Reminiscences of my neighborhood dictator, Fidel Castro

Most kids grow up with a neighborhood bully, often wishing he were dead.  South Floridians, like me, are the only Americans who grew up with a neighborhood dictator – his name was Fidel Castro.  Now, he's gone, but I'm not rejoicing in the streets of Little Havana like many Cuban Americans.  He may not have been a good guy, but he was one of the most influential people in the formative years of my life.

As an "Anglo," as we South Floridian native English speakers came to be known in the Magic City of Miami, I didn't carry all of the emotional baggage that the Cubans who fled the island dragged around for so many years.  They had left their homes, possessions and often relatives behind.  Those same refugees, who began arriving in 1960, would later turn Miami into the bustling capital of all Latin America. 

In South Florida, Fidel Castro was a constant presence, even though his island lay 90 miles across shark-infested waters from the southernmost point in the United States.

Had the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 been solved according to Castro's will, I may not have been born.  Expecting the worst, my pregnant mother loaded up the bathroom with foodstuffs and bottles of water.

Convinced that the Americans were about to launch a nuclear attack on the island, Castro urged Nikita Khrushchev to make a first strike.  Even the shoe-banging Soviet leader thought that Fidel was a little nuts.  Khrushchev replied that Cuba would still be destroyed along with the rest of world if he carried out Fidel's will.  Removing the missiles awarded Castro his political longevity.  To end the crisis, the United States agreed to refrain from further attempts to invade the island.

In Miami, there was periodic violence among the Cuban community caused by infighting within liberation groups like Omega 7 and Alpha 66, many of whose members were veterans of the failed CIA-backed Bay of Pigs Invasion in 1961.  They had vowed to continue the struggle against "el verdugo (the executioner)" of Cuba, Fidel Castro.

In the spring of 1980, the discontent of life in Cuba reached a new high point.  Ten thousand Cubans crowded into the grounds of the Peruvian Embassy in Havana. Castro had no choice but to allow emigration.  The always wily dictator opened his prisons and psychiatric wards mixing Cuba's misfits into the 125,000 immigrants that arrived during the Mariel Boatlift, named after the Cuban port of exit.  Crime in South Florida soared, straining the already overcrowded prison system and costing residents both their personal security and tax dollars.    

Growing up in the subtropics is different from the average American's snow-filled experience.  Like the swaying palm trees that are a part of the South Floridians’ daily lives, the swaying hips of "las Cubanas (Cuban girls)" made the place even more exotic, but it wasn't easy for us Anglos.  Many still followed the strict moral code that required chaperones (adult accompaniment) on dates, which survived into the early 1980's. Others preferred their macho brethren.

Before the revolution, Cuba, which had been freed from Spain's rule by the United States at the end of the 19th century, had become the backyard playground for American citizens.  Democracy had been squashed by President Fulgencio Batista, who allowed the American Mafia to run casinos and turn the island's girls into prostitutes.  Fidel Castro, who initially portrayed himself as a non-communist nationalist, said "basta” –“enough," taking up arms against the dictator and replacing him in January of 1959.  It was only in 1961 that he declared himself to be a Marxist-Leninist, incurring the wrath of the colossus to the north.

The charismatic Fidel challenged the most captivating leader of the Yanquis, John F. Kennedy.  He was even accused of having a hand in the American President's assassination.

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Geopolitical analysts, who believe that geography is the basis for international relations, see Castro’s power in the thumb-nosing proximity of his island to the United States.  He survived hundreds of assassination attempts and the Bay of Pigs Invasion, personally commanding his troops. He would outlast eleven US presidents and survive the collapse of his benefactor, the Soviet Union.  He sent troops to Africa and fomented revolution worldwide.

Fidel Castro was a man of many contradictions.  He was proud of his Spanish heritage, yet he was an illegitimate son of his father who had emigrated from the old continent.  Born into a wealthy land-owning family, he became a champion of the landless poor.  He was white, yet he became "the liberator" of the brown and black Cubans, Africans and the downtrodden mestizos of the world.

Castro was from the tropics, yet he took refuge in the arms and nuclear missiles of the Russians from the cold steppes of the north.  Although he was from the land of the Salsa and the Rumba, Fidel didn’t know how to dance.  His hatred of America was fanatical, yet he was a fanatic baseball fan.  The "Maximum Leader" was first and the last of a generation of revolutionary heroes - a strongman whose unsustainable beliefs made him dependent on others for his power.  Fidel Castro was seen as a romantic figure, yet he was a cold murderer who imprisoned, tortured, and executed his opponents.

His friend, the late Nobel Prize winning novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez, summed up Castro's contrasts saying (author's translation):  "He was one of the great men of this (the 20th) century, even for those who think he was bad.  That is to say, be it for good or bad or for both at the same time"   

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In his last years, Fidel stood aside and let his younger brother Raul govern; yet his shadow was always omnipresent.

The Cuban people were educated, fed and had lifelong medical treatment free of cost, but paid a great price – their freedom.  They lived a seemingly ideal tropical life in an island prison, but that ideal was belied by those desperate rafters who were willing to risk becoming shark-feed in search of liberty.

As Castro sought to liberate the world from capitalism, the American naval base at Guantanamo Bay, leased to the United States in 1903, remained a thorn in his side and a stain on his revolutionary credentials.  As the "Comandante's" style of revolution faded from the world scene, America turned Guantanamo into a detention center to imprison "combatants" of the next generation threat to freedom - Radical Islam.

A little "Yanqui imperialism" can go a long way to stopping the Castros, Khrushchevs, Bin Ladens and al-Baghdadis of this world.

Instead of being a battleground of world ideologies, perhaps Cuba will someday become the island paradise it could have been.

Adios Fidel, you will be sorely not-missed – not by young Cubans who yearn for freedom, not by the exile community and surely not by South Florida “Anglos” like me. 

The author is a “self-made multiculturalist” who has lived and worked in Africa, Latin America and the Middle East. He blogs at The Multicultural Conservative: Conservative by Nature – Multicultural by Choice.