Report from the Plaza de la Revolución: Half a Million Cubans and Leaders from Across the Planet Commemorated Fidel
by Laura Lomas
Rutgers University, Newark
On November 30, 2016, Fidel Castro left the city of Havana for the last time, returning in a final journey that reverses the route of his triumphant arrival here in 1959 to the eastern city of Santiago, where his ashes will be placed alongside, or near to those of José Martí. This represents a gesture of humility, in that it seems he won’t have a separate mausoleum glorifying him as does José Miguel Gómez–who oversaw the massacre of three thousand black men, when and children in 1912–at the head of the Avenida de los Presidentes. Castro was a charismatic, indefatigable and at times monomaniacal leader, “el comandante en jefe” as the current president and his younger brother Raul Castro repeats often. Castro was the single most powerful figure in the independent nation of Cuba for over half a century. Clearly aware of the power of the mass media, Fidel used television and radio at each stage of his revolution masterfully to win support and manage crises. In 1989 when I first visited Cuba in order to plant sweet potatoes, I expected to find a paradise on earth. I encountered brilliant, talented, well-read Cubans of my generation, many of whom are now in exile. I witnessed a police arrest of two Cubans who were tossed into jail for talking to foreigners, i.e. me. I heard Fidel’s four-hour televised speeches that droned on in most living rooms every night. It was also 1989 at the eve of the collapse of the Soviet bloc, when Fidel ordered the execution of a major potential rival, the popular leader of the African military campaign, General Arnaldo Ochoa, on charges of arms and drug trafficking. While the diametrically opposed and visceral reactions to Fidel from Miami and the majority of Cubans on the island show no sign of diminishing in vehemence, the meeting at the Plaza revealed that the US-Cuba or pro- and contra-agon may offer too narrow a frame in which to understand the legacy of Cuba and its leaders.
In keeping with the mysterious power of Fidel to provoke, control and seduce, the image that appeared over the Plaza de la Revolución at the November 29th ceremony commemorating Fidel before his departure offers no transparent message. In it, Fidel seems humble and strangely solitary.
A soldier with a large backpack in miltiary fatigues appears alone in a large banner newly draped across one of the buildings in the Plaz. Fidel exhibits the undying vigilance, razor- sharp intelligence, and fearless critique of the coloniality that has been hobbling the development of Latin America and the Caribbean since its slow decolonization began in mid-eighteenth century. For against Alexander Hamilton’s proposal of a proto-imperial
Interamerican System to be headed up by the United States, Francisco de Miranda and Juan Pablo Vizcardo y Guzmán envisioned a union of Spanish-speaking republics to stand up to the Thirteen British colonies and the subsequent republic of United States. The celebration of Castro did not only reflect the creole Latin Americanist counterpoint to that imperial vision, but also his debt to the legacies of revolutions against slavery and colonization led by Mackandal, Boukman, Fatima and Toussaint L’Ouverture in Haiti, and Tupac Amaru and Micaela Bastidas in Peru, all in the eighteenth century.
Decolonization did not coincide with the emergence of nineteenth-century creole republics in the United States and in Latin America, but Bolívar and Martí’s more inclusive vision of a republic post-slavery, “with all and for the good of all,” has acquired a new resonance due to Castro’s forging of relations among non-aligned or formerly “third world” nations of Africa, West, Central and East Asia, and of the Americas, many of whose heads of state showed up to commemorate Castro’s life.
As I have mostly lived in the monoglualist and isolationist United States, I was overwhelmed by the multilingual and planetary public response to Castro’s passing. For indeed, if Cubans may have felt an obligation to show their face because their workplace or union asked them to come, the heads of state incurred some risk by coming or by commemorating Castro’s legacies, as was the case with Justin Trudeau. Contrary to suggestions that Cuba is a lonely last bastion of socialism, I witnessed honor and respect coming to Fidel from heads of state and major political leaders of Greece, Iran, Belarus, Algeria, South Africa, Namibia, Vietnam, China, and Qatar in addition to many of the leaders of “our América,” which is to say, “the America that speaks Spanish” and, in
word or in deed, the region that opposes imperialism in the Americas. The newly established Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, CELAC, formalizes that vision in a transamerican body, and reminds us of a legacy of Castro’s political prowess. CELAC members met in January of 2015 in Havana,and the group pressured the United States to move away from its policy of isolating Cuba. In that global plaza, not Cuba’s isolation, but the US government’s tendency to act without the world’s support struck me. After the US’ recent historic abstention from the UN vote to end the blockade against Cuba (instead of a veto or support for the blockade, as it had maintained for the past twenty-five years), and the depressing victory of the openly islamophobic and anti- Mexican Trump, we in the US need to wake up to our society’s provincialism and assume the responsibility to remember and impart to others a more complex past. This public display commemorating Castro’s life, highlighted the limits of the information that filters into the common knowledge of the United States, despite our relatively easy access to the “world-wide-web” and a trumpted “free” press.
