Will history absolve him?
Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz was born in Birán, Mayarí (former eastern province) on August 13, 1926.
Natural child of a Spaniard of Galician origins, Ángel Castro Argiz, and an American Spaniard, Lina Ruz González. His natural child condition wouldn’t change until 1940, when his father could finally remarry and recognize Fidel and his siblings: Ángela, Juana, Emma, Agustina, Ramón and Raúl.
As a son of analphabets parents, Fidel was always stimulated towards formal education, beginning to study in his hometown and later moving to Santiago de Cuba with his sister Angelita, at the beginning of the 1930s.
His avid desire for knowledge and his outstanding intelligence matched his name during his education in several institutions, like the Lasaliano School in Santiago, de Jesuit School of Dolores and finally the Belén School in La Habana.
At 19, he enrolled in the University of La Habana in Law, Diplomatic Law and Social Sciences, in a free education format of studies, trying very hard to gain a scholarship to study abroad. His college years where the ones that allowed him contact with literary works and political and philosophical essays that would determine the channel of a personality like his: one of limelight claims. From Greek politics to the revolutionary thoughts from the beginning of the 20th Century (Marx, Lenin), through the keel line of his ideological thought, José Martí.
This is how Castro begins his political career in the college focus. From his role as delegate to his fierce debates in the University Student Federation. His ideals, originally democratic, where not congregated only in the Island. On 1947, Castro was working as the President of the Dominican Pro-Democratic Committee inside the University Student Federation, claiming the destitution of the Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo.
As an open sympathizer of the Cuban Orthodox Party (National radicals), who was led by Eduardo Chibás, Castro was sent in 1948 to Colombia as a delegate of the Student Federation, to meet the President of the Republic Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, who was murdered later that day during the famous “Bogotazo”.
Two years later, Castro graduated as a lawyer in the University of La Habana, standing as independent candidate from the Orthodox Party to the Cuban House of Representatives for the constituency of La Habana, insinuating that he was the perfect replacement for the deceased Eduardo Chibás. But the coup d’état of the General Fulgencio Batista against the government of Carlos Prío Socarrás, annulled any political advent.
The first barracks
The overthrow of the democratic government would sow the seeds of Revolution in young Fidel Castro, who would organize his contacts in the Youth of the Orthodox Party to plan an assault to the Moncada Barracks.
One of the biggest displays of political and strategist knowledge of Fidel Castro was the previous accusation to the dictator Batista in the Urgency Court, while simultaneously organizing and armed assault to several strategic points in the Island.
Castro explained, in his role as lawyer, the open violation to the constitution of the General, and his argument would lay the legal foundations of his future insurrection:
“It will demonstrate, if he continues to work with full powers, if he’s not unable by force, if the military uprising it’s not abolished […] If there are courts, Batista must be punished, and if Batista is not punished (…) How will this court judge any citizen in the future for sedition or default against this illegal regime, product of an unpunished betrayal?”
The dismissal of his accusations by the courts controlled by Batista was the gesture that Castro anticipated for the legitimacy of his armed fight, finding the green light to his uprising attempt.
The mission of the attack was to obtain more than 3000 weapons for a paramilitary movement that Castro was orchestrating. On July 26, 1953 and from Fidel’s hometown province, a group of young man would attempt to siege the Moncada Barracks in Santiago and the Carlos Manuel de Céspedes headquarters, disguised as sergeants (a nostalgic gesture of the Sergeants Revolution of 1933).
The rebellion anticipated a failure, for which the strategy included the come into possession of weapons and the convincement of young soldiers to join the movement and shelter in the mountains for a future and long-term counterattack.
The attack was organized in three groups: a first one leaded by Abel Santamaría with 21 man that took the Civil Hospital; another one of 10 man following the orders of Fidel’s younger brother Raúl, that occupied the courthouse and 95 man along with Fidel, that tried to attack the Moncada headquarters. The failure of the attempt was due to the confusion of Fidel’s man in the streets when they faced the celebration of the Carnival, taking the wrong turn in one street. The confrontation of a divided group against the defense of the barracks allowed their reorganization and the expulsion of the rebels to Sierra Maestra, where they would be detained later on.
His first speech
Looking back on it, it seems true that the organization and the planning of each and every one of his “uprising” moves would lead Castro finally to the right audience to promote his project for Cuba and his revolutionary ideal.
