Fidel Castro was a political leader of Cuba who was instrumental in making his country the first and only communist state in the Western Hemisphere. His defiance against the USA and his rhetoric against her had made him a known and controversial figure in the world. A small communist state just right at its immediate doorstep was an affront to the United States the world’s leading superpower and the bastion of democracy and capitalism. American presidents in the past with the help of the CIA planned and made efforts to get rid of Castro. They carried out a CIA orchestrated invasion by Cuban exiles on Cuba, made assassination attempts on him, instigated counter revolutions and imposed economic embargo on that nation, but all of them failed. Castro as Cuban communist leader and dictator outlasted 10 US presidents.
The son of an affluent sugar cane plantation owner who was an immigrant from the Galicia region of Spain, Fidel Castro was born on August 13, 1926 in Biran Oriente, Cuba. He studied in Catholic schools in his childhood as well as in high school. Although he was just an average student in terms of academic performance, he excelled in sports. In college, he enrolled in law school at the University of Havana. It was there that he learned Marxist Leninist ideology and embraced its ideals. In 1948, he married Mirta Diaz-Balart who was a daughter of a wealthy landlord. Although that marriage had given him further high economic and socially privileged status, Castro was nevertheless averse to a bourgeois lifestyle.
Getting involved in politics, Castro ran for congressional seat in his district, but his aspiration was cut short by a military coup d’état led by General Fulgencio Batista. Castro challenged the legitimacy of the Batista government through legal means, but his moves did not prosper. His frustrations in his effort along with the highhandedness of the military regime prompted him to go underground. He then organized a group in a plot to mount an armed rebellion against Batista.
|Castro (second from the left) was under investigation|
On July 26, 1953, Fidel Castro, his brother Raul and 160 armed followers, raided the Moncada barracks In Santiago. However, they were repelled by its trained 600 soldiers. Sixty of Castro’s men were killed and he and Raul were captured, jailed and tried in court. The court sentenced him and Raul to 15 years imprisonment. The pleadings of the Catholic Church and Batista’s grant of political amnesty reduced the brothers’ sentence to just 2 years.
After their release from prison Fidel and Raul went to Mexico where they organized the “26th of July Movement” with fellow Cubans. They also met a group of people who were opposed to the dictatorial governments in the Caribbean countries. It was there that Fidel met Ernesto “Che” Guevara, an Argentinean doctor and a fellow Marxist-Leninist ideologue who also became an iconic figure in Latin American Marxist revolutions. Sharing same political views and revolutionary cause, Fidel and Che Guevara developed close association with each other.
|Fidel Castro (right)|
On December 26, 1956, Castro and the armed expedition of 81 young men of the “26th of July Movement” rebels landed on Cuban soil from a yacht called Granma. However, the group was intercepted by the military and as a result nearly everyone was killed and only Fidel, his brother Raul, Che Guevara and nine others were able to escape and retreat to the mountains of Sierra Maestra.
|Fidel Castro (right) and Che Guevara|
Eluding capture, Fidel, Raul and Che Guevara continued with their underground activities, drawing people to their cause and organizing them. Their prime targets were the people in the hinterland villages. The group gained many members and supporters especially the poor people in the remote villages so that many areas eventually came under rebels’ influence and control. In contrast, the military government of Fulgencio Batista was popular only to the elites and the middle class but was detached to the poor and ordinary people who composed the majority of the Cubans. As corruption, repression and brutalities of the Batista regime continued the elites and the middle class were also disillusioned with the regime and they too became sympathetic to the rebels led by Castro. Even the United States was appalled by the excesses of Batista and his soldiers so that she withdrew her support to them.
The bad economic and social situations in Cuba along with the withdrawal of US support greatly weakened the government but strengthened the Castro-led rebellion. Castro had slowly gained momentum in the armed rebellion against the now highly demoralized government forces. The rebels who were backed by the people gradually captured towns after towns until it would just be a matter of time that they would take the whole country. With the defeats suffered by his soldiers, General Batista was forced to flee Cuba on July 1, 1959 bringing along with him millions of dollars in government money and lived in exile in the Dominican Republic.
A provisional government was established with Manuel Urrutia as president and Fidel Castro as the commander of the revolutionary army. In July 1959, Castro effectively took over as the supreme leader. Calling himself a moderate socialist at first, Castro implemented social and economic reforms to improve the lives of the Cubans such as undertaking massive infrastructure projects, providing free education and health care and implementing agrarian reform. The US at first was hopeful that Castro would not take drastic moves that would adversely affect her interest. However, in the long run, Castro revealed his real socialistic and nationalistic tendencies by seizing and nationalizing businesses and collectivizing farms including those owned by the Americans. Castro also made an economic cooperation and partnership with USSR that greatly worried the US. The Soviets and Cuba made a deal on which Cuban sugar was traded for Russian oil on a generous terms to the latter. Castro then demanded that American oil companies such as Shell, ESSO and Standard Oil processed the imported Russian oil. When they refused, Castro expropriated those companies. Castro’s actions and his continuous rhetoric against the US resulted to sanctions such as abolition of quota on Cuban sugar in the US market, prohibition of export to that country on specific goods and the severance of diplomatic relation.
