Fidel Castro Roundtable

By Mary Grace Richardson, Staff Writer

Last week Cuban politician and revolutionary Fidel Castro passed, resurfacing a storm of debate surrounding his legacy. With his death being a chance to reflect on Cuba’s past, we can understand where our own idea of the leader is rooted and what it might say about our upbringing, where we’re from, or what information we’ve been exposed to over the course of our own lives. To find out personal and international view points of Castro, I sat down with Nuno Muandumba from Angola (MAGAM ’18), Mark Kovalenko from Ukraine (MAGAM ’18), and American Chris Barton (MAGAM ’18):

Mary Richardson: Thanks for coming, everyone. I’ve spoken with each of you earlier about this, but one of the reasons I wanted us all to talk is because Nuno sent me this great article the other day called “To so many Africans, Fidel Castro is a Hero, Here’s why” from The Guardian, and one of the paragraphs that really caught my attention:

“In the west, Castro’s legacy is usually dismissed as an authoritarian, and Cuba as a one-party state with few freedoms. Despite the many achievements of Cuba under Castro (high quality public healthcare, as well as life expectancy, child immunisation and literacy systems parallel to those of first-world nations, and even surpassing the US), at various times the country became renowned for economic crisis, media repression, exiling and imprisoning dissidents, and discriminating against gays and people with AIDS.”

So I’m curious what all of you think: What were you thinking about when you heard Castro died? Did it make you reflect on what you thought about Cuba in general or your country’s relationship with Cuba?

Fidel Castro after making a speech. Courtesy of Premium
Fidel Castro before making a speech. Courtesy of Premium

Nuno Muandumba: Personally it made me sad and reflective because from a personal standpoint, Castro did a lot — not just for Angola but for Africa in general. There are four different countries who earned independence from the actions of Castro and the Cuban military. Aside from military aid, he gave us medicine, doctors, support. I’ve really been reflecting on Africa’s story. A lot of regions have gone through a lot of different things, but the turmoil in Africa, I feel, comes from external forces that exacerbate the problems that are already there. People talk about corruption. Every country in the world is corrupt in one form or another, but Africa is unique because you have leaders who for the first 50 years of their life were second-rate citizens in their own country. Somebody else was occupying their own country, and in one day that someone else was gone. And when that happens, unfortunately, oftentimes comes an extreme reaction. They’re thinking, Oh, yesterday I couldn’t even go to a university, and now I have keys to the city. They take it to a whole ‘nother level, and that’s problematic, but what’s even more problematic is having your own continent be a battlefield for corporate interest, for government interest.

I forgot who said it, but there’s a South African who said, ‘When Fidel Castro came to Africa, it was the first time that someone came to Africa without wanting anything in return.’ Was strictly there to free Africa. That was his only mission. He felt it was his duty as an international citizen to step in and make sure Africa was free of colonialism, of imperialism.

MR: What was it specifically that he did to help the different African countries you mentioned?

NM: He was responsible for helping Algeria against the French. Angola and Mozambique were freed from Portuguese rule because of Castro. South Africa was going to be the regional hegemon in sub-Saharan Africa. They had the most advanced military and economy. They were just the most advanced country in Africa, and the apartheid regime knew that the best way to control sub-Saharan Africa is to control Angola because Angola is very resource rich. So Fidel Castro made it a personal mission. He was obviously anti-apartheid, and so he didn’t want Angola to fall into the hands of the apartheid regime.

MR: So does that mean he was sending in troops, materials…?

NM: He sent 25,000-30,000 troops, and overall, 10,000 Cuban troops died to save Angola in a 12-year span. He also started sending doctors. All the best doctors in Angola are Cuban. I was born to a Cuban nurse, and all my vaccines were done by a Cuban doctor or nurse. All my family that studied medicine studied in Cuba. Cuba has challenged the conservative myth that universal healthcare will decrease the quality of doctors. They have universal healthcare and have some of the best doctors. In research and practice, Cuba is top of the line in terms of medicine.

MR: Mark, what are your ideas about this? Does Ukraine in general have certain views about Cuba or Castro?

