This post from my old blog marked the death of Fidel Castro Ruz. Fidel was the central leader of Cuba’s 1959 revolution against US-backed dictator Furgencio Batista. Fidel served as Prime Minister (1959-1976) and President (1976-2008).
This time of year is filled with tradition: Christmas cookies, mistletoe, Times Square and champaign. As 2016 winds down there’s also the annual magazine, newspaper and TV memorials listing the notable figures who have passed away. The list this year includes Carrie Fisher, Phyllis Schlafly, Gene Wilder, David Bowie, Antonin Scalia, Arnold Palmer, Muhammad Ali, John Glenn, Patty Duke, Zsa Zsa Gabor — and Fidel Castro Ruz.
I believe Fidel Castro was one of history’s greatest men. He was certainly a controversial man, as well. I’m sure some of my readers, friends and family disagree with my opinion of him — probably most. Perhaps a few are even shocked. But I will explain.
Fidel was human and flawed, and I don’t defend everything he did. But he brought Cuba out of the cruelest poverty and gave the country and its people dignity. He showed a way forward to all the world. He didn’t do this alone. He had help. He was a powerful and revered leader, but there was also Ernesto Che Guevara, Raúl Castro Ruz, and the millions of Cuban men, women and youth who have devoted their lives to building a new society and a new humanity.
This extended blog post is an attempt to tell a bit of Cuba’s story from its perspective — at least as I understand it. If you are among the many who think badly of Fidel Castro and the Cuban Revolution, I hope you’ll hang in with me through this report. Read it and watch the videos. It’s long, but there’s lots to tell and far too little of this has been presented here in the U.S.
I should also note that tomorrow marks the 58th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution. It was New Years Day 1959 when the working class took power and drove U.S.-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista Zaldivar out of the country.
Usually the annual commemoration of those who passed is met with a mixture of sadness and nostalgia, remembering a beloved actor or musician or writer. Street celebrations aren’t typical, but such was the case this year with news of Fidel Castro’s death. Thousands poured into the streets of Miami shouting, singing and dancing in joy.
To understand the feelings of these Cubans in Miami it’s necessary to know their roots. The initial exiles from Cuba were the privileged layers of the population in 1959: executives, big merchants, owners of sugar mills, and professionals of various kinds. These were not the working class and peasants of Cuba. Most were the people living off the backs of the working class and peasants. Naturally they would not view of a revolution of the people with much sympathy.
Subsequent immigration from Cuba has grown more complex and diverse including workers who basically support the revolution but have family here or want other opportunities. People everywhere move all kinds of places for many reasons. There are also some who just plain wore out under the strain of daily life after decades of embargo and hostility from the United States. The U.S. has done all it can to try make life in Cuba as difficult as possible.
As evidence of Cuba’s supposed repression, the U.S. often points to the rafts, flotillas and other extremes some Cubans have taken to reach the United States. What they conveniently omit is an explanation of how U.S. laws and policies have driven people to such actions — which, in turn, provide the U.S. with a great propaganda spectacle.
Cubans seeking to live in the U.S. have been afforded special privileges which immigrants from no other country receive. In 1966 Congress passed the Cuban Adjustment Act (CAA) allowing Cubans expedited consideration for permanent residence after one year — simply because they’re from Cuba. In 1995 the “wet-foot, dry-foot” policy allowed Cubans almost automatic ability to stay as long as they made it to U.S. soil (“dry foot”). The clincher has been a cap by the U.S. limiting legal immigration from Cuba to just 20,000 per year. This tight limit has driven people to extreme measures since by just getting here, they’re in!
When looking at celebrations in Miami it’s important to understand the history and context behind them. As I will show, Miami’s Cubans don’t represent the majority of Cubans in Cuba.
Along with those in Miami, Fidel’s death is likewise celebrated in the halls of the U.S. government. This has been the dream of presidents since John F. Kennedy, and indeed a few have tried to hasten his demise through plots ranging from the outrageous to the ridiculous. One aimed at making Fidel’s beard fall out so the Cuban people would lose confidence and ridicule him. I guess they equated Castro with Samson.
I think most Americans regarded Fidel as a dictator who oppressed the Cuban people. This is hardly surprising since the U.S. government and media have spent decades portraying him this way, referring to Cuba as an “imprisoned island” and such. A lot of people have strong opinions against the Castro brothers and socialism in Cuba. It always interests me, however, that most people I encounter with these strong views have never actually read Fidel Castro or Che Guevara. The most they’ve heard Fidel or Che speak is a few sound bites on TV or, at best, a short interview. They know little of Cuba in its own words, its side of the story. They only know Cuba as portrayed by a hostile U.S. government and media.
