Afro-Cubans, and some black Americans, mourn the death of Fidel Castro
He helped African countries break free of colonialism during Nelson Mandela’s life
On Sunday, Fidel Castro’s ashes were buried in a cemetery on the edge of Santiago de Cuba, a city that is to Cuba what Harlem is to New York.
The remains of the 90-year-old revolutionary were interred near the tomb of Jose Marti, a white journalist and poet who led Cuba’s 19th century fight for independence from Spain. Marti is considered the father of the Cuban nation.
Burying Castro close to Marti is, no doubt, intended to equate the communist leader who ruled Cuba with an iron fist for 49 years to Marti, who in just 42 years of life came to be called the Apostle of Cuban independence.
But for many people of African descent in Cuba and elsewhere, Castro’s burial in the Santa Ifigenia Cemetery – which is named for a black saint and is also the final resting place for Mariana Grajales Coello, the mother of Antonio Maceo – might have a deeper meaning.
Maceo was the black general who led an interracial army during much of Cuba’s 30-year fight for independence from Spain. He was ambushed and killed in 1896. His simultaneous battle against colonialism and slavery won Maceo the admiration of Frederick Douglass, who urged African-Americans to go to Cuba to fight alongside him.
That didn’t happen. The promise of racial equality in Cuba died with Maceo. What emerged in 1902 following the end of Spanish rule and a four-year U.S. occupation was a cauldron of racial tensions that dashed the hopes of Afro-Cubans, and of African-Americans who hoped the island might be an escape from America’s gnawing racism.
“The disorders in Cuba … were the result of a color line created in part” by the puppet president the United States installed “and by the settling of prejudiced Americans in Cuba after the Spanish-American War,” the Cleveland Gazette, a leading black newspaper in Ohio, said in 1906.
When thousands of Afro-Cubans were massacred six years later during an insurrection led by black veterans of Cuba’s independence war, many black U.S. newspapers blamed the American government’s heavy-handed involvement in Cuban affairs. The bloodshed, the Philadelphia Tribune said in May 1912, was “the yield of the harvest from the seed of race prejudice” that was fueled by the earlier U.S. occupation of Cuba.
When Castro left his exile in Mexico in 1956 to relaunch his revolution against the right-wing dictator Fulgencio Batista, that racism still festered in Cuba.
“When I first went into the Sierra Maestra [mountain], 80 percent of my army was black,” Castro told me during a six-hour dinner meeting in February 1999. “I told them, if they followed me, I would fulfill the dream of Jose Marti and Antonio Maceo.”
That history – and his response to it – has shaped the perception many people of African descent have of Castro, who declared an end to racial discrimination on the island shortly after coming to power. “That is a resounding and important declaration,” John Sengstacke, the publisher and editor of the Chicago Defender, one of America’s leading black newspapers, wrote days later, in January 1960.
Not surprisingly, Afro-Cubans gave Castro an overwhelming embrace. “Black people are my strongest supporters,” he told me in 1999. But it was an admission that he seemed to struggle with over the remaining years of his life.
Education, health care and other reforms brought about relative improvement in the lives of many Afro-Cubans who even now are rarely found among those who leave the island for Florida. “Most of the people who fled to Miami are white; most of the people on this island are of African descent. This is so for a good reason,” Ruben Remigio, the black man who heads Cuba’s Supreme Court, told me in 2002.
Remigio went to law school after Castro came to power. His older siblings had no opportunity to get the education they needed to advance beyond the menial jobs that most Afro-Cubans were locked into during Batista’s regime.
Many of the Afro-Cubans I’ve encountered in Cuba over the last 17 years credit Castro for providing them greater opportunities, even if they haven’t always resulted in a markedly better life. They largely blame that shortfall on the lingering vestiges of racism at home, and the half-century-old economic embargo that the United States continues to impose on Cuba.
To many people of African descent outside of Cuba, Castro was seen as the leader of a poor country that sent 40,000 soldiers to Africa to help free Angola and Namibia from the grip of South Africa’s apartheid government – an action that speeded up Nelson Mandela’s release from prison.
And much to the chagrin of his enemies in south Florida’s Cuban American community, Castro is revered by many blacks in the United States for the lifesaving work of the Cuban doctors he dispatched to Africa, the Caribbean and South America.
While his American critics took to the streets of Miami to celebrate Castro’s death, blacks throughout Africa and the Northern Hemisphere remember him as a man who, Mandela said, “destroyed the myth of the invincibility of the white oppressor.”
For them, his burial in Santiago de Cuba’s Santa Ifigenia Cemetery is a fitting end for Fidel Castro.