As of writing the former president of Cuba and former revolutionary Fidel Castro passed away two days ago. In Havana the public mourns while in the United States exiled Cubans celebrate. To some Castro was a tyrant, others a warrior for the people, and others both. Today we shall look at who exactly was Fidel Castro and why there are so many polarizing views on him.
Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz was born on August 13, 1926 in eastern Cuba to a wealthy sugarcane farmer from Spain, Angel Castro y Argiz, and a household servant, Lina Ruz Gonzalez. When he was young his father divorced his first wife and soon married his mother. It was through this that he managed to get a good education being sent to schools in Santiago de Cuba, and later a Catholic high school in Havana. Although he did not do well academically he did do well in athletics and sports. In 1945 he attended the University of Havana to study law and it is here where he first became interested in politics. Cuba of the 1940s was very different from the Cuba of today. The main reason being that since independence in 1902 Cuba had been virtually a puppet of the United States with the Cuban constitution allowing the US to intervene in Cuban affairs, finances, and foreign politics. Castro, whose politics had drifted towards the far-left of the political spectrum, saw this as outrageous and started protesting, as well as protesting against the corruption of the Ramon Grau government. He joined the Party of the Cuban People in 1947 and when Grau defeated the party in the elections Castro started receiving death threats from gang leaders employed by Grau as police officials. The June of 1947 would see him delve into revolutionary politics.
Early Revolutionary, 1947-53
|Castro and others preparing to go to the Dominican Republic|
In June 1947 Castro learnt of a plan for Cubans and exiles from the Dominican Republic to invade and topple the government of General Rafael Trujillo. Trujillo had come to power in 1930 and had presided over a corrupt regime which brutally suppressed civil liberties. The United States had been supporting him due to his anti-communist stance. Before Castro, the Cubans, and exiles could invade the Dominican Republic Grau stopped the invasion, (upon a request from the USA), and Castro narrowly evaded arrest. Until he moved to Colombia in 1948 he would lead several protests condemning the Grau government with one leading to him being badly beaten. It was during this time period that he started adopting a Marxist rhetoric in his speeches. In 1948 he moved to Bogota, Colombia where he would meet his first wife Mirta Diaz Balart. Like Castro Mirta came from a wealthy Cuban family. She too had a far-left political ideology and this allowed them to marry quickly. Also, they soon had a son, Fidel Jr. While in Bogota he took part in the anti-government protests which were occurring in the country. By the time Fidel Jr. was born Fidel and Mirta had moved back to Havana where Fidel became embroiled in the anti-racism campaigns of the left and attacking the government's repression in speeches. The new family remained in debt for sometime with Castro's legal practice, which he set up in 1950, not earning much money. He did, however, continue with a political career running for a seat in the House of Representatives for the Cuban People's Party (Ortodoxes) in 1952. However, this was cut short when General Fulgencio Batista, who was briefly president in the 1930s and had ruled through puppets since, ousted the government in 1952 and cancelled elections. Batista's coup was not widely opposed at first, Castro and the Ortodoxes being an exception, with pay increases for the army and police being widely welcomed. However, his suspension of huge tracks of the 1940 constitution, harsh repression of socialist and left-wing parties, and closer ties with the USA caused many young activists turn against Batista. Thus the Cuban Revolution started.
Castro formed a revolutionary group called The Movement which managed to gain over 1,200 followers within a few months. Inspired by figures such as Mao Tse-tung Castro planned to lead a guerrilla war to inspire the impoverished to overthrow the government. To do so he planned to attack Moncado barracks outside Santiago de Cuba on July 26, 1953. With so many impoverished cane cutters in the area he hoped it would inspire them to join him. With 165 revolutionaries they attacked and were soon captured. In retaliation Batista had ten prisoners shot for every soldier killed and 70 of Castro's revolutionaries were killed. Castro was incarcerated and while in prison he changed the name of his group to The 26th of July Movement. In the end he only served two years of his fifteen year sentence and while in prison he wrote to a friend saying that only 'armed insurrection' instead of electoral politics would defeat Batista. Upon leaving prison he joined his younger brother, Raul, in Mexico. While in prison his marriage started to fall apart and Marti divorced him while he went to Mexico. However, when her son went to visit Fidel in Mexico Castro had him kidnapped so he could not return home to his mother who now worked for the government.
While in Mexico Raul introduced him to another revolutionary: Che Guevara. (Please see here). In 1956 the Castros and Che returned to Cuba to begin the guerrilla war in earnest. They began by raiding small barracks until they became increasingly powerful against the failing Batista regime. When Batista censored the press Castro managed to get an interview with the New York Times earning him worldwide acclaim. Fidel soon became a well known figure around the world with the political left seeing him as Garibaldi reborn, while the right saw him as a dangerous, Marxist firebrand. In 1959 Batista fled to Portugal after both the United States and Mexico refused him asylum. Castro declared himself Prime Minister and started trials of Batista's supporters. These trials were very popular at home thanks to Batista's brutal atrocities during the Revolution. Later President John F. Kennedy would describe Batista as 'one of the most bloody and repressive dictatorships in the long history of Latin American repression'. It has been alleged that 20,000 were executed on Batista's orders but modern estimates suggest a far smaller figure. The trials and executions of Batista's supporters may not have been fair and we cannot find out until Cuba allows access to its records. Castro in 1959 defended the trials by saying 'We are not executing innocent people or political opponents. We are executing murderers and they deserve it'.
