By Julienne Gage 12-20-2016

The news broke while I was on family holiday in the Pacific Northwest, contemplating the job market in tumultuous media times and recovering from a freshly broken arm.

“Jules,” whispered my brother as I watched Disney’s Finding Dory with my nieces, “Fidel Castro died.”

I may have cursed when I sprang to action, squashing my injured arm. I was in no shape for on-the-ground reporting, but for the better part of my two-decade journalism career, many a news editor suggested I was uniquely qualified for covering the eventual death of this particular world leader. I got on my laptop and found that my Facebook newsfeed was already filled with comments from Cuban colleagues in Havana and across the diaspora, expressing love and disgust for their historic president.

I didn’t know him like they did. I never met him. But I have spent years recording the nuances of his legendary 1959 Cuban Revolution, wondering what warnings and lessons it could — and should — offer progressive, non-violent activists in America.

In the late 1990s, I spent six months enrolled in a music school in Cuba as part of comparative studies for a master’s in anthropology focused on arts for at-risk youth in post-war El Salvador. As a result, Cuba and its people became part of my beat as a multimedia journalist based in Madrid, Miami, Washington, D.C., and, occasionally, back in Havana. 

By the time I arrived in Cuba in 1998, I had already spent the first years of the post-Cold War era traveling throughout Central America and the Caribbean as a peace studies major enrolled in a politically moderate Christian university. This gave me some unique perspectives on the similarities between Christianity and socialism, as well as the challenges involved in practicing either. 

I was hardly surprised when Castro’s death evoked celebrations in Miami, solemnity in Havana, and mixed reactions throughout the rest of the globe. He, more than most leaders who earn the title of dictator, generated a unique combination of hatred and reverence — in part because he rose to power just as the world was redefining what power structures could look like.

Fidel Castro became Cuba’s president in 1959, after toppling then-President Fulgencio Batista. Batista was serving a second presidential term as a Mafioso coup-monger, so many welcomed the overthrow. Castro’s revolution had socialist underpinnings, but it wasn’t until 1961 that he aligned his administration with the Soviet Union. The U.S. government responded with an economic embargo that has lasted for more than five decades, and the rest, as they say, is history — a complicated one.

My fieldwork taught me that Castro was a symbol of boldness and possibility for many progressive intellectuals and guerrillas in underrepresented corners of the globe. They admired Castro for standing up to American imperialism and for trying to create a utopia through land reform, desegregation, women’s empowerment, and socialized health care and education.

To them, tales of firing squads, torture, imprisonment, and migration weren’t all that surprising. Many Latin American nations were equally, if not more, violent, having just won independence from Spain. And many parts of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, as well as most of Cuba’s Caribbean neighbors, were engaging in, or about to begin, their own struggle for independence from the British Empire.

My understanding of the other side of Castro came before I got to Miami in 2002. Behind closed doors in Havana and at Cuban gatherings in Madrid, I would learn that many people, not just rich ones, lost property during the revolution’s reforms. And plenty of people who chose to stay in Cuba didn’t expect the human rights violations that were exacerbated under a dogmatic interpretation of Marxism.

During the first few decades, the Cuban revolution had no tolerance for freedom of religion or non-heterosexual orientation. Even youth with long hair who listened to rock music were considered counterrevolutionaries, and that title got individuals blacklisted, thrown in jail, killed, or jumping a raft to Florida. After the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, in which some Catholic priests were implicated, Castro’s church crackdown worsened, prompting more than 3,500 priests and nuns to leave the island.

Even so, the Catholic Church maintained diplomatic ties with Cuba — and eventually, in 1998, Pope John Paul II visited Cuba as a guest of Castro.

The Cuba I first encountered, later that year, was more nuanced.

I found a health and educational system fairly intact, practically no homelessness or violent crime, and a remarkable level of philosophizing at private parties. The economic crisis Cuba experienced after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, and the social unrest that followed, had made Castro a little more flexible. The church was helping to resolve community conflicts, young people were getting more support for rock and hip-hop festivals, and gender rights activists were gaining political clout.

Still, government surveillance was constant. Like a pressure cooker, public questioning of the government’s role in a complicated economy, or racial inequality, was repressed. In subsequent trips, the economic and social strain became more obvious.

Raul Castro, who took office in 2006 when his brother fell ill, made some important concessions, and in recent years, Cuba and the U.S. have made giant steps toward “normalization.” Cubans can now sell homes to each other and open small businesses. The arts and media industries are expanding, and the U.S. government has significantly eased travel restrictions, allowing for more Americans to visit Cuba on people-to-people exchanges. In 2015, both countries reopened their respective embassies.

In March of this year, U.S. President Barack Obama’s historic visit to Cuba was followed by a first-ever Rolling Stones concert in Havana, previously banned under Fidel. I was lucky enough to be in Havana, to see the Stones’ aging front man Mick Jagger come strutting onto a stage before hundreds of thousands of cheering Cubans, as he playfully shouted to them in Spanish: “Seems like something’s changing here!”

There was something changing — on my more recent visits, people have been publicly talking politics in ways they previously would have done only behind closed doors. Yet with U.S. President-elect Donald Trump now threatening to roll back Obama’s strides in U.S.-Cuba relations, it’s hard to say how many Americans will get to meet this Cuba.

U.S. law stipulates that the U.S. embargo cannot be lifted unless both Castros exit power. Raul Castro says he’ll leave office in 2018. What’s the likelihood of any successor being moderate enough for Trump — or willing to let the real estate mogul near the island’s beachfront property and historic Havana hotels?

This new era for the U.S. raises interesting questions about how Americans will deal with an authoritarian cult of personality of our own. For those asking what freedoms Cubans have had under the Castros, I hope we're also asking how much possibility we have in a democracy run by a few elite, well-funded politicians, with an Electoral College that does not represent the popular vote.

How will we respond if our social safety net is taken away? If the incredible freedom that allows us to shout at each other on social media becomes grounds for discipline? What if our sensationalist, Twitter-happy leader starts punishing our angry outbursts? Aren’t we already under constant surveillance at work, online, and as we protest in the streets? 

From my brother’s house, I used my good arm to fumble through my laptop archives looking for some symbolic Fidel nuggets, and I found a gem of a television tape log.

In 2006, I was among the first journalists on the scene in Miami’s Little Havana when news broke of Castro’s illness. The next day, I was given a seemingly less glamorous office task: transcribing an interview with Fidel and Raul Castro’s estranged sister Juanita, who ran a pharmacy in that same neighborhood.

Juanita expressed dismay over the totalitarian tactics her brothers used to install their utopian vision. But she also hailed their boldness in standing up to Batista. Asked if she would be sad when Fidel Castro died, Juanita said of course. He was a part of her and she of him.

In a global world, we are all somehow part of this story. I support the dream of egalitarianism. And in that spirit, I am hopeful we can all learn from Castro’s humanness.

Julienne Gage is a Washington-based journalist who consults with mainstream news outlets and international aid organizations.

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