By Bumpy Walker
My cousin has died, been cremated and then interned next to the great Jose Marti. I am saddened. Since a teenager, I have claimed a less than true familial connection to Fidel Castro Ruiz. This connection is not based on personal relationship like that shared with his “son” former Prime Minister P.J. Patterson; rather, it is based on a shared “Gallego” (North West Spain) ancestry.
What has happened since former Cuban President Castro’s death is that there has been a split in international opinion. A majority, including myself, are saddened and feel that his achievements were laudable, but we rationalise his sins. The other minority view has highlighted his sins and minimised his achievements. It is striking though that the latter opinion is principally held by Cuban exiles that fled his regime and a significant group of Christian Yankees including The Donald. This minority have continued to characterise him as the devil incarnate, and seem to hope his post life reward is administered in a place warmer than a sunny summer day on a Cuban beach.
The twice blessed man
I was always struck by the Christian like iconography of Fidel Castro and his bearded revolutionary cohorts. He led a madcap invasion of their own country on board a leaky, barely seaworthy vessel the “Granma” packed with eighty two committed souls. The aim was to retrace the route of Jose Marti’s voyage in his attempt to lead the fight for Cuban independence in 1895. [i] The boat was forced to land at the wrong location, either by naval action or inept seamanship[ii] . Twelve men survived then headed for the hills to grow beards, overthrow a vicious dictatorship then brought peace, love and understanding across the nation. This achievement is often cited as being possible because the revolutionary regime nationalised land and industry.
It might surprising to some that Fidel has been lauded the Pope in person, but given that an achievement of the revolution, was that the nation with little could feed itself, that must have impressed inheritor of St Peter mantle. After all, his dogma claims that Jesus fed the 5000 with a few loaves and fishes, while Castro and his twelve cohorts ending up feeding a nation of millions solely with the fruit of their own labour without divine providence!
Who can forget the only time the secular saint Nelson Mandela ever appeared irritated by a question was when he was asked to defend his relationship with Fidel Castro by condescending Ken Adelman[iii]. Mandela articulated the best summary of how the Third World in general feels towards Castro and Cuba’s revolutionary movement. “Our attitude towards any country is determined by the attitude of that country towards our struggle!” Well-spoken Madiba! Well said!
Much admired, never copied
Cuba’s post revolution achievements are much advertised and still marketed by nostalgic remnants of the left. A poor nation that feeds itself, effectively eliminated illiteracy, instituted a universal health care system, free at point-of-use are unapologetically laudable. That a poor nation can produce a surplus of medical professionals and develop a pharmaceutical industry is remarkable.
That Fidel and his “Barbudos” could develop a political system which allowed a poor country to support other Third World countries with more than mere rhetoric the, is miraculous. The best example of this is the investment in treasure and men that Cuba made which prevented the South African apartheid regime forming client states as far north as the Congo River. The fact that many of Cuba’s social indicators are far superior to that of its more powerful northern neighbour is remarkable and is much admired. However admirable this may be, however, no other nation ever copied this template.
The juvenile- like adventure of “Che “ Guevara in the Congo, sponsored by the Cuban State, may have polarised politics in Africa for decades, similarly the Cuban flip flopping support between Somalia and Ethiopia in their dispute over the Ogaden are rarely discussed. Maybe it is easier to forgive a nation its faux pas, if it shares it scarce resources with as much generosity as Cuba does providing education, medical care and emergency aid to those less fortunate.
By my money the greatest contribution of Fidelismo was the international cultural impact of Cuban soft power. Brand Cuba, as it is now labelled by the marketing gurus: the first man of African descent in space, the multiple chess grandmasters, the breaking of the United States dominance of Olympic boxing in the 70’s and 80’s, all achievements from the bearded one’s political legacy. The Cuban ballet dancers, opera singers who were supported and trained by the state who can now be found in all the great companies worldwide too are part of this legacy.
The most profound tribute on Fidel was given by the greatest living ballet dancer, Carlos Acosta, who acknowledged the role that the Cuban state played in developing his talent. For once there is a Jamaican equivalency, as Willard White, the great Jamaican opera singer, has acknowledged the role that the support from the Jamaican Government gave to him as he trained in New York. What these cases prove is that investment in cultural pursuits, one of the ideas dear to the heart of Fidel’s Castro, has validity and will give as great a return on investment as the building of major physical infrastructure.