Mark Kovalenko: Of course, before the Soviet Union fell apart, there was great support from the government. But of course, every knows that a majority of people weren’t able to speak out about the human rights violations that were done by the Soviet Union or its allies. I don’t think today many people in Ukraine and in Russia, since it’s post-Soviet Union, really have a big reaction to Fidel’s death, nor myself since I’m not really into politics. But I think many people see it just like many Cubans in America who fled the poverty in Cuba, who fled the repression in Cuba. They took to the streets and were celebrating. We saw it on the news because if you go to Cuba, you see people lining up to go to the United States, and not the other way around. So I think that says something about the reality. But I think there are some people in Ukraine or in Russia who view it differently from different sides, but mostly I would say right now people don’t have a big reaction to it.

MR: Well, not really about his death, but do you think there was support for Castro and that that support has changed over time since the fall of the USSR? Do you think there was positive feeling toward Communist Cuba?

Castro with Nikita Khrushchev who led the Soviet Union through part of the Cold War. Courtesy of NBC News

MK: You see, people could not have an opinion. You either sided with the government or you kept silent. If you didn’t side with the government, you went to jail. So, yes, in the interest of the Soviet Union to stock missiles and have an ally close to the United States, there was tremendous support, but you can’t really know what was the true opinion of the people before. I think it’s not just with Cuba, but with many other countries, the Soviet Union was trying to make revolutions happen in other places like Spain where some Communists were supported financially. And the thing is that all of that support, if you compare with the United States supporting its allies and the Soviet Union supporting its allies, the Soviet Union was a lot poorer. Older people remember how there was nothing to eat. Food was taken away, people were starving to death. But people who lived by the railroads saw trains and trains and trains with grain going to non-communist countries to support communist revolutions there. And it tells us how political it was and how it was about power and not about the people. They started the revolution by saying, ‘Factories to workers, bread to peasants.’ And then they were taking bread away from peasants and sending it away.

MR: And that’s so different too, because what Nuno was saying is that Castro was about helping people, but maybe communism as we saw in the Soviet Union wasn’t about helping the people.

MK: I would like to say, even about Cuba, I don’t think it was about people when there is so much repression. I remember reading about the rights of black people in Cuba, and one activist wrote, ‘We don’t have any rights here. If we were to protest, the next day there would be 10,000 black people killed.’ So when Castro went to Africa, we cannot know the motives. But when we see how he treated people in his country and that he had the sole reason of going to Africa to free other people, it seems there was political reason for this. There were some interests, but of course I don’t know much about what happened in Africa.

NM: I definitely don’t want to turn this into a debate, but I think it’s important to address things clearly. For one, the majority of people who left Cuba after the revolution in 1960 weren’t poor people. They were the business elites, and what happened was before Fidel Castro was in power, Batista was the president of Cuba. Cuba was just an American business tax haven. Ninety-eight percent of the country was owned by American business interests. And the very first thing Castro did was nationalize everything. He said, ‘Cuba is for Cubanos,’ and he forced the American companies out, so all the Cuban business elites who worked with those companies left as well. All the loyalists to Batista left or were pushed out as well. You can’t address the Cuban economy without addressing America’s role in it. It’s better after than it was before. Any free market economy would have collapsed within a year. A tiny little island like that and with the embargos placed on them… and they’re still here.

Castro and African leader Nelson Mandela gesture during the celebration of the "Day of the Revolution" in Matanzas in 1991. Photo by Alejandro Balaguer, courtesy of MintPrint News
Castro and African leader Nelson Mandela gesture during the celebration of the “Day of the Revolution” in Matanzas in 1991. Photo by Alejandro Balaguer, courtesy of MintPrint News

And in terms of how black people were treated in Cuba, you’re right. There is that disconnect there. I thought, He was in Africa doing all of this for Africans, but in Cuba it was different. But it’s the same thing where we don’t blame every American leader for there being racists in this country. We can’t blame him for every racist in Cuba. The same way we say FDR was one of best presidents ever, but he had Japanese internment camps as a reaction to Pearl Harbor. Everything that Fidel Castro did was a reaction to American imperialism. The socialist economic model was a reaction to imperialism. Jailing dissidents was a reaction to the fact that the CIA was trying to kill him every day. They poisoned his cigars, they planted bombs in seashells in the bay. When Nelson Mandela was freed from jail, his first visit was to Cuba, and he was getting flack from the West. But he said, ‘We’re getting lessons about morals from a country that supported apartheid for 40 years. They are in no position to judge this man or his island.’

