Fidel Castro, ¡presente!
Castro and colleagues as they approach Havana in the disposition of Batista, 1959.
INTRODUCTION. When I learned that Fidel Castro had died, something surprising happened: I cried deeply and heartily. Not so much for the man. I had been hesitant about many of his political choices through the years. And besides, I, like many, had been astonished that he had survived this long. No, it was more because an era was now gone.
My Goddess! The Cuban Revolution had actually won, and its peacetime manifestation did truly accomplish deep structural change in Cuban society, beginning with the nationalization of all businesses and industries owned by U.S. companies, going on to provide free education and health care for all, and producing some of the world's finest doctors. While bearing up to the seemingly eternal embargo the northern empire imposed upon the tiny island, and the ongoing U.S. attempts to assassinate the Cuban jefe, he remained fierce in his resistance — even reveling in no-bullshit confrontations with the enemy.
No matter what anyone might think of his politics, methods, or motives, he was an able forger of 20th-century history and a giant among men.
Tears still streaking across my cheeks, I contacted Whitney Smith about publishing a piece on Fidel in JWC, and that I knew the person who could do the job, Margaret Randall.
We're fortunate she was able to fulfill the request. That very night her son and his wife were due to visit.
— Chellis Glendinning, Sucre, Bolivia
Student and 'street leader', 1947. >
ALBUQUERQUE, NEW MEXICO — Fidel Castro, longtime leader of the Cuban Revolution, died on November 25th at the age of 90.
He withdrew from public office in 2008, when his younger brother Raul took over. Raul has said he will step down in 2018. At the Cuban Communist Party Congress in April of this year, Fidel voiced an awareness of his impending death: “Our turn comes to us all,” he told the assembled delegates, “but the ideas of Cuban communism will endure.”
It is unclear how much of Fidel’s vision for his nation will endure in the face of a rapidly changing world with neo-fascist forces gaining ground in so many countries, including our own United States.
What cannot be denied is that 57 years ago Fidel led a small group of revolutionaries to victory in Cuba, and, against enormous odds, established the “first free territory in America.” The Cuban Revolution stood up to a world power many times its size and strength, put basic human needs on its agenda, all but eradicated illiteracy and soon achieved a ninth-grade education for all adults, guaranteed universal healthcare and good free public education from kindergarten through the post-graduate level, worked to provide adequate housing, and made full employment a reality. Progress was made against racism and sexism. People discussed and passed new laws. Book publishing was subsidized. Culture and sports events were free.
Imagine what it might be like to have such a conversation with any high level political leader in the United States . . .
Despite a multiplicity of problems from outside and within, for half a century Cuba stood as a beacon for other countries suffering poverty and neocolonial domination. It is still such a beacon for many. Facing almost half a century of U.S. economic blockade, the implosion of the European socialist bloc and other impediments, some of these accomplishments no longer shine today as brightly as they once did. The diplomatic opening with the United States, set forth by Raul Castro and Barack Obama in December of 2014, has brought complex change and promises to bring more: for Cuba it is a welcome insertion within an expanded community of nations, but hampered by a playing field on which it is clear that the US is promoting a change in method rather than in policy.
And now, on the eve of a Trump administration, we cannot know how things will go. Still, Fidel and Cuba have given the world a new idea of what justice might look like; this is no small contribution.
Castro's quarters. "In 1958 Fidel Castro and his men encamped in the Sierra Maestra Mountains, in southwestern Cuba, several hundred miles from Havana." (Time Magazine ©)
I lived in Cuba for eleven years in the 1970s, but only met Fidel once, very briefly in 1968. We were at a large reception with many hundreds of guests. A friend who knew the man took me to where he stood surrounded by other visitors. The year before, in Mexico, I had published an anthology of new Cuban poetry and visual art in the bilingual journal I edited, El Corno Emplumado / The Plumed Horn. To my astonishment, Fidel brought up that publication, referring to several of the included works by name. I tried to imagine what it might be like to have such a conversation with any high level political leader in the United States.
There is always a tendency to romanticize public figures. This is true for the right and the left. The truth is always more complex and much more interesting . . . more human. Fidel Castro the man has drawn resounding praise and pervasive insult. Whatever one’s opinion, I believe he was a uniquely brilliant strategist and great leader, whose ideas merit our respect and gratitude. Today I weep with the Cuban people. As they say throughout Latin America, Fidel Castro, ¡presente!
Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz (1926-2016)
MARGARET RANDALL is a poet, essayist, oral historian, translator, photographer and social activist. She has published many books of poetry and essays and has also devoted herself to translation, producing When Rains Become Floods by Lurgio Galván Sánchez and Only the Road / Solo El Camino, an anthology of eight decades of Cuban poetry (published by Duke University Press). Randall travels extensively to read, lecture and teach, and lives in New Mexico with her partner (now wife) of almost 30 years, the painter Barbara Byers.