June 14, 2001

Randall Robinson's Love Affair with Castro | June 13, 2001

RANDALL ROBINSON and Communist Cuba have a long, cordial relationship. He first went to Cuba in the early 1980s and met with Fidel Castro, describing him and his regime favorably in Defending the Spirit: A Black Life in America.

Robinson's The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks is best known as the manifesto for the reparations movement, with chapters on "Reclaiming Our Ancient Self," "Thoughts about Restitution," and "Toward the Black Renaissance." The book's most significant and longest chapter, however, is "Race, Money, and Foreign Policy: The Cuba Example," in which Robinson torpedoes his indignant veneer with an adoration for Castro's autocracy that dwarfs the warmth of Defending the Spirit.

A salient aspect of the Cuba chapter is its oscillation between anti-American vitriol and effusion over Fidel Castro. For instance, Robinson describes the U.S. embargo of Cuba as a crucifixion ("Why is our country … crucifying this small, largely black country of 11 million people?") and derides Senator Robert Torricelli as "a gnomish mean-spirit from New Jersey."

Conversely, Robinson's recollection of his most recent meeting with Castro in 1999 reads like something out of a romance novel. (Others joining him on the trip included Danny Glover and Johnnetta Cole. A discussion of the latter's amor for Communist Cuba appears in Ronald Radosh's Commies: A Journey Through the Old Left, the New Left and the Leftover Left.) A few examples will suffice:

"Though he was not a young seventy-two, the failing body gave glimpse through the eyes to an inferno of intellect and determination. He had lost nothing there."

"He paused, no longer seeming tired. His eyes shone with intelligent intensity."

"He is connecting Cuba's racial past to its present. He is more animated than before. He tugs on a beard that is ungovernable."

Given his enchantment, it is no surprise that Robinson takes great pains to soft-pedal Castro's totalitarianism. "We were sure that Cuba had some human rights problems, but where were they on a scale of one to ten?" he dismissively asks. Robinson writes later:

While Cuba has a one-party system and suppresses dissent (not surprising, given our 40-year American effort to overthrow their government and kill Castro), Cuba has a better record with respect to human rights than many of the Latin American governments that the United States has steadfastly supported, let alone [Fulgencio] Batista's regime whose police and soldiers killed and tortured thousands of its opponents.

Sympathetic readers would describe this as historical contextualization; peel away the sanitized terminology to find a tortuous evasion from evil.Consider the deterministic depiction of Castro's tyranny. Robinson acknowledges Castro's foreclosure of political pluralism and freedom of expression yet reduces this to a by-product of American foreign policy. The systematic silencing of emancipatory voices like Oscar Elias Biscet's ( is "not surprising," i.e., rational, understandable, and justifiable. The effect of this tactic is to say America makes him do it. (The Soviet Union's enslavement of Jewish dissidents was thus "not surprising" given the Jackson-Vanik Amendment.) Robinson's second mitigative method is an argument of relative tyranny, which is intrinsically problematic. Let us make the dubious assumption that Communist Cuba has been less tyrannical than its predecessor and some of America's Latin American allies. That does not negate the chronic, copiously-documented human rights abuses perpetrated by Castro any more than Nicholas II's regime negates Lenin's crimes. Robinson's resort to this tenuous argument reflects a dogmatic desperation. (Not that Robinson is uncomfortable making unequivocal assessments of other countries, e.g., "American human rights violations" and "Argentina's military dictatorships of the 1970s and 1980s.")As if he had not sufficiently subverted his integrity, Robinson adds blatant falsehood to the mix:

The Cubans who had left Cuba upon his arrival hated him [Castro]. But there had been no bloodbath, as for instance with Suharto in Indonesia. Suharto's army had slaughtered a reported half million people. But Suharto was never demonized as Castro had been, and Castro's victorious army had acquitted itself by all accounts with discipline and forbearance. [emphasis added]

How peculiar, then, that the accounts of Humberto Fontova, Hiram Gonzalez, Francisco Verdecia, Ramon Cala, Armando Valladares, and others demolish Robinson's romanticism. (See Humberto Fontova's The Helldivers' Rodeo, Enrique G. Encinosa's Cuba: The Unfinished Revolution, and Armando Valladares' Against All Hope: A Memoir of Life in Castro's Gulag.) Robinson's most despicable distortion is when he contends, "Because education and health care in Cuba are universally accessible and free, blacks who had been victims of slavery and ensuing racial discrimination have benefited disproportionately from Castro's social policies, as have the country's poor generally." Since the Cuban Penal Code's prohibition of "Illegal Exit from National Territory" enslaves Afro-Cubans (and the destitute), it is an obscenity to claim benefit and portray slavery as a crime of the past. Blacks in Cuba have been and are victims of slavery, in addition to the rest of the Cuban population. ( During his account of the 1999 meeting with Castro, Robinson unwittingly crystallizes the despot's character and his own:

It occurs to him that he has spoken at considerable length. "I took the floor and took no questions. I didn't even ask if you were interested in what I was saying." We laugh.

Castro's indifference to his audience mirrors his indifference to the country he continues to suffocate. How many Cubans prayed for a world without chains while Randall Robinson laughed with the man who holds them in bondage?


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