Fidel Castro will be 90 in August; Raúl is just five years younger. At some point in the not-too-distant future, we will see whether Castroism can survive without a living Castro. Anyone who wants U.S. policymakers to have influence when that question arises should applaud Obama’s initiatives.
The image of an living American President Obama in front the image of the deceased revolutionary icon Che Guevara nicely captured the political reality of the event. Naturally, the outnumbered critics of Obama’s Cuba opening denounced him. One described Guevara as “a racist, terrorist, mass murderer who oversaw concentration camps.”
Say what you will about Cuba’s dismal human rights record, racism was not one of its qualities. The revolution was strongly supported by African-Americans in the late 1950 and early 1960s because Castro’s pledge to abolish racial segregation practices in Havana–which he did. Castro’s won more support from black Americans by staying in Harlem’s Theresa Hotel during his first official visit to the United Stares in 1960.
At the same time, Castro and Guevara were abhorred by most American conservatives of the day, especially in the segregationist South, for the same reason. In the lexicon of the day, Castro and Guevara were “pro-civil rights.” Their success in Cuba was just one sign that the Jim Crow system defended by conservatives was in deep trouble.
For an American conservative to denounce Guevara in 2016 as “racist” is a backhanded compliment, a way of attempting to claim the moral high ground achieved by the Cubans. It is no surprise that the first American president to visit revolutionary Cuba was of mixed race heritage.
The fact that Afro-Cubans were–and are–underrepresented in Cuban government is hardly proof of racism, though there is plenty of racism in Cuban society. That fact also has to be balanced with the fact that Afro-Cubans, poorer and less educated than Hispanic Cubans, have been disproportionate beneficiaries of the revolution’s redistribution of national wealth.
An honest appraisal of racism in revolutionary Cuba concludes:
“When it came to race, it [the Cuban government] carried out some important reforms in race relations, such as the desegregation of beaches and provincial parks, and class-based reforms, such as in the areas of education and health, that disproportionately benefited black Cubans.
But only a long-lasting vigorous campaign of affirmative action and authentic multiculturalism could have brought about a clear break with the past—a revolution, and not just a reform, of race relations.’
Guevara, a revolutionary hard-liner, would probably have been skeptical of Raul Castro’s willingness to meet with an American president and he would have been horrified by capitalist competition among U.S. hoteliers.