Thinking about the Death of Fidel Castro...


Since November, I have been sitting with the news that Fidel Castro, after 49 years as President of Cuba and, according to his government, nearly 600 assassination attempts, died peacefully of old age.

At the time, our team discussed making a comment, as we have for other heads of state who have passed, but after much debate we found it was impossible to add anything new to the narrative. With emotions running high on both sides, whether you loved him like a father or despised him as a dictator, we were speechless.

But now, a full month later and upon much reflection, recognizing that none of our current team are of Cuban decent, but having spent the last ten years of my life having deeply personal conversations with community leaders from every corner of the globe, I want to say that in times like these, our job, as citizen diplomats, is to listen compassionately while respectfully demanding an end to the violent oppression of civilians.

Over the past year, you might have heard that Cuba quietly made some incredible progress under the rule of Fidel Castro. Cuba developed what the World Bank calls the best education system in Latin America and provided universal healthcare for all Cubans and even sent a medical team to help address the Ebola outbreak in Africa. Cuba also developed a vaccine to prevent lung cancer (which was recently approved for trials by the FDA) and according to the WHO, eliminated the transmission of HIV/Aids from mother to child.

At the same time, Cuba imprisoned or killed tens of thousands of political dissidents (human right's watch says there were 6,200 reports of arbitrary detentions in 2015 alone), discriminated against the LGBTQ community, and created an economic system that served the elite and starved the poor. A recent Miami Herald article indicates that at least 500,000 Cubans fled their country under his rule, many of whom thought they might one day return to their beloved country, but who never did.

Several years ago (I am being intentionally vague), we hosted our first Cuban program participant. He was part of a regional project on transparency and accountability in government. As a journalist, he had been detained without charge and spent over a year in prison. He was released just months before his visit, largely because Amnesty International intervened on his behalf. He took a huge risk coming to the United States, as a guest of the U.S. Department of State, but when I asked him about it, he only said, it was worth it. He was an inspiration to everyone he met in North Florida and his delegation which represented twelve Latin American countries.

Understandably, our neighbors and friends are experiencing grief, relief, despair and hope simultaneously. Northeast Florida local, Diane Brunet-Garcia who is married into a Cuban family, speaks of that raw emotion in her post, "From Hell to Paradise". (For even more context, when you're done reading that post go back to a post she published in October called "The Cuba Thing is Complicated" and "then hush, and listen closely").

While the death of Fidel Castro is for some a moment to be celebrated, and for others a moment to mourn or minimize atrocities, for me it is a moment to remember that life is absurdly complex; that within each of us, and within each of our countries, exists the capacity for good and for evil.

That's something to be remembered when I am sitting with friends, newcomers and visitors from across the globe, that perspectives vary wildly, that what I think is obvious it not obvious to all, and that no one person speaks for an entire nation, as I certainly do not speak for all of the United States.

As we begin another year, as governments change and new leaders take the world stage, it is my deepest hope that all will look to varying sources of information, converse with curiosity, disagree respectfully, but most importantly, condemn violence and oppression passionately.

Note: The links included in this post share just a bit of what I've been reading about Cuba. Believing that perspective is important, they represent both personal stories and professional journalism. If you believe there are important stories to add to the conversation, please share your links in the comment section.

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