A highlight of the evening was the personal account from Fidel’s close friends of how he had changed the course of their countries’ histories. As if he were sitting around a table with friends sharing a bottle of rum, Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega recounted attending a mass meeting in the Plaza de la Revolución where the guest of honor was Chile’s democratically elected socialist leader, the pacifist doctor Salvador Allende, whose militant resistance and betrayal by a US-supported military coup–not suicide–is still insufficiently well-known in the US. Ortega acknowledged the great difficulty of achieving a revolution in this hemisphere, in a jungle haunted by US-trained Contras and economic hit men. The generosity of Cubans accompanied the Nicaraguans during their revolution of 1979, which finally broke the forces of Somoza. Recalling the recent history of the Special Period after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ortega noted Castro’s tenacity when in the 1990s some in the US declared the end of the Cuban revolution. But after the passage of the Helms-Burton act in 1996, after the shooting down of Brothers to the Rescue planes and as the second George Bush came to power, Hugo Chávez was elected by an overwhelming margin in Venezuela in 1998. Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro noted how Castro and Chavez formed an alliance that led to the creation of the Alianza Bolivariana de Nuestra América (ALBA), Petrocaribe, and many other jointly- sponsored projects that benefitted the most economically vulnerable, the ones who usually never see the effects of the growth of the GDP nor benefit from international development schemes. He recounted how Castro sat with him and others of his protégés in 2015, and predicted his death: “I can accompany you until I am 90 years old. I did what I had to do on earth. Now it is your turn.”
Mexico’s President, Enrique Peña Nieto, spoke of the close economic connections between Cuba and Mexico, a position echoed by China’s Vice-President. Indeed both countries are set to play leading roles in the new phase of Cuba’s economic development. El Salvador’s President, Salvador Sánchez Cerén, a former military leader of the FMLN, looked back to Castro’s emphasis on unity in guerrilla insurgency. At an historic meeting on October 10, 1980, Fidel called upon the five revolutionary military organizations active in El Salvador to unite under a single banner, which became the forces of teh FMLN, now a legal political party. While living as a clandestine guerrilla, Sánchez
Cerén came to know Fidel Castro through the airwaves of Radio Rebelde. The Peruvian painter Elva Acharte Navarro similarly remembers how her papá, an ardent supporter of the Cuban rebels, also followed the 26th of July movement closely in the 1950s on his transistor radio, from his location in the mountain town of Puquio Peru, which suggests the broad sympathy the rebeldes enjoyed throughout the Americas.
Maduro, who usually appears embattled in US news, was the penultimate speaker and triumphantly took the stage amidst a deafening roar of support from the across the Plaza de la Revolution. Maduro noted Fidel’s insistence–following Victor Hugo–on the power of ideas. Maduro commemorated Castro’s remarkable ability to act upon and bring his ideas into reality. He claimed Fidel as a son of Bolívar, just as Martí famously went in 1881 to the center of Caracas to kiss the ground of Venezuela and claim Simón Bolívar as a father. As his generation belongs to a group of “hijos de Fidel,” he plans to emulate Castro’s indefatigable commitment to the still-young revolutions of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. For Castro the only option for the revolutionaries of his time was to forge ahead, despite attacks on their lives (over six hundred in Castro’s case), despite military attacks, invasions and plotting of coups, despite economic warfare and decades of an economic blockade. Having lived long, having been absolved by history as he predicted, having completed his life’s work, Castro joins a long list of American heroes– Bolívar, Sucre, Martí, Sandino, Zapata are the names on Maduro’s list. Maduro affirmed that Venezuela is with Cuba and the Cubans “hoy, más que nunca,” “para ellos y con ellos,” which is to say, for those revolutionary heroes and the tradition to which they belong.
This twist on Martí’s phrase is fitting at a funeral, but it is also a backward glance at a long list of macho men, which suggest an abiding blind spot in this tradition that has devoted itself to creating and disciplining “hombres nuevos”. Only one woman spoke during a five-hour evening of speeches, from 7 pm to close midnight. Of the four people I saw who had fainted and had to be carried out on stretchers during the marathon of speeches, two were women. Che’s visage overlooks the plaza and most living rooms, but no one remembers Hilda Gadea, the Peruvian compañera to whom Che owes much of his most visionary thinking. Fidel said in one of his unforgettable attacks on the United States that the Cubans who would respond to any CIA-led Bay of Pigs or the Escambray revolt were not little ninnies but men. The error of the UMAPS (used to “correct” people with inappropriate sex objects or with bohemian habits) and the marginalization of censorship of writers such as Virgilio Pineyra are at last becoming a topic for consideration in Cuban society. Nonetheless the only woman’s voice in Spanish, and probably the only queer voice projected across the Plaza that night was that of Sara Gonzalez, the lesbian trovadora, whose songs for Cuba’s martyrs and revolutionaries Fidel loved.
The eloquent President of Vietnam’s national assembly, Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan, and the first woman to hold this office, recalled Castro’s contributions and collaboration with her republic and its successful fight against the United States. She quoted Castro’s phrase that made him beloved in Vietnam: “For Vietnam, Cuba is willing to give even its own blood.”
