Skip to content

Fidel Castro’s unrecognized impact on the African Diaspora


With the recent death of Fidel Castro, it is well worth reviewing the impact this dictator had on people of African descent in Africa, the Caribbean and the United States.

Born in August 1926, in Birán, Oriente, Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz, was the son of a nouveau riche sugarcane farm owner originally from Galicia, Spain. Growing into adulthood, Castro adopted leftist anti-imperialist politics while studying law at the University of Havana.

After participating in rebellions against right-wing governments in the Dominican Republic and Colombia, he turned his attention to planning the overthrow of then-Cuban President Fulgencio Batista.

He launched his first attempt in 1953. It was not successful. As a result, Castro spent a year in prison.

Undeterred, Castro traveled to Mexico where he formed a revolutionary group—the 26th of July Movement—with his brother Raúl Castro and Che Guevara. Returning to Cuba, Castro took a key role in the Cuban Revolution by leading the Movement in a guerrilla war against Batista’s forces from the Sierra Maestra.

This time his efforts were a success, and in 1959 Castro overthrew Batista and removed a system of government that had been in place for seven years.

It was a system that served as a playground for America complete with gambling, prostitution, racism and high living.

Castro’s actions put the tiny Caribbean island nation in direct opposition to American interests and he would spend much of the next 47 years fighting against 11 U.S. presidents.

Despite his battles with the U. S. government including efforts to remove him from office with unsuccessful assassinations, an economic blockade, and a counter-revolution, including the Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961, Castro wanted U.S. assistance, because before the revolution America was Cuba’s top trading partner. In fact in 1959, immediately after the revolution, Castro came to the U.S. seeking financial help. But President  Dwight Eisenhower rebuffed the revolutionary fighter’s efforts, in part because he had nationalized all American corporations such as Dole Bananas, Exxon, ITT Tech, Coca Cola, and Freeport-McMoRan Mining. All total, the companies were valued at $1.9 billion in 1960.

Castro returned to Cuba and sought help from the Soviet Union under Nikita Khruchev.

In addition to needing financing to grow the country, Castro felt he needed protection in the wake of the failed Bay of Pigs incident.

Once Cuba embraced the Soviet Union in May of 1960 as part of a $100 million trade deal, the nation became a socialist country. At the same time, many African nations began to shake off the shackles of colonialism. But unfortunately many of the leaders, with the backing of the United States were corrupt and beggared the nations. Seeing this, Castro proclaimed Cuba’s African heritage—based on the importing of 900,000 African slaves to the island nation which prompted him to establish a policy of supporting Africa.

Fidel Castro and the Anti-Colonial African War

There was also a story that may be more myth than actual history, that during the Cuban revolution, Afro-Cuban Juan Almeida Bosque and Fidel Castro were engaged in a fire fight with Batista’s soldiers. As the fight became more bloody, Bosque told Castro that once Cuba was liberated he was going to spend the rest of his life relaxing. According to the story, Castro replied that ‘we will relax after we liberate our birthplace—Africa.”

Immediately after the revolution, Castro began what was called the “African Odyssey—The liberation of Africa.

The tale began in the Congo, where Castro initially attempted to solidify the government of Patrice Lumumba.

These Cuban soldiers, volunteers mostly of Afro-Cuban descent, lent their skills to the fight for the liberation of Africa.

The tale began in the Congo, includes Namibia, and Angola where 75,000 foot soldiers supported  Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola, (MPLA), Guinea-Bissau, where Cuba’s aid finally helped Amilcar Cabral bring the Portuguese to the negotiating table, an event that would lead to the collapse of Portuguese rule in Africa.

During the Cold War, the African National Congress received arms and training from the Soviet Union, Cuba and the Irish Republican Army and other organizations that took a stand against South Africa.

The countries of Rhodesia and Angola became staging grounds for anti-apartheid attacks against South Africa.

The media has said that the conflicts in Rhodesia and Angola were individual wars. However, according to Ayuko Babu, of the Pan African Film Festival and a cinematographer who was in constant communication with individuals involved in the struggle, the battles were actually one huge, coordinated war fighting the imperialist and colonial regimes in Africa. The war did not end until South Africa gave in and Nelson Mandela was freed.

Babu said he witnessed firsthand the deployment of Cuban troops (Black and mulatto) to the Tanzania/Zimbabwe front while in Guinea and traveling to Angola with an entourage organized by his friend Stokely Carmichael. Their mission was to provide cameras and film to the anti-apartheid freedom fighters and instruct them on how to document that Rhodesia was being invaded by the South African military.

Babu remembers during that time Africans in Angola, Mozambique, Rhodesia, and South Africa were being slaughtered by the South African military. The South African government was receiving arms financed by Saudi Arabia and funneled to South Africa’s government through a deal brokered by President Richard Nixon called the “Nixon Doctrine.”

Countries like South Africa were included in the Nixon Doctrine, according to the Montreal-based think tank Global Research. The Saudis acted as their conduit.

The fighters eventually able to present their evidence to the U.N., Babu noted.

While Babu believes Cuba’s military involvement in overthrowing apartheid was significant, the true primary sponsor of the anti-apartheid war was Nigeria. The country played a major role in training anti-apartheid freedom fighters.

Substantial support also came from Libya, Zimbabwe, Ghana.

Babu and the rest of the volunteer filmmakers landed in Guinea in 1973, they were overwhelmed by the large number of Soviet military transports that came in from Cuba, refueled and took off again heading south, presumably to Angola. They were informed by Guinea locals that the Soviet transports contained Cuban soldiers going south to help end apartheid and imperialism.

On April 1, 2002, the National Security Archive made public a selection of secret Cuban government documents which detailed Cuba’s policies and involvement in Africa in the 1960s and 1970s.

