Why Blacks Worldwide Had Complex Relationship With Fidel Castro

Cuban leader was viewed as friend to Africa

Fidel Castro
HAVANA - MAY 14: Cuban President Fidel Castro gives a speech in front of the U.S. Interest Section May 14, 2004 in Havana. Castro led a massive protest march against new U.S. moves aimed at speeding the end of his communist rule, and raised the prospect of a feared U.S. invasion. Jorge Rey / Getty Images News

When Fidel Castro died on Nov. 25, 2016, Cuban exiles in the United States celebrated the demise of a man they called an evil dictator. Castro committed a series of human rights abuses, they said, silencing political dissidents by imprisoning or killing them. U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio  (R-Florida) summed up the feelings of many Cuban Americans about Castro in a statement he released after the ruler’s passing.

“Sadly, Fidel Castro’s death does not mean freedom for the Cuban people or justice for the democratic activists, religious leaders, and political opponents he and his brother have jailed and persecuted,” Rubio said. “The dictator has died, but the dictatorship has not. And one thing is clear, history will not absolve Fidel Castro; it will remember him as an evil, murderous dictator who inflicted misery and suffering on his own people.”

In contrast, blacks throughout the African Diaspora viewed Castro through a more complicated lens. He may have been a brutal dictator but he was also an ally to Africa, an anti-imperialist who eluded assassination attempts by the U.S. government and a champion of education and healthcare. Castro supported the efforts of African nations to liberate themselves from colonial rule, opposed apartheid and granted exile to a prominent African American radical. But along with these deeds, Castro faced criticism from blacks during the years before his death because of racism’s persistence in Cuba.

An Ally to Africa

Castro proved himself to be a friend to Africa as various countries there fought for independence during the 1960s and ’70s. After Castro’s death, Bill Fletcher, Black Radical Congress founder, discussed the unique relationship between the Cuban Revolution in 1959 and Africa on the "Democracy Now!" radio program.

“The Cubans were very supportive of the Algerian struggle against the French, which succeeded in 1962,” Fletcher said. “They went on to support the various anti-colonial movements in Africa, including in particular the anti-Portuguese movements in Guinea-Bissau, Angola and Mozambique. And they were unquestioning in their support for the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa.”

Cuba’s support to Angola as the West African nation fought for independence from Portugal in 1975 set into motion apartheid’s end. Both the Central Intelligence Agency and the apartheid government of South Africa tried to thwart the revolution, and Russia objected to Cuba intervening in the conflict. That didn't deter Cuba from getting involved, however.

The 2001 documentary "Fidel: The Untold Story" chronicles how Castro sent 36,000 troops to keep South African forces from attacking Angola’s capital city and more than 300,000 Cubans aided in Angola’s independence struggle — 2,000 of whom were killed during the conflict. In 1988, Castro sent in even more troops, which helped to overcome the South African army and, thus, advance the mission of black South Africans.

But Castro didn’t stop there. In 1990, Cuba also played a role in helping Namibia win independence from South Africa, another blow to the apartheid government.

After Nelson Mandela was freed from prison in 1990, he repeatedly thanked Castro. 

“He was a hero in Africa, Latin America and North America for those who needed freedom from oligarchic and autocratic oppression,” the Rev. Jesse Jackson said of Castro in a statement about the Cuban leader’s death. “While Castro unfortunately denied many political freedoms, he at the same time did establish many economic freedoms — education and health care. He changed the world. While we may not agree with all of Castro’s actions, we can accept his lesson that where there is oppression there must be resistance.”

Black Americans like Jackson have long expressed admiration for Castro, who famously met with Malcolm X in Harlem in 1960 and sought out meetings with other black leaders.

Mandela and Castro

South Africa’s Nelson Mandela publicly praised Castro for his support of the anti-apartheid struggle.

The military support Castro sent to Angola helped to destabilize the apartheid regime and pave the way for new leadership. While Castro stood on the right side of history, as far as apartheid was concerned, the U.S. government is said to have been involved in Mandela’s 1962 arrest and even characterized him as a terrorist. Moreover, President Ronald Reagan vetoed the Anti-Apartheid Act.

When Mandela was released from prison after serving 27 years for his political activism, he described Castro as an “inspiration to all freedom-loving people.”

He applauded Cuba for remaining independent in spite of fierce opposition from imperialist nations such as the United States. He said that South Africa also wished “to control our own destiny” and publicly asked Castro to visit.

“I haven’t visited my South African homeland yet,” Castro said. “I want it, I love it as a homeland. I love it as a homeland as I love you and the South African people.”

The Cuban leader finally traveled to South Africa in 1994 to watch Mandela become its first black president. Mandela faced criticism for supporting Castro but kept his promise not to ignore his allies in the fight against apartheid.

Why Black Americans Admire Castro

African Americans have long felt a kinship to the people of Cuba given the island-nation’s considerable black population. As Sam Riddle, political director of Michigan’s National Action Network told the Associated Press, “It was Fidel who fought for the human rights for black Cubans. Many Cubans are as black as any black who worked the fields of Mississippi or lived in Harlem.

He believed in medical care and education for his people.”

Castro ended segregation after the Cuban Revolution and gave asylum to Assata Shakur (nee Joanne Chesimard), a black radical who fled there after a 1977 conviction for killing a state trooper in New Jersey. Shakur has denied wrongdoing.

But Riddle’s portrayal of Castro as a race relations hero may be somewhat romanticized given that black Cubans are overwhelmingly poor, underrepresented in positions of power and locked out of jobs in the country’s burgeoning tourism industry, where lighter skin appears to be a prerequisite to entry.

In 2010, 60 prominent African Americans, including Cornel West and filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles, issued a letter attacking Cuba's human rights record, especially as it related to black political dissidents. They expressed concern that the Cuban government had “increased violations of civil and human rights for those black activists in Cuba who dare raise their voices against the island's racial system.” The letter also called for the release from prison of black activist and physician Darsi Ferrer.

Castro’s revolution may have promised equality for blacks, but he was ultimately unwilling to engage those who pointed out that racism remained. The Cuban government responded to the concerns of the African American group by simply denouncing their statement.