‘Elated and dismayed’
Fidel Castro’s death and legacy bring mixed feelings for one Cuban-American
Iowe my life, political views and Cuban identity to Fidel Castro. I despise him and thank him for that. My father was born in Havana and my mother was born on the opposite end of the island in Manzanillo. Were it not for my grandparents’ disgust with the Castro regime, my parents would never have met as young Cuban exiles. And I would not have been born as an American in Florida.
Like other second-generation Americans of Cuban heritage, my cultural identity has been a hybrid one wherein America comes first and Cuba comes a close second. I always stand for the national anthem and I always defend our country while critiquing the kinks we still have to work out. Hence, even as my generation has shocked our conservative parents with our liberal ways by exhibiting the very American values they wished were in Cuba — freedom of expression, speech and independent thought — we have always maintained a hard-line conservatism when it comes to Castro and communism.
My vision of Castro was crystallized at an early age when I listened to my maternal grandmother recall the time she shook hands with him as he came down from the mountains during the early days of the revolution. Like many working-class Cubans, she and my grandfather had hopes that the removal of the dictator Fulgencio Batista would improve Cuba. They were in for a rude awakening when Castro espoused Marxism, nationalized industries and abolished the free press.
Castro was a modern-day Judas. As I formed my political ideologies, I was always informed by a distinctly Cuban sense of disenchantment.
I was reminded that soon after Castro’s revolution, my mother, my uncle and their classmates were sent to work at a labor camp. They were in elementary school, and their nimble hands could work wonders in the field as the regime tried to boost its floundering economy.
Don’t just read over that. Imagine the scenario for a moment: The government takes your children from you and forces them to work in a labor camp.
As my grandparents saw it, a free education wasn’t worth much if you didn’t get to choose what you read. Likewise, a free health care system wasn’t worth much if you didn’t have anything to live for. What good was your life if you couldn’t be like Don Quixote and tilt at the windmills, trying to make the world a better place by starting a business, being a rebellious artist or serving in the church? A communist economy without independent thought or freedom to worship was not why their parents and grandparents had left Spain for the New World.
And so both sets of grandparents, independent of each other, immigrated to the U.S. Welcomed with open arms by the United States’ Cuban Adjustment Act, my family became citizens, earned American college degrees, became professionals, bought homes and assimilated to American life with an asterisk.
Miami is where both my liberalism and conservatism flourished. I read voraciously in English and Spanish. I went to hard-rock shows and Gloria Estefan concerts. My parents bought me a brand-new car when I was 16. We went on summer vacations to Europe. I was a middle-class American teenager. We were the bourgeois family that Castro and other Marxists railed against. And we were always thankful for the opportunity to be as much.
Hence, I evolved into a conservative liberal.
I went to college and my politics became more liberal than my parents’ — but never to the point where I blindly embraced Marxism like so many armchair activists and ivory tower philosophers. My family had lived through the “praxis” of so many Marxist “theory” courses. And so, even as I joined the College Democrats and the LGBT group, I was aware of the limits to leftist politics. After all, there is only one political party in Cuba, and gay men were rounded up and sent to concentration camps in Cuba during the 1970s.
And so I find myself elated and dismayed over Castro’s death. Although it is the end of an era, freedom will not materialize in Cuba overnight. Castro’s death is symbolically important. For as much as he will be lionized by those on the left in the coming days, weeks and years, Castro was a reminder from the moment of my conception that freedom is the ability to question your political beliefs and also their limits.
A Cuban flag flutters at half-staff near a banner depicting revolutionary leader Fidel Castro, who died in Havana on Nov. 25.