Monday, November 28, 2016
Grandpa and Fidel
As the world contemplates the death of one of the 20th century's most well-known dictators, Fidel Castro (dead at the age of 90), I wanted to share a brief snippet of how one of my family members interacted with Fidel Castro just as he was taking power in 1959.
It was the early Spring of 1959, and Fidel Castro had just marched into Havana and taken power from his predecessor, Fulgencio Batista. Wresting control of the government from the previous dictatorship, Castro promised a new era of peace and prosperity for the bourgeoning island nation. As doves were released at dawn, a hopeful symbol of the peace that would ensue, crowds cheered the new leader to loud shouts of; "Fidel, Fidel, Fidel!"
As it happened, right at that fateful juncture in history, my great-grandpa Jesse Baird, who was then President of San Francisco Theological Seminary, had been in Cuba on a visit to give advice to a struggling theological seminary named "Galicia Presbyterian Reformata Cuba". The seminary was trying to raise money to build some new classrooms, and dormitories, and Jesse, being very adept at fund raising, had been brought in to help with the effort. In 1959, international travel to third world countries was still less common than it is today, and Jesse would have stayed for up to a month or more of extended teaching time, and preaching time with the seminary and in the surrounding communities.
While in Cuba, Jesse had the rare chance to meet with the new leader of the country, Fidel Castro. My own memory still recalls letters that were written between Fidel Castro and my grandpa (though I cannot seem to locate them at this exact moment). The letters were filled with positive encomiums about a new relationship with Cuba and an exciting time for Christianity in that country. Other Christian leaders from other denominations were also very positive about the new era of peace and openness that would accompany this new administration.
Upon their meeting, Jesse was initially quite impressed with the young military leader, who was, as always, donning green military fatigues, wearing a tilted beret, and smoking Cuban cigars. Fidel Castro made promises to Jesse personally, that he would bring sweeping and positive change for this one time Caribbean back-water of a nation. In Jesse's own sentiments; "I thought that Fidel would help to feed his people, and bring Jesus Christ to the Cuban people."
Less than one year later, in 1960, Fidel Castro would totally abandon both his promises to take care of the Cuban nation in terms of social well-fare, as well as his promise made to Jesse personally that he would support Christian churches and seminaries like the one that Jesse was visiting. In fact, quite the opposite of his pledge to support budding seminaries and churches, Fidel Castro became a tyrant against all religious organizations. Ushering in a new Communist era, Castro led a movement to oppress religious efforts, eject priests, and even execute pastors and their families.
In 1961, the United States would, of course, lead a failed effort to assassinate Fidel Castro through the misguided mission we now know as the Bay of Pigs. Several subsequent United States Presidents after Kennedy, would try to lead equally unsuccessful assassination attempts. Castro would go on to outlive most of his adversaries and hold the record for being the longest sitting Western leader (other than Queen Elizabeth in England), in recent history.
Years later, in 1974, while on his deathbed, my grandpa Jesse would relate to my father, Don Baird, how much he had felt that he was personally betrayed by Fidel Castro, and how deeply disappointed he was in his fabrications. For Jesse, it wasn't just that Fidel Castro had lied to the United States, it was that Castro had lied to him. Castro had given Jesse his personal word that he would develop a positive climate for Christianity there. Still harboring an uncharacteristic level of bitterness toward the Cuban leader, Jesse looked at my father, as he leaned forward in bed and said, with steely determination and lingering resentment - "That man lied to me!"
Exactly what lessons can be gleaned from my grandpa's would-be encounter with Fidel Castro are hard to tell, and it is, no doubt, too early to say. It is a testament to the strength of Christianity, in general, however, that dictators like Fidel Castro have always tried, but never succeeded fully in snuffing out the light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Dictators, potentates, kings, rulers and Caesars have literally pocked the pages of world history, but have always failed. Whether they were named Pharaoh, or Nebudcadnezzar, or Herod, or Marx or Castro, they have tried un-sucessfully to suppress the faith. Each time they have tried to stamp out the light of Christ, Christianity has come back even stronger.
And so it ever shall...
All For Now,