Thoughts about Fidel Castro
As most Americans know by now, Cuban leader Fidel Castro died November 25, 2016–two days ago. Of course there are many different opinions about him as a political leader. Here I only intend to share a few memories from my own childhood that involve him and then speculate about what might have become the case had the U.S. dealt with him differently.
*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*
I was only seven years old when Castro overthrew Cuban president Fulgencio Batista. I now know, of course, that such revolutions were not uncommon then (and before and since) in Latin American countries. But this one was significant for my family and me because my uncle, my stepmother’s brother, who often visited us when in the U.S., was a Christian missionary in Cuba in 1959.
One of my earliest childhood memories is of a family reunion at my grandparents’ house in Waterloo, Iowa where my uncle, then in his late twenties or early thirties, sang gospel songs in Spanish for the gathered family members. He played the guitar as he sang “Libertad, libertad, Oh que bueno….” It made quite an impression on me.
My uncle died a few years ago after serving as a missionary in Cuba, Spain and Mexico for his entire adult life and well into retirement. (In retirement he lived in Mexico and simply helped the Mexican Pentecostals in any way he could.) I was glad I was able to be with him not long before he died.
Sometime around 1959, my memory of the exact year is gone, my parents began to promise my brother and me that we would experience a “big surprise” soon. Well, at our age and in our poverty (my father pastored a small Pentecostal mission in the slums of Des Moines), that was something very exciting and we pressed our parents for more information about “the big surprise.” I remember that it was supposed to happen in February of whatever year that was. My birthday is in February (Groundhogs Day) and I assumed perhaps it had something to do with that.
Sadly, before February arrived, my parents announced that the “big surprise was off” and that because of Fidel Castro!
We were going to Cuba to visit my uncle and aunt and cousins. Someone had volunteered to pay our way. (We certainly couldn’t have afforded such a trip!) Then, not very long before we were to go, my uncle and his family had to leave Cuba because, so we were told, Castro had become a communist and was expelling all Christian missionaries from Cuba and putting pastors in prison.
Now, this was a huge disappointment. I remember that feeling so well. A real let down. I remember many conversations around our kitchen table–sometimes with my uncle and aunt there talking with my parents–about Cuba and communism. Then came the Cuban Missile Crisis. How well I remember watching television with my family as President Kennedy informed us–as we interpreted his message–that nuclear war was imminent between the U.S. and the Soviet Union over Cuba. Of course we were greatly relieved when that did not happen. I remember very silly school exercises where we were instructed to crawl under our desks and even herded into the gym and taught how to “duck and cover” in case of a nuclear attack on our state. Fear gripped us then. My school had a “fall out shelter” as did many public buildings.
My uncle had good things to say about Castro at first. He was glad Batista had been overthrown. Batista was a U.S. puppet dictator and possibly involved with the U.S. mafia. His secret police caused many dissenters to disappear after being tortured. But, he did not interfere with religious freedom which was our most important issue.
Those of you who did not live through those years need to know that many Americans were caught up in a feverish anti-communism that colored everything about how we saw the world. Batista may have been bad, but at least he wasn’t a communist. Neither was Castro, at first. At first, according to my uncle (and this has been verified for me by other sources) Castro did not seem to have an ideology. He became communist because the Soviet Union promised to support his revolution and government if Cuba became a puppet state of the Soviet Union. I realize there is debate about these issues, but I am convinced that IF the U.S. had not supported Batista and had embraced Castro when he overthrew Batista, things would have turned out very differently.
No, I am no fan of Castro’s, but I do suspect he was no worse than Batista–except for American corporate interests in Cuba.
Back to my story…. The 1950s and early 1960s were the years of the “Cold War” and one aspect of that was rampant fear and hatred of communism and few people recognized any distinction between communism and socialism. “Creeping socialism” was the phrase one often heard and it meant our own government was vulnerable to communism from within. Our home, like many others, contained anti-communist literature including reports from the House Unamerican Activities Committee which, during the 1950s, was led by Joseph McCarthy of infamy. Some of my earliest reading material was by J. Edgar Hoover against the “red threat.” “Better dead than red” was a popular slogans seen on bumper stickers then.
I have often wondered what America and Cuba would have been like if we, the United States, had not almost immediately alienated Castro. Even before he became openly communist we rejected him and that possibly, probably, because he dared to overthrow our puppet tin-horn dictator Batista and nationalize some American industries and other corporate interests in Cuba.
I have always, in my adult life, opposed our American sanctions against Cuba including especially our travel ban. What if American missionaries had been allowed back into Cuba when Castro finally relented and invited them back? I know that happened because in the 1980s I knew an American Christian leader who did go to Cuba, through Mexico, not as a tourist, but as part of an invited group of American religious leaders to meet with Castro to talk about the issue. He told me and anyone who would listen that Castro was not opposed to Christianity in Cuba so long as it did not promote capitalism. And he said that he heard Castro say that missionaries could return if they did not oppose his revolutionary government and if they would stick to religion. Of course, our own government continued to make it very difficult for American missionaries to go live and work in Cuba.
I personally think our government has no right to criminalize American travel to anyplace in the world–especially to do community development work and to spread the gospel and support Christians there. To me, “freedom of religion” includes traveling to anyplace in the world to evangelize, teach, preach and do community development work. A “ban” on travel to any country is, I believe, unconstitutional unless we are at war with a country. That is the only exception with which I would a agree.
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