According to the documents, Castro made a decision to send troops to Rhodesia without informing the Soviet Union, and consequently, Cuba became the first country to directly attack apartheid. This is contrary to what has been widely alleged by media over the years.

Fidel Castro, racism and Afro Cubans

Many African Americans in Los Angeles have been questioned about the reported treatment of Afro-Cubans within Cuba since the 1959 revolution. The majority responded they felt that Castro’s socialist government was racist, and although he was a major factor in supporting the African anti-Colonial Wars which liberated countries in Africa, Afro Cubans still suffer from discrimination.

This is a perception created by the media, according to Cuban sociologist Esteban Morales Domînguez. The 74-year-old has been an active participant in the Cuban revolutionary project for the past 50 years and is one of Cuba’s most prominent Afro-Cuban intellectuals. Domínguez participated in the overthrow of the Batista regime and the triumph of the Cuban Revolution. The revolutionaries, he understood, sought to establish a more just and egalitarian society. But Morales, knew that the complicated question of race could not be ignored, or simply willed away in a post-revolutionary context. He is the leading authority on race relations.

According to Dominguez, racism is against the law and considered a felony in Cuba. In fact, this is written in Cuba’s constitution. He then goes on to say “racism, has disappeared from the Cuban social reality; but although it is not publicly seen, it does exist.

Many White Cubans do harbor racism, but according to Dominguez, Castro believed these feelings were divisive.

However, during the 1980s the Soviet Union had too many pulls on its finances in part because of the invasion of Afghanistan. Dominguez described how the economic crisis—created by the collapse of the Soviet Union—at the end of the 1980s and beginning of the 1990s, impacted Cuba’s society. There were food, gas and medical shortages, and outbreaks of disease.

Dominguez said these forced the re-emergence of racism, a problem that was assumed to have been resolved but really was not.

The economic crisis Dominguez referred to has been called the “Special Period.” It includes the years spanning 1989-2010, according to Garth Jenkins, a former business consultant for Cuban Business LTD, a firm that specializes in European investments.

According to Domínguez, the re-emergence of racism and racial discrimination, is an example of how the Revolution in 1959 moved it away from the forefront of Cuban life, although racism remained ingrained within the social fabric of Cuba, and in some institutions. It also threatens today to settle into the macro conscience of Cuban society.

Dominguez says he believes the resurfacing race  problem threatens to turn Cuba into a racist society like it was during the 19th century and during the nation’s neocolonial republic.

The first time he believes he publicly heard Castro openly discuss Afro-Cuban racism was a speech given in September of 2000.

“I am not claiming that our country is a perfect model of equality and justice. We believed at the beginning that when we established the fullest equality before the law and complete intolerance for any demonstration of sexual discrimination in the case of women, and racial discrimination in the case of ethnic minorities, these phenomena would vanish from our society. It was sometime before we discovered that marginality and racial discrimination isn’t something that one gets rid of with a law or even 10 laws, and we have not been able to eliminate them completely in 40 years.

According to Jenkins, there are explainable reasons tourists have questioned racial equality in Cuba. At one time pre-Castro, Cuba was a country worse than Apartheid South Africa in regards to racism and believes there have been major advancements in race relations as a result of the revolution. But according to Jenkins, inequality and discrimination continue to exist. Some racism is systemic and will eventually be abolished. That was Fidel’s dream.

Jenkins agrees with Domínguez that the reappearance of racism in Cuba may be due to a few reasons—mostly White Cuban staff working in the museums, historical landmarks hotels, resorts and Afro-Cubans doing manual labor. This is part of an effort to make the country appear Latin or White in order to attract Canadians and Europeans. This appears to marginalize Afro-Cubans. and visiting foreigners perceive the situation as racism.

Babu said there is also a trend where many Afrocentric African Americans are going to Cuba first for medical treatment, South Africa second and then the United States. This comes from the fact that Cuba has trained more doctors of African descent than anywhere in the world including those coming from Africa and the Caribbean. Consequently Afro-Cubans seem to be marginalized.

The Cuban dictator even offered to send Cuban medics and supplies to the United States following Hurricane Katrina.

Castro even trains American doctors (African American and Latino) and offers the students full scholarships.

This isn’t Castro’s first attempt at making Cuba a tourist attraction, according to University of California at Riverside historian Ralph Crowder, immediately after toppling Batista’s regime (1959),  he and his fellow Cuban revolutionaries closed the gambling casinos and forced American gangsters to leave the island.

This action was enthusiastically supported by working-class and peasant Cubans since the casino world was one of the best examples of American imperialism and the prostitution of Cuban women who staffed brothels financed and managed by foreign gangsters. Castro and his advisors quickly realized that this popular initiative created serious economic problems for Cuba’s tourist industry.

Large hotels stood empty, jobs that supported Cuban households disappeared, and the island nation lost a $60 million dollar industry that could have been used to reconstruct Cuba’s economic infrastructure.

Castro’s first attempt to promote tourism, structured on direct contact with middle-class African Americans and mainstream Black leadership, During the spring of 1959, Castro contacted former boxing champion Joe Louis and convinced him to bring a delegation of African American newspaper publishers to tour Cuba and return to the United States and promote Cuba as a vacation haven for Blacks.

The Cuban leader understood that Joe Louis could provide the first serious link with middle-class African Americans. They had tourist dollars to spend but were prohibited by “Jim Crow” restrictions that were standard problems for African American travelers throughout resort venues in the Caribbean.

The attempt to get African American vacationers to visit Cuba failed because the CIA, Cold War politicians, and the White corporate world were determined to destroy this connection between the Cuban government and Black America.