They might be surprised to learn that South Africans have a very different view of Cuba and a very different reaction to Fidel’s death. Indeed, South Africa owes its emancipation from apartheid to the Cuban Revolution. This is an important story which I cover below.
Contrary to what most Americans might assume, the Cuban people are not rejoicing at Fidel’s death. Nor are they jubilant at the prospect of the United States finally sweeping in to “free” them.
Why Hasn’t the U.S. Invaded Cuba?
In every country there’s a layer of people who don’t like their government, or its leaders, or its policies. Such a layer exists in Cuba too. No one denies this, but the U.S. government and media make it appear this layer represents mainstream opinion in Cuba. As this portrayal is repeated decade after decade it takes on a certain “common sense” in the minds of most Americans. Of course Cuban socialism is a failure! Of course the Castro brothers are iron-fisted despots. Of course the people are oppressed and beaten down. Of course they desperately want for U.S.-style freedom. These facts seem self-evident and logical.
What gives the lie to this “common sense” perception is the fact that the Cuban Revolution still survives to this day. The Revolution has survived 57 years through 11 U.S. Presidents, the Bay of Pigs invasion, the missile crisis, a 54-year embargo, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the 2008 worldwide economic crisis. How is this possible?
How has Cuba — which could be called a puny, poor, Third World island — stymied the mightiest military force on Earth for over half a century? Think about it. For a while the Soviet Union stood behind Cuba but that ended 25 years ago in 1991. For the past quarter century Cuba has stood largely alone and presumably vulnerable. Why hasn’t the U.S. invaded Cuba and freed its people?
The United States is hardly bashful when it comes to invading other countries. To name just a few: Afghanistan, Albania, Angola, Bolivia, Cambodia, Grenada, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Liberia, Niger, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Syria, Vietnam, Yugoslavia and Zaire.
Cubans Overwhelmingly Support the Revolution
The U.S. has invaded all these countries and more — so why not Cuba? The answer is quite simple.
Like the Bay of Pigs in 1961, it would go very badly! Contrary to its propaganda, the U.S. government recognizes that the Cuban Revolution is supported overwhelmingly by its people. It knows that an invasion of Cuba would have to be fought house by house through the cities and countryside. The U.S. knows it can’t just capture Havana, arrest or kill the Castros, and expect the masses to come pouring into the streets in celebration. And I assure you, no dictatorship is powerful enough to keep people fighting to the last man or woman long after the dictator himself has been killed or neutralized.
It is simply not true that Cubans hate Fidel, Raúl and socialism. If they did, the United States military could have swept in and settled things long ago. What’s to stop them? Soviet missiles are long gone. Cuba doesn’t have the kind of military weaponry possessed by the United States and other industrialized capitalist countries.
However, Cuba does possess another strength that scares the U.S. ruling class to its core. It possesses the strength of example. It stands as living proof of what working people can accomplish when they take power into their owns hands and run society for the benefit of all. This is an example that working people everywhere can emulate — and must, ultimately, if humanity is to survive.
I can hear it now. “Emulate?! Socialism is a failure! Look at the shortages. Look at the crumbling buildings. Look at the ancient cars. We’re supposed to emulate that?!”
Is Cuban Socialism a Failure?
After imposing a half-century embargo, I find it laughably arrogant for the United States to wag its finger at Cuba and declare socialism a failure. Not only has the U.S. maintained this embargo for 54 years, it’s strong armed other countries to go along. The 1996 Helms-Burton Act, for instance, applies restrictions and penalties to other countries if they trade with Cuba. Ships that dock in Cuba cannot dock in the U.S. for six months. Ships can’t just cool their heels for half a year, so they have to decide: dock in Cuba or dock in the United States, but not both.
Cuba may be an island, but no country is an island onto itself. All countries need to import and export. Imagine what things would look like today in the United States if we had been prevented from trading since 1962!
It is true that Cuba lacks the vast consumer goods we enjoy here. But Cuban socialism has not failed — not by any stretch. Just the opposite when you consider what Cuba has been up against! Despite decades of hostility and interference, these are just a few of the things that “failed” socialism in Cuba has accomplished:
- Health care in Cuba is free, cradle to grave. No one goes bankrupt from medical bills or has to skip treatment or medicine for lack of insurance.
- Cuba has more doctors per capita than almost any country in the world, certainly more than the U.S.
- Cuba guarantees a daily ration of milk, one liter, for every child to at least age 7.
- Life expectancy is almost equal to the United States, falling just 1.3 years behind.
