Revolutionary Road: Navigating Fidel Castro’s Polarizing Legacy

Then-Cuban President Fidel Castro arrives in Santa Elena de Uairen, Venezuela, on Aug. 13, 2001.

President Fidel CastroEl Jefe, El Comandante—the iconic Cuban leader whom the U.S. government has relentlessly vilified between attempts to assassinate him, is now dead. And as with most loved and loathed figures, fiery debates over how he should be remembered have sprung to life.

In the cacophony of almost bestial glee and deep mourning that has emerged since, only one thing is for certain:

Generations from now, when conflicting tales are told of terrorists and freedom fighters, dictators and guerrillas, rebels and cowards, Castro’s name will echo far and wide along with one word: Revolution. Ugly, bloody, flawed, triumphant revolution.


"Revolutionaries didn't choose armed struggle as the best path; it's the path that oppressors imposed on people," Castro said in the 1967 anti-war film Far From Vietnam. "So people have only two choices: to suffer or to fight."

And fight he did.

One cannot even begin to understand the complexity that is Castro without first understanding dictator Fulgencio Batista (pdf), a cruel, bloodthirsty, power-hungry man who rained terror down on the people of Cuba before ultimately being overthrown in 1959 by Castro; Castro's brother and Cuba’s current president, Raúl; Che Guevara; and their guerrilla comrades during the Cuban Revolution.


The U.S. government considered Batista, with his propensity for violence and the widespread corruption and police brutality under his regime, a friend.

Dr. Alberto Jones, a retired veterinary pathologist, renowned writer and researcher, who barely survived Batista’s Cuba, did not hesitate to call Batista’s Service of Intelligence Military officers “henchmen” and “monsters” who incited terror across Cuba.


“There were some places that young people could not go past sundown,” he told me. “Parents knew that if Batista’s monsters caught them, they might not be seen again. Young people accused of being a part of the Cuban Revolution were tortured. Young boys, if they were seen wearing black and red, the colors of the Revolution, they would be questioned. And when they said they knew nothing, because many of them did not, their genitals were cut off and stuffed inside of their mouths.

"Males suffered the bulk of the torture and murders," Jones continued. "Torture of choice for supposed leaders was to rip out their eyes and fingernails. Some females had heated metal objects introduced into their genitalia."


“One of these monsters was dating a close friend of my family, and when he would come to our home, people would shiver,” Jones added. “I survived Batista. There are some of my friends that did not.”

Alberto Jones in Memories of Crossing Borders: Alberto Jones and Guantánamo, Cuba
GuantÁnamo Public Memory Project

The iconic black and red colors of the Cuban Revolution were first, and remain, the colors of Elegguá (Elegba), the Santeria orisha who is “owner of all roads, crossroads and doors,” the disruptive changer of fate and provider of opportunity. When Castro and his band of revolutionaries proudly flew their red-and-black M-26-7 flags—in remembrance of the July 26, 1953, uprising at Batista’s Moncada Barracks in Santiago de Cuba—many Santeria followers believed that Elegguá was guiding and protecting his every footstep.

And when Castro was placed on trial for that first failed overthrow of Batista, he was not sorry:

From a shack in the mountains on Monday, July 27th, I listened to the dictator's voice on the air while there were still 18 of our men in arms against the government. Those who have never experienced similar moments will never know that kind of bitterness and indignation. While the long-cherished hopes of freeing our people lay in ruins about us, we heard those crushed hopes gloated over by a tyrant more vicious, more arrogant than ever. The endless stream of lies and slanders, poured forth in his crude, odious, repulsive language, may only be compared to the endless stream of clean young blood which had flowed since the previous night—with his knowledge, consent, complicity and approval—being spilled by the most inhuman gang of assassins it is possible to imagine. To have believed him for a single moment would have sufficed to fill a man of conscience with remorse and shame for the rest of his life. At that time, I could not even hope to brand his miserable forehead with the mark of truth which condemns him for the rest of his days and for all time to come. Already a circle of more than a thousand men, armed with weapons more powerful than ours and with peremptory orders to bring in our bodies, was closing in around us. Now that the truth is coming out, now that speaking before you I am carrying out the mission I set for myself, I may die peacefully and content. So I shall not mince my words about those savage murderers.


