Take the Icon, Leave Us The Ashes: On Fidel Castro's Death And Its Cuban Survivors

Take the Icon, Leave Us The Ashes: On Fidel Castro's Death And Its Cuban Survivors
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Fidel Castro left on the night of November 25th.

Where did he go?

After watching the deluge of lachrymose obituaries and jubilant parties throughout the world, paradise and hell seem to be the two most popular destinations waiting, after a nine-day commemorative pilgrimage from Havana to the Santa Ifigenia cemetery in Santiago de Cuba, for the ashes of the 90-year old leader of the Cuban revolution.

Paradise or hell? His followers and his opponents used to argue against each other from their respective podiums. Whether in Havana's Revolution Square or in Miami's Cuban restaurant Versailles, their deafening noises have triumphed over any possibility of a clear and productive reasoning.

Paradise or hell, or paradise and hell, it doesn't matter after all.

For me, what is really important right now are the survivors: a multitude of Cubans of all ages, races, cultures, political and religious beliefs scattered over five continents, surrounded by voices from all over the world who claim to be equally affected by Fidel Castro's demise.

When current Cuban president Raúl Castro announced his death, I didn't know how to react. I wasn't truly sad or glad, not even indifferent. Most certainly, I wasn't surprised. Fidel Castro's absence from the political arena since 2006, when he ceded the presidency to his brother, progressively swept him off Cubans' everyday life. He had become a specter from a past era, buried by the State controlled economic liberalization and by the notorious increase of social, economic and racial inequalities. Also, after two decades living in Europe and the United States, I have personally managed to limit his influence in my day-to-day routine. Absolute oblivion, however, has been impossible. Born in Havana in the 1970s, and having spent my first 20 years on the island, I cannot pretend now to be totally free from Fidel Castro's impact in my being. Call it the memory of the flesh. For better or worse, for our enjoyment or pain, he has shaped our lives. He worked hard to be identified as Cuba, as its totality, and, alas, we maybe have to credit him for his success: for almost half a century, Fidel Castro ruled the island and systematically found ways to interfere in our intimate existence, his presence has been constant in everything we do, everywhere we go, what we eat, what we study, how we dress and decorate our homes, how and whom we love or hate, he burst even into our dreams and nightmares. And now, in the first days of his afterlife, he's still haunting us.

Such firm hold on human beings obligates us to closely examine the existential dimensions of his controversial and manifold legacy, which goes beyond the political realm. It's embedded in our deepest emotions and personal experiences. What I gather from the current brouhaha lamenting or celebrating this death is that everyone keeps his or her own Fidel Castro in the flesh. Each experience seems unique and non-transferrable. The poor and illiterate countrywoman converted in college student in the 1960s and 70s, the cousin of this very same countrywoman whose father -allegedly a counter-revolutionary conspirator- was executed by a firing squad, the Black Cuban that earned a Ph.D. in Nuclear Engineering in Moscow, and the homosexual and practitioner of the Yoruba-rooted religion Santeria or Regla de Ocha confined to the infamous rehabilitation camps known as UMAP; they all experienced differently Fidel Castro's power. The kid from Luanda that was able to complete his basic education thanks to a Cuban teacher, the Chilean student who escaped in extremis Augusto Pinochet's secret police and enjoyed decades of comfortable life in Havana, the Haitian woman rescued by a Cuban doctor, that African American man that will be always moved by the pictures of Fidel Castro meeting Malcolm X at the Hotel Theresa in Harlem in 1960, even those Latin American or European leftists in urgent need of a myth strong enough to save their political choices, have personal reasons to grieve over Castro's death.

I understand and respect the sadness of all the wretched of the Earth who have seen Fidel Castro as their savior and consequently mourn his death.

As a Black Cuban, I have always been particularly concerned with the fate of the African nations. However, every time I hear or read a praise of Fidel Castro's role in the African emancipatory movements, I can't help it but to travel back in time and return to the body of the little girl I was in the 1980s. The one who never knew when her father, fighting a war she couldn't understand in a country she couldn't imagine, would return home, or if he would ever come back. Yes, my father was a Cuban warrior in Angola. Eventually, he came back. He was never the same person that he used to be before his war experiences in Africa and my family has been broken since then. Still, I was fortunate. Many others -an estimate of 10,000 Cubans- died in Angola. Their return, inside solemn coffins covered by the Cuban flag, was devastating. That was a real, nationwide funeral. 1989! The actual end of an era.

These scars remain in our Cuban flesh. They are part of our national trauma, and even though nobody can endure the other's pain, we must at least respect it.
Now, can the world respect the right of all Cubans, those who live on the island and abroad, to react to Fidel Castro's death as they please? Why should judges that can only see, in Fidel Castro, the iconic revolutionary figure, criticize our internal differences as Cubans? Why do some of them even seem to take pleasure in stirring our conflicts, throwing invectives against either islander Cubans or the exiled ones?

Solidarity should not travel in only one direction.

For those who in the past benefited from Cuba's internationalism, probably the best gesture of solidarity toward the human beings that fought their fights, built their roads, taught their kids, and healed their people, those who actually accomplished the desires of Fidel Castro, might be to restrain themselves from attacking Cubans for the different ways in which they respond to the passing of the man who determined their fate.

These days, he has been publicly called the Father of all revolutionaries and a Super Hero, or a brutal dictator, even a Devil; always a mythical figure, unreachable, something bigger than us, his survivors. His death was coincidentally announced the same day, November 25th, that the yacht "Granma" departed from Mexico in 1956, carrying the guerrilleros commanded by Castro, ready to restart the revolution. Funeral rituals last nine days -as the novena traditionally observed by Catholics- during which his ashes will travel through the island following in reverse the same itinerary of the revolutionary forces in 1958, which culminated with the triumphal entry in Havana. Last but not least, his ashes will be buried on December 4th, when Catholics celebrate Santa Barbara, which is even more venerated by Cubans as its Yoruba equivalent, Shango, identified as the god of virility, royalty, ferocity, and courage.

Overwhelmed by this puzzling profusion of speeches, gun salutes, grandiloquent poems, religious and historical rituals, it might be difficult to see what is hidden behind the myth.

Oh! These are the Cubans. And we are humans, not symbols. We are alive, while the ex-president's ashes are on their way to a terminus: neither paradise nor hell. Just plain earth.

We, the survivors, have no legitimate reasons to continue insulting and fighting against each other. Instead, we should start listening what each of us has to say.

This is a great opportunity for us to learn how to exist without our old good and bad faux-certainties, just by ourselves, with our very own bodies, breath after breath.

Meanwhile, those who cannot live without myths are cordially invited to take the icon with them. Leave us the ashes. Their journey is coming to an end, anyway.

*Thanks to Prof. James Buckwalter for the attentive reading of this text.

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