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Op-Ed Contributor: The Little Fidel in All of Us


People in Miami reacting to the news of the death of Fidel Castro. Credit Scott McIntyre for The New York Times

Oakland, Calif. — THE headline scrolled through the corner of my computer screen sometime after 10 on Friday night. Fidel Castro had died. It was news I’d been waiting to hear my entire life, and yet I hesitated.

It wasn’t that I didn’t believe it, but rather, that the event was one we’d rehearsed so many times that now that it had actually happened, many of us — Cubans, both and off the island — were caught off guard.

Then the texts started coming in and I did what I’d done a million times before: give in to the pull of Fidel.

My cousins in Miami texted to say they were headed out to wave the flag and chant for a free Cuba.

In Spain, another cousin sobbed. The tension in her back, she said, had completely disappeared.

“It’s as if some grumpy old man in the neighborhood had died, someone you knew your whole life,” my 20-something niece, a very recent arrival to the United States, texted from New Orleans.

An ex-girlfriend in Boston, who grew up in Cuba, stated: “I feel nothing.” When I pointed out that she’d cried years ago when Fidel had fainted in the sun, and again when he’d fallen and broken a knee, she stood her ground. “Yes, that impacted me, and when he said he wouldn’t be president anymore. But this, no.”

My friends in Havana responded to my calls with silence. “Yes, he’s dead … ” they acknowledged, then the lines filled with the gurgle of distant TV broadcasts or clattering in the kitchen. I could see them, every one, staring off into space.

We’ve all been waiting, waiting for this happen. All of us tethered to Fidel: staying with Fidel or leaving Fidel. Loving Fidel or hating Fidel. In a cab in Istanbul, the driver asked: “Oh, you’re Cuban, what do you think of Fidel?” At a laundry-mat in Chicago: “You’re Cuban? So what’s Fidel really like?” In a classroom in Honolulu: “All I know about Cuba is Fidel.”

Fidel. Fidel. Fidel.

And how do I feel? The distance between my body and Cuba has never seemed greater. I feel strange, relieved and a little sad. I was born on that island just as its revolution shook and inspired the world while splitting its own people in two: those in, those out. At 6, I was taken out. In the late ’90s, I went back to live there for a few years. I was seduced by a million things that had nothing to do with Fidel and his revolution: the light, the din, the salt. Oddly, when I was there, I hardly ever thought of Fidel.

During that time, I once found myself in the same room with him, a ballroom in Havana for a celebration of the 26th of July, the anniversary of the young rebels’ catastrophic attack on the Moncada barracks. (Leave it to Fidel to make a resounding failure the centerpiece of his mythos.) A friend and I had managed tickets to the exclusive affair. When he arrived, we felt the room tremble as we spotted him maybe 50 yards away, an old man and yet as majestic as we’d always heard but couldn’t imagine. To our astonishment, he seemed to turn toward us.

And then we clutched each other’s hands. “We have to go, right now,” my friend said. I nodded: I was suddenly terrified that we might somehow wind up near him and that a photograph of the moment would reach Miami, causing my entire family to drop dead. For her, who lived in Cuba, the possibilities were much worse. We ran out of there, breathless until we reached the Malecón. “I was afraid,” she said later, “that I wouldn’t be able to keep my mouth shut and that I’d start shouting. ‘Down with Fidel!’”

As the news of his death has begun to sink in, I’ve thought about my parents, both of whom Fidel outlasted. If they were still alive, I’m pretty sure they would have joined my cousins celebrating in Miami. My father knew Fidel from childhood, and because he knew him, he’s one of the few of his generation who never, not once, flickered with favor toward Fidel’s revolution. My father loathed him, unequivocally and with a singular fury because, in his mind, Fidel interrupted his life, forced him into exile and ruined his country.

But when he talked about how Fidel had outsmarted so many American presidents, and how Fidel had cunningly dodged all those assassination attempts, it was not just a smidgen of admiration he betrayed, but an identification.

Fidel embodied the best and worst of us. We loved his smarts. And his defiance. And when he imagined our tiny little island as a continent, we shared his delusion. We hated his ambitions and loved that he had them. Hang out with a bunch of Cubans, and the minute someone gets imperious, someone else will call her out for “the little Fidel” in her; in all of us, really.

Perversely, not much will change in Cuba after Fidel. He handed power over to his brother in 2006 and made the arrangement permanent in 2008. Cuba’s future hasn’t been his for a long time.

And yet the future doesn’t feel like it’s really in the hands of the Cuban people yet, either. On Saturday morning, the writer Néstor Díaz de Villegas sent out a mass mailing: “Fidel has died. There’s not an atom, an iota, a minute, a cell, a millimeter of my life that didn’t have everything to do with Fidel Castro, that is not Fidel Castro’s. I don’t know if there’s any difference between Him and me. I belong to his time, his History, his endurance. It’s me who has died, they’ll cremate me tomorrow. They’ll incinerate something, a pound of my flesh on the tyrant’s funeral pyre.”

There’ll be a little something of me there, too, along with my cousins, my friends, even my parents, though they are gone. Fidel didn’t merely contain multitudes: He took all of our destinies and redesigned them. Who would I be if Fidel’s revolution hadn’t happened and my parents hadn’t left? Who would those who remained on the island be if those of us who left had stayed by their side? Who would any of us be if Fidel hadn’t caused this rupture in our lives?

After all the headlines and the shouting, after all the calls from all the places we Cubans have been scattered, this is what haunts us.

Source: NYT > World

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