Editor’s note: This article by Jay Nordlinger appeared in the March 6, 2000, issue of National Review.
Even as Castro’s rule lingers on in Cuba, so does the romance of the American Left with that rule. It has been rekindled by the case of Elián González, the plucky survivor of a tragic crossing who is now at the center of a custody battle with Cold War overtones. Among Castro’s most ardent admirers, right from the beginning, forty years ago, have been black political elites. He has always stroked them; they have always stroked back. It is perhaps the least surprising aspect of the present controversy that they are playing a prominent role in it.
In January, Rep. Maxine Waters led another of her delegations to Havana, to attend a “U.S. Healthcare Exhibition.” While there, she and Rep. Barbara Lee met with Elián’s father, who, Waters later said, “has a wonderful reputation.” She also expressed confidence that she had “heard firsthand how the people of Cuba feel about the case.” Lee, for her part, made the following statement: “As a trained social worker, I can unequivocally say that Elián’s father is totally fit and equipped to raise his son in a loving environment.”
When the boy’s grandmothers traveled to the U.S. — resulting in a spectacle that was less Grandma than Granma — it was Waters who hosted them on Capitol Hill. She said to the grandmothers, “If you do not fight for Elián, they win. You fight, and you win.” The Cuban ladies then went to Florida, to be reunited with Elián at the home of Sister Jeanne O’Laughlin, an educator and longtime friend of attorney general Janet Reno. After the visit, O’Laughlin announced that she had come to believe that the boy should not be returned to Cuba. She cited, among other factors, an “atmosphere of fear” created by the grandmothers’ KGB-style minder. Maxine Waters was not pleased. “I am bewildered,” she said. “Never in my wildest imagination would I think that a nun who was supposed to be a neutral party would undermine that neutrality.”
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee — no relation to Barbara Lee — is another congresswoman in the Waters mold, and she, too, has been all over the case, making TV appearance after TV appearance to urge Elián’s return to Cuba, and to cast aspersions on the motives of those who hold another view. On one program, she was asked, gently, why the boy’s father did not come to the U.S., to speak freely and reclaim his son. The father, she answered, had a newborn child at home and, besides, was afraid that “he would be entangled in legal procedures and proceedings” in the United States. He was “fearful of not being able to return, and not being able to return with Elián” — no more than that.
And, if the subject is Cuba, never far away is Rep. Charles Rangel — good ol’ “Chollie”: so affable, so quippy, so beloved by the Washington media. And so stubborn in his fondness for the dictator in Cuba. One of the lowest moments in his career occurred in 1995, when he greeted Castro in Harlem with a bear hug. In January, after Republicans proposed legislation that would make Elián a “permanent resident” of the U.S., Rangel was quick to introduce a “sense of the Congress” resolution that Elián should be returned. He is unsparing in his criticism of anyone with reservations about sending the boy back. Why should he stay here, Rangel asks, just because “we have some Cuban-American congressmen from Miami who are up for reelection”? Of any other argument, he evinces no understanding: “It is hard for me to see how people can hate Communist Cubans so much that they will hold this kid hostage.”
Needless to say, it is not only black congressmen who take this sort of line. Sen. Christopher Dodd, for example, attributes any hesitation about returning Elián to Cuba to “hatred of an old man.” The black Left is merely a subset of a national Left that is, to varying degrees, Castro-mad. But black leaders defend Castro, and pummel his opponents, with particular ardor, hard not to notice. They often plead his case in the major media; he, in turn, enjoys glowing treatment in the black-oriented press. To Havana, there is a steady parade of black visitors: politicians, activists, musicians, writers, actors. Usually they are wined and dined by the dictator himself. He listens to their grievances and theories. He shows them his capital’s Martin Luther King Jr. Center. He proclaims, to their delight, that Cuba is a “Latin-African country” (although, to be sure, he does not talk this way to Cubans themselves). And he uses them as a kind of club against his democratic critics, in the time-honored Communist tradition of, “What about the Negroes in the South?” Knowing that blacks are the moral arbiters of American society, Castro has worked hard to woo them — and they are good and wooed.
