When I became a correspondent covering the Caribbean and portions of Latin America—my first overseas job for the New York Times—in the spring of 1990, Cuba’s then-leader Fidel Castro already seemed like an antiquated figure to many observers, a literal greybeard at the age of 63.
This impression was accentuated for me in part due to the youthfulness of his country’s population, not to mention my own. It also derived from political history, as well as the geopolitical context of the moment. Castro had already been in power since 1959, making him one of the longest-serving leaders in the world. But the global currents at the time of my arrival were shifting rapidly, with regimes that embraced Marxism-Leninism suddenly toppling in bunches.
I recall the thrill that I felt during my first trips to the island that year to be working as a reporter at a very special moment in history. During one such visit, I stood for several minutes engaging one-on-one with Castro himself at a reception, after he had delivered a lengthy, defiant speech in which he vowed that Cubans would rather die than give up on socialism. Later, I interviewed the country’s vice president. And I also took stock from other members of the embattled leadership, like Julio Garcia Oliveras, a Central Committee member, who told me, with regard to the combination of the ongoing American economic embargo and Moscow’s dwindling trade subsidies at the time, “People look at us and say, ‘The water is up to your neck.’”
This was also the only time in my career that I interviewed a Soviet diplomat, given that the country would soon no longer exist, and his message was grim: Cuba would have to open up. It would have to embrace elements of capitalism, he told me, and ultimately reconcile with its rich and hostile neighbor to the north, the United States.
In the intervening years, Cuba’s leaders have tinkered with its state-controlled economic system in many ways. I was in the country when it launched large-scale tourism, hoping to milk the winter vacation dollars of rich Canadians and Europeans to make up for lost Soviet assistance. I witnessed its halting early experiments with household capitalism, when it allowed citizens to operate informal restaurants out of their own homes. As everyone knew, this was, in fact, a tacit acknowledgment of two grim realities. With so many people struggling, there was no way to prevent Cubans from engaging in trade among themselves in this way. And for those who did, it was often because this was the only way they could get by.
I witnessed periods of relative political relaxation, where some degree of dissent was tolerated, provided that critics didn’t question the fundamental legitimacy of Communist Party rule. And I saw crackdowns firsthand, including being summoned to the Foreign Ministry and presented with surveillance evidence that I had spoken with Cuban critics the state had designated as its enemies, and then escorted to the airport for expulsion from the country.
It was not until much later, long after I had moved on from covering this region, that a real thaw with the United States came, in 2015 under then-President Barack Obama. But it, too, didn’t last. One can dispute some of the causes, but the election of Donald Trump in 2016 was a leading factor. With that development, the United States reverted to giving primacy in its Cuban policy to electoral considerations in Florida, where a large community of exiles from the island, by now including second- and third-generation immigrants, vote Republican on the basis of hostility to the Castros and the system they built.
The Castros’ system did surprisingly little to usher Blacks into powerful roles in the society.
Lately, it is I who has become the greybeard, now roughly the age of Fidel Castro when I encountered him all those years ago. The time and distance have allowed me to see a few things about Cuba with more dispassion, and hopefully greater clarity. What I see is an unusually rich mixture of good and bad in Cuba’s story over the past six decades, a fact that too few people who are drawn to the topic seem willing to recognize, in either direction.
I’ll start with the positive. Cuba was truly ripe for a progressive revolution when Fidel Castro took over, and the reasons for this relate strongly to the politics of American engagement with Latin America and the Caribbean in the early 20th century and throughout the Cold War. This was an era of violently repressive and patently racist dictatorships, a cast of characters whose honor roll constitutes some of the worst leaders in the world of that time. Space considerations here only allow for a partial list, including the Somoza dynasty of Nicaragua, Rafael Trujillo of the Dominican Republic, Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier—and his son, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc”—of Haiti, Alfredo Stroessner of Paraguay, and of course Fulgencio Batista of Cuba. These caudillos ruled brutally and mostly concentrated wealth and land ownership in the hands of reactionary, minority white elites. They owed their longevity in power in large part to their deference to American anti-communism, and to U.S. corporate investment drawn by the low wages earned by brown-skinned peasants.
Fidel Castro’s revolution rode to power on the promise of social equity and the abolition of corruption, and in more ways than his critics are willing to recognize, it delivered. Education and public health received particular attention, with Cuba soon surpassing the performance of many Latin American countries, and in the case of measures like infant mortality, surpassing the United States, as well.
As an African American journalist, I found Cuba to be an especially challenging place to think about. Racial inequality on the island has almost certainly declined since the era of right-wing dictatorship, a fact that the mostly white Cuban immigrants who predominate in South Florida politics have seldom had much to say about. At the same time, progress in integrating elite Cuban politics has been glacial. The Castros themselves came from entirely white, Spanish stock, and their system did surprisingly little to usher Black Cubans into powerful roles in the society.
As a writer with a lifelong interest in Africa, I give strong credit to the Cuban government for its history of engagement with that continent. At considerable sacrifice, it put itself on the right side of history in Africa, helping defeat Western-backed regimes and rebel movements that were closely aligned with or dependent upon apartheid-era South Africa. I began writing about this long ago, including on the topic of persistent American disinformation about Cuba’s role in African conflicts. In Angola, especially, Cuba spent its own money and expended its own blood in order to combat the allies of apartheid. Cuba has stepped up in many other important ways in Africa since then, as well, by sending medical doctors and public health experts to help out in numerous African countries.
A country cannot live on its past laurels, though, a reality that the United States itself seems increasingly confronted with. During frequent visits to Cuba in the early 1990s, I was struck by the dissonance between the things that people in government told me and what I heard in the streets and in private conversations in people’s homes. Officials insisted that allegiance to Castro, in person and in name, would be eternal, and that to deviate from the revolutionary road of the leadership would be to embrace indignity, slavery and even national suicide. The ordinary people I met often told me a different story, though. They would listen to the first five or 10 minutes of Castro’s famously long speeches to see if there was anything truly new, and if not, as usually seemed the case, they would tune out. They longed for news about how the government would finally resolve their longstanding material hardship, and for some sign that the system the Castros built would admit and respect some of the most basic human rights, particularly those of free speech and association. These yearnings were only strengthened by the halting introduction of the internet, which I also witnessed in Cuba.
Black Cubans were not alone in this regard, but already back then, they seemed particularly disenchanted. The Cuban state has certainly not had things easy in the intervening years, but it is hard to escape the conviction that it has failed to find a formula for economic revival and prosperity for the island’s people, and that is not solely, and some would say not even mostly, a matter of the American embargo. Personally, I am persuaded that the best way for Washington to encourage positive change on the island is to drop restrictions on trade with Cuba, thus removing the one-size-fits-all rationale that the Cuban state has long used to justify its management of life and governance in the country. Under President Joe Biden, this seems unlikely, though, given how close the Electoral College race has been in recent American elections. Where Cuba is concerned, South Florida politics only celebrate pain.
In the meantime, Black Cubans seem to have found their voices, accounting for much of the energy in the protests that have roiled the island in recent weeks, adding to the imperative of economic reinvention and expanded space for free expression. The Cuban state has long been in denial about the existence of racial problems in the country, but one way or another, whether through a degree of continuity or outright rupture, a new sort of revolution seems unavoidable: one that takes account of the longstanding underrepresentation of Black and mixed-race people—and actually does something about it.