The Complex American Response to Castro’s Death

Varying reactions to Castro’s death offer a somber reminder that oppression and opportunity, often coded by ethnicity and race, are not always clear-cut diametric opposites.

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Cuban President Fidel Castro, right, and South African leader Nelson Mandela celebrate the Day of the Revolution in Matanzas, Cuba, on July 27, 1991. (AP)
Cuban President Fidel Castro, right, and South African leader Nelson Mandela celebrate the Day of the Revolution in Matanzas, Cuba, on July 27, 1991. (AP)

When news of Fidel Castro’s death reached the shores of the United States, a long-denied and impromptu celebration erupted spontaneously in the early morning hours. Many Cuban-Americans took to the streets of Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood to bang on pots and pans, sing the Cuban national anthem, and rejoice over the death of a much-hated dictator.

Castro represented all that was evil to the legions of Cubans who fled their homeland after he led the country’s 1959 Communist Revolution. His iron-fisted grip on the tiny island nation endured until his death on Friday night. He was 90.

But not everyone rejoiced at the word of Castro’s death. For many black Americans in particular, news of Castro’s passing represented a moment of forlorn melancholy—a feeling akin to the demise of a favorably regarded, albeit personally unknown, celebrity. The varying reactions to Castro’s death are a somber reminder that oppression and opportunity, often coded by ethnicity and race, are not always clear-cut diametric opposites.

Ask Isabel De Lara, a 67-year-old banker in Miami. Her parents sent her alone at age 12 to the United States because they feared for her future under Castro’s revolution. She told The New York Times that Castro’s death lifted her spirits as she danced in the Little Havana streets. “I owe this to my dad—this going out and celebrating,” De Lara told the newspaper. “[Castro] dying represents the end of something awful that happened to us. … It’s because of him that we lost our opportunity to have a life in our country.”

That’s not at all how Sam Riddle, political director of the Michigan chapter of the National Action Network, remembered Castro in an interview with ABC News. “It was Fidel who fought for the human rights for black Cubans,” he said. “Many Cubans are as black as any black who worked the fields of Mississippi or lived in Harlem. He believed in medical care and education for his people.”

For many black Americans, Castro was a solitary and defiant voice in the Western Hemisphere against the racism, elitism, and hypocrisy that seemed a part of the price for democracy and development in the late 20th century. Indeed, Castro endeared himself to knowing black Americans who saw him stay at the black-owned Hotel Theresa in Harlem during a visit New York City in 1960. What’s more, Castro granted an audience to Malcom X, further increasing the adulation of him among the most-progressive black Americans.

Bill Fletcher Jr., a senior scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies and the immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum, recalled in an AlterNet post how his father passed along to him an appreciation for Castro’s commitment to racial equality. Fletcher describes a scene from his childhood in which his father explained how the television news showed streams of “white-looking Cubans” escaping Castro’s revolution. “No brown and black Cubans,” Fletcher wrote. “This told [my father] something about the nature of the Cuban Revolution and its leader, Fidel Castro.”

The white exodus from Castro’s Cuba persuaded many black Americans that a liberating wind was blowing in the hemisphere and in the shadow of the United States. “How could a country of all these ‘brown’ and ‘black’ people insist that they should determine their own destinies?”, Fletcher wrote.

Fletcher had the opportunity to meet Castro nearly a decade ago and was shocked to hear him say that even under his revolution and nearly singlehanded hold on power, he could not eliminate racism from his country. “The entrenched power of racism, even in a society that was attempting to root it out, was more substantial than [Castro’s revolutionaries] had anticipated,” Fletcher wrote. During a phone interview, Fletcher told me that meeting demonstrated Castro’s sincerity of purpose, even in the acknowledgement that Castro had failed to end the vestiges of racism that plagued Western societies.

While not highly publicized or well known among white Americans, there has long existed great and unspoken affection between Castro’s Cuba and black Americans. “There’s a long, emotional connection between black Americans and Cuba,” Fletcher told me. “We know that [musician] Dizzy Gillespie was inspired and supported by Cubans, that African leaders like [Nelson] Mandela were supported against colonialism by Castro and Cuba. African Americans were very cognizant of all this.”

So while many Cuban-Americans dance and celebrate Castro’s demise, some black Americans are quietly mourning the death of an ally and hero in their shared struggle for racial equality.

Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Director of the CAP Leadership Institute. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 project examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.

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Sam Fulwood III

Senior Fellow

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President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, January 12, 2016. (AP/Evan Vucci)