After his apprehension in Sierra Maestra, Castro was taken to a court on the charges of uprising and insurrection, where he would exercise his right to self-defense, giving his first speech (4 hours length) where he justified his actions in a clean and incredibly professional language of Civil Law.
Castro’s first speech would later on become and historical cornerstone, and would transform itself into the Manifesto of his movement: Movimiento 26 de Julio.
He was condemned to 15 years in prison, but he would be released two years later as a sign of democracy from Batista, who would concede amnesty to Castro and his follow rebels, many of which went to exile and where later on convened in México for their return in the Granma yacht.
The breakdown of the Cuban problems in Castro’s speech was emblematic, being remembered by its simplicity and the conviction with which he addressed problems that where deeply rooted in the brief Republican History of the Island. Land, industrialization of housing, unemployment, education and health where now not only political questionings but the beginning of Castro’s presidential campaign as well, through which he would win the trust and the affection of the Cuban people.
A failed landing
From the 82 men that joined Fidel in the Granma yacht from Mexico to the coast, only a few survived the surprising assault in Alegría del Pío that Batista’s army perpetrated. Among them, Ernesto Che Guevara, Juan Almeida, Camilo Cienfuegos and Raúl Castro, where the ones that came along to the Sierra Maestra, forming a guerrilla war with Castro against Batista’s government.
It was a radically uneven clash: 800 combatants against 70 000 national soldiers, but Castro’s promptly developed strategy gained him not only the title of Commander in Chief, but the absolute trust of his man and of those that began to silently believe in him, from far away in the settlements.
Castro’s personality was established as a revolutionary icon and the adoration of men, women, daughters and sons, that longed for and finally joined his revolution, either passively or in plain action. Batista dedicated his efforts to annihilate his antagonist, in the flesh and in fiction, publishing more than once his fake defeat.
The United States Government financed drop-by-drop Batista’s army, thus the insurgency of a “liberator” and communist movement was in the top list of immediate enemies for a country dragged by the coldest of wars.
Yes to the Revolution! No to the Coup d’état!
While the Cuban History of the Revolution didn’t begin with the Guerrilla in Sierra Maestra – thus Martí’s independence history and the grounding of the “spiritual” socialism in Latin America since the 1940s are well known as a hegemonic background. It was Castro’s Manifesto the greatest example of the biggest and strongest political campaign for an originally non-Communist socialism, in the South American continent.
The influence of the North American foreign policies in the Island must be considered. Since their intervention in the independence process to the kidnapping of Guantánamo and the support to the corruption and the “prostitution” of the ideals during the Batista administration, this was the prime material for Castro’s idiosyncratic movement and the justification of his guerrilla’s armed intervention.
It was 1957 the year that would witness the great development of the Cuban Armed Revolution: since their first military action in the detachment of La Plata (16/01), Herbert Matthews interview in Sierra Maestra, the taking of the Radio Reloj station on (03/13), the combat in El Uvero (05/28), the signing of the Sierra Maestra Manifesto (07/12), Che Guevara’s opinion column Ejército Rebelde, the murderer of Frank País (07/30) and the revolt in the Cienfuegos naval base (09/05).
The following year, the Revolution would come down from the mountains and disperse itself in destabilization and protest cells around the Island, feeding Fidel’s figure as a courageous man, decided to take over the country.
On September 27, 1958, Castro closed ranks in Sierra Maestra, freeing the territory from Batista’s power, to later sponsor the general strike on April 9th. But the government’s reaction wouldn’t take long and on May 6th Sierra Maestra was invaded by a general offensive that the Revolutionaries easily sent off.
The strategic division of the country among the leaders of the Revolution allowed the takeover of Santa Clara, a city considered the “key” to La Habana, and Santiago, to organize immediately an offensive that would corner Batista from both sides of the Island. With the support of the Revolutionary Directory, the Escambray Second National Front and the Socialist Party, the Movimiento 26 de Julio took the center of the Island on October 1958.
After the Battle of Guisa and the failed offensive of the government over Escambray, on December 4th 1958 the troops leaded by Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos, managed to aisle the government’s troops. The final attack against the city of Santa Clara allowed the access to La Habana, as well as the takeover of a shielded train that the government sent to fortify the capital. Both events made Batista runaway to Santo Domingo, leaving General Eulogio Cantillo in charge.
