Hundreds of New Yorkers traveled to midtown Manhattan during the past week to pay homage to the late Cuban dictator Fidel Castro.
On Sunday, about 30 of them waited outside the Permanent Mission of Cuba to the United Nations for their turn to sign a condolence book set up by the mission two days after Castro’s death on Nov. 26. Roughly 600 people have written entries in the book, including United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and other dignitaries.
Marie-Jeanne Fethiere, a 56-year-old socialist and daughter of a Cuban-born mother, said she wrote “I love you, father.” Fethiere recently returned from a trip to the island as a freelance photographer and said she has considered moving there.
Ray Laforest, 69, a labor organizer with the Communications Workers of America, stood outside the mission for over an hour and a half chatting with fellow mourners after he signed the condolence book. “Fidel Castro makes me proud to be a socialist like no other human being,” said Laforest, who wore an olive drab cap with a red star and carried a large Haitian flag.
Laforest was a political dissident in his native Haiti until he fled to the United States in 1968 to escape the Duvalier regime, he said. He has since made several trips to Cuba. “I understand some people got serious jail sentences,” he said. “Although I might raise an eyebrow, I trust the Cuban system most of the time to do the right thing.”
Castro admirer Javier Enriquez, 35, who was born and raised in Williamsburg, signed the book and added a bouquet of flowers and a Mexican flag to a makeshift memorial near the mission’s entrance.
“I’ve always been motivated by Castro and his alliance with humble people,” said Enriquez, who manages a law firm in Manhattan and founded an advocacy group called Assorted Indigenous Movements. “Especially diverse communities.”
The Castro government’s actions against political dissidents, homosexuals and others who might be considered part of a diverse community don’t detract from his legacy, said Jason Corley, 49, of Queens, a member of a Cuba solidarity organization. Corley said that while these abuses were a problem during Castro’s rule, he believes the dictator “was part of the campaign to improve upon these things” by the mid-1980s.
Cable technician Ishmael Perez, 55, was not so sanguine. Perez said he left Cuba for the U.S. at age 17 to escape a four-year prison sentence he received after being erroneously charged with homosexuality. He said that he would never attend a memorial for Castro, much less sign a condolence book in his honor.
“People who are not living there think it’s beautiful, but it’s not,” Perez said in a phone interview. “Human rights are violated every day.” His memories of Cuba are mostly negative. He went hungry as a child. His disabled brother was forced to work at a construction site and then fell to his death. His sister committed suicide, and he was beaten into giving a false confession.
Perez said he respects the Cuban people and adores Cuban beaches but has no plans to return until true democracy is established. He does not foresee that happening in his lifetime.