One of the most common criticisms leveled against Castro was his use of firing squads. What is often purposely left out of this narrative is that, overwhelmingly, those who were executed were Batista’s henchmen. And hundreds of witnesses and survivors of their violence told their stories during trials that riveted Cuba.

When asked at the time had he changed his mind about the executions, Castro said, “No. To the contrary, we have given orders to shoot every one of these murderers.”


José Perez, 47, a Cuban-American activist, scholar, writer and unapologetic Castro supporter residing in Miami, placed the executions in a context painfully familiar to black people in the United States: "They were the killers of Trayvon Martin and Sandra Bland and Tamir Rice, et al., who were getting away with murder, rape and torture—until 1959."

The Stanford Daily, Volume 134, Issue 58, Jan. 15, 1959

And it was these Batista supporters, primarily white Cubans, who fled to Miami to escape Castro’s revolutionary justice. Over the following decades, more white Cubans—outraged by forced equality, the end to racial segregation and the Ku Klux Klan Kubano, and health care and education provided to Afro-Cubans under Castro following the toppling of Batista—joined them, and anti-Castro propaganda flooded the U.S. airwaves.

As Naomi Glassman wrote in her 2011 report, “Revolutionary Racism: Afro-Cubans in an Era of Economic Change”:

When Castro first came to power in Cuba, the Afro‑Cuban population was disproportionately poor and marginalized, lacking sufficient medical care, social services and educational opportunities. Castro believed that such overt racism was in direct conflict with his commitment to social justice and equality and passed policies to desegregate beaches, parks, work sites and social clubs. He outlawed all forms of legal and overt discrimination, including discrimination in employment and education. Castro also worked to increase the number of Afro-Cuban political representatives, with the percentage of Black members on the Council of State expanding from 12.9% in 1976 to 25.8% by 2003.

Castro’s redistributive social and economic reforms had a positive and measurable impact on the quality of life for Afro‑Cubans. The government’s great achievements in extending education and medical benefits to all Cubans have narrowed racial disparities in life expectancy and matriculation rates.


“Cuba is not a paradise,” Jones told me. “But Castro came in and leveled the playing field.”

Cuban Prime Secretary of the Cuban Communist Party and President of the State Council Fidel Castro addresses crowd in the 1970s in Havana.
OFF/AFP/Getty Images

When it comes to Castro, some people saw a charismatic liberator where others saw a cruel dictator. So it should come as no surprise that wealthy white Cubans fled Cuba after Batista’s fall.

As Pennsylvania Democratic state Rep. Brian Sims is quoted as saying, "When you're accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression."


Because of the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966, the huge wave of Cuban exiles were heavily prioritized and typically became U.S. citizens within one year or were on a clear pathway to it. The 1995 “wet foot/dry foot” revision stipulated that any Cubans who made it to dry land in the United States would be allowed to stay and gain expedited citizenship.

Cubans “caught” at sea who expressed no fear of persecution would be deported, but the special immigration status for Cubans remains in effect. This, of course, has not been the case for Haitian immigrants, who have been deported in record numbers with no fanfare; nor has this fast track been available to other Latinx immigrants, who have been subjected to escalating night raids, detentions and deportations.


Though "wet foot/dry foot" has been framed as humanitarian policy to protect Cubans fleeing Castro, many view it as a transparent attempt to further demonize him.

The most high-profile and controversial case was that of Elian Gonzalez, who as a 6-year-old in 2000 was discovered clinging to a boat in the Florida Straits after his mother died en route to Miami. His father back in Cuba demanded his return. Today Gonzalez, now 22 years old, calls Castro his father and friend, and vows that his legend will live on.


