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Fidel: Muchísmas Gracias Por Todo

The news of Fidel Castro’s death couldn’t have been a big surprise to anyone: he was 90.  And though he did seem to go on and on, to emerge and then re-emerge from periods of silence to comment, always with rigor, and often bitingly, on events of the day, mostly in Granma–occasionally reprinted here in Counterpunch–he was old enough that an end had to arrive one day soon.

And why not now, as the planet surges towards disaster on so many fronts, most of which he foresaw and called upon us to avoid?  The end looks to be closing in and while we can’t know the future, it surely isn’t a bad time to slip out if your opus is complete, if you have given your all and made your contribution.

Personally, I don’t think there is any question about Fidel’s contribution, his dedication to humanity, his brilliance.  True: Cuba is not paradise.  It is not perfect.  But we might well ask, sitting here in the heart of darkness: compared to what?  Fidel and his fellow revolutionaries held aloft a vision of what might be, of a national community that values its members and their lives, not simply with words, but with toil, with sacrifice, with action. And they worked against the odds (as well as the US embargo) to bring together vision and reality in their own country, to support that movement in other countries, and to carry the visionary torch for those of us who have needed to hope that humanity contained the essential goodness required to redeem itself.

Fidel was a luminary, and he inspired more lives than can ever be known or counted.  Some are well-documented, like this century’s exciting roster of South American leaders on the left.  Like Nelson Mandela.  But perhaps just as important, there are untold little lives, quiet lives, ones that will never be recorded or remembered, which were changed in fundamental ways by Fidel Castro and the Cuban revolution.

Such as the 60-year-old taxi driver who drove me from José Martí International Airport to La Habana. He told me that he was twelve at the time of the revolution, with no shoes, no food, and no prospect of education.  His spoke of his great love and loyalty to the revolution, and to Fidel, for bringing him these profound but simple necessities, for changing the course of his life.  Or the elderly black woman whose stately home in the Vedado section of the city was assigned to her specifically because of Castro’s aggressive program to balance racial disparity amongst Cubans.  She had never thought to have her own house, much less one that made her feel proud, one that made her feel she really belonged.  My young African American daughters breathed in the air of her self-assurance and dignity, and they carried some of it away within themselves.

Castro’s net was cast wide, reaching people all over the world.  International Cuban humanitarian and medical missions, for instance, are fairly well-known even in the US, and have saved and improved countless lives on several continents.  Ambassadors of Cuban culture and the arts—most notably music, dance, and literature–spread joy and beauty far beyond the island’s shores. Cuba’s political and tactical support for liberation struggles played an important role in ending apartheid and overthrowing colonial rule in a number of nations.

But he found his way into unexpected and unsuspecting hearts and minds as well. My father travelled a great deal for work in the 1960s and happened to be on one of the first planes hijacked to Cuba.  He and his fellow passengers were met by Fidel at the airport, welcomed to Havana (at length!), put up in a well-appointed hotel, generously plied with rum and cigars and good Cuban food.  They stayed for several days, and my father returned home with great stories, a new respect for and connection to the country, and a thick volume of Cuban poetry, which I quickly purloined.

Much has been written about the Cuban Revolution, and more will follow now, in the wake of Castro’s death.  Serious students will debate its successes (even as the revolution’s accomplishments are eroded) and Fidel’s role will be further scrutinized and deconstructed.  Likely, new original source material will become available and scholars will analyze it. This is as it should be. Fidel made history and yes, Mr. Obama, history will judge him.  (Frankly, I doubt that this prospect cost Fidel many hours’ sleep, though Obama himself might well be doing some tossing and turning these days.)

As the Cuban people undertake nine days of mourning, I want—for a moment—to step back from the political and the historical, and to join them in honoring this man, whose passion, integrity and commitment to making a better world allowed him to touch an extraordinary range of ordinary human beings. In my own small and very personal way, I want to share gratitude for the light he shone upon my journey, and to celebrate from that perspective a remarkable life, one lived large and with great heart. He was a beacon for me, for so many of us, an oft-needed reminder in a world where corruption and venality are everywhere, that the political sphere can indeed be a platform for creating good, alleviating suffering, and transforming the lives of the people in tangible and profound ways. He was, although far from without flaw, a true rarity, a living testament to the potential of power guided by love.

Today, I unearthed a letter which I sent him on the occasion of his 85th birthday.  Because of the restrictions placed on communication by the US embargo, I had to send it through a fairly convoluted route and never had any certainty that it reached Cuba at all.  That was fine; it was an appreciation I needed to make regardless of whether it was received.  Rendered in English, I offer it up again now, one small blossom in a massive floral tribute laid before the legacy of a man who truly changed the world he lived in, one person at a time.

13 August 2011

Dr. Fidel Castro Ruz
c/o Embassy of Switzerland
Cuban Interest Section
2630 16 St. N W.
Washington D.C. 20009.

Your Excellency,

Firstly, please pardon my poor Spanish.  I wish that I were fluent in your beautiful language so that I could more fully express my appreciation.

I understand that today is your birthday, and thus, I have the opportunity to offer you my very best wishes for good health and happiness in the year ahead.

Also, I want to tell you how great an influence you have been on my life.  Since my youth, I have admired you and the revolution you led. As a teenager, I had a dream of coming to Cuba to cut cane side by side with the campañeros.  Three years ago, I finally had the chance to visit your country for the first time, to meet and get to know the kind, welcoming and courageous Cuban people, and to see your historic and beautiful land.

I am a simple American woman, without particular political power, trying to live an honorable and honest life, who has profound respect for you and for all the men and women who made the revolution–the Cuban people–and for the radical example you have all created: a society based on justice, equality and humanity. You are a magnificent inspiration.

You have a grand heart, Fidel.  A thousand thanks for everything you have done and been.

With gratitude and warm affection and a hearty birthday embrace,

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Elizabeth West lives, writes and strives to find beauty and joy less than half a mile from the Chevron refinery in Richmond CA. She can be reached at elizabethwest@sonic.net or via her website.  

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