Sunday, November 27, 2016

Advent, Castro & The Season of Change

Cuban leader Fidel Castro
For some Christians, depending on one's country, today marks the beginning of Advent; which means 'Coming' in Latin.

In the context of the modern Christian church it is meant to represent the Sundays and weeks that lead up to Christmas Day.

So for some Christians, today marks the start of the period recognizing the arrival of Jesus, both a celebration of his birth and a period of reflection on the Biblical preparations for his arrival here on Earth as the son of God.
In some ways the recent passing of Cuban leader and noted political revolutionary Fidel Castro reflects the season of approaching change that Advent represents.

Regardless of one's personal religious beliefs, or whether one chooses to believe at all, the birth, life and death of Jesus of Nazareth changed the world in profound ways that still reverberate and impact to this day - people may debate whether he was the son of God, but writings from the early part of the first century AD by Roman historians including Jocephus and Tacitus make multiple references to Jesus, including his crucifixion by the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate.

Now to be clear, in no way am I comparing Fidel Castro to Jesus, but there's little question that Castro's life has also had a profound impact on the world as we know it today - I found myself reflecting on both Advent and Castro's passing this morning.

Jesus and Castro? Just hear me out on this.

Music has had a deep impact on my life, I play the guitar and sing. Back in 3rd grade at The Landon School For Boys in Bethesda, Maryland, I learned to read and play music and I also sang in chorus as well; so as I often do as I write on Sundays, I listened to the program 'With Heart and Voice', a weekly program of sacred choral and organ music broadcast via The Classical Network on WQXR at 1pm.

Cuban-Americans celebrate Castor's death in the
streets of Little Havana in Miami, FL
That program is immediately followed by 'Sounds Choral' at 2pm on the same station, which also explores a wide variety of classic and modern choral music and hymns.

(FYI a number of my blogs are written as I listen to Baroque and Renaissance classical music as well, I find it peaceful and it inspires thinking and creativity depending on my mood.)

Now there is little doubt that Castro's death at the age of 90 has, and will, spark a wide range of reactions and discussion amongst regular people, academics and politicians.

If you saw some of the images of ecstatic Cuban-Americans and Cubans-in-exile dancing and celebrating in the streets of Little Havana in Miami, Florida after hearing news of Castro dying, it's clear that people view this complex icon of the 20th century from a variety of different perspectives.

On Saturday conservative politicians from both Canada and America lit into the popular Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau after he issued a public statement of condolence for Castro in which he called the controversial Cuban leader a "remarkable leader" and noted that his father, former Canadian PM Gary Trudeau, had known and respected Castro.

The latter also caught flack from political leaders when he made a state visit to Cuba in 1976 where 250,000 Cubans came out to welcome him.

Early today, the younger Trudeau amended his previous statement (and placated his conservative critics) by acknowledging to reporters that Castro was in fact a dictator who caused suffering for those he considered his enemies.

Fulgencio Batista on the cover of Time, April 21, 1952
Castro's role as the revolutionary who led efforts to topple the Western-backed Cuban military dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista in 1959 and later fought off the American effort to overthrow him during the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion on April 17, 1961, gave him global stature among leftists and anti-American leaders and nations around the world.

An emboldened Castro's use of military and financial backing from the Soviet Union to thumb his nose at the United States, criticize capitalism and American foreign policy, and spread Communist influence to other parts of Latin America, Africa and Asia, often made him a political thorn in the side of eleven different U.S. presidents.

But even though he was elevated to an almost mythical status amongst leftist political leaders, he was reviled and feared by many in his own country.

On Castro's orders at least 582 Batista loyalists were executed by firing squads in the wake of the coup that put him into power in a one-party, one-rule system for 49 years.

He made drastic and significant improvements to Cuba's health care system and expanded access to doctors for all people, he also improved the educational system to expand literacy amongst the poor and rural populations who'd been so disenfranchised, alienated and powerless under Batista's rule.

But according to Human Rights Watch, Castro implemented a repressive system that quashed civil liberties, crushed independent journalism, eliminated political dissent and jailed thousands of people in deplorable conditions where many were subjected to torture.

While Castro often lambasted the United States for it's treatment of Native Americans and systematic discrimination of African-Americans, as Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. noted in an excerpt of a chapter from his companion book to the 2011 PBS series 'Black in Latin America', (posted on the Website Castro ruled over a Cuban nation as deeply divided over race as the U.S.

As Professor Gates observed based on interviews he conducted in Cuba and research, Castro presided over a system that systematically discriminated against Cubans of color and African descent in ways that have left poor blacks in Cuba even more marginalized and segregated in ways that are worse today than during the Cuban revolution.

Castro's vision of socialist revolution and equitable opportunity materialized for some, but not all, based (in no small part) on race and political ideology.

So as we in America prepare to come to grips with the seismic shifts from the November 8th election which elevated Donald Trump into office, perhaps there is a larger significance to the death of Castro at the start of the season of Advent - when we prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ.

Regardless of how Castro is viewed, he will remain one of the more iconic figures of the 20th century and his place in history looms large even though it will be debated by scholars and historians for years to come.

After five decades in power, if nothing else, Castro's death is a genuine reflection that significant and lasting change is coming, for the Cuban people, the Western Hemisphere and the larger global landscape.

With the United States finally reestablishing normal diplomatic relations with Cuba under the leadership of President Obama, perhaps Castro's death will herald at least the hope of lasting and meaningful changes to the lives of those in Cuba who've been excluded from Castro's vision for a new Cuba.

Not because of their ideology, but because of the color of their skin.

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