According to Pew Research (pdf), “60% of Cubans are U.S. citizens, more than double the rate for other Hispanics (26%) and higher than for non-Hispanic, foreign-born whites (56%). About nine out of every 10 Cubans who arrived before 1990 are U.S. citizens. Among those who arrived between 1980 and 1990, 60% are citizens and among those who arrived after 1990 18% are citizens.”


There’s a reason for that—or, at the very least, a clear correlation.

“During the Cuban migration of the 1980s, there were more Afro-Cubans coming to Miami,” said Jones. “The economy in Cuba, like many countries, was bad, and when you hear on the radio Michael Jackson and other wealthy black people have millions of dollars, Afro-Cubans left to create a better live for themselves, a life [that], they were told, was waiting for them in the U.S.”


Predictably, the influx of Afro-Cubans was not met with the same reception given to the white Cubans who came before. Castro’s—and Batista’s—shadows had traveled the 90 miles to Florida.

“White Cubans were treated with the greatest respect, and jobs in the hospitality industry that were usually reserved for black Americans were given to them,” Jones said. “That changed the economic landscape for black Americans in Miami, and many of them had to go on welfare as they became second-class citizens to white Cubans.


“White Cubans were not welcoming to black Cubans, and black Cubans were not really welcome in African American communities,” Jones added.

Why would that be?

Some Afro-Cubans arrived with criticism of Castro and Cuba, which was now experiencing regression and stunted growth because of the collapse of its relationship with the Soviet Union and a tightening U.S. embargo. “That placed some black Cubans at odds with African Americans,” Jones said.


“It was known that Castro supported Nelson Mandela and the destruction of apartheid, and had deep and mutual respect for Malcolm X and black freedom fighters like the Black Panthers, so he had great support in those communities,” he added.

In the U.S., Afro-Cubans, “they were invisible,” Jones continued, “not really jibing anywhere with anyone.”

South African President Nelson Mandela (right) greets Cuban leader Fidel Castro as he arrives for the opening of the 12th Non-Aligned Movement summit in Durban, South Africa, on Sept. 2, 1998. 

Back on the island, they were also disproportionately affected as structural racism, which was never fully exterminated, began to regenerate.


Because of the white supremacist capitalist structure of the United States, Cubans who accessed whiteness were able to save and send remittances back to families in Cuba, while Afro-Cubans in the U.S. weren’t afforded that luxury.

“Many black Cubans, few in number compared to white Cubans, faced the same racial discrimination that black Americans faced, so they didn’t have the money to send back home,” Jones said. “So what you saw was a replication of what was going on in the U.S. in Cuba.”


This is not to suggest that love and hatred for Castro falls strictly along racialized lines, but race—along with class, religious and political affiliations—most certainly plays a huge role.

Human rights violations played another.

One of the key cornerstones of a free society is a free press. Castro knew this and Article 53 of the Cuban Constitution (pdf), affirms it.


Still, the constitution’s language protects the flow of information from corporate interests, while insisting that critiques of the government do not call for its overthrow. For some journalists, then, repression of free press was arguably a defining—if unspoken—characteristic of Cuba.

Cuba’s Black Spring, those dark days in 2003 when Castro ordered the arrests and imprisonment of 75 political dissidents—writers, artists and activists—cannot and should not be ignored. The last of the 75 political prisoners were released in 2011.


LGBTQ communities were persecuted as “counterrevolutionaries” in the 1960s and ’70s after Castro rose to power, and many of them were forced to work in Military Units to Support Production, or UMAP. Though Castro reportedly spoke on the male chauvinism and homo-antagonism that permeated the Cuban Revolution as early as 1992, it was his statements in 2010 that gained the most attention.

Taking full responsibility for “the great injustice,” Castro, in an interview with Mexican newspaper La Jornada, said that he believed that the LGBTQ community faced discrimination on a par with black people and heterosexual and cisgender women. “If anyone is responsible [for the persecution of the LGBTQ community], it's me. I'm not going to place the blame on others,” he said.