I’m no ideologue. I try to be unbiased in anything, and so I’ve researched this, and I haven’t found anything to support what the West wants me to think about this man. People talk about freedom of expression, freedom of press. I think those are all very important in a democratic society, but I think in life in general, everything has to be looked at in context. In Cuba, Fidel Castro was an academic. He was a lawyer by trade, so he was very intelligent, and he was cognizant of the fact that America’s biggest weapon wasn’t its military — it was its propaganda machine. So he said, ‘Okay, how can I combat this propaganda machine? I can’t allow any American media to infiltrate this island.’ State-run media was the solution… Everything he did was for the revolution and making sure the revolution did not die because it was important to him.

When people say he went into Africa with ulterior motives, I’m wondering, then what was his motive then? Because he didn’t touch anything. An NGO can’t go into Africa without trying to get some contract. A government or business isn’t going to Africa without some kind of construction, steel, or some type of contract. Fidel Castro had no contracts in Africa. When the Ebola crisis was going on, Cuba sent more medicine and more doctors to western Africa than any other country in the world. That was just a few years ago. So to me, it’s a study in propaganda. I think we can all look back and say, ‘Oh, the Red Scare, that was exaggerated.’ We agree now that that was propaganda, but for Fidel Castro, I don’t know why we don’t see it that same way. I’m not saying he was a saintly figure or a deity. No, no, no. He jailed a lot of people he labeled as dissidents, and I don’t know what the test was for that, but I feel that when you’re on that stage, there are a lot of tough decisions you have to make.

When you talk about human rights violations, I need a definition because Barack Obama is violating human rights every time he gives permission for a drone strike. Why is our moral thermometer different depending on who we’re talking about? Why is Fidel evil, but the apartheid regime was okay? Ronald Reagan called the African National Congress a terrorist organization. That was Nelson Mandela’s Freedom Party. That was the type of thinking our leaders were pushing to the people. That was his mindset, and that was the mindset people adopted. It carried on over time. I challenge everyone to look at Fidel Castro’s legacy objectively because he truly was one of the most important people of our time. As an African, what he did directly affected me in a positive way, so it hurts me to see how it’s been covered.

MR: And so Chris, as an American who has been exposed to very different information, would you say your views are rooted in the more national opinion or that they deviate?

Chris Barton: If you look at the history of America, you start realizing that most of the things we know about America and what the American public thinks about things are not really entirely accurate, especially when it comes to communism. I mean, that is the big boogey man in the American narrative. Castro and Cuba have always intrigued me because I just know that I can’t really trust anything I’ve heard about it. What I was really interested in when Fidel died was reading all the obituaries I could because I wanted to read as many perspectives on what he meant to as many people as possible. The New York Times had this long one that they said they had written the first draft for 40 years ago and have been revising it since every time they think he’s about to die. They said that that that one obituary has taken more man-hours than any other thing they have ever published in the New York Times. What does that tell you about how much this information we’re getting is tailored and filtered? This has been ran through so many different hands and so many different ideologies to the point that what we got at the end was so flat and so uninteresting that it was really hard to read it even. It didn’t even come across as very clear. I read another one that Al Jazeera put out that seemed like a guy sat down that morning and wrote it, and it was very fluid though.

As an American who has grown up in America, I don’t know if I have the information to judge him as a person. However, there are facts about Cuba that are amazing. Like Nuno was saying, it’s been isolated from the entire world, and it’s still there, and they’re doing okay! It has the single most sustainable agriculture system on the planet. It feeds its people without any imports. Organic agriculture is grown in the city, which is something that billions of dollars are being invested in other parts of the world. And the Cubans figured it out because they had to. Because we don’t know as much as we should about communism and the communists in America, I think it’s really important to pay attention to Cuba. Maybe not everything was great or worked as well as we would have liked it to, but if we demonize it, we’re going to miss out on the opportunity to learn from their successes.

NM: People talk a lot about the poor economy in Cuba. What do you think the poverty percentage in the US is? 14%. What do you think it is in Cuba? 1.5%. When Fidel Castro went to the UN, he was applauded by all the world leaders.

MK: I would like to say about people who left Cuba: there are still people lining up to leave Cuba to come to the United States. So yes, that makes me question how they come up with those statistics.

And the other thing is that I think if you’re speaking the truth, you’re not afraid of people hearing other opinions. But if you’re pushing propaganda, that is when you’ll close your country. If we look at the biggest propaganda machines in the world, one of them is the Russian government, and it is in Russia where are all media sources are controlled. You can’t speak against it. I agree that we should look at things that worked, the things that didn’t. It seems like before the revolution, people had—

NM: Before the revolution, things were worse. Batista was a brutal dictator.