- UNICEF reports Child Mortality (deaths under age 12) at 4 per 1000 in Cuba. The U.S. rate is 7 deaths per 1000.
- ABC News is among many sources to report that Cuba was the first nation to eliminate HIV transmission from mother to fetus. And most recently Cuba has developed a promising lung cancer vaccine.
- Cuba is a world leader in LASIK eye surgery. Cuba provides eye treatment, transportation, accommodations and recuperation at a total cost about 40% of what patients pay in the United States.
- Cuba’s free universal health care includes sex reassignment surgery free of charge for the transgender community.
- UNICEF reports the literacy rate in Cuba at 100%. Other sources such as the CIA and World Bank concur. UNICEF does not provide figures for the western industrialized nations such as the United States, Canada, Britain and France. However a study conducted in 2014 by the U.S. Department of Education and the National Institute on Literacy found that 14% of the U.S. adult population cannot read at a basic level.
All this isn’t to say that life in Cuba is free of challenge and hardship. Shortages, for instance, can make day-to-day life quite difficult and frustrating. But accomplishments like the ones above are remarkable for a small island nation working under the grinding burden of blockade and embargo. Imagine the possibilities if a society like Cuba could function on a level playing field with the rest of the world! They seem almost limitless.
A bedrock principle of Cuba’s socialist revolution is Internationalism. Cuba has endured relentless pressure since the revolution and could have turned inward, licking its wounds and focusing solely on its own needs. The leadership of the revolution — Fidel Castro, Raúl Castro, Che Guevara and others — knew this would sign Cuba’s death warrant. The way to survive is to reach out in solidarity with the world and help others survive. Cuba has done this, sometimes at great cost and peril. But not doing so would have placed the country and revolution at even greater peril. In the words of Fidel, “Those not willing to fight for the freedom of others will never be ready to fight for their own.”
Cuba has worked to empower poor and Third World countries politically, militarily and socially. They’ve provided volunteer troops, military training, political guidance and strategy, teachers, doctors, medical education and more. Cuba has assisted countries seeking to achieve or defend their independence. It’s helped countries coping with disease, earthquakes and hurricanes. Assistance was even offered to the United States after Hurricane Katherina. And, Cuba works to assist oppressed minorities and the poor in the wealthy industrialized countries.
Perhaps no better example of Internationalism exists than the role Cuba played in defeating Apartheid in South Africa.
In the mid-1970s South Africa was afraid that neighboring Angola would establish independence after Portuguese colonialism collapsed. To try and prevent this, South African troops invaded Angola in October 1975. Troops from Zaire did the same. All this had U.S. support. At the urgent request of Angola’s provincial government, Cuba mobilized 650 volunteers overnight who rushed to Angola’s defense and repelled the invaders.
South Africa tried again in 1987 with another invasion. This time South Africa was totally crushed by over 50,000 Cuban volunteers in March 1988 at the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale. This was the beginning of the end for South Africa’s racist system. The ruling National Party was compelled to enter talks with the African National Congress (ANC) that resulted in the release of Nelson Mandela on February 11, 1990. Elections establishing majority rule were held in April 1994.
Altogether, over 375,000 Cuban volunteers fought in Angola during the 70s and 80s, 2000 of whom died. Cuba’s fight in Angola not only helped break apartheid, it led as well to Namibia winning its independence.
The next few videos demonstrate the relationship between Cuba and South Africa.
- Democracy Now! presented this overview of Cuba’s role supporting African independence movements including the fight in Angola against South Africa and apartheid.
- In another broadcast, Democracy Now! looked further at Cuba’s role in overturning apartheid.
- This excerpt from the 2001 documentary, Fidel: The Untold Story, looks at Cuba’s role in Africa and the close bond of friendship and solidarity between Cuba and South Africa.
- This is how the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) reported the death of Fidel Castro and reflected on his life.
- In an interview with SABC after Fidel’s death, former South African President Thabo Mbkei describes in great depth how Cuba assisted Black resistance in South Africa militarily and with practical guidance for confronting political challenges.
- In another SABC interview, current South African President Jacob Zuma remembers Fidel Castro.
Cuban Medical Missions
Cuba dispatches doctors across the globe providing vital medical services, usually in areas that have too few doctors or none at all. Cuba began this tradition shortly after the 1959 revolution when it aided Chile following a 9.5 earthquake — despite the fact that half of Cuba’s 6000 doctors had just fled due to the revolution. Cuba has continued these missions ever since.
