Before you read further, take a look at this luminous photograph of Cubans massed together in Havana’s Plaza of the Revolution.
The picture was taken Tuesday evening, when senior members of Cuba’s government were joined by foreign leaders to pay posthumous tribute to Fidel Castro, following his death last Friday night. The Cuban and foreign officials, seated in places of honor at the José Martí Memorial, are indistinguishable in this shot.
Commanding our attention instead are thousands of Cubans crowded into an image that is at once familiar but also different. The picture is a celebration by citizens who’ve come to their national square of their own accord. The Cubans who came alone or with friends, the families who assembled with their children, stayed long into the night as part of the first mobilization of the post-Fidel Castro era, as if inhabiting this very public space for the first time.
Poor Justin Trudeau. Canada’s Prime Minister, by issuing a statement expressing sorrow at former President Castro’s death, stepped way out of line. He was promptly denounced by Breitbart.com, which, enjoying its new role as an informal extension of U.S. state media, called him a “pretty little liar.” The Washington Post deployed its fact-checkers to challenge the Prime Minister’s tributes to Cuba’s systems of education and health. Others joined them, decrying Trudeau’s failure to toe the party’s line.
If Canada’s Prime Minister failed to read the memo on how to memorialize Fidel Castro’s passing, so did China’s President Xi Jinping. He visited Cuba’s embassy in Beijing on Thursday, and said in a statement that Castro was a “great friend of the Chinese people.” Pope Francis wrote President Raúl Castro and said “I express my sentiments of sorrow to Your Excellency and other family members of the deceased dignitary, as well as to the people of this beloved nation.” In Russia, more than 50,000 tweets were recorded on the subject of Fidel Castro’s death.
Many U.S. policymakers live in a black-and-white world, seeing Fidel Castro’s place in Cuba’s history, as President-elect Trump described it, as “a brutal dictator who oppressed his own people for nearly six decades.” But that is ironic, to say the least.
At the end of a campaign marked by so many people saying to themselves that they didn’t see Donald Trump coming, it might do him and all of us good to step beyond our carefully curated bubbles and spend a moment listening to what a broader audience of interested parties – especially Cubans on the island and in the diaspora – is saying about the late president of Cuba and Cuba’s future.
Yes, it’s true, as the Miami Herald reported, that news of Fidel Castro’s demise caused thousands of Cuban Americans to dance, sing, and honk their car horns to celebrate his death. It’s true, as the Associated Press wrote, that “as Cuba silently bid farewell to Castro’s ashes Wednesday, an ice cream shop in Miami’s Little Havana district was selling ‘go to Hell Fidel,’ a mix of chocolate with red peppers.”
But there were also shades of grey.
As Michelle González Maldonado, a scholar of religion at the University of Miami, wrote, “when I heard the news of Cuban leader Fidel Castro’s death, I did not feel any sense of sadness, relief or joy. Instead, as a daughter of Cuban exiles, I experienced a mix of all those emotions.”
Achy Obejas, the celebrated Cuban writer who lives in the U.S., wrote in the New York Times about her cousins in Miami heading to the streets to chant for a free Cuba; about an ex-girlfriend who grew up in Cuba and who stated “I feel nothing.” And about her father, who loathed Fidel Castro but identified with him because of how “Fidel had outsmarted so many American presidents, and how Fidel had cunningly dodged all those assassination attempts.”
In Cuba, the mourning for Castro, the New York Times reported, “reached near-religious peaks of public adulation.” Some of the mourners, holding his picture, flowers, and the Cuban flag, were part of the older generation that is the backbone of support for the revolution. But Tim Padgett interviewed a young woman who didn’t quite fit that mold.
Marianela Pérez, he wrote, “is an independent Cuban entrepreneur who owns Pizzanella, a popular paladar, or private restaurant, in Havana’s Playa district. So why would a model capitalist like her mourn the passing of Fidel Castro, whose dictatorial communist rule railed against free enterprise?” “I’m one of many people who thank the Cuban Revolution for the education and other benefits that prepared me to run a business,” Pérez told Padgett. “I don’t consider that a contradiction.”
Reuters tells the story of Roberto, a 29-year-old engineer who earns $25 a month and only gets by on his state salary by doing odd jobs. “We´d like to have more freedoms, to be able to surf the internet, to have better wages. But there are values stemming from the revolution that no-one wants to lose, like free health and education.”
Nick Miroff of The Washington Post wandered El Romerillo after Fidel Castro’s death, and reported on the Cubans who lived in what he called “the socialist slums of Fidel Castro’s Cuba,” where there are no gangs or guns, and virtually no drugs. “Cubans have a special term for this sort of cradled existence,” he wrote: ‘tranquilidad social,’ which means something like ‘social peace’ but also law and order, a rare thing in a region with some of the highest crime rates in the world.”
When President-elect Trump tweeted this week, “If Cuba is unwilling to make a better deal for the Cuban people, the Cuban/American people and the US as a whole, I will terminate (the) deal,” these were the voices we heard, and wondered – who is he actually speaking for?
Not Deymar Rodríguez, a 24-year-old schoolteacher, who told the Wall Street Journal, “If Obama’s promises are stopped, it would hurt us a lot. They gave us hope that we could travel, have jobs that pay decent wages and lead a better life.”
Not Elaine Díaz, who wrote in The Guardian this week of the two points that get general agreement among the vast majority of Cubans: “the U.S. should return Guantánamo to Cuba and the embargo must be lifted.”
Not the great many Cubans, as Jon Lee Anderson wrote in The New Yorker, “Who are not communists but who are proud nationalists, and who, whatever their feelings about Fidel or his brother, will take umbrage at Trump’s casual antagonisms.”
We write these things because they need to be recorded and remembered. Admittedly, they are subtleties, and perhaps they have no place in the 140-character world we all seem to be about to enter.
In the days before his inauguration, we hope the new president – before acting to implement his Cuba policy – will look at that picture of Revolutionary Square. He as much as anyone should be able to appreciate the possibilities that reside in people occupying public spaces as if for the first time, as the Cuban people, in all their complexity, gather and ponder their future.
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