MK: Well, yeah, I don’t know much about life before that, but it doesn’t seem like it’s much better since people are still lining up and emigrating from Cuba.

NM: I didn’t leave Angola because it was the worst country in the world. I left Angola because [America] is the best country in the world.

And about American media. There are a lot of freedoms here, but there are also a lot of perceived freedoms here. There are really only four or five media companies that run all the media. All of it. And you can watch them and see how tailored it is, but it only gives the sense of more freedom by showing two sides. I’m not saying America is on the same level as Cuba in terms of media repression. That’s not what I’m saying at all. What I’m saying is you got to understand the perspective. The issue of state-run media in Cuba is it’s not about the truth… It’s all about the revolution. If you open up the media, and the United States is able to penetrate the market, the United States can get people to think whatever they want you to think. People in Angola were convinced a revolution was coming because of American media, so the leader of Angola, in Castro’s example, said that whoever wanted to protest could come to this place at this time to protest. A hundred people showed up out of more than 20 million people in the country.

And about Cuba’s economy. Why wouldn’t people want to leave when their country has been crippled by a 60-year embargo? I’d want to leave too. In the ’80s though because people were talking about leaving, Fidel said, ‘Okay, I’m going to set up boats for you guys, and whoever wants to leave, can leave.’ Ten thousand people left. It’s a country of millions of people. People leave America, and that’s not to condemn America.

Castro visits the USSR in 1963. He was the first foreigner to come to the podium of the mausoleum and received the title of Hero of the Soviet Union. Courtesy of Vintage Everyday
Castro visits the USSR in 1963. He was the first foreigner to come to the podium of the mausoleum and received the title of Hero of the Soviet Union. Courtesy of Vintage Everyday

MK: A lot of interesting things have been said here, but one of the things people have been saying is that communism has been given a bad name; how people said if you supported communism you’d be criticized heavily. But in the Soviet Union, if you said something good about the West and the rights people have in the West, you could lose your life. I don’t think people were lined up and just shot in the United States for saying something good about communism. People could not leave the Soviet Union. If you went outside the Soviet Union and came back, you’d go to jail because you’re an infiltrator. They didn’t want you to see what’s outside the Soviet Union. They wanted you to think everything here is the best. And when people went outside, they saw, ‘Oh my gosh, we are just slaves in the Soviet Union.’ But they had to keep quiet if they wanted to be alive.

So when America did heavily criticize communism, I think it was very much defensible. That was right. They saw what communism is doing in other countries, and they wanted to protect their own people, even if people were ignorant about what the Soviet Union was like.

CB: The thing is I don’t know if on the ground we can say that Cuba and the USSR are comparable situations. Fidel is not like Stalin. Even if they had similar economic ideologies, they’re different governance systems and different people. Also, we didn’t get a lot of it here as far as the US’s war on communism, but we also launched a bunch of covert wars in Latin America and murdered a bunch of people and ran proxy wars against all sorts of insurgents or socialist regimes. From that perspective, as a small Latin American country that feels itself being pulled in a socialist direction, you probably don’t want to do anything with the US and your next best ally is the USSR.

NM: Fidel’s enemy wasn’t Western values. It was imperialism, imperialism, imperialism. He wanted to rid the world of imperialism, and when he looked at the scope of the world and who was doing that, it was the capitalist countries. He saw that. The socialist model is protectionist. What he wanted to do was implement an economic model that would protect African countries from exploitation because he knew how resource rich they were.

Cuba is still an unwritten book in terms of post-revolutionary Cuba. And in his book Fidel Castro acknowledged that the only way to get to the next level is to privatize a little bit more. Not strictly a free market, but not totally socialist either. Keep the socialist principle, because to him that’s the ideal, but to allow for more privatization and industry down the line. Everything Fidel did was in response to two things: revolution and imperialism. Stopping imperialism and pushing the revolution.

I can understand feeling second-rate in your own country because I was. And so was he in the beginning, but he fought that and won independence. He was going to dedicate his life to maintaining that. He said, ‘Condemn me all you want. History will absolve me.’

MR: There’s been a lot of revisionism about Fidel Castro, but what can be said is that it can be good that he resisted American hegemony and bad that he hurt thousands of political dissidents. We don’t have to forget or even forgive the second in order to celebrate and respect the first. The world’s complex.

Thanks for joining the roundtable today, guys. This was interesting to say the least.

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