A brief attempt of dialogue between Cantillo and Castro was unsuccessful. Castros intransigency didn’t allow a democratic solution to the conflict. Instead, Castro claimed the people’s euphoria to help Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos to definitely take the capital.
The definite takeover of the Campo Columbia and Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña regiments on January the 1st, 1959, allowed the Revolution leaders to access the Presidential Palace, with a small crisis among the revolutionary forces.
That same day, Fidel Castro made his triumphal entrance to Santiago de Cuba, declaring it a provisional capital and proclaiming Manuel Urritia Lleó as the new president of the Nation, a new government dubiously acknowledged by the United States.
The new Office was conformed by Manuel Urrutia Lleó (President), José Miró Cardona (Prime Minister), Regino Boti (Ministry of Economy), Rufo López Fresquet (Ministry of Finance), Roberto Agramonte (Foreign Policies) and Castro as the Commander in chief of the Army.
The political trials and the executions - especially on the hands of Che Guevara - were unforgiving, to the point where a Cleansing Comission was created to eradicate any vestige of previous governments, by force. Executions, disappearances, tortures and the impossibility to access fair trial where the methods around the Island.
The discrepancies between Urrutia and Castro for the populist actions of the latter, made Castro hysterically resign, making the people roar for his comeback and for the abdication of the President. The figure of Osvaldo Dorticós as new President was a parapet, and he would later on gave the power to Fidel, his Prime Minister.
Only four Months after the triumph of the Revolution, Fidel Castro signed the promised Agrarian Reform, creating organisms like INRA, that would replace public authorities, congregating the power in one seat. The expropriations, nationalizations and the complete destruction of the middle class, were the first strategies, under the argument of “returning the power to the people”.
Even though they promised presidential elections after Batista’s overthrown, the leaders of the Revolution dismissed them considering that the country wasn’t clean yet of former “imperialists”.
On an attempt of disguising the autocracy of the new regime, The Cuban Revolution allowed elections only since June 1974, but they were only hosted by the Parliament.
A “Revolutionary” government
The immediate turn to an autocratic and communist regime didn’t take long to appear among the Revolution lines, where discontent was obvious in characters like Huber Matos and Camilo Cienfuegos, who would be rejected from the movement and in the case of the latter, executed.
From the beginning, the Cuban Revolution didn’t limit its action area to the Island. On the contrary, the movement began a series of political and strategic alliances through the Latin American continent. The fanatic opposition to Rafael Trujillo in Dominican Republic led to an agreement with the Venezuelan government for an armed and unsuccessful uprising.
But Castro’s diplomatic actions were the ones that took the Revolutionary Ideal to a level of international propaganda.
On February 16, 1959, Castro had signed as Cuba’s Prime Minister and immediately began diplomatic travels to assure the position of the new Cuban government in the international scene. After appointing his brother Raúl as his successor, Castro began his first travel to Caracas, to give a speech on the anniversary of the overthrown of Pérez Jiménez. After visiting the Central University with Pablo Neruda and meeting the new president Rómulo Betancourt, Castro decides to travel to the United States for the first time in a non-official visit.
On April 19th, 1959, Castro met the Vice-president of The United States, Richard Nixon, since Eisenhower declined his visit due to his “indisposition”. A month later, he would travel to Buenos Aires to give a speech (diplomatic strategy that would later become his personal signature) in the Economic Council where he suggested for the first time the creation of a single Latin American market.
Commander in Chief, Fidel Castro, gives a speech during the 1950s. EFE
On his return, he decreed the Agrarian Reform Act on May 17th, where he gave green light to the confiscation of properties all over the island, being his family’s property the first to do so, on a symbolic gesture, thus it was never really applied to his personal belongings.
Castro began a series of cultural and social reforms inside the Island that rise the spirit of those who where loyal to the Revolution and undermined the reluctances of the most skeptic ones. The foundation of the National Institute of the Agrarian Reform, The Cuban National Imprint and the Cuban Institute of Arts and Cinema (one of the most important ones in Latin America) where only the beginning of a radical transformation in the Cuban society.
But his involvement in foreign affairs didn’t go unnoticed, and on August 1959 Rafael Trujillo, with the support of the United States, organized the first invasion to Cuba through the recently conformed Caribbean Anti-Communist Legion, that pretended to organize guerrilla groups against Castro in the sierra del Escambray, trained by the CIA but brutally annihilated by Castro’s militia.
