When I learned about Fidel Castro’s death this weekend, I couldn’t bring myself to check Facebook. I knew if I did, I’d be faced with two extreme reactions to his death, both of which would infuriate me—progressives mourning his death, and Cubans in the U.S. celebrating it.
As the child of Cuban exiles and a progressive (for almost 10 years I’ve run a blog with the word “radical” in the title) both of these reactions to Fidel Castro’s death are unsettling. Like the majority of Cuban Americans, I was born in the United States because my grandparents on both sides lost everything in Cuba. They left when the Cuban government seized their businesses and neither side was willing to live under a communist dictatorship. They left hoping they would be able to return in just a few months or years after Castro was overthrown.
It never happened. All four of them died without witnessing any real change in Cuba, and my parents’ generation have made lives here in the U.S. under the shadow of all of that loss. Castro, or “Fidel” as Cubans call him, was the charismatic figurehead representing everything they had lost. There was no question that my abuelos hated him, and would likely be among the celebrants on the streets of Miami if they were still here today.
But I’ve also been politically progressive ever since I was old enough to form political opinions, something that has always put me at odds with my conservative father, along with many in the Cuban community here in the States. It’s also led me to see more nuance in the political situation in Cuba, even as I recognize his role as an authoritarian dictator responsible for the deaths and repression of many who opposed him. Given my upbringing, it’s hard to acknowledge—to myself or anyone else—the aspects of his government that people find worthy of praise: universal education and literacy, free medical care, very low rates of homelessness and extreme poverty. But those things are part of his complicated, tortured legacy, one that shouldn’t be cherrypicked by either side.
I’ve found the celebrations of his death distasteful. Every Cuban restaurant in Miami that I follow on social media has been posting celebratory images with Cuban flags and scenes of the crowds outside the restaurants. While I wanted to be around other Cuban Americans when I heard the news, I couldn’t feel joy at another person’s death, even if he was responsible for harming the lives of so many, including my own parents.
Besides, his death is not a rejection of his government or his politics. He died of old age and disease with his government pretty much intact under his brother’s leadership. His death appears to be another nail in the symbolic coffin of his regime. But just as his actual death, while anticipated for a decade, was actually a slow decline, it’s likely that the death of his regime will be too. So what is there, truly, to celebrate?
But the messages of mourning I’ve seen from progressives, many of them my friends and peers, have also left me with anger. How could anyone mourn a dictator, someone who took power by force and maintained it for decades without allowing input from his people? I will never laud authoritarianism or dictatorship, whether the leader is on the right or the left. Especially not one that brutally repressed political dissonants and whose regime, to this day, doesn’t allow freedom of press in Cuba.
I can’t help but wonder how many of the progressives mourning his death would be willing to live under his regime. One that doesn’t allow protests, that holds elections with only one candidate. One that, until recently, didn’t allow its own citizens to travel freely to and from the island.
The irony is palpable given the United States’ recent election. It’s easy for Americans to post iconic photos of Castro on Instagram and wax poetic about the values they think he represented from a country where they just voted for president a few weeks ago, where they felt free to take to the streets and protest when that result angered them. There were Cubans in Miami wearing “Make America Great Again” hats while celebrating the death of Fidel. There were progressives mourning his death in one post while railing against the potential repression of media or free speech under Donald Trump in another.
So instead of saying anything on social media, or even looking to see what others were saying, I spent Sunday morning with a Cuban American neighbor, drinking cafe con leche and making imperfect homemade Cuban pastelitos, talking about how it felt to know that Fidel was no longer. It wasn’t celebratory or sad, just messy and honest. Cuban music played in the background and we hugged for a little longer and a bit more tightly than we usually do. It was the only way I knew to pay tribute to my ancestors and everything they suffered, while also acknowledging the complicated ideals I want in my world.
Miriam Zoila Pérez is a Cuban-American writer and activist with a low-key bachata obsession. She's the Gender Columnist at Colorlines, the founder of Radical Doula and the co-host of Radio Menea, a Latinx music podcast.