“It is with deep sorrow that I come before you to inform our people, and friends of our America, that today, Nov. 25, at 10:29 p.m., Comandante en Jefe of the Cuban Revolution Fidel Castro Ruz has died,” stated Raul Castro, Cuba’s president and Fidel’s brother, in an announcement in Granma, the official voice of the Communist Party of Cuba Central Committee.
“In accordance with his express wishes,” President Castro added, “Compañero Fidel’s remains will be cremated.” The president and the central committee said that detailed information will come later regarding the posthumous tributes.
The tributes began coming in almost immediately for the founder of the Cuban revolution. According to several reports, Fidel, 90, who was as idolized by fellow revolutionaries as he was rebuked by his adversaries, had been sick for a while, stricken with diverticulitis, an ailment of the colon.
Comments from President Obama and President-elect Donald Trump are indicative of the differing impressions Fidel engendered. “At this time of Fidel Castro’s passing,” Obama said, “we extend a hand of friendship to the Cuban people. We know that this moment fills Cubans—in Cuba and in the United States—with powerful emotions, recalling the countless ways in which Fidel Castro altered the course of individual lives, and of the Cuban nation.”
Trump made no pretense at capturing the complexity of Fidel’s impact. “Today, the world marks the passing of a brutal dictator who oppressed his own people for nearly six decades.” For Trump, Fidel’s legacy was one “of firing squads, theft, unimaginable suffering, poverty and the denial of fundamental human rights.”
It is apparent from these comments that Trump has no intention of pursuing Obama’s steps toward normalization with the island nation that has endured the brunt of the U.S. economic embargo.
“History will record and judge the enormous impact of this singular figure on the people and world around him,” Obama concluded. There was much disappointment from Obama’s supporters when he failed to meet with Fidel after being the first sitting U.S. president to visit Cuba since the revolution. In fact, before Obama, President Coolidge was the last president to visit the island in 1928.
Fidel had his own estimation of his legacy, which he put forth in 1953 during his trial after a failed attack against President Batista’s regime. “Condemn me, it does not matter,” Fidel said. “History will absolve me.”
To some extent history has absolved him, and the major piece of that absolution came six years later when Fidel and his comrades came down from the Sierra Maestra Mountains and entered Havana as Batista fled.
Whether he is called “El Comandante,” “El Jefe” or the derogatory “Caudillo,” Fidel stepped boldly onto the pages of history much in the way George Washington, Toussaint, Napoleon, Lenin and Mao had done, relieving his people of tyranny and putting them on a glorious path of recovery and promise.
Black Americans, particularly those in Harlem, had a chance to see Fidel up close, to revel in his lengthy speeches when he first arrived in 1960 and met with Malcolm X at the Hotel Theresa. That historic moment is vividly captured by Rosemari Mealy in her book, “Fidel & Malcolm X—Memories of a Meeting” (Black Classic Press, 2013). Fidel had come to the U.S. to attend the 15th Session of the General Assembly of the U.N.. The Cuban delegation was not allowed to venture outside of Manhattan, a situation that Fidel vehemently protested. He also refused to accept the “unreasonable financial demands” by the management of the midtown Shelburne Hotel, Mealy wrote. “Thousands crowd the streets to see and cheer them,” she wrote after Fidel and his group moved to the Hotel Theresa. Somewhere around midnight on Sept. 19, 1960, the two great men had a brief conversation.
Mealy’s book also touches on several other eventful moments in Fidel’s life, including the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion orchestrated by the CIA that, after 27 hours of skirmish, was put down by the Cuban government.
In 1962, President Kennedy initiated the “Cuban Missile Crisis,” placing a naval blockade on Cuba and threatening the Soviet Union with nuclear war. Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev agreed to remove the Russian missiles in exchange for a U.S. pledge not to invade Cuba. The pledge, however, did not include the many assassination attempts by the U.S. government on Fidel.