Castro's niece Mariela Castro recently led the biggest Pride march in Cuba's history on the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia.

The director of the Cuban National Center for Sex Education, or CENESEX, Mariela Castro (center), the daughter of President Raúl Castro, participates in a march against homophobia in Havana on May 10, 2014. 

Castro also engaged in a political war with the Catholic Church. He suppressed freedom of religion after priests—and their upper- to middle-class congregants (pdf)—pushed back against the Communist state and the nationalization of church and individual properties. In response, he declared Cuba an atheist nation.

Many of these wealthy Catholic Cubans fled to Miami in the 1960s during the new dawn of the revolution. In 1991, Castro revised the Cuban Constitution to read that the nation was no longer atheist but secular. In response, religious freedom is returning to the island—even more so in the wake of Castro’s formation of a relationship with Pope Francis.


But the Cuban demographic, for now, at least, appears to be firmly entrenched.

Today, 62 percent of Cubans who live in the island nation identity as Afro-Cubans, while an estimated 86 percent of Cuban Americans (pdf) identify as white.


When the news broke that Castro had died at 90, mostly white Cuban Americans flocked to the streets of Miami’s Little Havana in jubilation. According to Pew Research, 54 percent of Cuban Americans in Florida voted for Trump—compared with 26 percent of other Latinx Americans—and some of them wore Trump paraphernalia to celebrate Castro’s death.


And while many Cuban Americans in Little Havana salsaed with the Grim Reaper, Fidelistas in Havana immediately fell into waves of grief.

"For me, it's my mother first, my children, my father, then Fidel," father of five Rafael Urbay, 60, said to "We weren't just poor; we were wretched," he said. "Then came Fidel and the revolution. He gave me my humanity. I owe him everything."


“Losing Fidel is like losing a father—the guide, the beacon of this revolution,” said Michel Rodriguez, a 42-year-old baker.

Car washer Marco Antonio Diez, 20, was out dancing in Havana when he heard the news: “The music suddenly stopped.”


The love for El Jefe is clear, but love is often messy and complicated. Yes, he caused irrevocable harm to many people; he also transformed a nation and pointed it toward socialist justice with racial and economic equity at the center.

Photo taken in the 1960s of Argentine guerrilla leader Ernesto Che Guevara meeting with then-Cuban Prime Minister Fidel Castro
AFP/Getty Images

These things must co-exist.

Castro ushered in an age of gender equality (pdf) that, while not perfect, positions more women in power—and with more extensive education—than in the United States.


Cuba’s literacy rate is right above 99 percent, while the United States hovers at around 86 percent. Infant mortality rates in Cuba are lower than in the United States, and life expectancy is higher. Although criticisms of Cuba’s health care system—from long lines to be seen by doctors to substandard medical facilities—have arguably stripped the nation of its model health care status, each neighborhood in Cuba has a doctor.

And, unlike the United States—where privatized health care means that the money is in the illness, not the cure—Cuba focuses on prevention. Most impressive, the nation’s doctors remain world-renowned and have traveled the globe providing medical care.


It makes sense, then, that in a 2002 interview with Barbara Walters, Castro made it clear that the United States should sweep around its own front door instead of worrying about his.

In October 1965, the Cuban Communist Party, or PCC, replaced the United Party of the Socialist Revolution as the only political party in Cuba. But Castro, a self-identified Marxist-Leninist, still defined Cuba as a socialist state (pdf).


“You say that socialism doesn't work here,” said El Comandante to Walters. “I say that capitalism doesn't work in America.”

To be clear, capitalism also hasn’t worked in Cuba.

Cuban President Raúl Castro (right) raises U.S. President Barack Obama's hand during a meeting at the Revolution Palace in Havana on March 21, 2016.

To combat Cuba’s struggling economy, which worsened during the “Special Period” following the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989, Castro put the socialist nation on the free market. Increased tourism has led to more privatized employment opportunities—employment opportunities that go mostly to white Cubans. It is the reason that a taxicab driver shuttling tourists can earn more than a doctor in Cuba saving lives.