In 2015 Cuba’s international medical program was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. The nomination reported that since the revolution over 325,000 Cuban medical volunteers have provided assistance to 158 countries — far exceeding services provided by any of the wealthy industrialized nations or even the World Health Organization (WHO). As of January 2015, almost 52,000 Cuban medical personnel were then working in 67 countries.
One example is Cuba’s role is fighting Ebola in Liberia. As reported by the World Health Organization, Cuba sent 53 specially-trained medical personnel to Liberia in 2014 to fight the outbreak. It was the largest team from any single country.
This report by Chinese Central Television (CCTV America) looks at the doctors and nurses under consideration to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for their work combatting Ebola in West Africa. They were nominated by Norway.
Another example is Cuba’s work in Haiti. Cuban has been providing direct medical aid in Haiti since 1998 and has also trained at least 1000 Haitian doctors for free. They’ve played a critical role in fighting cholera, comprising the largest foreign contingent doing so. When Haiti was hit with a 7.0 earthquake in January 2010, there were already 350 Cuban doctors on the ground who responded immediately. Then again this past Fall when Haiti was struck by Hurricane Matthew, Cuba immediately sent 38 doctors to join the 600 doctors already there at the time.
In addition to the hands-on care and assistance that Cuba provides directly, it works tirelessly to develop the medical capacities of other countries so they can help themselves. The World Health Organization has published a report stating that “Cuba has become a global leader in the South-South transfer of technology, helping low-income countries develop their own domestic biotech capabilities, providing technical training, and facilitating access to low-cost lifesaving drugs to combat diseases such as meningitis B and hepatitis B.”
In a very different mode, Cuba has joined forces with Qatar, a Gulf state in the Middle East, to open “ The Cuban Hospital” in Dukhan. This unique hospital combines the very best state-of-the-art technology with the ethics and philosophy of Cuban medicine. It demonstrates what is truly possible when resources are available and prioritized towards meeting human needs. It’s a one-of-a-kind facility.
This video is clearly a promotional piece created with very high production values. It’s very polished. This is Qatar, after all. Nonetheless it presents a compelling picture of the potential of Cuban medicine when not constrained by embargo and other challenges.
At home, Cuba is recognized as the first country in the world to eliminate polio in the 1960s and more recently it’s become the first country to prevent transmission of HIV between infected mothers and their babies. And it’s working on a lung cancer breakthrough.
This report by CCTV America reports on Cuba’s accomplishment in preventing HIV transmission to a mother’s fetus.
Cuba Provides Free Medical Education
Cuba trains foreign medical students free of charge — including students from the United States. The Latin American Medical School (ELAM) opened in Havana in 1999 and is accredited by the World Health Organization. Scholarships include full tuition, books, dormitory housing, three meals per day, and a stipend running a little under $4 a day. The course of study runs 6 years. People of color, women and low-income persons are especially encouraged to apply.
All students trained at ELAM are expected to commit to serving communities and countries that lack adequate medical care. U.S. students on scholarship must commit to practicing in minority and low-income income communities in the United States, or as an alternative they can serve on one of Cuba’s medical teams working around the world.
Upon graduation, U.S. students returning home must pass a series of U.S. Medical Licensing Exams (USLME) before they can practice here. They must also complete a residency program here.
The following videos describe this work including extensive interviews with participating students:
- This brief video just posted by teleSUR English in November 2016 presents a brief overview of Cuba’s free medical education program — now up to 80,000 graduates internationally.
- This report was produced by Russia’s RT Network.
- Extended interviews with U.S. students studying medicine in Cuba (part 1 of 2).
- Extended interviews with U.S. students studying medicine in Cuba (part 2 of 2).
Cuba & the U.S. Black Community
The 1959 revolution in Cuba took place as the Civil Rights struggle in the United States was heating up. A cornerstone of the Cuban Revolution was a head-on assault against racism in that country. It was a huge inspiration to U.S. Blacks that the revolution was able to overthrow the privileged and mostly white Cuban ruling class, and with it U.S. domination of the island. Fidel Castro and his movement were heroes. They demonstrated that victory is possible.
In September 1960 Fidel came to New York City to speak before the UN General Assembly. Tensions were building between Cuba and United States, so Cuba found itself harassed and ultimately evicted from its rooms at the Hotel Shelburne in downtown Manhattan.
The delegation then received and accepted an invitation to stay at the Hotel Theresa in the heart of the Black community in Harlem. The U.S. government was horrified at the prospect that the Cubans and Black community would rub shoulders and find common cause. Suddenly hotels in New York were tripping over themselves with offers to welcome the Cuban delegation back downtown, some for free. Cuba declined.