Many Harlemites recall when Fidel came to the community in 1995 to speak at Abyssinian Baptist Church and the significant role of activist Elombe Brath at the event as moderator. Brath, who died in 2014, was also on hand in 2000 when Fidel spoke for nearly four hours at Riverside Church, excoriating U.S. foreign policy and imperialism while extolling the virtues of the Cuban government, especially the thousands of doctors scattered around the globe.
One of his lasting commitments was to the liberation struggles in Africa where the Cuban troops were instrumental in defeating the forces allied with South Africa and the CIA.
This sense of devotion to the cause of independence as well as cultural ties, mainly through the arts, have given Cuba and Fidel a special place in the hearts of Black Americans, even for those who may have some questions about the issue of race.
Race and racism in Cuba have long been a topic of discussion for African-Americans, and Fidel, no doubt, tried to minimize it when he kept the dark-skinned Cuban Juan Almeida by his side during his stay in 1960. Crowds of people screamed to them from the sidewalks when they appeared in the window of the Hotel Theresa, possibly right after tossing the plucked chicken feathers out the window.
Race is something that Fidel and his cohorts dealt with almost from the beginning of their conquest by hosting a program called “Operation Truth” that Mealy discusses in her book. The program brought in Black journalists from the U.S. and was similar to the more radical group Fair Play for Cuba Committee, which included Dr. John Henrik Clarke, Robert Williams, Harold Cruse, William Worthy, Amiri Baraka (then LeRoi Jones) and Carlos Moore.
There is an extensive essay, “Cuba Libre,” by Baraka from his book “Home.” Of all the notables on that trip, Moore, who was born in Cuba of Jamaican parents, was perhaps the most controversial with his critique of the Cuban revolution as well as what he insisted was the prevalence of racism under Fidel’s rule. Some of those charges are defused by the government’s provision of political asylum for many African-American militants and freedom fighters, such as Assata Shakur.
In the Bronx, as the news first broke, Congressman José E. Serrano issued a statement saying, “Today, one of the most influential figures in the history of Latin America has died. Fidel Castro was a controversial leader but his rise to power represented hope for many in Cuba, and while the Cuban revolution was certainly accompanied with disenchantment and concerns over human rights, there were also many changes that helped those who had been previously voiceless on the island.
“Fidel Castro was on the front lines of history for decades, and oftentimes defied the descriptions of both his critics and his advocates. He surprised many by peacefully transitioning out of power in 2008, something that many said he would never do. He later supported efforts to change Cuba’s relationship with the United States, another change many said he would never advocate for.”
Serrano continued, “His passing marks the last vestiges in the Americas of the Cold War, a period that polarized the world and created division. There is no better example of this in our hemisphere than the case of Cuba and the United States. With this chapter now completely behind us, it is time to look forward toward the future of Cuba. That process has already started with the important reforms instituted by President Obama, and the reestablishment of diplomatic relations. The United States must resist the temptation to return to the misguided and ineffective policies of the past that only created division and distrust among our governments and peoples.
“For more than 25 years in Congress I have called for the end of the Cuban embargo and for a more sensible policy toward our neighbors only 90 miles away. In 1995, I helped welcome Fidel Castro to the Bronx, a visit that showed that much more unites our countries and peoples than divides us. We must continue extending our hand of friendship—fostering engagement with our democracy is the most important argument for change elsewhere.
“Today’s politicized statements won’t affect Fidel Castro’s legacy. History and future generations will judge him.”
Recently, the Greater Harlem Chamber of Commerce, inspired by Rep. Charles Rangel, launched a week of festivities under the rubric of the Harlem/Havana Music & Cultural Festival. That festival occurred in August and the cultural exchange is scheduled to continue in February with a delegation from Harlem traveling to Havana.
The delegation and the world awaits to see how Trump will deal with such attempts at bonding by the two cities—as well as how his administration will handle diplomatic relations with Cuba. In any case, in the village of Harlem on 125th Street the other day, I heard “Viva Fidel!” And it echoed not too far from the Hotel Theresa.