We will not see his like again, not because Communism is now dead, as a headline in the London Telegraph stated, but because we have lost the mysterious element that creates, and then often destroys, the heroic in both men and women.
This has nothing to do with whether you agree or disagree with Castro’s politics. Instead, I’m talking about the reach of his ambition and his life-long commitment to his people and their betterment, through means that were despotic.
If our president-elect has his way, despotism will return to this country, but without any commitment to or understanding of equality.
We won’t see the improvement in public education and health that has buoyed the Cuban people since 1959, when Castro’s forces drove the dictator Baptista from power, even as civil rights were eroded away.
Apples and oranges? A despotic vision embodying idealism about the improvements in the human conditions despotism may bring? There is no simple answer although it seems that these days we are in love with simple answers.
I remember my one glimpse of Fidel Castro when I was a college student in Cambridge, MA, drawn to the sidewalk to watch his cortege drive through: an open car, a smiling, handsome young man from a country and a culture I knew nothing about, greeted by enthusiastic shouts—he was a hero to us, then, at the beginning of his reign.
From Cambridge, he went to New York City, where he and his followers insisted on staying in Harlem, not Manhattan (Harlem a feared black ghetto at the time), and, according to rumor, called for live chickens, slaughtered, de-feathered, disemboweled them and cooked them for a traditional Cuban feast.
Then came the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Cold War and decades of our embargo that left the inhabitants of that small island almost starving—tourists report on their skinniness, even now, with connections renewed between the two countries, on the old American cars, the ruined colonial buildings, the charm and the poverty…
And Castro became a monster to some Cubans fleeing to the US and to most of the rest of us here who hardly knew anything about him.
How quickly we forgot those we once admired.
The November edition of Glamour magazine, which I was leafing through on vacation here in Southern California, carries a reproduction of an early 1900’s postcard caricaturing suffragettes: “At 15 a little pet. At 20 a little Coquette. At 40 not married yet. At 50 a suffragette”—this last a red-nosed harridan with a hatchet, the usual confusion between Carrie Nation, who fought for Prohibition, and the many women who protested, were jailed and sometimes force-fed so that we today can vote—and in this last election, 51 percent of white women used this right to vote for a man who openly bragged about assaulting women.
How to understand?
How at least to leave a small opening in my opinionated mind for the hope that the president-elect will somehow be inspired by his position, to hope that the Wisconsin election recount, sponsored by Jill Stein, will shed light on the “rigging” the president-elect said would only occur if he lost?
“Hope is the thing with feathers,
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without the words
And never stops at all,” Emily Dickinson wrote.
Like those long-ago chickens Fidel Castro and his friends cooked in Harlem. “To us he is a hero,” a sad-eyed Cuban girl said as others heartlessly cheered for his death.
The thing with feathers…