Fidel described the experience while addressing the General Assembly on September 26, 1960.
When we were forced to leave one of the hotels in this city, and came to the United National Headquarters while efforts were being made to find accommodation for us, a hotel, a humble hotel of this city, a Negro hotel in Harlem, offered to rent us rooms. The reply came when we were speaking to the Secretary General.
Nevertheless, an official of the State Department did all in his power to prevent our staying at that hotel. At that moment, as though by magic, hotels began appearing all over New York. Hotels which had previously refused lodgings to the Cuban delegation offered us rooms, even free of charge. Out of simple reciprocity we accepted the Harlem hotel. We felt then that we had earned the right to be left in peace. But peace was not accorded us.
Once in Harlem, since it was impossible to prevent us from living there, the slander and defamation campaigns began. They began spreading the news all over the world that the Cuban delegation had lodged in a brothel. For some humble hotel in Harlem, a hotel inhabited by Negroes of the United States, must obviously be a brothel.
To make matters worse, from the perspective of U.S. government, Fidel and his delegation held meetings with many people while staying at the Hotel Theresa — including Malcolm X ( picture at CBS.com). This was utterly intolerable!
In the end U.S. fears were realized. The Cubans and Black community did realize their common cause. Malcolm X and the Black community saw clearly that Cuba was a solid ally. The Militant newspaper quoted Malcolm X as saying, “Premier Castro has come out against lynching, which is more than President Eisenhower has done. Castro has also taken a more open stand for civil rights for Black Cubans.” The same Militant article reprints a description of the meeting that appeared in the New York Citizen-Call on September 24, 1960.
This meeting, followed by a strong condemnation of racism by Fidel before the General Assembly, cemented a relationship between the U.S. Black community and Cuba that continues today.
This video combines footage showing portions of Fidel’s time in New York in 1960.
In 1995 Fidel returned to New York to again address the United Nations. While in New York he returned to Harlem and spoke to a full house at the Abyssinian Baptist Church where he received a wildly enthusiastic reception. He made note that before coming to speak at Harlem he changed back into his military fatigues after wearing a business suit at the UN.
His entire speech in Harlem can be seen in the next 8 videos.
- Fidel Castro speaks in Harlem, 1995 (Part 1 of 8).
- Fidel Castro speaks in Harlem, 1995 (Part 2 of 8).
- Fidel Castro speaks in Harlem, 1995 (Part 3 of 8).
- Fidel Castro speaks in Harlem, 1995 (Part 4 of 8).
- Fidel Castro speaks in Harlem, 1995 (Part 5 of 8).
- Fidel Castro speaks in Harlem, 1995 (Part 6 of 8).
- Fidel Castro speaks in Harlem, 1995 (Part 7 of 8).
- Fidel Castro speaks in Harlem, 1995 (Part 8 of 8).
Was Fidel a Dictator?
I find the U.S. government’s objection to Fidel Castro as a “dictator” curious at best and disingenuous at worst.
First, Fidel was not a dictator — although from our perspective and norms in the United States I can see that it appears he was. He served from the beginning until he fell ill, and his brother Raúl still does. As I’ve tried to show above, I think it’s clear Fidel served at the will of the people. Cuba marches to a different drummer than the U.S. It’s conception of democracy is different than ours. Cuba follows a system of elections and leadership selection that is consistent with its values and ethics, not ours. In Cuba’s way of thinking, you are not truly free if you’re poor, homeless, illiterate and sick. Sadly this describes the life of far too many Americans.
Cuba has a 1-party system which I know many Americans see as conclusive proof that it’s not democratic. I can see how people would feel this way. But I would ask my readers if we truly have two parties here. We’re all familiar with the description of Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum. In any event, this issue is a huge topic all its own and beyond the scope of this article. I’ll simply let the Cubans address it themselves. Raúl Castro’s daughter, Mariela Castro Espin, talks about this in an interview below.
But for the sake of argument here, let’s say that Fidel was indeed a dictator. Why does the U.S. government object to this? The U.S. has a long tradition of supporting dictators — starting with Fulgencio Batista himself who ruled Cuba before the revolution. The United States had no objection to Batista despite the fact that he seized power in a coup in 1953 and prevented elections. The U.S. government formally recognized his government soon after. Could it have anything to do with all the sugar that U.S. corporations could control and profit from? Just a thought…
Batista ran a cruel police state that protected organized crime, gambling, prostitution and U.S. corporate profits while condemning millions to poverty, hunger and sickness. When Fidel spoke at the UN General Assembly in 1960 he described conditions in Cuba when Batista fled the revolution.
