About 10 minutes ago my eyes shot open. It was 05:37 a.m. in Lisbon so I was very much asleep, but for whatever reason I woke up at this bizarre hour just as my phone screen lit up.
Ashley: Fidel Castro died.
I immediately called her and then checked the BBC to confirm the story, and then I called my dad to give him the news, to congratulate him.
In polite society it’s never appropriate to celebrate someone’s death. But in this case, with all due deference to respect: fuck polite society. Fidel Castro was a monster, and for whatever good he inadvertently did keeping the U.S. out of Cuba, he did so with the blood of hundreds of thousands of his countrymen on his hands, setting the island back for generations. He claimed the embargo was a blockade and used it as an excuse to terrorize the people, to round up, beat and execute dissidents, to maintain his police state. He eliminated the sense of national pride in the generations born after the Revolution by distorting history to justify his shitty handling of interior affairs, alleging that it wasn’t his fault that the crops were mismanaged, but rather that the island had always been miserable, that he was doing as best he could with the shitty material at hand. He gave ten-hour long speeches about the integrity of his Regime, the stalwart opposition to the Yankees, while overseeing one of the most corrupt dictatorships in the Caribbean. While his kids traveled through Europe and currently keep fabulous apartments in Paris and Madrid, he sealed kept the island’s residents from leaving, from being able to taste the freedom he reserved for his own family. The man was a tyrant.
Over the coming days the European and American press will likely write bittersweet reviews in which they contrast his lack of democratic principles with the advances achieved in health and medicine over the course of his regime. It’s the sort of story newspaperpeople love, the “complicated character” that allows for twists in the narrative and ultimate re-vindication: “whatever his faults, his legacy will live on”.
That’s all very poetic, but for for all the literary charm of his story you have the millions of victims of his half-century rule that will inevitably be left out of the over-romanticized obituaries that so many journalists will publish this weekend.
While they write about Sierra Maestra or the dictator’s jaunts through Harlem, how many will also talk about the countless young men shot in the post-revolutionary terror, simply for asking for the free and fair elections that were promised when Batista was overthrown? How many will write about the thousands upon thousands that drowned on rafts in the Florida straits, preferring to risk a death on the open sea rather than stick around to end up in the run-down prisons, or be routinely attacked by the state-sponsored ‘repudiation committees’? Who will dedicate a few lines to the multitude of gay men that were rounded because their sexuality was deemed ‘anti-revolutionary’, or the Castro’s AIDS policy, which consisted in placing positive people in camps to die well into the late 90’s?
I lament death today, but not Castro’s. I lament the deaths of so many millions who suffered under his rule and did not live long enough to see this day. My grandfather, who participated in the Revolution and later spent years in rat-filled prisons for re-vindicating democratic principles once Fidel was in power. My grandmother, who had to leave a decent life behind and who spent her exile in Miami sewing to survive, tolerating a new world of hardship when others would be getting ready to retire without a single complaint. My great aunt, who died always keeping a suitcase packed precisely for this moment, because she said that she wanted to head back home just as soon as that tyrant was gone. And my mom, who Castro managed to outlive by seven full years. My mother was sent out of Cuba when she was just a kid to keep her safe for the instability after the Revolution, and like all the other exile children, it was assumed that she’d be back within a few months. She never got to go back home to her street in Havana, she never got to live the life for which she had prepared. She was tough as nails and built a new one in Miami, learning the language, working and studying hard, eventually becoming a teacher, marrying, having children, building a family. Much like my father, who was ripped from a paradisaical existence from a small town in the provincial coast, I imagine she spent a lot of time how it might have all been different had Fidel been decent, had he carried out the Revolution and then allowed for elections, for democracy to flourish in Cuba. Much like so many others in Cuba, whose lives where torn apart by the dictator’s love of personal power.
So congratulations, 2016: you finally did something right. Castro is dead, and thank God for it. Will things finally change on the island? I’ll leave you with my father’s fresh, expert analysis of the situation: “Esto puede cambiar las cosas. Fidel era mucho Fidel, pero Raúl… Raúl es tremenda mierda”. Esperemos que alguien la pise bien duro cuando de el paso adelante. En nombre de tantos que no llegaron a vivir este momento: viva Cuba libre. Por fin.