It all began in 1960, during Castro’s triumphal visit to New York City. He decamped from a plush Midtown hotel to the Hotel Theresa up in Harlem. Roger Wilkins, the civil-rights veteran, remembers the “dramatic impact” that gesture made: “I don’t think there was a politically alive black person who wasn’t aware of what Castro had done.” The critic Shelby Steele notes that many black Americans saw the Cuban revolution as a “liberation struggle, with the masses and the dark people rising up.” Castro has always been “very savvy about playing that theme with American blacks, and it has given him a little wedge into American life. There has been this flirtation back and forth.” Also, says Steele, black politicians, by associating with Castro, are able to present to their constituencies “the look of internationalism, the feeling of being part of something much larger than American racial protest. Blackness automatically makes you a member of a large, worldwide oppressed proletarian class. That is attractive in [for example] South Central Los Angeles, where Maxine Waters holds forth.”
In 1995, Castro made a smash return to Harlem, basking in the adulation of black New Yorkers, and receiving that embrace from Charlie Rangel. He spoke at a Baptist church, where the throng screamed “Fidel! Fidel! Fidel!” and “Viva Cuba!” Said Castro to his flock, “As a revolutionary, I knew I would be welcome in this neighborhood.” He used the occasion to denounce conservative attempts to scale back affirmative action — not that he himself would ever practice any.
The dictator was even cooler, more glamorous, of course, in 1974, when Radical Chic still hung heavy in the air. That was the year that Huey Newton, the killer and Panther, electrified his admirers by fleeing to Castro’s island. Before long, Cuba became a sort of “Underground Railroad” for the black Left, as Peter Collier, chronicler of the era, puts it — an asylum from white oppression, and from U.S. law.
The most celebrated of Castro’s current protectees is Assata Shakur. She is almost on a level with her fellow cop-killer Mumia Abu-Jamal as a darling of black radicals. In 1973, when she was Joanne Chesimard, she murdered a policeman in New Jersey, and was sentenced to life. In 1979, however, she escaped. (“I was like Houdini,” she told Essence magazine a few years ago. “I plotted day and night.”) She ran down to Cuba, where she is now a smirking rebuke to yanqui justice. In that Essence interview, she provided a flavor of her life in exile: “I’m invited to give lots of presentations to people who come here. I talk about human-rights violations and political prisoners in the United States.” When her American supporters visit her, “I ask how things are in the States,” and “they don’t give me the okey-doke: They say, ‘Honey, things are hard.’ It reminds me I have to keep struggling.”
In 1998, Shakur was the subject of an amazing note that Maxine Waters sent to Castro — a note of apology and explanation. The congresswoman had mistakenly voted for a measure calling for the extradition of “Joanne Chesimard,” unaware that the woman was the beloved Shakur. The “Republican leadership,” Waters wrote to Castro, had been guilty of “deceptive intent” in using the outmoded name. Hence, her error. She went on to explain that the Sixties and Seventies had been “a sad and shameful chapter of our history,” when “vicious and reprehensible acts were taken against” black revolutionaries, resulting in their need to “flee political persecution.”
This letter — to a dictator, noxious with complaints about the other political party, defensive of a murderer — is possibly unique in congressional history.
The prototype of the Castroite congressman was, of course, Ron Dellums, of Oakland, California. His seat is now held by Barbara Lee, who for many years served the old lion as his top aide. She gained a bit of notoriety in 1983, when the U.S. invaded Grenada. Shortly before, Dellums had taken a “fact-finding” trip to the island, whose purpose was to persuade Congress that the air base there was meant for entirely benign uses. The invading Americans seized many official documents, among them the minutes of a highly unusual meeting of the Grenadian Politburo. They read: “Barbara Lee is here presently and has brought with her a report on the international airport done by Ron Dellums. They have requested that we look at the document and suggest any changes we deem necessary. They will be willing to make changes.” Unfortunately for Lee, Dellums, and the fiction they perpetrated, the invaders also uncovered the diary of the former Grenadian defense minister. An entry in it reads: “The Revo[lution] has been able to crush counter-revolution internationally. Airport will be used for Cuban and Soviet military.”
A second Dellums aide, Carlottia Scott, had written several notorious notes to the Grenadian strongman, Maurice Bishop, the most infamous of them being the most telling: “Ron [Dellums], as a political thinker, is the best around, and Fidel will verify that in no uncertain terms. . . . Ron had a long talk with Barb and me when we got to Havana and cried when he realized that we had been shouldering Grenada alone all this time. Like I said, he’s really hooked on you and Grenada and doesn’t want anything to happen to building the Revo and making it strong. He really admires you as a person, and even more so as a leader with courage and foresight, principle and integrity. Believe me, he doesn’t make that kind of statement often about anyone. The only other person that I know of that he expresses such admiration for is Fidel.”
