Cuba and the Cuban people is more of the same! It is a bit like a circus , the ringmaster might have changed but the programme will remain the same with the new ringmaster cracking the whip and the people cowering under the whip! Freedom of speech will never surface in Cuba whilst anyone in this regime is around!

  • December 2, 2016 at 5:17 am

    I have an admiration, Mr MacDuff, for your longevity regarding appearances on this comments forum.
    It would surprise me if, during these years, you have not read something that has resembled the following:
    Your quotation from the noble sounding words US Cuban Democracy Act clearly does not reflect the USA’s record when it comes to sweeping out what it has regarded as it’s backyard.

    As I am sure you are aware, there are countless examples from Guatemala to Chile of the USA taking part in the overthrow of democratically elected governments.
    If I remember correctly, the Nicaraguan regime was pressurised to call the type of elections described. However, upon the result not going in their favour, the USA launched a most horrific and murderous, terrorist campaign against the democratically elected government.

    Furthermore the embargo has been continuously and democratically voted down at the United Nations. The only nations to vote with the USA are its hugger mugger middle east buddy, Israel and which ever tiny country that took the U.S. sweetener.
    I would be stunned if you were not aware of these facts Mr MacDuff.

    In fact I would suggest that you yourself know that the only way the embargo reflects anything ‘democracy related’ is this:
    Those oh so sweet candy bars that potential US Presidents like to chomp on.
    Otherwise known as Floridian Electoral College Votes.

    Having said this, I would also totally agree that you when you state that the embargo is counter productive for the reasons you give.
    It has indeed given the Cuban government something to blame for all and sundry poor decisions. I completely agree with this point.

    Regarding the US President Elect.
    Let’s not even go there huh??

  • December 1, 2016 at 7:55 pm

    I Holguinero merely reflect the views i hear daily on the street, from relatives and friends and from members of a discussion group which meets by invitation in our local library. Obviously I don’t reflect the views of the members of the Communist Party of Cuba, but as you will know that are a minority group.

  • December 1, 2016 at 7:50 pm

    Nick, I believe that you are a relative newcomer to Havana Times. If you go back about three years, you will find that I was expressing my view in these pages that the US embargo was counter-productive as it was used by the regime repetitively as a excuse to the Cuban people for all the evident incompetence, failed economic policies and actions of the regime.
    But, I did understand the reasons for the embargo and I can tell you that Cubans have not been told of the requirements listed in the US Cuban Democracy Act. for Congress to lift the embargo which are:
    Section 1708(b)(3), 22 U.S.C (section) 6007(b)93)
    “the free and fair elections conducted under international supervision, permitting opposition parties ample time to organize and campaign for such elections, showing respect for the basic civil liberties and human rights of the Citizens of Cuba, moving toward establishing a free market economic system and committing itself to a constitutional change that would ensure regular free and fair elections.”,
    I think that those are fairly sound principals Nick but are obviously anathema to a communist dictatorship which of its nature is opposed to freedom of expression and the conditions listed.
    The policy obviously failed for those reasons and in my view the US should have revised their policies and found other ways of exerting pressure. i recognize that regime adherents and supporters – those who admire the system of control and oppression which is a key part of communism (but not of democratic socialism) will repudiate my view, preferring to just continually berate the US.
    You and I can express our thoughts about the US President elect, but the Castros and their regime including the “troika” as successors are much more significant. It is they, who are key to a gradual easing of the dictatorial grip and eventual freedom which the people of Cuba so richly deserve.

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