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Fidel Castro becomes the leader of Cuba as a r...

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On The Spirit Men of Sierra Maestra — And Others

In 1959 the military forces wielded by a 37-year-old Fidel Castro drove Cuban leader General Batista out of power and all the way to the Dominican Republic. With a revolutionary swagger born of student-activism, the young lawyer, along with his brother Raul, and physician-comrade Che Guevara (of t-shirt and poster fame in contemporary society), accomplished one of the most important régime ousters in Latin American history. It was a coup that continues to be studied and debated today. From their base in the Sierra Maestra Mountains, similar to the African maroons in Brazil, Haiti and Jamaica, the Cuban insurgents emerged triumphant from their highland stronghold after two years. Still basking in the glow of what the July 26th Movement promised (and soon thereafter delivered), the retired Castro of today is either idolized or demonized—and the force of this dichotomy holds the power to influence national policy and public perception.

Historians, like seasoned politicians, understand the power of these “Spirit Men” in history—living breathing figures, possessing a boundless intellect,  filled with average foibles who are, despite their flesh and blood appearance and proclivities, are actually icons of an idea—long before overeducated sages declare them to be so. Men and women who embody large ideas, conceptions of the universe so far-flung—are often swept up in a moment that is the fullest expression of the convergence of the past, present, and future. According to Castro’s old friend, Nobel prize-winning novelist Gabriel García Márquez, “When he (Castro) talks with people in the street, his conversation regains the expressiveness and crude frankness of genuine affection. They call him: Fidel. They address him informally, they argue with him, they claim him. It is then that one discovers the unusual human being that the reflection of his own image does not let us see…A man of austere habits and insatiable illusions…incapable of conceiving any idea that is not colossal.”[1] Far from perfect–and not to be confused with the super-ego–the Spirit Men of history are unique to the common man. While they generally defy description (some of my colleagues have more privileged exposure to them), to date I have only met two such persons in my life time; and one of the two, is a scholar-intellectual by the name of Dr. Molefi Kete Asante. The differences between a Fidel Castro and a Molefi Asante may appear pronounced. However, They live in the historical moment, fully aware of the profundity of this way of life.

Firmly situated in modern Latin American history, The Cuban Revolution was a guerilla war, supporting socialist ideals that appealed to the populace, tempted the aims of ambitious Russian leaders, and angered a nation whose own bloody origins is fodder for burgeoning graduate students. Perhaps it is true as ex-El Presidente Fidel Castro mused. Why would the United States spend so much time, energy and money attempting to purge him from the globe? The answer lies, at least in part, in the reasons why world leaders and book-store revolutionaries either revere or despise him—a man is easy to destroy, but a firmly rooted idea? That is another matter altogether.

by Dr. Katherine Bankole-Medina

[1] Gabriel Garcia Márquez, “The Fidel I think I Know,” The Guardian, Friday 11 August 2006. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2006/aug/12/comment.cuba/print