The crowd applauded Alexander Tsipras’ rhetoric, in which he acknowledged bravely that the road to socialism was not covered with roses, for the crowd of mostly Cubans became uneasy at any mention of the anguish of the Special Period that began in 1991. Indeed, Cuban people’s altruism exacted material costs. Celebrating Castro as “leader of those who never surrender,” Tsipras revealed that the Greeks–while occupying a relatively privileged position in Europe–had imitated the Cubans revolutionaries’ cry of “Patria o muerte,” as they recently responded to Europe’s imposition of neoliberalism by electing Tsipras. The Cubans did not respond to the Greek appropriation of the phrase with a triumphant shout, which could be a way of acknowledging how different the Cuban revolution has been from the citizen-driven interrogation of neo-liberalism in southern Europe. But the non-responsiveness could always also be about exhaustion.
The leaders of the African diaspora and leaders of Africa including President Jacob Zuma of South Africa and President of the Caribbean Community and Prime Minister of the island of Dominica, Roosevelt Skerrit, rendered tribute to Castro for committing himself to undoing the effects of colonization, and for modeling a socialist path in the region that demonstrated solidarity with oppressed of the world, including the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and with black South Africa’s imprisoned black revolutionary-turned- President Nelson Mandela. These African and Caribbean leaders noted Castro’s generosity in offering scholarships to medical students, to orphans and in sending Cuban doctors to remote villages to face public health crises, such as the recent outbreak of Ebola.
In Operation Carlota, named after a black woman who led a revolt against the man who enslaved her on a Matanzas sugar-plantation, Cuba committed over half a million soldiers and arms to fight in Africa over a period of thirty years. This military support was decisive in toppling the pro-apartheid forces of South Africa. Namibian President Hage Geingob acknowledged that this support laid the groundwork for the independence of his country and helped end white South Africa’s aggression in the region. For this reason when Nelson Mandela was released after over a decade in prison, one of the first countries he visited was Cuba, in order to embrace Fidel. Cuban soldiers returned to Africa after that mission not to plunder oil, gold or diamond booty as so many Europeans had. The government’s official figure for the fallen is 2,000, but Odette Casamayor whose father fought in Angola, gives the figure of 10,000, and points out that many of those who returned from Africa, not only lost limbs but also peace of mind.
In naming this military operation after Carlota, Fidel implicitly acknowledged Cuba’s century-old debt to Africa for the many millions who labored without pay during three centuries of slavery. Like Martí, Castro perhaps wanted to “wash away the crime” against the millions of Afro-Cubans who played a leading role in the fight for Cuban’s independence, but did not reap the benefits, especially when they demanded their fair share. In the period after the Haitian revolution, when Cuba massively expanded sugar production, half a million Africans arrived in four decades, one of third of whom were under thirteen, as Harvard historian Marial Iglesias Utset, has noted. Because his father was a Spanish hacendado in the eastern province of Birán (and his mother had been his
father’s maid), Fidel grew up relatively privileged in a society where the effects of slavery were (and are) palpable but still taboo to discuss. Unlearning his privilege, Fidel befriended Malcolm X, and stayed in the Hotel Theresa in Harlem when a racially segregated New York refused to accommodate members of his delegation in mid-town, near the United Nations. In a meeting with Randall Robinson’s Transafrica delegation in 1999, Fidel wisely acknowledged that the revolution had underestimated the power of racism in Cuba, as Bill Fletcher recounts. The question of how the Cuban government will address persistent racism and increasing stratification of wealth along color lines remains in the air as everyone asks themselves about what comes next.
South America’s leading progressives, Bolivia’s Evo Morales and Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro conveyed Fidel’s continuing echo in the Americas. With the accent and rhythm of the Andean people, Evo gave the most moving speech at the mass meeting. He claimed Fidel as a teacher in the fight against imperialism and against its politics of blackmale and bribes, for Castro taught us that “no empire is forever.” Evo’s voice broke when he acknowledged his own grief: “¿Quién me cuidará? ¿Quién me enseñará? (Who will take care of me? Who will teach me?) As the first indigenous, working class Andean to lead a South American state, Evo has a special role to play in filling the vacuum that Castro’s death has caused.
Multiple former heads of state–including Honduras’ Manuel Zelaya, Argentina’s Cristina Fernández, Brazil’s Inació Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff–will speak in Santiago on December 4. Although Canada’s Justin Trudeau acknowledged Castro to be a “legendary revolutionary and orator” in a written statement, he subsequently revised his position and did not attend. Angola and Russia also failed to send their heads of state. In the United States, news has focused on Cuban-American celebrations and Trump’s likening of the “dictator” Castro to Satan. But in Cuba, the overriding message from Havana’s Plaza de la Revolución and by representatives from across the globe, is that Fidel commands the respect of many. That he will live on, as fundamental to the twentieth century, beloved by many of those who struggle for a more equitable global order, is not in doubt.
Gracias a Rubén Dávila por sus comentarios y sugerencias al leer este texto.
December 3, 2016 Centrohabana, Cuba