Aja Monet: Fidel Castro was neither a saint nor the devil.

Aja Monet
Aja Monet

Aja Monet is a Brooklyn-born Afro-Cuban poet who recently relocated to Miami and co-founded Smoke Signals, a community space for local artists.

The White American sociopolitical climate is one of extreme polarities: Democrat or Republican, guilty or non-guilty, white or black, gay or straight, citizen or immigrant.

Black people don’t actually live in that binary world. We live in the contradictions beyond the norm. We know the truth about this country and we have learned to survive the lies it tells about itself. We understand intimately the contradictions and complexities of America, and yet we are forced to reckon with its colonial past and present.

I am a black woman with Afro-Cuban roots and I live with the perspectives of my grandparents who fled from Cuba in 1961 after the Cuban Revolution as well as those who were left behind. I have family members old enough to remember Fulgenico Batista’s Cuba, who lived during the Revolution, and those who only know Cuba after Fidel’s arrival.  I have blood relatives who fought for the Revolution and others who fought against it. I have a grand-aunt with blond hair, pale skin, and blue eyes and an uncle with brown eyes, dark skin, and thick curls. Our family is a myriad of racial identities, sexualities, and cultural politics. All of their perspectives are true and none of them are true at the same time.

To some, Castro is a saint, as if he can do no wrong. To others Castro is the devil to blame for all that is wrong. But there are many who believe he is neither.

Fidel was merely a man and he stood up to one of the most brutal superpowers in this world. We cannot attribute Cuba’s accomplishments to Fidel and it’s failures to the US without mentioning the racial divisions and diversity among the Cuban people and it’s history of slavery, conquest, and revolution.

The politics of race and class in the Caribbean are different than those in the US, but they’re predicated on the same beliefs of white supremacy that we know here in the US.  There were many white Cubans who did not want a Revolution. They fled to the US and they worked their way up in the racial ranks of America. Many of them wish they could make Cuba great again, too. When they ask for American compassion over their loss of privilege and economic mobility, it is white America who gives it.

However, there are countless other Cubans (black, mulatto, and immigrant) who fought beside Fidel against Batista’s regime, only to be silenced, imprisoned, or murdered for conflicting ideas or challenging authority after the revolution.

Fidel Castro’s radical politics so revered by revolutionaries across the globe is not a Cuban anomaly.  He comes from a rich history of revolutionary thought on race, class, gender, and political education. Fidel comes after Mariana Grajales Coello, Antonio Maceo, Jose Marti and countless others who helped to shape his views. Cubans have historically tried to reckon with their history of slavery and colonialism by fighting for equality. Fidel praised their words but often failed to live by them in action.

The measure of Fidel’s leadership does not merely rest on literacy rates, infant mortality, or the number of doctors exported, and not on how many African liberation movements he aided. The true measure of his leadership is reflected in the people. Fidel’s leadership should be measured by poor people’s power to organize around the nuance of their experiences in Cuba. How are the weakest and most vulnerable treated and respected in Cuba? Who is silenced and who chooses silence? Where does Cuba begin and Fidel end?

Castro once said history will absolve him. Maybe it will and maybe it won’t. As for the repression of voices and rights, his rule was vicious and patriarchal. He became what he loathed trying to fight what he hated.

And yet, we must not absolve the United States.  The US embargo must be remembered as an assault on the poor people and black people of Cuba and their right to self-determination. The United States staged more than  600 CIA assassination attempts, which created a state of extreme paranoia for Fidel. By extension he governed never trusting his administration or even the Cuban people.

It must not go lost on us that the people are the true power of Cuba not Fidel.  Americans are conditioned to believe that the lives they lead are the lives of freedom, democracy, and justice. There are those of us who know better. There are those of us who live in the nuance and contradiction. There is the history that white supremacy will tell about itself and there’s the story we will tell about ourselves.

We are multi-dimensional people. We don’t live in the binaries.  The people loved Fidel when he loved them. It was the people who fought beside him and protected him, so it is the people of Cuba who reserve the right to hold him accountable to his leadership. I cannot speak for all the unspoken truths of our stories. For many, Fidel’s Cuba was a lifetime of silences, false hopes, broken families, and warring politics. But as I reflect on the life and death of Fidel, I am reminded of something my grandmother once told me: there is no such thing as good or evil, there is only justice.

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