I was 16 or so when I first encountered Fidel, Che, and the Cuban Revolution, though I was already a distant admirer.
After practice one afternoon, a soccer teammate invited me to his brother-in-law’s place. No sooner had we entered the living room than the brother-in-law brought out Granma, which I saw for the first time. We started leafing through the pages of the most widely circulated publication of the Cuban Revolution and its leadership, and my heart must have been pumping a mile a minute. It was as if I had just been magically, ecstatically carried away to Oz.
The photos and the text jumped at me as though Fidel, Che, and others were there in the flesh. From that moment on, Fidel and the Cuban Revolution became my raison d’être.
Barely five years after arriving in the country from Argentina at age 11 with my parents and sister, I came to hate the capitalist system in the U.S.
I ascribed my parents’ marital problems to “the system.” My difficulties with the English language at Lowell High School – “the system.” The snobbishness of the white American teenagers from families of means at the school – “the system.” The Jim Crow regime in Texas, where we had lived for our first year or so in the U.S. – you guessed it. Every personal or societal injustice I encountered — “the system.”
But after that evening leafing through the pages of Granma, little by little I began learning to love again. That experience opened up a bright new world full of kindness and hope.
My teammate’s parents became my first mentors in the country – so much so that I regularly managed to drop in around dinner time, uninvited but always welcomed. It was around that table that I was introduced to the progressive movements of the time in my new country.
I became good friends with my teammate’s younger brother, who was closer to my age and temperament. I made friends with my new friend’s friends. Together we had wonderful times. We learned about this nation’s revolutionary traditions and heroes. We dreamt of a bright new world.
As I grew politically conscious, I fancied myself fortunate, even privileged in a way: A Latin American battling for freedom, deeply embedded in the belly of the imperialist beast en el Norte. Fidel, Che, and the Cuban Revolution were the beacon of freedom in the Americas that sustained my revolutionary, albeit idealistic zeal.
In the belly of the beast
My childhood experience during Jim Crow days in Texas had strengthened my resolve to answer Dr. Martin Luther King’s national call to go south in 1965 to challenge “the system” of segregation. Early that March, civil rights activists had been brutally attacked by Alabama state troopers. The vivid pictures of bloodied demonstrators fighting for their freedom non-violently made international news, incensing the nation and world.
Later that month I found myself in Selma with hundreds of sisters and brothers participating in acts of civil disobedience resulting in arrests. Some days later we joined with thousands of demonstrators in the third massive and successful Selma-to-Montgomery march.
Responding to intensifying public pressure and Dr. King’s brilliant strategic and tactical acumen, Democratic President Lyndon Johnson federalized hundreds of Alabama National Guardsmen who protected us along the route.
The Selma struggle contributed directly to the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Along with many other civil rights battles, it helped sweep away the ugly, hateful, anti-democratic, anti-human structures of the South’s Jim Crow system. It ushered in a new national democratic wave in the South, approaching the scale of Reconstruction after the Civil War.
Little did I suspect then that the demise of Jim Crow and the nation’s new democratic beginning – codified in the idea of the “Great Society” – would rank up there with other “revolutionary stages” of our nation’s and world history.
The Great Society was a set of domestic programs launched by President Johnson in 1964-65, whose main goal was to eliminate poverty and racial injustice. It initiated Medicare, Medicaid, the Older Americans Act, and federal education funding, among other programs.
(Other liberating struggles at the time, nationally and internationally, influenced and were influenced by these changes, but that’s beyond my scope here.)
During the days of California’s farmworker struggles led by César Chávez and the Chicano movement in the 1970s, as a Latin American, I jumped in with both feet. As a cub reporter at the time, I reflected these developments in the pages of the West Coast weekly, People’s World.
I remember distinctly the animated discussions about the “real” definition of “America”: the continents of North and South America. “Americans” are all the people inhabiting them, we in the Chicano movement would argue.
Meanwhile, a fundamental transformation had already begun to take shape in my mind as I got older, more organically integrated into the fabric of life and social struggles in my new country.
