On Saturday, November 26, 2016 I awakened to the news of the passing of former Cuban President Fidel Castro, and as might have been expected, a wide range of reactions across the world, and more interestingly, across the Cuban Diaspora. This I think is normal especially in the case of controversial personalities especially when people feel severely affected in in positive and negative ways. But death is an inevitability from which none can escape.
In every situation there are new learning experiences that can inform and guide our thought processes, and allow for comparisons in sometimes seemingly unrelated circumstances. This brief article will not attempt to come to conclusions, but is put out to encourage thoughtful retrospections of Cuba and Jamaica. I will share seven thoughts.
My first thought is that in the late 1800’s Jamaicans and Cubans shared a lot of migration mainly based of the exchanges in furtherance of the practice of tropical agriculture, and engineering skills. Many Jamaicans skilled in those areas migrated to develop the sugar, tobacco, and banana industries; and to build the railroad. (This is a very similar circumstance to our involvement in Panama, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua.) Somewhat ironically, Castro’s revolutionary march to freedom began in Santiago, the area most populated by Jamaicans that migrated.
The result is that many of us have family members in Cuba today (my last cousin died in his 90’s about 5 years ago) and I am not certain where his children are. His father was a Norton from Savanna la Mar, and was a well- trained person in the sugar cane industry through a family business near Frome.
My second thought is that from a child’s perspective in the 1950’s Cuba was the playground of the wealthy Americans for holidays, gambling, extraordinary night clubs and shows, and an interaction with wealthy and educated Cubans. The photographs in Life magazine and other popular glossy pictorials portrayed the white linen suits, white dresses, and dapper white hats and shoes. It was the place of the beautiful people.
The rich and famous in sporty convertibles; the Tropicana dancers; fine dining; wine, rum, and of course Cuban cigars. It was the stomping ground of the Mafia and other rich gangsters. Most photographs overlooked splendid views of the sea, or in some cases the fabulous haciendas in the middle of green and well-kept plantations.
My memory does not recall many black faces except for service personnel, the dance performers, some musicians, and a few famous singers (mainly cabaret acts from the USA). I concluded that Cuba did not have many black persons and was comprised solely of white Hispanics and some “beautiful Brownings”.
This childhood perspective was so flawed in many ways and was not able to comprehend any greater reality as we only had The Gleaner, no television, and RJR and the BBC as sources of information. As a student at the Priory School my classmates from Jamaica were few, and many others were the children of expatriates from foreign embassies or multinational companies. Their perspectives were definitely biased from their home countries and parents.
I remember the arrival of some Cuban families with Jamaican connections and made some of my best friends there, and I spent time in their homes and they in mine. In retrospect, I never found any traces of bitterness in them and they adapted to Jamaica without any difficulty, and I think that they may not have been the rich and famous elite in Cuba and so did not hold on to the bitterness of great wealth abandoned or seized.
The PM of Canada Justin Trudeau made complimentary remarks about the passing of Fidel Castro and was roundly criticized by US Senators Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio (both of Cuban descent), and Cruz likened him to “Stalin, Pol Pot and Mao,.. All evil torturing murderers”, very strong words from people that may want to build a wall between the USA and Mexico and exclude Muslims!
My third thought goes back to the Missile crisis, and the aftermath of the failed invasion of Cuba by the Miami-based refugees. At the time the support for the invasion forces did not seem to have the full commitment of the United States in equipment and training. In the comparative show of military force that challenged the Russians attempt to set up missile sites in Cuba the USA demonstrated very low levels of support for anti-Castro feelings, as opposed to US international policy. The Cubans went almost unsupported in fragile boats and poor weapons while the Americans went with aircraft carriers and heavy weaponry. Perhaps if Cuba had vast oil reserves the “assistance” may have been stronger.
Cuba offered very little except as a playout for the Cold War, and at no time did that country present a really strategic importance except in Miami politics. This was not the same as Vietnam, Cambodia, Iran, Libya, and Iraq in later years. It is perhaps indicative that in the 2016 US elections Florida and some of the Cuban voters have switched from Democrats to Republicans.
I looked at the videos of Cuban-Americans celebrating the death of Fidel Castro today, and again, I did not see many black faces. ? Que pasa. Most of those persons profess to be devout Roman Catholics who as a compassionate religion do not exult in death other than a way to the Resurrection. As a Jamaican I am confused and that led me to a direct comparison with Jamaica. So will they confess these sinful celebrations before Mass on Sunday or will they hide those actions? Hatred cannot be a Christian principle. Christianity is about forgiveness especially in the season that celebrates the Nativity.
Jamaicans also left Jamaica in the 1970’s and many of them abandoned or sold all their assets as they fled in the face of perceptions of Socialism/Communism. However I did not see them marching and celebrating the death of Michael Manley on the streets of Miami or Toronto. So let us reach out with the hands of love to our Cuban neighbours in Cuba and Florida as they transition and change in the months and years to come.
Next I looked at the faces of Cubans in Cuba who stopped their dancing and revelry and went home to tell others of the sad news. Many of these persons felt that they would not have achieved a profession, and would have faced a life of total poverty and poor health care without Fidel. Genuine grief was the major expression there and they will mourn even as they face the unknown without Fidel. But these are resilient people and have proven that for decades.
My fourth thought is as the young adult at University in Canada (of all places) the image of Che Guevara was perhaps the most popular on T-shirts, caps, and posters during that era. It continues decades after his death in a way that reminds me of Bob Marley. The world loves the revolutionaries, but is afraid of the revolution! Fidel Castro never achieved that spontaneous adulation, only because he lived and we all saw him grow older and recognized his frail humanity. The legends retain their youth forever after an early death their legacy secure as they had insufficient time to blot that image, while others must endure the rigors and challenges of time unfolding.
The differences between our situation and theirs strike me as the contribution of the chicken and the pig in a ham omelet and may have been in the level of commitment to changing things. Our songwriters, performers, musicians, and politicians spoke from our relatively safe positions about discrimination, injustice, poverty, health conditions in South Africa, Rhodesia, Angola, Namibia, and so many African nations. Cuba sent soldiers, doctors, nurses, and other support personnel, many of whom gave up their lives in the struggle.
My fifth thought is about resilience. Could Jamaica have faced a serious embargo of machinery, food, technology, access to overseas communication and training, for fifty years? Would we have reinvented our education, embraced scientific and medical research and invention, avoided starvation, and reduced crime and corruption under those circumstances? I have my doubts, but you are entitled to your own opinions.
My sixth thought is about race, ethnicity, origin, and acceptance. Is the child of two black persons who happen to speak Spanish, black or Hispanic? Does that child have any thoughts of Africa? The same questions obtain for mixed parentage of white/black/brown, and how are they classified in the Miami community and differentiated between Cuban, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, El Salvador, Venezuela, Costa Rica, Panama, Guatemala, Honduras and others.
I think we hold out false expectations for the role of the former British West Indians being a distinct and important part of the “browning of America”. If I am right, then how do we exercise citizenship and influence in the United States where we are not associated in the minds of the Administration as being part of the Hispanic caucus?
My seventh thought is that I cannot tell whether Fidel Castro, raised as a Christian, retained any religious or Faith-based beliefs, but since I am not uncertain in my own beliefs, I close by saying “may his soul rest in peace”. He was a man committed to an ideal, and that ideal was Cuba. Whether he was successful, admired, or hated, he will be remembered all over the world as an outstanding figure of the 20th century.