Jamaica’s technological contribution to Cuba
Often the tale is told as if the Jamaican-Cuban relationship is a one-way unreciprocated exchange. Yes Cuba built us Micro dams (One wonders if these are still functional? Many scoffed at them as they were being built, calling them mud holes), and the GC Foster, Jose Marti, Garvey Maceo schools. I recall that Jamaica had shared with Cuba, grazing grass technology, Jamaican Hope and Red Pole cattle genetic material and even our unique fruit the “Ugli”. This thus begs the question: Did Jamaica’s transfer of these ideas to Cuba add economic value to that nation’s development? After all, they have spent treasure to train many of our youth to be educators, engineers, medical professionals. Or is our only contribution to the Fidelismmo experiment merely the verbal fulminations of our politicians’ cooperating with the Cubans in international fora and for the most part being vocally resistant to the economic embargo against Cuba.
My understanding was that post revolution Cuban art was principally from a Eurocentric perspective; I am told that one of the impacts on Cuba from the post 70’s contact with Jamaica and Africa was a validation to those who held the reins of power of the idea that African inspired art has equal validity. It is interesting that Garvey’s ideas had been transmitted to Cuba in the early twentieth century yet little of his impact is discussed.
This is not to say that that Jamaican cultural iconography was accepted by the revolutionary government. [iv] Rastafari, were treated in, let us sa,y in a less than impartial manner. But who are we to complain, given our own history at Coral Gardens?
Revolutionary to Ras
As a child growing up in late 60’s and early 70’s Jamaica there was a sense Fidel’s Cuba was a god free zone supported by the even more godless Soviet Union. There seems to have been a cultural separation between us and our closest neighbour. This should not have happened.
Jamaica and Cuba are connected by geography, history, intermigration and families. After all, the Jamaicans went to Cuba to seek economic amelioration in the same manner, that in the late twenty century so many sought it in Canada or the United States.
Rita Marley and Hector Wynter, two of Jamaica’s central cultural figures, were born in Cuba. Hector Wynter whose time of the greatest impact was in the 1970’s had a surprisingly a balanced, nuanced view of the revolution led by Fidel, given his political party’s dislike of that regime in the 70’s. From a personal perspective, many of us Jamaicans had family members who migrated there. Personally, I am aware of Jamaican grand uncles who made the journey from Jamaica and disappeared, as well as a “Gallego” ancestor who went to Cuba to seek his fortune. I often wonder if their paths had crossed.
But even in the 70’s, before the opening of our eyes by our first contact with Fidel, there was still a shadow of a connection. One of the many memorable moments in the film, The harder They Come, was when Jimmy Cliff’s character, Ivan, when told he might be able to escape to communist Cuba, came up with line “Yes revolutionary to Rasssssss!”[v]
Like many Jamaicans, my first contact with Fidel Castro was via the radio. His speech at Sam Sharpe Square was broadcast live. His prose was striking; the power of the man came through. Even then I was puzzled by two comments that he made.
The first was the claim that he could see Jamaica from the Sierra Maestra. After all Jamaica is 90 miles from Cuba. Is that possible? The other was more profound, his comment that if had Cuba had had the Jamaica’s political system then there would have been no need for his revolution. That statement should be repeated ad nauseam; after all, 70 % of the electorate chose willingly not to participate in the recent local government election. If one admires Fidel, this is hardly a ringing endorsement of his political admiration.
His speech was a first-time acknowledgment of the shared common history, solidarity, if you will, of the Caribbean and Latin America. This was an acknowledgement that politically the Caribbean has had a shared common struggle for justice and equality. The narrative that Fidel struck is one that the South has challenges and the powers that be would rather maintain the status quo.
Separating idealistic self-serving myth from actual politics
Here is where there is a fundamental schism between the beliefs of my cousin and myself. The Westminster parliamentary system affords the concept of a loyal opposition. The idea that one can question the actions of a government and not be labelled a traitor, counter revolutionary, running dog, enemy of the state, enemy of the people, Kulak or useful idiot by one’s government is a powerful concept. A country needs an effective opposition as Nicole Gordon on RJR’s That’s a Rap espoused last Sunday. Cuba does not tolerate an organised opposition; this is a glaring failure of the system that came out of the Granma adventure.
This intolerance may seem a small thing but consider what this means in human cost, what a system of government can do if it lacks the restraint of opposing institutions. Consider the fate of Carlos Franqui, one of the “Barbudos “ who survived the Sierra Maestra , a populariser of the myth of the twelve, a close collaborator with the Fidel and other leaders. Once he broke with the revolution, his image was crudely erased from existing official pictures. Franqui then wrote:
I discover my photographic death.
Do I exist?
I am a little black,
I am a little white,
I am a little s**t,
On Fidel's vest.
The idealism of youth is needed to challenge what seems like immutable problems. Mandela did it so did my “cousin” Fidel. The danger is Fidel legacy could be crudely wiped from history like Franqui’s image.
[ii] https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=N9gBAwAAQBAJ&pg=PA297&dq=Family+Portrait+with+Fidel&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiH7oqhhMzQAhUHLcAKHSsqAcUQ6AEIUjAJ#v=onepage&q=Family Portrait with Fidel&f=false