This served as a reminder that racism and capitalism are not merely interlocking structures; they are also contagious diseases.


As Castro said in 2010:

I am not claiming that our country is a perfect model of equality and justice. We believed at the beginning that when we established the fullest equality before the law and complete intolerance for any demonstration of sexual discrimination in the case of women, or racial discrimination in the case of ethnic minorities, these phenomena would vanish from our society. It was some time before we discovered that marginality and racial discrimination with it are not something that one gets rid of with a law or even with 10 laws, and we have not managed to eliminate them completely in 40 years.


But he never, ever stopped trying—by any means necessary.

Cubans cry while waiting for the arrival of the convoy carrying the remains of Cuban revolutionary leader Fidel Castro in Cienfuegos, southeast of Havana, on Dec. 1, 2016. A military jeep is taking the ashes of Fidel Castro on a four-day journey across Cuba, with islanders lining the roads to bid farewell to the late communist icon. Castro died at 90 on Nov. 25, 2016, and will be buried in the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba on Sunday.

That is what’s really at the crux of much of the criticism surrounding Castro, the often flailing and frantic attempts to view him through the lenses of bloated capitalism, imperialism and militarism that will protect white supremacy at all costs.

To many nations, the U.S. government is a violent organization guilty of war crimes in at least seven countries—right now. We inhabit a white settler colonial state that was built on the genocide of the indigenous people of the Americas, then expanded by the theft, enslavement and lynching of indigenous Africans.


This country thrives on blatant discrimination against black people and other people of color—including mass incarceration, criminalization, the occupation of black and Latinx communities, and state-sanctioned and perpetuated violence against them. And as much as our government feigns honor, it has consistently refused to release its own political prisoners.

This is the same government that labeled Nelson Mandela—a close friend and comrade of Fidel Castro’s—a terrorist because of his fight against apartheid.


This is the same government that called Martin Luther King Jr. the "most dangerous Negro in America” for trying to free black people from the three evils of racism, poverty and militarism.

And this is the same government that told us to hate Castro, a man who defied the United States and protected Assata Shakur. A man who offered to send emergency medical assistance to New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina—assistance the U.S. government rejected as our people were left to die in abandoned jails, on rooftops and in swampy waters. A man who stood up for freedom fighters around the world when the U.S. government was an active enemy—inside and outside the nation’s borders.


Let there be no doubt: The United States of America has no moral authority to judge anyone for anything.

And if those who rage at Castro over documented and alleged human rights violations in Cuba cared a fraction as much about the grotesque human rights violations committed by the U.S.—both domestically and abroad—this would be a very different conversation.


There are no clean hands; what makes the difference is what you’re fighting for or against, what you’re fighting to maintain, create or destroy.

Malcolm X taught us this in his 1963 “Message to the Grassroots,” three years after meeting Castro at Harlem’s Hotel Theresa:

When you study the historic nature of revolutions, the motive of a revolution, the objective of a revolution, the result of a revolution, and the methods used in a revolution, you may change words. You may devise another program, you may change your goal and you may change your mind.

The Cuban Revolution—that's a revolution. They overturned the system. Revolution is in Asia, revolution is in Africa, and the white man is screaming because he sees revolution in Latin America.

Fidel Castro and Malcolm X at Harlem’s Hotel Theresa in 1960
Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty images

Why? Because El Comandante did not change his mind. He did it for his people; he did it for the working class, the marginalized, the targeted and the most vulnerable; he did it for his culture.


He did it for Cuba. He did it for us.

“A revolution is not a bed of roses. A revolution is a struggle between the future and the past,” Castro said in 1959.


And if it is true that one can discern the character of a man by who mourns his death, there will be no need for history to absolve him.

Also on The Root:

Black Radicals Owe a Great Deal to Fidel Castro

The Love Affair Between Fidel Castro and You Is a Lie

Share This Story

Get our newsletter