People who have commented on Fidel Castro in the immediate aftermath of his death on November 25th have tended to emphasize his uniqueness: for some, he was uniquely good; in the eyes of others he was uniquely evil.
After years of fairly close observation of Cuba and of Fidel Castro, I have come to the surprising conclusion that the most important thing about Fidel was not his uniqueness but his typicality. In particular, he was typically Cuban, especially in his fundamental political impulses. Two impulses that stand out are his unflagging defiance of the imperialist inclinations of the United States and his unshakable adherence to communism. Both are deeply rooted Cuba’s exceptional but seldom appreciated history.
The event that made Cuba into Cuba, giving Cuba its national identity and giving Cubans their national character was the long war of independence against Spain which began in 1868. Whereas the US War of Independence against England was led by slave-owners who wanted to be free, Cuba’s insurgent leaders were slave-owners who were willing to confer freedom upon others. Knowing they would have no chance of defeating the Spanish without the committed support of the slaves, the Cuban leaders voluntarily liberated their slaves on the very first day of the revolutionary uprising. Somewhat to the surprise of their former masters, these ex-slaves were not content with the menial tasks of preparing food and polishing the weapons. They became fierce warriors and, in many cases, brilliant military leaders. In the intensity of the three- decades-long struggle for national emancipation a cultural identity emerged from the fusion of two groups who had previously been very distinct from each other: the slave-owning class of Spanish extraction and the slaves themselves who were nearly all African. This unity is what has ever since defined Cuba and Cubans.
It’s dangerous but instructive to compare the profound unity achieved in Cuba with the much more tentative accommodations evident in other countries. Cuba’s mulatto culture – whose two basic components are the black descendants of African slaves and the white descendants of Spanish landowners – is qualitatively different than the polite co-existence between French-speakers and English-speakers occurring in our country and often explosive interaction between black people and white folks in the United States. Intermarriage is so common in Cuba that it is challenging for a visitor to place Cubans in racially-defined categories. Cultural expressions of every kind mingle the two originating ethnicities. Whatever their complexions, no Cuban is really black or white.
Two enduring consequences emerged from the long and brilliant process of Cuba’s independence movement. First, the absolute imperative of defending the sovereign independence of Cuba became an indisputable part of Cuban political identity. Second, it became obvious to Cubans that because theirs is a small country its independence could never be preserved unless the entire population had a stake in its preservation. If some groups did not have access to education, if health care was not available to everyone, if opportunities for cultural expression were confined to an elite, Cubans would not exert themselves to preserve their nation’s independence and that independence would be lost.
Fidel Castro was a remarkable leader. But Castro did not shape Cuba to his own image or impose upon Cuba some theoretical model he derived from reading books by Marx and Lenin. His anti-imperialism and his communism have deep roots in a long historical process. At his best – which was often dazzlingly brilliant – Castro enabled Cuba to become more fully Cuban. His leadership style was indeed unique but the values to which that unique style was harnessed are as authentically Cuban as the cigars and rum. “Viva Fidel!” is not that different a watchword than “Viva Cuba!”
Roger Milbrandt, English (retired), Augustana Campus, University of Alberta. This column originally appeared in the Camrose Booster on January 24th, 2017.