To many Americans agitating for racial progress, Fidel Castro, the deeply polarizing Cuban leader who died Friday, was a formidable compañero in battle.
The man emerged as a major thorn in America's side in the 1960s, as the United States was experiencing massive black defiance against segregation and other forms of oppression. This was the decade that saw the birth of the Black Panther Party and other groups of blacks possessing weapons and defying the white power structure.
In an astounding challenge to the United States, Castro opened his country to black revolutionary fugitives wanted by American authorities, some for violent crimes. Assata Shakur (a.k.a Joanne Chesimard), who escaped from prison in 1979 after being convicted in the 1973 killing of a New Jersey state trooper, was one of them. But there were others, including Nehanda Abiodun (a.k.a. Cheri Laverne Dalton), who was wanted in a 1981 armored truck robbery in upstate New York, in which two Nyack village police officers and a Brinks guard were killed.
But there's a new reality that is changing both prospects for US relations with Cuba and race relations in the United States. That reality is Donald Trump.
In our new reality, black radicals will not react as the Panthers did in the 1960s. While we've seen some incidents of black men attacking and even killing police officers in recent years, there's been nothing organized at the level of the Black Panthers or the Black Liberation Army of the early 1970s. And I doubt Castro would react now as he did back then. This is a time for new coalitions that cross old boundaries.
After all, if Castro were on the rise today, he would be looking at a very different United States. This is no longer the black and white country it (largely) was in the 1960s thanks in no small part to the so-called Hart-Celler Act, also known as the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. The law opened US doors to immigrants from all around the world, not just Europe, and it made for the browning of America that we see today.
Donald Trump at least temporarily defeated that new America on November 8, speaking disparagingly of many of its people and sometimes issuing explicit threats. He has also spoken out defiantly against Cuba, albeit mostly in 140-character bites. Trump's enemies, it seems, are not only blacks, but also Latinos, Muslims, and, depending on whom you ask, the LGBTQ community—the latter being one of the groups that fell into Castro's own crosshairs.
But even as he employed authoritarian tactics that included imprisoning and executing dissidents and sending gays to labor camps, Castro seemed to be motivated by a mindfulness of those farthest down the ladder. That's what drove him in making Cuba among the most literate countries in the world. That's what energized him as he refashioned Cuba's healthcare system so that it stands out for its achievements. And that's what inspired him to forge a personal bond with black Americans.
When I visited Cuba in January, I did not meet a single person who failed to express some kind of affection, if not outright love, for Barack Obama. Part of it, of course, was that Obama is brown, like most of them. But it also had to do with Obama's message of hope and change, and his willingness to challenge Americans who still oppose softening of relations with Cuba, which is now controlled by Fidel's brother, Raúl.
Old lines of division and old identifications remain, which is only natural. Castro is still a hero to former Panthers and black radicals, and a demon to conservatives, Cuban exiles, and anti-Communists. From 90 miles away, Fidel said and did the things that the most assertive American black leaders said and did—but unlike Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and others, he survived.
It's not a stretch to suspect Castro, in his final moments, took special delight in having withstood 11 US presidents—and so much anger from the most powerful country on Earth. "Despite all that the Yanquis tried to do to him... he died a natural death," notes Marta Rojas, an octogenarian Cuban writer who identifies as black and who, as a young reporter in 1953, covered Fidel's initial, unsuccessful attack on the Moncada military barracks. She also covered the trial of Fidel at which he declared, "History will absolve me."
But if Castro worshippers in America are delighting in the story of his life, they will also soon be dealing with the new reality of the United States of Trump. And the browning of America should give them hope.
Ronald Howell has spent three decades as a working journalist, including several years as a foreign correspondent covering Latin America and the Caribbean as well as a stint covering the Middle East in 1991. He now teaches journalism at Brooklyn College.