Bright Lights

The death of Fidel Castro brought to a close an entire era, in which a single figure on a small Caribbean island could dictate whole arenas of American emotional life. Since the Cuban revolution in 1959, the United States has been obsessed not with Cuba, not with communism, but with Fidel.

Sanders in Philadelphia, Castro ad mortem

Photographs by Lorie Shaull and Ricardo Stuckert.

Bernie Sanders passed through Philadelphia last night on tour for his new campaign memoir, Our Revolution. He was in good, blustery form: sarcastic, dark, self-aggrandizing. He came to talk about the book, he said. “But I have the feeling there are one or two other things on your mind,” he said, to widespread, uncomfortable laughter. He spoke about the threat of voter suppression, about the catastrophic effects of climate change, about the asphyxiating control of corporate media. It remains astonishing that so gloomy a figure could also be one of the few bright lights at the dawn of the Trump era.

Since the Democrats botched the election, murmurs of the superior appeal of Sandersismo over Clintonoia have grown into a full-throated chorus. Polls mark him as the most popular political figure in the country. Even Chuck Schumer, darling of the banksters, was moved to appoint Sanders as outreach chair for the Senate Democrats, and Sanders has been throwing his weight around accordingly. He (and Schumer!) mooted Keith Ellison, leftwing Democratic congressman from Minnesota, as a candidate for chair of the Democratic National Committee—a position last held ingloriously by Debbie Wasserman Schultz. A movement is afoot and the Party’s neoliberal wing is bracing the dikes against the hungry tide. When the Obama administration isn’t silently allowing protesters to get their arms blown off over the Dakota Access Pipeline, Obama’s advisers, according to the New York Times, have been hurrying to scuttle the Ellison nomination, fearful that the President’s legacy of pre-emptive compromise will be compromised.

The growing alliance between Sanders and the Democratic Party—his being in a position as it were to save the Party from itself—has been a source of disquiet for those who feel that his movement could go in other directions. On stage at the main branch of the Free Library, Sanders was interviewed by Amy Goodman of Democracy Now!, who admirably pushed him on the two-party “duopoly,” and the innovations of the Obama presidency—the extrajudicial “kill list,” for example—that the grotesque Trump will inherit. You knew these weren’t questions that he was ready to confront, because he would sink back into a deeper slouch, his voice dropping to a quiet guttural croak, as he offered, “That’s a fair point. That’s a fair point.” When Sanders is slipping into the well-worn groove of his talking points—income and wealth inequality—the volume is more likely to turn up higher than the room can plausibly bear. But when Goodman asked him about the possibility of a future independent run for President, he demurred quietly, indicating that his efforts were focused on “transforming the Democratic Party,” in a tone that exuded concession rather than triumph. Sanders’s other effort in this vein—also called Our Revolution—is off to a bad start, with many of its staff having resigned over the appointment of the much-loathed Jeff Weaver as its director. It remains to be seen whether it develops into a real alternative force, or something more akin to MoveOn—a way of generating dollars and door-knocking for already existing “progressive” candidates.

The conversation exited the distorting gravitational pull of the US when it drifted to Fidel Castro. Here, too, Sanders was circumspect, cautiously lauding the island’s health care and education systems, while admitting the lack of real avenues for dissent, and that “the economy is in bad shape,” and not just because of the US embargo. He took the opportunity nonetheless to lambast the media, as he is wont to do. On ABC’s Sunday morning show, Martha Raddatz had played a clip of him praising Castro from the mid-1980s—a form of redbaiting. The memory sent Sanders into a peroration—common for Sanders but unusual among American elected officials—about Mossadegh, Arbenz, Allende. It was a reminder that Sanders the non-Democrat had once been a friend to Marxist regimes in the region, and during the high point of Sandinista rule had made Burlington a sister city to Managua.

The death of Fidel Castro brought to a close an entire era, in which a single figure on a small Caribbean island could dictate whole arenas of American emotional life. Since the Cuban revolution in 1959, the United States has been obsessed not with Cuba, not with communism, but with Fidel. It was only his ceding of power to Raúl that permitted Obama, a longtime opponent of the embargo, to initiate the opening. Until then Fidel had remained, even after the fall of the Soviet Union, an overarching nightmare for the US. He had put a dent in the Monroe Doctrine, a traumatic experience for a country unused to having its advances checked in its own hemisphere. His advance to power was, in the words of Kennedy administration officials, a “humiliation” of the United States. As the scholar Louis A. Perez Jr. has argued, Castro remained a bogeyman because he was an undying embodiment of the limits of US power.

The obsession with Castro following the Cuban Revolution was total and virtually unyielding. In 1962, a White House task force had asserted that “a solution to the Cuban problem today carries the top priority of the United States Government—all else is secondary—no time, money, effort, or manpower is to be spared.” Later administrations would partake in the pathology. “Cuba was a neuralgic problem for Nixon,” Henry Kissinger would later recall. “There’ll be no change toward that bastard while I’m President,” one of Nixon’s aides reported him as saying. Even after the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of Comecon cratered the Cuban economy, the US passed legislation—Torricelli in 1992 and Helms-Burton in 1996—that sought to deliver the coup de grâce to Castro by punishing the already suffering Cuban people.

Insofar as the United States is a country eminently deserving of constant humiliation, Castro was a hero. And, gratifyingly, he humiliated the US everywhere: by supporting insurgency in Angola, by supporting Mandela, by sending doctors to independent South Africa and Chavez’s Venezuela. The wave of guerrilla activity that swept Latin America in the 1960s and 70s owed its source to Cuba and to Castro; so, too, did the more recent wave of democratically elected leftist governments in Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, and elsewhere. If the foundational novelists of the Latin American “boom”—Rulfo and Carpentier—preceded the revolution, its high noon—García Marquez, Cortázar, Fuentes, Vargas Llosa—postdated it and owed significant vitality to that central, political earthquake.

Many of the Left governments have now lost their way, losing electorally or foundering over problems that have, in part, dogged Cuba. This is the central problem of governments owing their power to social movements attempting to override or circumvent those movements. Both Correa in Ecuador and Evo Morales in Bolivia have battled once-supportive indigenous groups over resource extraction. Chavismo, even at its high point, was a constant process of negotiating between popular organizations and the footloose aims of the administration.

In Cuba, the lack of democratic participation has often been exaggerated, ignoring features like the consejos populares that formed one of the various robust organs of Cuban civil society since the ’90s. Still, Castro’s anti-imperialism remains at odds with the inflexible hegemony he held at home. His closeness to the Soviet Union was among his worst liabilities, influencing his attitudes toward foreign and cultural affairs alike. He supported the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and imprisoned the poet Heberto Padilla, one of many gestures that alienated even his fiercest supporters.

Going into the sixth decade after the Revolution, Cuba’s economy is not nearly so bad as Sanders made it out to be. In terms of life expectancy, infant mortality, and GDP per capita, it has done better than nearly all of the so-called “transition” states (e.g. Vietnam, China, Russia, the countries of the former Yugoslavia) that have moved wholesale from command-and-control economies to capitalism. Even as concessions to market mechanisms increase, the state maintains a salutary role in preserving the welfare of the Cuban citizenry. A full end to the disastrous trade embargo—implicitly promised under Obama, now threatened by Trump—would go some way toward improving, not just preserving, that welfare. It bears repeating that the welfare state’s pillars were erected by Fidel and the Cuban people, under the greatest peril and in situations of constant threat from the US. Their persistence is deserving of the Left’s enduring respect and admiration. Hasta siempre, comandante.

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