Annie Paul | ‘Following Fidel’
In October 2016, just before Heroes Day, the current Government passed a bill expunging the criminal records of four national heroes, as well as those of their 'sympathisers, supporters and participants by association', in the rebellions they led. Marcus Garvey had been charged with contempt of court and convicted in 1929 for criticising Jamaica's legal system. Sam Sharpe and Paul Bogle were convicted and hanged for their roles in the 1831-32 Christmas and 1865 Morant Bay rebellions, respectively, while Tacky was implicated in the 1760 St Mary slave revolt.
It has taken approximately 85 to 250 years for history to absolve these men and women, allowing them to be recognised today as the audacious, lion-hearted fighters they were. We can only wonder how many decades it will take the world to recognise Cuba's Fidel Castro as the commanding, awe-inspiring leader he has been.
Suffice it to say that for many of us, Castro's heroism has always been evident, made even more so by the vicious attacks on him by those who still view him as the enemy. For you can't conduct a successful revolt or achieve meaningful change without creating enemies. If the slave owners had pinned medals on Sam Sharpe and Tacky, feted and rewarded them, you know we wouldn't be celebrating them as heroes today.
To understand what produced the likes of a Fidel Castro, you have to know the history of Cuba, its relations with the US and its marauding dictator Batista, whom Castro overthrew in 1959. Stuart Hall documents some of this in Episode 6 of his 1983 TV series on the Caribbean, Redemption Song. Titled Following Fidel, the episode has Hall visiting Cuba, taking a close look at life under the Revolution.
Brothel of the Caribbean
Hall laments "the debased life" that existed under Batista on "an island that was virtually an American colony, with rural poverty widespread, and Havana the brothel of the Caribbean". He mentions the humiliation of Cuba that fuelled the anti-American feeling that gave rise to the revolution. In 1949, a group of drunk US marines urinated on the statue of JosÈ MartÌ, the equivalent to the Cubans of what George Washington is to the United States.
The very next day, the US ambassador at the time, Robert Butler, filmed an apology to the outraged Cuban people.
"I want to take this occasion to apologise to the Cuban people on behalf of the American people, for the incident that happened last evening, at the desecration of the monument of." Butler stops mid-sentence then abruptly departs the stagehe is unable to recall the name of Cuba's most revered hero, JosÈ MartÌ. Talk about adding insult to injury. As Stuart Hall put it:
"Ambassador Butler actually forgot the name of the patron saint of the country to which he was accredited, but Cubans didn't forget. The survivors of the Granma (the yacht that transported Castro, Che Guevara and other insurgents from Mexico to Cuba in 1956) - found support among the peasants in the Sierra Mountains, and after a long and bloody guerrilla war, Fidel and Che entered Havana." Social reform became the hallmark of the Cuban revolution.
The 700 Cuban soldiers he sent to Angola to help the army defend the country against racist South Africa cemented Fidel Castro's place in history, earning him the admiration and love of oppressed people all around the world.
The post-apartheid South African leader, Thabo Mbeki, captured the enormity of what the Cubans had accomplished in this tribute to Castro:
"History will never forget the immense contribution revolutionary Cuba made to the defence of the independence of Angola and the related subsequent independence of Namibia, through the defeat of the apartheid army of aggression which had invaded Angola from occupied Namibia. Those historic victories opened the way to the liberation of our own country, South Africa, and therefore the final liquidation of the system of colonialism and white minority rule in Africa."
For me, the single most eloquent, moving tribute to Fidel Castro came from singer and songwriter Tanya Stephens, part of which I quote here:
"He was good or bad, depending on who you speak to. I fell in love with the romantic portrayal of the Cuban revolution in high-school history class. I couldn't express that at home. I later took more details into consideration and lost some of my love for the man while exercising empathy for the many refugees who fled the country to seek more favourable socio-economic conditions elsewhere. Then I went to Cuba and my love was renewed. There's no human on this planet who gets a perfect score from every other human. What I saw was an education system which works. Health care which works. National security which works".
"To all the other Caribbean Government heads, please take a page from his book. One of the good pages. Craft our education and health systems like you ACTUALLY have our interest somewhere in your ... hearts."
• Annie Paul is a writer and critic based at the University of the West Indies and author of the blog, Active Voice (anniepaul.net). Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet @anniepaul.