Three million out of a population of somewhat over six million did not have electric lights and did not enjoy the advantages and comforts of electricity. Three and a half million out of a total of slightly more than six million lived in huts, shacks and slums, without the slightest sanitary facilities. In the cities, rents took almost one-third of family incomes. Electricity rates and rents were among the highest in the world.
Some 37.5 percent of our population were illiterate; 70 per cent of the rural children had no teachers; 2 per cent of population suffered from tuberculosis — that is to say, 100,000 persons out of a little of more than six million. Ninety-five per cent of the children in rural areas suffered from parasites. Infant mortality was astronomical. Life expectancy was very low.
On the other hand, 85 per cent of the small farmers were paying rents for the use of land up to 30 per cent of their income, while 1.5 percent of the landowners controlled 46 per cent of the total area of the country. Of course, the proportion of hospital beds to the number of inhabitants of the country was ridiculously low compared with countries that only have halfway decent medical services.
Public utilities, electricity and telephone services all belonged to the U.S. monopolies. A major portion of the banking, importing, and oil refining; the majority of sugar production; the best land; and the most important industries in all fields in Cuba belonged to U.S. companies.
The next video is unique, to say the least. American actor Errol Flynn narrated a 1959 documentary, The Cuban Story: The Truth about Fidel Castro Revolution. The film is almost comical with Flynn’s campy demeanor, but it nonetheless contains interesting footage and information showing life in Cuba under Batista. This excerpt is the opening 10 minutes of the film.
Batista is just one of many dictators the United States has supported. To name a few others: the Shah of Iran (Iran), Augusto Pinochet (Chile), Manuel Noriega (Panama), Ferdinand Marcos (Philippines), Mobutu Sese Seko (Zaire), Rafael Trujillo (Dominican Republic), the Somoza family (Nicaragua), Jean-Claude Duvalier (Haiti), Mobutu Sese Seko (Congo), and Francisco Franco (Spain).
And there are more. So then… What exactly is the problem if Fidel were a dictator too?
The problem is the Cuban Revolution itself — what it represents and whose interests it serves. The Cuban government put an end to the impoverishment of the people. It enacted a land reform so the people would have a home and food. It set out to educate everyone through a nationwide literacy campaign. It provided medical care. It ended the plunder of Cuba’s resources by U.S. capital. It showed the Cuban people that they have the power to control their destiny.
The United States found all of this intolerable and unforgivable. This is at the root of all the hatred, lies and attacks against Cuba for over a half century — and continuing to this day. The United States says it cares about freedom and liberty, but not in the way it sounds. It cares whether it has freedom and liberty to exploit labor and materials for profit. Of course the U.S. prefers if this can be accomplished in a U.S.-style democracy. It’s easier, cheaper and it looks better. But if not, the U.S. has demonstrated that it’s willing to utilize dictatorship instead — case in point, Fulgencio Batista.
A particularly sickening example of U.S. hostility towards Cuba has been its reaction to the literacy campaign. After the Revolution, students and young people spread out across the island in a campaign to teach everyone everywhere to read. Opponents of the revolution couldn’t stomach the idea of a literate educated peasantry and working class and tried to prevent it. In March 1960 President Dwight Eisenhower approved a campaign that attacked and murdered literacy teachers and students. The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency helped coordinate this operation which killed 23 teachers and students, and wounded 37. The first killed was Conrado Benitez Garcia , an 18-year-old Black man. He’s remembered to this day as a hero of the revolution.
LGBT Rights in Cuba
As a gay person, there’s something of an elephant in the room when I defend of Cuba. Some of my LGBT friends have wondered how I can support the Cuban Revolution given its treatment of gays.
Gays have had it quite bad in Cuba in the past. As I said in the opening of this article, I don’t defend everything Fidel has done. Fidel personally, and Che also, have been openly hostile to the gay community. Things have improved greatly, but prejudice still remains.
This needs to be discussed frankly because it’s important, but I think perspective and proportion are required. Some LGBT people I know reject Fidel and the Cuban Revolution out of hand over the gay issue. Yet these same people have no trouble supporting the U.S. overall, or the church if they’re Catholic. They obviously disapprove of certain anti-gay politicians, laws, or policies — but they don’t summarily reject these institutions across-the-board. I would simply challenge these individuals not to confine their assessment of Cuba to this single issue alone.
In the early days of the revolution gays were anathema. Che would call gays “faggots” (in Spanish) and Fidel made this statement,
We would never come to believe that a homosexual could embody the conditions and requirements of conduct that would enable us to consider him a true revolutionary, a true communist militant. A deviation of that nature clashes with the concept we have of what a militant communist should be.
