Fidel Castro, who died on Friday at 90, was already controversial when he visited America for the second time in 1960.
A dispute with management at NYC’s Shelburne Hotel meant he had to find other accommodations. He and his fatigue-wearing comrades threatened to sleep in hammocks in Central Park.
The green gem in the middle of capitalism’s capitol never ended up turning red. Instead, Castro found refuge in Harlem, meeting with Malcolm X and other prominent African-American New Yorkers. There, he found support — or at least an open-minded welcome — from Americans who felt oppressed by the same system Castro railed against.
In later visits, he would return uptown, from Riverside Church to Jimmy’s Bronx Cafe, even as he was officially spurned by mayors downtown and presidents at the United Nations.
This dichotomy appears to have continued after his death, with establishment politicians decrying Castro’s human rights violations and autocratic control of what became a one-party state rather than the democratic revolution he at first promised. Little Havanas from Florida to New Jersey, home to Cuban immigrants and families, celebrated his demise. Yet dissenting voices interpret Castro differently.
Celebrating Castro’s revolution
On Sunday, the creators of the Black Lives Matter hashtag, which began circulating in 2013 after the death of Trayvon Martin, released a statement celebrating Castro’s revolution.
In New York City, some activists see Castro as a heroic figure.
Mike Bento, a prominent NYC activist who has taken part in protests against political figures, police brutality and the Dakota Access pipeline, to name a few, calls Castro a “great inspiration to those fighting for justice and liberation,” someone who “spit in the face of the American empire and lived to tell the story.”
That successful opposition — as a persistent thorn in the side of American presidents and CIA agents — is a large part of the appeal. But Bento also points to the positive aspects of Castro’s rule beyond exporting “guerilla tactics”: the support for “liberation struggles around the world,” notably in Angola where Cuban support helped oppose South African apartheid-era forces in 1975. (In that Cold War struggle, the United States was on the other side). The Nelson Mandela Foundation issued a statement noting Mandela’s fondness for Castro after the Cuban leader’s early support of the African National Congress.
Plus, the training and deployment of doctors, thousands of whom are sent around the world to aid in emergencies. That happened, for instance, during the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014, when Cuba at one point had the most doctors in the region.
Daniel Shaw, an adjunct lecturer in Latin American and Caribbean Studies at John Jay College and an organizer for the Party for Socialism and Liberation, says acts like those and Castro’s socialist organization led the “underdogs of the world” to revere him.
A complicated revolution
Both Shaw and Bento recognize some elements of the Cuban Revolution were negative.
Bento points to “serious failings” such as the jailing of political prisoners, treatment of gays and continuing racial inequalities. But both argue some of the intensity of Cuban repression was exaggerated in the United States due to Cuba’s contradictory stance — “David standing up against the imperialist Goliath,” says Shaw.
The punishment of political dissidents continues to the present, however, spawning Cuba’s own protest movements such as the Ladies in White.
After the last dance of world leaders who will have to navigate the attendance or shunning of the dictator’s funeral, it will be left to historians to hash out Castro’s crimes versus the benefits of his efforts. In New York City, Shaw says the Party for Socialism and Liberation will hold a forum in Castro’s honor on Friday.
Bento says Castro’s revolution can provide lessons for activists here: “Stay true to the idea of breaking inequality and building justice.” And, that opposition will be “a fight” that demands a changing of the old political regime.