Since the United States supported Batista’s government and Trujillo’s invasion, the relations between both countries (between Castro and the American model, actually) went from bad to worst until putting at risk the whole world’s safety.
After the expropriations of the Agrarian Reform, President Dwight Eisenhower, who approved measures proposed by the Department of State and the CIA not only to undertake undercover activities in Cuba but also to physically eliminate Castro, considered North America’s affected interests a personal offense.
With the visit of the Soviet Vice-Prime Minister Anastás Mikoyán, and his dotation of $100 000 000 to the Revolution, a bilateral relationship began between both countries that would become one of the most important alliances in world’s history.
After several sabotage attempts in the Island, the demonization of the United States was definitive, and gave way to the confiscation of refineries and the economical blockade to Cuba from the United States. Fidel’s reunion in the Theresa Hotel in Harlem with Nikita Jrushchov (Soviet President), Gamal Abdel Nasser (President of Egypt), Jawaharlal Nehru (India’s Prime Minister) and Malcom X, associated Castro with communism to a point of no return.
Making echo of the social vigilance strategies in the Soviet Union, Castro would create the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, whose mission was to detect and report the “enemies of the Revolution”, becoming one of the most important repression arms in the history of the 20th century Cuba.
Finally, on January 3rd 1961, the diplomatic relations between Cuba and The United States where definitely broken.
President John F. Kennedy began his period during this month, inheriting Eisenhower’s plans of invasion. He approved the bombing of several cities in Cuba.
Compotes for mercenaries
One of the key moments of the Cuban Revolution – where Castro found the raw material for his politics of hate against the United States – was the invasion to Bay of Pigs on April 17, 1961 on the hands of a Latin American Brigade, trained by the CIA in Nicaragua, that parted from Guatemala to invade Cuba.
The failure of the American offensive was reduced to the jailing of 1197 combatants on Fidel’s hands, who’d judge them and return them to the United States in exchange for a compensation of “food and medicines”, commonly known as “compotes for mercenaries”.
The approval of the Operation Mongoose by President Kennedy would create a deployment of economic, intelligence and insurgency actions inside the Island that would only feed the fire of Castro’s rhetoric.
Finally, on 1962, Cuba was execrated from the UNO, and under the economic and commercial embargo of the United States.
A fragile triangle
The only option Cuba had was an economic pact with the Soviet Union and the direct association with that side of the Cold War, to save itself from the aggressions of the North American country and to adopt some sort of spotlight to negotiate with.
Considering the despair of the American government to have a communist enemy at the gates of his coast, the Soviet Union saw the ideal scenario to a strategic avant-garde movement, which was interpreted by Cuba as an irrevocable idealistic gesture of aid.
What happen later one was a threat to the entire world’s safety when the Soviet Bloc decided to transform Cuba into a base of nuclear strategic missiles, just in case retaliation against the United States became necessary. This was the official military decree, but behind it all was the need of the Soviet Union to force the United States to dismantle the ballistic missile PGM-19 Jupiter in Turkey.
When both sides came to an agreement, Cuba’s demands behind the Soviet support where ridiculed, and unleashing Castro’s rage.
A new century
The fallen of the Soviet Bloc during the end of the 1980s made Cuba a political orphan in a world that hated – and feared – the ghost of communism.
Politics of softness of the American government and the radical separation of social classes in Latin America, allowed the late germination of the socialist spirit in the countries of South America.
The images of Fidel and his Revolution where the emblems of catastrophic Revolutions in the hands of Hugo Chávez, Crstina Fernández de Kirchner, Evo Morales and Lula Da Silva, who tipped the scale towards the Pan-American Socialist dream, a hive of historical and ontological contradictions that derived in hunger, violence and corruption.
After anchoring in the Venezuelan economy as a subsidiary and a substitute of the Soviet Union, Fidel Castro’s body began to break down, giving the power to his brother Raúl as the heir of the Revolution, and moving to a secondary scene in the nostalgic political scene in Latin America.
Castro said goodbye to his life in the only way he knew how: with histrionism. Despite his physical impediments, he allowed the entrance of an American president to his country after so many years of hate, but he didn’t meet him. After the declaration of the caducity of the Cuban model in 2010, Castro seemed to vanish in his backyard, beholding his life decisions become sand in his hands.