Gays were rounded up and placed in prison work camps called Military Units to Aid Production (UMAP). According to PinkNews,
Those who experienced the labour camps report being beaten, threatened with execution, stuffed with dirt in their mouths, buried in the ground up to their neck, and tied up naked outside in barbed wire without food or water until fainting.
According to an official state newspaper report in 1966, the labour camps were the idea of Fidel Castro himself, after seeing similar examples on a visit to the Soviet Union, and were enacted by current Cuban President, Raúl Castro.
In a documentary aired on HBO, one trans woman says she has to wear sunglasses for her whole life after her eyes were bleached with acid thrown in her face while incarcerated.
There is no way to dismiss or excuse this treatment, but it needs to be understood in the context of time, culture and politics.
◼︎Time. First, from the standpoint of time. The Cuban Revolution took place in 1959 which was not exactly a friendly time in most of the world for LGBT people. Life in the U.S. certainly wasn’t warm and welcoming. Stonewall didn’t happen here until 1969, 10 years after the Cuban Revolution. Nor did gays advance much legally in the 10 years following Stonewall — yet in 1979 Cuba decriminalized gay relationships between consenting adults. Seven years later, in 1986, sodomy laws in the U.S. were upheld by the Supreme Court (Bowers v. Hardwick). The penalty in some cases was life imprisonment. It wasn’t until 2003 — 24 years after Cuba — that same-sex relationships were decisively legalized in all 50 states (Lawrence v. Texas).
Legality in Cuba didn’t mean acceptance, however. Prejudice and discrimination continued. Like everywhere, LGBT people in Cuba have had to fight, and continue to. Things are improving now in Cuba as they are here. Cuba lags the United States on same-sex marriage, yet Cuba provides free sex change operations while transgendered people here are being banned from bathrooms by hostile lawmakers. Cuba has banned discrimination in employment since 2014 while in the U.S. efforts to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) have failed year after year. Now the proposed First Amendment Defense Act threatens to legalize wholesale discrimination against gays.
◼︎Culture. Next there’s culture. Cuba is part of Latin-America which has something of a reputation for its “machismo” tradition. I’m not an expert or even judging here, except to note that gays seem to have an extra hurdle to jump in cultures that emphasize heightened masculinity. Accounts I hear indicate this has been part of the challenge for gays in Cuba.
◼︎Politics. And finally politics. Cuba was very much influenced politically in the early years by Stalinism through its association and alliance with the Soviet Union. A detailed explanation and review of Stalinism is way beyond my scope here but some discussion is essential to understanding homophobia and gay oppression in Cuba.
When the Bolsheviks overthrew Czarist rule in Russia in 1917 one of their early acts was to abolish all laws against homosexuality and homosexual relationships. It remained that way for years until Joseph Stalin took power in a counter-revolution against the Bolsheviks and their Marxist program. Among the many horrible things Stalin did was to re-criminalize homosexuality.
The reasons for this counter-revolution are complex and were rooted in the specific regional and world situations at that time. The Soviet Union was then the first and only socialist revolution in existence. Being the only game in town this enabled Stalinism to masquerade as “socialism” and “Marxism” while in reality it’s a perversion of them. This continued for decades, and was still the case when the Soviet Union was in Cuba. This Stalinist influence on Cuba was, shall I say, not altogether positive — yet for a period Cuba’s alliance with the Soviet Union was critical to its defense and survival.
Eventually Fidel and the Cuban leadership came to see that the Soviet model was causing problems on many levels and began to move away from it. This began years before the Soviet Union collapsed.
Gays slowly benefited from this change. Fidel later came to understand the error in his prior attitude towards gays and the government’s treatment of LGBT people. He publicly acknowledged it and apologized in an interview with the Mexican newspaper La Jornada published in August 2010. The paper noted that it’s “known that among [Fidel’s] best and oldest friends there are homosexuals.”
These are a few excerpts translated to English:
[Fidel] thinks that everything was produced as a spontaneous reaction in the revolutionary ranks, which came from traditions. In previous Cuba, not only blacks were discriminated against: women and, of course, homosexuals were also discriminated against…
Who was, therefore, responsible, direct or indirect, for not putting a stop to what was happening in Cuban society? The Party? …
“No,” says Fidel. “If someone is responsible, it’s me… but anyway, if you have to assume responsibility, I assume mine. I’m not going to blame others…”
As this next video shows, criticism of Cuba’s past persecution persists in the country and not everyone is convinced of Fidel’s apology.