In order to protect what he perceived as the gains of his revolution, Castro made drastic measures such as jailing political opponents, curtailing free speech and the freedom of the press and using the military to suppress dissents. Despite his dictatorial policies, majority of the Cubans were still behind him. However, Castro’s method of governance had disillusioned some Cubans especially those who belonged to the upper classes of society as well as those who were adversely affected with his social reforms. Those people at the height of the revolution had switched their support from Batista to Castro. But now, they have regretted casting their lot on him since he was as repressive and brutal as Batista. While acceptable to most Cubans, Castro’s rule on the other hand resulted to thousands of Cubans fleeing and immigrating to the United States and settling in Florida.
Realizing that Castro was establishing a communist state right near its doorstep, US made moves to deal with him. The economic embargo was not effective enough since USSR was giving financial support to Cuba. With other means in mind, US leadership ordered the CIA to make clandestine training of Cuban exiles in Guatemala with a mission to invade Cuba and topple down Castro. The invasion force called Brigade 2506 landed on the Bay of Pigs on April 17, 1961. This planned invasion was thwarted because it was intercepted by Castro’s revolutionary forces. The failed invasion only strengthened Castro’s hold of his government and increased his prestige in the world stage.
Believing that the US would not stop in its effort to eliminate him, Castro allowed USSR to deploy ballistic missiles with range capable of reaching major US cities in Cuba as a deterrent to another US invasion or attack. When he knew it, US President John F. Kennedy was very furious and considered that move as an act of aggression by USSR and Cuba. In retaliation the US imposed a naval quarantine around Cuba to prevent Soviet ships carrying nuclear missiles and other weapons or delicate materials from entering Cuba. The situation brought the world to the brink of nuclear war between the two of the world’s superpowers. The highly dangerous conflict was defused when Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev sensibly accepted US terms of stopping the naval blockade in return for USSR’s taking away all its ballistic missiles in Cuba. In addition US should pull out its nuclear missiles in Turkey and Italy and secretly pledged with the Soviet premier not to invade Cuba in the future. The deal reached by the two superpowers made the world breathe a sigh of relief because a potential nuclear war or a third world war was averted.
Despite Cuba’s isolation to many western countries and the economic embargo imposed by the US, Castro still made progress in his social and economic endeavors for his country. He built massive public infrastructures, implemented agrarian reforms, provided socialized housing and gave free education and health care to all Cubans. Under his watch Cuba has the highest number of doctors per capita in Latin America. There is however perennial shortage of food and lack of personal freedom. Cuba was able to get by with the help of the Soviets which always gave it generous financial deals.
|An iconic photo of Che Guevara|
Like most communist leaders and ideologues, Fidel Castro believed that Marxist ideals to attain a utopian society should be spread throughout the world through armed or unarmed struggle. In this regard, his co-revolutionary and Marxist friend Che Guevara was killed in Bolivia in 1967 while operating there to lay the groundwork for a communist insurgency. Exporting his revolution, Castro sent Cuban forces to different parts of the world to help Marxist inspired rebellions and he also extended help to countries that are just allied with Cuba and USSR. As proxies to the Soviets, Cuban troops went to Angola, Grenada and Ethiopia to help those countries win armed conflicts. Cuba along with China, North Korea and other countries gave assistance to North Viet Nam during the Viet Nam War. Castro's leadership standing and prestige among the leaders of third world countries catapulted him to a position as a head of the Non Aligned Movement (NAM) from 1979 to 1982.
|Fidel Castro at the UN|
The collapse and disintegration of USSR in 1991 was a big blow to Cuba since it also meant that the former could no longer sustain its financial subsidy that was provided to the latter. And there was also the US economic embargo which was still in effect. But somehow Cuba was able to stave off economic collapse by furthering its economic ties with such countries such as Canada, China, Venezuela and others. Cuba also opened its door to the tourism industry which replaced sugar as its biggest money earner.
With the passing of years, ill health, and old age have finally caught up with Fidel Castro. Now physically weak, he temporarily handed down powers to his younger brother Raul in July 2006. On February 19, 2008, Fidel Castro announced he would no longer seek another term as president. Although no longer at the helm, he was still consulted by Raul and other high Cuban officials on issues of high importance. Several years after Fidel’s resignation, a significant development occurred between Cuba and the United States. President Barrack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro re-established the diplomatic ties between their two countries. It was a major milestone that may in the future lead to the lifting of the economic embargo against the island nation. In the present it will not happen since the republican controlled congress will not grant that reward to a country with serious human rights issues.
Although Cubans still wanted to see him get involved in the affairs of the government, Fidel Castro faded from the public view because of his failing health. On November 25, 2016, the Cuban State television network announced that Fidel Castro had died. Like most dictators, Castro was a divisive figure in his country. Many of his countrymen mourned his passing away, while on the other hand Cubans who were opposed to him, especially those in exiles in Florida were glad that the leader who symbolized the violation of civil liberties in Cuba was finally gone.
Fidel Castro will be remembered in history as the leader of a poor, small country who defied a super power and got away with it. Some people may not share his communist ideals, but many others will agree that he was an extraordinary strong, decisive leader with a charismatic personality who had the courage of his convictions to fight for the cause he believed in. In his lifetime his actions as a leader had profound impact on USSR and USA which had also somehow affected the lives of many people in the world.