Castro's social and economic policies
Castro soon started changing Cuba from a racially segregated, society where foreign landowners controlled much of a country where civil liberties were curtailed to a more socially equal society, with more equal land ownership but one where civil liberties still remained curtailed. There is a paradox in Castro's Cuba where a whole section of civil rights were given but many vital ones like freedom of speech, assembly, and movement were deprived. Racial segregation was abolished early on by Castro, and education offered for black Cubans but institutionalized racism remained where by 1979 there were only five black ministers out of thirty-four and only sixteen out of one hundred and forty-six members of the Party's central committee. Although not openly socialist until after the Bay of Pigs invasion, (which we shall later talk about), throughout his career Castro implemented socialist policies. Free health care was established early on and is actually a key part of the constitution of 1976. A key aspect of Castro's policies was land reform with the Institute for Agrarian Reform being established early on, and has allowed greater equality among who owns the land. He also nationalized several American sugar companies which were dominating Cuban land which would later earn Castro the hatred of the United States. Castro's and Guevara's education policy also saw remarkable success with literacy rising from 60-76% of the population to around 96% by 1961. In the 1990s Cuba even passed several laws protecting the environment making it one of the greenest countries in the world. Castro's regime also gave greater equality for women, and (although it took until 1979) greater equality for the LGBTQ+ community. However, Castro severely curtailed civil liberties.
Seeing elections fail to oust Batista firmly placed him against democracy and today Cuba is one of the most authoritarian countries in the world. Political parties are banned, censorship is widespread, freedom of speech is banned, and it took until 2013 for Cubans to be able to leave the country. Before the Bay of Pigs invasion 10% of Cuba's population fled the country in fear that they would be persecuted under a possible communist regime, which did happen. We do not know how many political executions have happened in Cuba since 1959. Although the figure is far smaller than that of the USSR, North Korea, or China it could number the thousands. Castro may have brought benefits to Cuba his legacy is of an authoritarian Cuba.
Bay of Pigs and the Missile Crisis
After seizing power in 1959 the United States was fearful of Castro. Although he claimed he was not a Marxist there was a fear of a possible ally of the USSR appearing in Cuba. To curtail Castro's influence the USA announced it would cease buying Cuban sugar and stop selling petroleum to Cuba. Immediately the USSR, whose leader Nikita Khrushchev had become almost infatuated with Castro, announced it would buy sugar and sell petroleum to Cuba. In March 1960 President Eisenhower gave money to train Cuban exiles in Guatemala with the intention of sending them to Cuba to oust Castro. In April 1961 a force of 1,500 Cuban exiles invaded Cuba from the Bay of Pigs. The new president, Kennedy, decided to withdraw US planes to avoid the US being blamed for the invasion, (which it was anyway). It was a disaster. Che Guevara and Castro used Soviet made tanks to meet the invaders. Almost all the exiles were either captured or killed. The December of 1961 Castro announced he was a Marxist-Leninist and sided with the USSR over the Sino-Soviet split which greatly upset his friend Che who would leave Cuba a few years later.
Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev asked Castro if he could have nuclear missiles placed in Cuba. Castro accepted. When the United States discovered the missile sites Kennedy ordered a blockade of Cuba to prevent any further construction materials, or missiles, to go to Cuba. Castro released a 5 point plan demanding that: the USA end the embargo, return Guantanamo Bay, stop supporting dissidents, stop violating Cuban territorial waters, and to stop violating Cuban air space. This standoff nearly escalated into full nuclear war and has been called the Cuban Missile Crisis. Khrushchev and Kennedy went into negotiations where the USSR promised to remove missiles from Cuba in return for a promise that the USA would not invade Cuba and to eventually remove missiles from Turkey. Castro, left out from the negotiations, was outraged. Despite the Crisis ending the USA would continue to embargo Cuba, it is still embargoing it as well, and there would be over 600 attempts to assassinate Castro by the CIA.
After the Crisis
For years after the Cuban Missile Crisis Castro's Cuba remained out of major events of the Cold War to instead focus on domestic issues. However, in the 1970s this started to change when Cuba's economy exploded boomed thanks to a rising demand for sugar. Castro saw himself as the world leader against capitalism and imperialism seeing the USSR as ignoring anti-imperialist struggles. He saw Africa as 'the weakest link in the imperialist chain' and, would start by funding and sending advisers to the Marxist MPLA in Angola. When the South African and American funded FLNA and UNITA received extra funding he actually sent 18,000 troops to support the MPLA. In Mozambique he supported the Marxist RENAMO, supported Marxist Ethiopia during the Ethiopian-Somali War, and gave support to the Marxist South Yemen. His funding and soldiers also went to Latin America to support the Marxist Sandinistas in Nicaragua in the 1980s. However, he did garner controversy both domestically and internationally. Che Guevara was much loved in Cuba and Castro's refusal to fund his campaign in Bolivia, leading to his execution, greatly upset many Cubans. Controversially he backed the far-right Argentinian junta during the Falklands War where he even offered them military training.
When the USSR under Mikhail Gorbachev started to re-approach the United States and begin to reform itself in glasnost and perestroika Castro became alone. In 1989 the execution of several senior figures were either executed or sentenced for corruption and drug trafficking. This led to two questions in Cuban society: were they removed because they wished to usher in a figure like Gorbachev, and has Castro's Cuba become the thing which it strove to end in the 1950s? From the early 1990s to the early 2000s Cuba went through various economic declines and food shortages, but despite it all Castro remained popular domestically. Hugo Chavez's election in 1999 created an ally in Venezuela which helped bolster Castro's position with Chavez sending barrels of oil to Cuba in return for Cuban doctors. In 2006 thanks to old age he stepped down with his brother Raul becoming president, and in 2008 he retired. After resigning from the Communist Party central committee in 2011 he went from the public eye until his death this year.
Thank you for reading and the sources I have used are as follows:
-Cuba: A New History by Richard Gott
-Cold War: For Forty-five years the World held its breath by Jeremy Isaacs and Taylor Downing