His conversion on this question may well have been a family affair as his married heterosexual niece, Mariela Castro Espin, has become a vocal champion of the LGBT community. As Raúl Castro’s daughter, Mariela has been in a unique position to press her father and uncle on the issue. She also now sits in the National Assembly of People’s Power where her voice and influence is even stronger.
These next videos look at the work of Mariela Castro and the progress being made today in Cuba on LGBT rights.
- This report by Chinese Central Television (CCTV America) reports on changing attitudes in Cuba on homosexuality and the work being done by Mariela Castro.
- This is a short filmed produced by the National Center for Sex Education (CENESEX) in Cuba, a government-funded organization that promotes LGBT rights. Mariela Castro is Director of CENESEX.
- Daily Xtra Online interviewed Mariela Castro.
…the past treatment of LGBT people in Cuba is disturbing. I don’t defend it but am pleased at least that things are now improving. Prejudice remains as was evident in the videos, but it is now being fought by the leadership the same as they continue the fight against racism and discrimination against women.
The Cuban Revolution didn’t settle all questions and create an instant perfect society. The revolution is a process as people fight to improve society and transform themselves in the process. Prejudices going back centuries can’t be extinguished in just a generation, or indeed several generations. Clearly we haven’t done it here. But Cuba has an advantage over our capitalist society. Profit has been eliminated — and with it a built-in motive to divide working people against each other by race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, or any other basis.
What’s Next for the Cuban Revolution?
This is a decision that should be left to the Cuban people alone without any interference from the outside — least of all the United States.
Cubans across the country are pledging to continue the revolution, expand it and go forward. This will take commitment and resolution because this could be a dangerous period for the country and its people. The U.S. has treated Cuba with unrelenting hostility. Cubans had the gaul and audacity to stand up for themselves and create the society they want in their own sovereign country. The U.S. has never reconciled itself and could try to exploit what it perceives as an “opportunity” to exert its will on the Cuban people.
What’s Next for the Cuban Revolution? It’s too early to tell what policies and actions President-Elect Trump will pursue, but his statements and tweets suggest that hostilities will continue. “If Cuba is unwilling to make a better deal for the Cuban people, the Cuban/American people and the U.S. as a whole, I will terminate deal,” he tweeted, referring to recent easing of pressure by President Obama.
Of course Trump means the same as all presidents have since 1959: “If Cuba is unwilling to make [the deal the United States wants] for the Cuban people… I will terminate the deal.”
Want More Information?
Cuba is an important country. It’s also complex and widely misunderstood here in the U.S. I find most people with strong opinions against Cuba have never read the speeches and writings by Fidel, Che or other Cuban leaders. They’ve never heard them talk beyond brief soundbites. They’ve never read any books or articles sympathetic to the revolution. All they’ve usually read or seen is criticism from the U.S. government, newspapers, magazines, radio and TV.
Even if some of this information has merit, one can’t form a reasoned opinion from hearing just one side of a debate. It probably never occurs to some that there even is another side. That’s a big reason I’ve written this post, been so thorough, included citations and tried to make it accessible with videos.
Pathfinder Press is a publishing house that concentrates on working class history and politics, both here and internationally. It publishes an extensive list of titles on Cuba, most written by Cubans in their own words including the speeches and writings of Fidel and Che. If you’ve never seen or read some of this first-hand information, I strongly encourage you to do so — especially this book:
Our History presents a readable and comprehensive overview of the Cuban Revolution — in their words, not mine. Only the Cubans themselves can truly and most accurately tell their story. For 60 years the U.S. government has been lying about Cuba. Many Americans have heard and read little else. The three generals here present a vivid and compelling picture of life in Cuba, both before and after the 1959 revolution. The book includes vivid photo signature pages, illustrations, and annotations.
“Armando Choy, Gustavo Chui, and Moisés Sío Wong — three young rebels of Chinese-Cuban ancestry — threw themselves into the great proletarian battle that defined their generation. They became combatants in the clandestine struggle and 1956–58 revolutionary war that brought down a U.S.-backed dictatorship and opened the door to the socialist revolution in the Americas. Each became a general in Cuba’s Revolutionary Armed Forces…. Here they talk about the historic place of Chinese immigration to Cuba, as well as more than five decades of revolutionary action and internationalism, from Cuba to Angola, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. Through their stories we see unfold the social and political forces that gave birth to the Cuban nation and continue to shape our epoch. We see how millions of ordinary men and women like them changed the course of history, becoming different human beings in the process.” – Pathfinder Press
Title image is by Ian Usher and used in compliance with Creative Commons restrictions. [License]
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