By Baba Charles Simmons
Cuban Premier Fidel Castro Ruz, who joined the ancestors on November 25, 2016, stands on the shoulders of centuries of great revolutionary leaders and people’s movements for justice and dignity throughout our American hemisphere since the time of Columbus. A lawyer by training, Fidel spent his adult life in the fight to break the chains of U.S. and Western colonialism for millions of embattled families whose only crime was that they dared to dream of a better world.
Whenever he spoke with his fiery tongue, jabbing his finger toward the heavens, his words were of justice and dignity for everyone: a home for a healthy family, food and medicine. Fidel, as he was called by comrades and citizens, called on the spirits of our heroic ancestors such as the great Black Cuban general, Antonio Maceo, whose entire family gave their lives in the wars against Spanish rape and pillage. In a moment of historic oppression, Antonio’s parents called their sons and daughters together and they all promised in prayer to serve the cause of justice with their last drop of blood. All the sons would die in battle, as the daughters led the nurses in healing the wounded. His mother commanded healers and warriors in the jungle hospitals deep in the Sierra Maestras. On horseback, that defiant Antonio would lead poor farmers and escaped slaves into battle with only a few rifles and bullets and an assortment of machetes. On their journey through jungles and swamps full of alligators and cougars, across the Sierra Maestras, they marched daily, with a meal and a nap now and then, in search of liberty for the little people. Antonio suffered over 20 gunshot wounds during the course of two wars, but in each instance he kept fighting.
As he demanded free education for all Cubans, Fidel would summon the spirit and memory of Jose Marti, the humble philosopher and poet. Marti crossed the continent in the footsteps of the Liberator, Simon Bolivar, who rescued entire nations from the clutches of the Spanish Empire, which had trampled the poor into the dust with the cross and sword. In Santiago, Fidel called for volunteers to educate the illiterate and exploited rural masses who were the majority of the population. A quarter of a million Cubans answered the call, half of them youth. In several years the country was transformed from illiteracy. There were thousands of proud, avid readers, as well as a new and positive relationship between Cubans in urban and rural communities.
In earlier times, we would know the spirit of Fidel as Harriett Tubman, Nat Turner, Denmark Vesey, or John Brown, and the leaders of thousands of slave revolts by our captive ancestors. We find that indomitable spirit in our heroic Native American warriors, Sitting Bull and Tecumseh. In Haiti, the spirit was strong in Toussaint, who led the enslaved Blacks –with machetes and a few muskets — to smash the Napoleon’s armies. The warrior spirit was also expressed by the maroons of the forests and mountains throughout the Americas.
Fidel’s contemporaries to the North were the great freedom fighters in the United States. He knew many of them well, from Harlem to Havana: Malcolm X, the Robert and Mable Williams family, Assata Shakur, the Black Panthers, the Young Lords and the League of Revolutionary Black Workers.
Throughout the Americas – Guatemala, Grenada, Puerto Rico, ancestral spirits led the way. In Nicaragua, it was Sandino, and in Mexico, the revolutionaries, Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata. In the 1970s, the Comandante sent tens of thousands of troops with heavy artillery and fighter planes, teachers and doctors, to tackle the racist white settler governments and wrestle victory on the side of the African liberation fighters of Angola, South Africa, Rhodesia, Namibia. The giant, rich imperialists trembled at the sound of African drums and warriors returning home after centuries of captivity. On each continent the goal was the same: equality and dignity for our indigenous, our enslaved, our women and our children.
To call the names of these giants, sons and daughters of truth, who fought for the poor and oppressed, it is not enough to read false corporate news on dead trees or witness the march of live propaganda on the Internet. One must stand upon the highest peak of the Sierra Maestras, or soar with eagles across the ferocious sun. As Marti would ask about the urgency of liberty: “Why live if one cannot move across the Earth like a comet moves across the heavens?