An almost imperceptible conversion gradually took place: My “new” country became “my country.” But at the same time I did not disown my childhood in Argentina, my latinoamericanidad, or my admiration for Fidel and the Cuban Revolution. I continued to embrace them.
Because of the pivotal place the U.S. and its ruling class occupy in world affairs, I recognized early on that whatever we as a people do or don’t do in the arena of political struggle at home has consequences worldwide.
I felt an obligation to do what I could, however small my contribution, to win over U.S. citizens to that understanding for their own and humanity’s good.
I visited Cuba in the early 1970s as the representative of the People’s World in a delegation from alternative progressive papers. During that month in Cuba, I felt like a newborn drooling with every new discovery. I came home and wrote an eight-part series on Cuba’s accomplishments.
The Special Period and its achievements
Some 30 years later, in 2004, I had the honor of revisiting Cuba, this time with the then-national chairman of the Communist Party USA, Sam Webb, and People’s World editor Terrie Albano.
At that time, Cuba was emerging from the “Special Period” precipitated by the fall of the Soviet Union and Eastern European socialist camp in 1990-91, which cut off Cuba’s oil lifeline and much of its trade. At the same time, the U.S. embargo impacted on Cuba’s ability to trade with other nations.
In our meetings with top officials – in government, the Communist Party of Cuba, and people’s organizations – and with common folk, it seemed to me that the “Special Period” was perhaps the most difficult test the Revolution had to endure since its inception.
Notwithstanding scarcity, the basic necessities of life were evenly shared. The overwhelming majority of the Cuban people withstood deprivation but never gave up on the Revolution and its leadership. Throughout the “Special Period,” Cuba continued to render free medical care to its people and free public education through college to its youth.
All the meanwhile, democratic and humanistic values were at work in its public institutions. Lively public debate, or the “battle of ideas” as the Cubans would say, reinvigorated and deepened the people’s understanding of the world around them.
Human solidarity and creativity widely applied, Cuba emerged out of the “Special Period” as an example to the world of sustainable economic development. Was it a seamless process? It never is. But, it’s never ceased to amaze me how out of seemingly insurmountable challenges, Cuba has managed not just to survive but to emerge stronger.
That’s been a source of strength and inspiration for me and millions across the world.
We too, in the U.S., experienced a sort of special period after the Soviet Union and Eastern European socialist debacle. Ours was of a purely ideological nature. For those of us in the Communist and left movements, Cuba’s survival as a sovereign socialist nation played an important role in keeping hope alive.
Most likely, the incoming Trump administration will move to undo the progress made by President Barack Obama administration in U.S.-Cuba relations. With Trump in the White House and Republican control of Congress and Supreme Court, the danger to our people, to Cuba and to all humanity is unprecedented.
In death, Fidel’s legacy lives on in millions the world over. It strengthens our determination to resist at every turn the expected far-right offensive.
Fidel has expressed faith in the majority of the American people to do what’s right and just when presented with the truth.
Already we’re seeing resistance in the streets. The momentum to bring together an all-people’s coalition is growing with each passing day. People’s organizations and movements, city and state governments, and Democratic public officials across the country are already making plans to challenge Trump, his proposed administration, and the new majority Republican Congress when they take office.
Since that fateful afternoon when my teammate’s brother-in-law opened the pages of Granma and all through my earlier years, I “lived” the experiences and lessons of the Cuban Revolution vicariously, through my readings and the tales of those who visited the socialist nation.
That played an important role in shaping my outlook on life and politics then and in later years.
But it was that same fateful afternoon that opened a whole new world in what was then my “new” country. It’s been the experiences and lessons I lived in the flesh in “my country” that have been the determining factor in molding my personal and political life.
The gathering storm in our country and world will be the greatest crucible we, all of us the world over – including those who were foolish enough to vote for Trump – have ever lived through.
But, I belive we are up to the task.
A parting word or two:
From the Latin American struggle for national sovereignty and democracy we learned “El pueblo unido jamás será vencido! – The people united will never be defeated!”
And from our own nation’s experience, we can also draw on a simple but far-reaching adjustment to the now popular call to action, “Sí se puede!” That is: “Juntos, sí se puede!” Together, yes we can!