On the passing of El Comandante
By John Thomas III, Editor
On November 27, 2016, Fidel Castro died. Though he had already ceded the reins of leadership to his brother, Raul, in 2008, his death signified the end of an era. Reactions to his passing were clearly mixed—the parties in Miami’s “Little Havana” and other Cuban émigré enclaves were contrasted with the somber panegyrics by African leaders remembering the earnest support of Fidel’s Cuba in the liberation struggle. He often ended speeches with the phrase, “¡La historia me absolverá! /History will judge me!” Now history is here.
When he assumed control of Cuba after the Revolution of 1959, he indicated that he would create a color-blind society. Until that point, Cuba was viewed as America’s playground and de facto segregation was seen throughout the island. This situation was compounded with the wealth of the island being held by a small class of White Cubans. It was no coincidence that the first waves of Cuban refugees were those same elites who lost power and land. Yet looking at the cadres who were Fidel’s closest intimates, one sees very few persons of a darker hue. In his almost half century of power, Afro-Cubans had prominent roles in dance, arts, sports, and other avenues of entertainment. However, they rarely occupied (and still don’t) positions of political authority in the Cuban government or military.
In his 2005 work, Racial Politics in Post-Revolutionary Cuba, Mark Sawyer conducts one of the few systemic studies of race relations in Fidel’s Cuba. He finds that Cuban racial politics have basically used Afro-Cubans to support projects of the state and protect the state against hostile forces. Sawyer argues that international events reconstruct and influenced the domestic political policy. Fidel’s embrace of African-American revolutionaries and supporting movements in Angola, Zimbabwe, and South Africa was more about projecting an image than about actually advancing the cause of Afro-Cubans. In his commentary for thehill.com, TCR columnist Chuck Hobbs references a quote by Afro-Cuban activist (and refugee), Carlos Moore. Moore accuses Castro of hollow initiatives and closeted racism. While indeed all of Cuba has experienced tremendous advances in health care and education, a closer examination of the Cuban context shows that Afro-Cubans still face challenges.
Turning to religion, Fidel’s impact—especially on the AME Church—is more pronounced. The AME Church arrived in Cuba in 1939 and, up until the revolution, had a steadily growing presence on the island. The last time Cuba was formally represented at the General Conference was 1960. Most US-based denominations had their lands expropriated by the officially atheist Communist government. In spite of this, Methodism survived in Cuba and a small but vibrant Methodist Church of Cuba exists with approximately 7,000 members. This Church has renewed its ties with the United Methodist Church. For example, a group of students from UMC-affiliated HBCU Bethune-Cookman University visited the island two years ago. Missionary work in Cuba has been ongoing for several decades and there is no reason to believe that it will not continue. The question is, will the AME Church be able to evangelize this fertile field?
Fidel Castro was a totalitarian dictator mourned by Pope Francis. This shows the contrast that was Fidel Castro, a repressive dictator or creator of beneficial social policies for all his people. Perhaps both are correct. Perhaps neither is correct. What we do know is that the race-blind Cuba heralded by his revolution is years away and may only come with even more changes in leadership and Cuba’s political culture.