By James Baer
November 29, 2016
Fidel Castro Ruz died on November 25 at the age of 90. He was one of the most notable figures in Latin America for his leadership of the revolution that toppled the Cuban dictator, Fulgencio Batista, in 1959 and leader of the socialist revolution that transformed Cuba into a communist state. Fidel Castro outlasted ten U.S. presidents, all of whom attempted to topple or weaken his regime. In 2006 Castro had an operation for an unspecified condition, and permanently turned over the reins of power to his younger brother, Raúl Castro in 2008. While not often seen in recent years, Fidel Castro continued to make his opinions known and occasionally was photographed with foreign leaders. He remained a symbolic figure of the Revolution. His supporters argue that he helped create a more egalitarian and independent Cuba, while opponents claim Castro destroyed the island’s freedoms and economy.
Fidel Castro was born on August 13, 1926 in Birán, in eastern Cuba. His father, Ángel Castro y Argiz, had emigrated from Spain and became a successful landowner. Castro’s mother, Lina Ruz González, was the elder Castro’s second wife. Young Castro grew up in the countryside, becoming adept at camping, hiking and outdoor activities that later served him well in the early days of his campaign to oust Cuba’s dictator.
Castro attended private schools, including the prestigious Jesuit school, Belén, in Havana. He received his law degree from the University of Havana, where he was deeply involved in politics. Castro joined a group in an unsuccessful attempted to invade the Dominican Republic to overthrow its dictator, Rafael Trujillo. Castro married Mirta Diaz-Balart in 1948, with whom he had a son, Fidelito. They divorced five years later, after Castro had begun his revolutionary activities.
Castro joined the Ortodoxo Party and stood for congress in 1952. Elections were cancelled by Fulgencio Batista after a military coup. Castro tried to indict the dictator, but no judge in the country would hear the case. In 1953 Castro and a group of young radicals attempted to take the Moncada barracks in Santiago de Cuba as a first step in an insurrection to overthrow Batista. Most of the rebels were caught and summarily executed, although Fidel Castro survived and was sentenced to imprisonment on the Isle of Pines. He was released in an amnesty and left for Mexico to organize a rebel group.
In Mexico, Castro was joined by the Argentine Ernesto “Che” Guevara, and organized an attack to coincide with uprisings in Cuban cities. The coordinated attacks failed and the rebel’s aging yacht, the “Grandma,” stalled before reaching land. Many of Castro’s band were killed, but he managed to hide in the mountains with a core of revolutionaries. From the Sierra Maestra Mountains in Eastern Cuba, Castro consolidated a rebel army that eventually defeated the Cuban army and drove Batista out of Cuba.
Fidel Castro entered Havana a hero to most Cubans. However, as he began to organize the revolution, some became disenchanted at his executions and nationalizations. Relations with the U.S. deteriorated under President Eisenhower, who imposed an economic blockade, and John Kennedy, who authorized the failed “Bay of Pigs” invasion in 1961. The most difficult moments in Cuban-U.S. relations occurred in October 1962 during the “Missile Crisis,” when Soviet missiles with nuclear warheads were stationed in Cuba. War was averted, but Castro’s Cuba eventually became a client state of the Soviet Union and an entrenched member of the communist bloc until the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Castro led Cuba in a Marxist-Leninist revolution that was guided by the spirit of José Martí, Cuba’s independence leader. In 1985 Castro spoke with a Brazilian priest, Frei Betto, about his beliefs. “More than a utopian communist or Marxist, I am a follower of Martí,” he said. Cuba’s communism mirrored that of Eastern Europe in some respects, but differed in others as Castro created a unique blend of socialism and nationalism. Castro did not allow opposition political parties, arrested political opponents and restricted the movements of Cubans. However, Cuba continued to depend on sugar as its main export and Castro was open to negotiations with the U.S. on issues of hijacking and immigration. People of color and poor, rural peasants gained much from Castro’s revolution, and Cubans enjoy health services and educational opportunities beyond the reach of most before the revolution.
Fidel Castro’s most important legacy is maintaining Cuba’s independence from the United States. Historically, the U.S. has dominated Cuba’s economy, political institutions and foreign relations. United States’ corporations owned land and factories, U.S. companies refined petroleum and U.S. markets absorbed Cuba’s sugar, rum and tobacco. The United States forced Cuba to adopt the Platt Amendment as a condition of withdrawing U.S. troops in 1902 after a four-year occupation at the end of the Spanish-American War. That amendment allowed the U.S. to control a base in Guantanamo Bay indefinitely and permitted the U.S. to intervene in Cuba should it be required. There were interventions with U.S. troops from 1906 to 1909, in 1912 and from 1917 to 1923. The 1933 Revolution that ousted Cuba’s dictator, Gerardo Machado did not please the U.S. government. Batista used the military to overthrow that government and exercised control between 1933 and 1944. When he returned in 1952, the U.S. accepted his coup and Batista faithfully outlawed communists, siding with the U.S. in the Cold War.
Lars Schoultz explained why the U.S. hated Fidel Castro so much in his book, That Infernal Little Cuban Republic. Calling the U.S. attitude toward Cuba “delusional,” Schoultz wrote, “this mentality has led otherwise sensible people to believe that these Caribbean neighbors will welcome to be guided toward a higher and better civilization by the United States of America.” Fidel Castro never submitted to the power of the United States, and that is the one sin for which he will never be forgiven.
The rest of the world will gather in Havana to remember a bold revolutionary who changed Cuba and refused to let any opposition stand in his way. He will not be remembered fondly by Cubans in Miami and by Cubans who have attempted to challenge his regime. He will be remembered by other Cubans as the man who made Cuba into a beacon of revolutionary change and challenged U.S. hegemony. What all will agree on is that Fidel Castro has a place in history. Whether it will absolve him or condemn him remains to be seen.