Last year, the Democratic National Committee appointed Carlottia Scott to its “senior political leadership team.”
If black America has a secretary of state, it is Randall Robinson, the stylish and respected head of the Washington-based foreign-policy group TransAfrica. He is best known for his advocacy of intervention in Haiti, but he is also a full-fledged member of today’s Venceremos Brigade. A year ago, he shuttled down to Havana with a party that included such luminaries as Danny Glover, the movie star. The trip was typical: All came back gushing. “I admire the relationship that Castro has with African-Americans,” said Camille Cosby, wife of the entertainer. “It’s nice to know that an international leader has that much interest in African-Americans.” Johnnetta Cole, the constantly honored former president of Spelman College, said, “What impressed me most [about meeting Castro] was the way in which his grounding in the history and reality of Afro-Cubans informs his view of Cuba; the sense of personal outrage he has over racial discrimination.”
Robinson, in a lengthy report on the visit, made clear that his view of Cuba — its history, its problems, its relations with the United States — is identical to that of the regime, right down to his condemnation of “anti-revolutionary” elements in South Florida. Robinson found Castro utterly compelling — “frank and thoughtful.”
It is this sort of thing that drives Cuban-Americans to near despair. Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart has said, “For the life of me, I just don’t know how Castro can seem cute after forty years of torturing people.”
So: How to account for the enduring affair between black elites in America and the tyrant on Cuba — immune, seemingly, to post-Solzhenitsyn, post-Valladares, post-Cold War awakenings? First, there is the simple pleasure of tweaking white, conservative sensibilities. As Latin America scholar Mark Falcoff observes, “Castro is anti-American; therefore he has to be good. Jesse Helms hates him; therefore he has to be good.” Then there is the question of resentment felt by a slice of black America toward Cuban-Americans as a successful, and politically conservative, immigrant group. Then, too, there is the oft-expressed appreciation of Castro’s military adventures in Africa, a gratitude for — as an article in Emerge recently put it — the “thousands of Cubans [who] volunteered in liberation wars in Ethiopia, Mozambique, and Angola, helping to defeat South Africa’s apartheid military.” Also, the idea persists that Castro, with his Communism, has been a friend to the poor. (The novelist Alice Walker: “Fidel Castro respects poor people, and I can see that when I go to Cuba.”)
Above all, though, there is the belief — as fixed as it is false — that Castro has been good for black Cubans, that his takeover from Fulgencio Batista, the right-wing dictator who preceded him in power, meant a kind of emancipation for a previously shackled population. As Roger Wilkins puts it, with understatement, “Castro talks a better game on race than Batista.” Batista, however, was himself partly black, and contemned by the Cuban upper crust because of it. He may have been no Harry Truman, but he opened up the army for people like himself. Castro, in contrast, has created a nomenklatura that is as pale as he is. Even Charlie Rangel, his eye ever on the prize of affirmative action, said recently, “I’ve been giving Cuba’s officials hell because I don’t see enough African-Cubans [in government] — but they’ve improved a great deal.”
One final thing pervades the thinking of black elites about Cuba: fear of the end of Castro’s rule, and of a freer, more capitalist Cuba, with hordes of white-skinned reactionaries streaming back from Miami. Assata Shakur, naturally, is worried: “If the U.S. succeeds in destroying the revolution, my status will be like that of most Cubans: I’ll be up a creek without a paddle. It will be devastating for people worldwide who believe in justice.” Jesse Jackson, though, trying to keep hope alive, has cautioned that “no one should suppose that when Fidel leaves the scene, all the revolution’s handiwork will vanish with him . . . The decades have formed a generation of Cubans — through almost universal schooling, through universal health care, through doctors and teachers dispatched to desperate reaches of the world, through military missions against the likes of South Africa, through long moral purpose and conditionings — that will not easily be separated from that experience.” Even so, “some rightist elements of the Cuban-American community [hope] to inherit the ruins after an apocalypse there. We simply cannot allow the policy of the United States to become captured by such ambitions.”
If Castro ever does bid farewell, there will be rejoicing in many places, foremost in his prisons. But there will be mourning too — and none more heartfelt than in a segment of the American Left that has never stopped swooning over him, and that will fight with him till the last trump.