Fidel, a rugged son of Cuba, was known as “the Horse” because he worked so hard and for such long hours. Comandante Fidel could be seen surrounded by villagers on the ground fixing a refrigerator, or cutting tall sugar cane with his machete. On the other side of the island, he might be found talking to college students or factory workers. In the mountains, he was blazing paths for new homes and collective farms for peasants. He made mistakes for sure – and he announced his mistakes and those of his government for all to hear during the July 26 commemorations. On one of those occasions, a farmer argued with Comandante Fidel that the project involving importing cows to improve the quality of the local herd had not been successful. Fidel stopped his speech, turned to the farmer, conversed with him until the problem was understood and an alternative plan was conceived. Then he returned to the audience and his speech — until there was another interruption.
The U.S. government attack on the people of Cuba has continued since the War of 1898, in which the U.S. seized from Spain the colonies of Cuba, the Philippines and Puerto Rico. By its own admission, the CIA hired pilots to drop poison on Cuban crops, attempted to assassinate Fidel over 600 times, blew up bridges and infrastructure, burned sugar cane fields, bombed harbors, interrupted communication signals and pushed their own U.S. propaganda. The CIA recruited other Cubans, mostly White, to a privileged lifestyle in Florida, with special immigration status, in exchange for participating in the ongoing plot to overthrow the revolutionary government and re-establish U.S. colonialism. And most important, Washington established a military-economic blockade against the socialist island, whose main income has been sugar cane and tourism. Other nations were prohibited from trading with Cuba or they would be punished by “Massa in the White House.” Spare parts for vehicles and machinery, new equipment and commercial and consumer goods were banned. Medicine, medical equipment, and even baby’s milk were banned. U.S. tourists, journalists, scholars, and families were prohibited from travel without State Department permission. This blockade of 54 years has contributed to the overall stagnation of the Cuban economy, prevented the country from industrializing, and prevented it from becoming the best that it can be among agricultural nations. However, these crucial facts are seldom mentioned in context or depth by the U.S. government or corporate media when reporting on Cuba or its leaders. The lies of U.S. government and the media have persisted since Cuba won independence in 1959 and continue to this day.
In spite of all of Washington’s criminal assaults, the Cuban people continue to outsmart the gentlemen of Wall Street and the State Department. Even after the crash of the USSR, which was a major trading partner until 1989, the Cubans continue to lead the world in health care and education. Cuba has responded with overwhelming generosity to offer medical service in many of the world’s health crises in Africa, Asia and South America. Cuban doctors, mostly women, will be found in the most remote places on Earth, the most distant jungle, desert or mountain, where many doctors of the host nation will not go. The Cuban government sponsors a full scholarship program for people of color in the U.S. to study medicine and language in Cuba with the stipulation that they return to the U.S. upon graduation and serve poor communities. When we suffered the ravages of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, there were 1500 Cuban medics sitting in the airport in Cuba, fully packed, ready to come to New Orleans, but the U.S. President would not allow them to come here because Cubans are “communists.” The Cubans also offered to assist first responders in New York following the bombing on 9/11, but were rebuffed by the U.S. President.
In the many places where Cuban military barracks stood before the revolution, there are now residences for scholarship youth from the remote rural areas of the country. An entire Island, the Isle of Pines, formerly a prison during the time of the U.S.-backed dictator, Batista, is now called the Isle of Youth, focused on education and development for the population.
Immediately after the revolution of 1959, most of the medical professionals fled the island, leaving the new government to start from the beginning. Today, instead of catering exclusively to the rich, most Cuban medical schools are filled with the sons and daughters of workers, trade unionists, sugar cane and hog farmers, soldiers, sailors and teachers, most of whom had only minimal access to any type of medical treatment prior to the revolution.
Despite the Herculean efforts of the most powerful imperialist nation in the world to undermine the Cuban revolution, from this tiny island in the Caribbean, the spirit of Fidel continues to inspire current and future movements to build new men and new women for a better world. The Cuban revolution’s support for peoples’ liberation throughout the Americas, and its boots-on-the-ground solidarity with Mother Africa in the long battles against apartheid and colonialism, continue to be heralded wherever there are defiant whispers or bold shouts for justice.
Prof. Charles E. Simmons is Co-Director with his wife, Rev. Sandra Simmons, at the Hush House Black Community Museum and Leadership Training Institute for Human Rights and the Simmons Center for Peace and Justice Studies. His book, Detroit Black Youth Confront the Cuban Revolution, will be published in Spring 2017.