August 13, 2021 marks what would have been Fidel Castro’s 95th birthday. Like many (if not most) people born in the United States, I grew up knowing little about Castro other than what those who would have seen him killed drummed into my head. This Fidel was nothing short of a monster, a bloodthirsty tyrant and dictator who ruled over poor Cuba with an iron fist. As I recall, I didn’t have a Miami-level commitment to this perception, although I must have absorbed it passively as is the custom with anti-communist propaganda in this country. My first real encounter with the man, as opposed to the almost demonic legend, came in high school when I first read “My Life,” the spoken autobiography he created with the Spanish journalist Ignacio Ramonet. The Fidel Castro I met in this book bore little resemblance to the Fidel Castro I was taught to despise.
Over the course of this massive book (if nothing else, comrade Fidel was a world-historical talker with a prodigious memory), I was struck by a number of things that still resonate with me today, nearly fifteen years later. These realizations helped me understand why he was so despised in and by the United States. First, his intelligence and command of history. Second, his clear love for Cuba and the Cuban people. Third, his willingness to practice and not just preach internationalism. These qualities made for a figure far removed from the tinpot despot created by the US government and reactionary media. Allowing for the limits of such a text, I was also impressed by Castro’s honesty, namely his willingness to accept fault for both both personal mistakes and errors of the Communist Party. For example, he took responsibility for discrimination against gay Cubans, which he condemned in forceful terms, as well as other forms of chauvinism rooted in centuries of colonialism and imperialism, such as sexism towards women. He also acknowledged that despite making great steps since the segregated hell of the Batista years, the revolution hasn’t done enough for Afro-Cubans yet. To me, these admissions illustrated a critical capacity for all human beings, but especially revolutionaries: the ability to progress and develop, personally and politically.
Like everyone who lives such a long and historically influential life, Fidel made his share of mistakes, some of which I alluded to above. As my politics developed, and particularly as I became a Marxist-Leninist-Maoist, I began to establish a better, clearer sense of what those mistakes were and why he and other Cuban revolutionaries made them, as well as the contemporary challenges Cuba faces.
But when we take the measure of a human being who has passed on (and therefore no longer has an opportunity to grow, or be held accountable) we must add up the good, the bad, and the in-between. In my estimation, comrade Fidel left this world far better than he came to it. This is the key. His contributions and the contributions of the Cuban people in the fight against colonialism, apartheid, and imperialism in Africa are almost enough to cement his legacy in and of themselves. There’s a reason why he took the time to meet with Malcolm X when he came to Harlem, and why Nelson Mandela visited Cuba and Castro shortly after his release from prison. At great cost and risk, Fidel and the largely Black Cuban masses took up the gun, the book, and the doctor’s bag and fought a righteous struggle against white South African aggression and US-European imperialism. Despite popular belief, this was not done in slavish obedience to Soviet social imperialism. On the contrary, this was a Cuban initiative. For those of us who not only support Black and Pan-African liberation, but hold it up as a principle political goal, this achievement alone will do much to help history absolve Fidel Castro and the Cuban Revolution.
The revolution he helped lead at home produced exceptional achievements in education, women’s liberation, Black liberation, housing, science, and, of course, medical technology and health care, with special acknowledgement for LGBTQ+ people’s health. These achievements are all the more notable because they were made right under the nose of the most dangerous empire the world has ever seen, on an island nation with relatively modest natural resources, in the heart of the Cold War. As we saw on July 11, most Cubans support these gains, no matter the meddling of the CIA, the pressures of the US blockade, and the missteps of the Cuban government. Fidel Castro outlasted twelve Amerikan presidents, and thumbed his nose at the Yankee giant until the very end. For all this and more, I salute him.
In closing, we must see Fidel Castro as not a god, not a devil, but a man: a man of his time and social conditions. As historical and dialectical materialists, we must assess the world and the people who populate it as they are, not as we wish them to be. What this means is understanding and accepting the ability of human beings to grow and change, to be creatures of contradiction and motion. Fidel Castro shared those attributes as well as any of us. On his 95th birthday, may his life stand as an example to all revolutionaries, and may he rest in peace.