Fidel Castro’s Life and Legacy
Fidel Castro (1926 – 2016), the leader of Cuba for a nearly 50 year stretch, is mourned in the streets of Havana, while his death is celebrated in the streets of Miami. He was a complex man who brought about great change, both positive and negative, for his small island nation. Due to poor health he relinquished a leadership role to his brother, and fellow revolutionary, Raúl, in 2008, but he is still very much on the minds of the Cuban people.
Literacy and health care
Under his rule, a great emphasis was placed on public education, and today Cuba has built over 10,000 schools and has a 98% literacy rate, one of the highest in the world. His government also spear-headed a massive public health effort, extending quality universal health care to the entire population, reducing infant mortality to 1.1%, despite great shortages imposed by the U.S. embargo.
These are certainly impressive results, rivaling or surpassing the success of first world nations. However, under his communist regime, civil rights suffered, and many faced repression for political reasons. In response, over the years hundreds of thousands of refugees left Cuba for the U.S., including the largest single group, in 1980, during the Mariel boat lift, when over 120,000 people left their native land. Castro actually exploited this trend to his advantage, sending along many prisoners and mental patients, whom he deemed undesirable.
His early life and education
Castro was born the illegitimate son of a wealthy sugar plantation owner near Birán, Cuba. He had five other siblings, including his brother Raúl, and originally used the surname name Ruz. At 17 his father formally recognized him, two years after marrying his mother, and he began using his father’s surname, Castro. He was initially educated at Jesuit boarding schools, and as a boy he excelled both athletically and academically. He began the study of law at the University of Havana in 1945, where he immersed himself in student politics, fascinated by issues of social justice, Cuban nationalism, anti-imperialism, and socialism.
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His growing political conscience demands action
By 1947 the young Fidel Castro had parlayed his strong political interests into an active revolutionary zeal. He travelled to The Dominican Republic to participate in a failed coup against the dictator Rafael Trujillo, followed by a trip to Bogotá, Columbia, the next year, to join anti-government riots. The same year Castro joined an anti-communist political party in Cuba known as the Partido Ortodoxo, lead by Presidential candidate Eduardo Chibás, and worked to expose General Fulgencio Batista, who was plotting a return to power.
The efforts failed, and the young Castro married a woman from a wealthy political family, Mirta Díaz Balart, who helped expand his political connections. Together they had a son whom they named Fidel. And Castro, who had started reading Karl Marx, contemplated a run for Cuba’s congress. But in 1952 General Batista launched a successful coup, and suspended the congressional election, outraging many, and stifling the young Castro’s political aspirations and means of peaceful expression.
Death, prison, and exile
To make matters worse, the United States recognized Batista’s government, and the new dictator continued to strengthen his hold on power. Castro and a few others from the Partido Ortodoxo plotted to overthrow Batista, who was widely viewed in Castro’s circle as an affront to democracy. He and 150 others, including brother Raúl, stormed a military barracks outside of Santiago de Cuba, but the effort was a horrible failure, and many died.
The two Castro brothers, along with the other survivors, were sentenced to 15 years in prison. However, they were released in 1955 as part of an amnesty deal. Fearing reprisal, they fled to Mexico, and continued plotting in exhile against the Batista regime. It’s here that Castro met the now famous Argentine revolutionary Che Guavara, who has captured the imagination of several generations.
The guerilla war and victory over Batista
Castro and 80 revolutionaries with weapons returned to Cuba in 1956, but they were ambushed and most were killed. Castro lead the survivors, including Raúl and Che Guavara, high up into the Sierra Maestra mountains, successfully evading Batista’s forces. Castro’s men waged a two-year-long guerilla war, successfully recruiting many fighters to their cause, and winning victories against Batista’s considerably larger military forces.
Castro set up a parallel government, and took control of some provinces, implementing reforms. Castro won several significant victories in 1958, as Batista’s support waned, and members of his military began to desert. In 1959 the government collapsed, Batista fled the country in defeat, and Castro assumed the role of commander-in-chief of the military (Manuel Urrutia and José Miró Cardona were President and prime minister, respectively.) Their new government gained recognition by the United states, and in February of 1959 Miró resigned, and Fidel Castro assumed the role of prime minister.
His leaderships runs afoul of the U.S.
Castro nationalized factories and plantations, attempting to end control by the United States, the dominant economic power affecting Cuba. This and other economic reforms unfavorable to foreign companies (particularly U.S. companies) lead to a great strain between the U.S. and Castro’s new Cuban government. Castro denied allegations of communism, but critics observed that some of his political and economic policies resembled Soviet ones. While on a public relations tour in the United States, President Eisenhower, evidently displeased with the course that Castro was charting for Cuba, refused to meet with the young leader.
Castro’s government continued to grow closer to the Soviet Union, which began sending advisors to Castro’s government, and tensions with the United States escalated. Castro implemented agrarian reforms that ultimately lead to the government taking over large amounts of farmland. Meanwhile, as 1959 drew to a close, the oppression of political dissenters began to ramp up in Cuba, and unfriendly media outlets were stifled. Early in 1961, President Eisenhower cut off diplomatic relations with Cuba, which had grown increasingly close to the Soviet Union, and by April of that year Castro officially declared Cuba to be a socialist nation.
The Bay of Pigs
Three days after Castro’s declaration, 1,400 Cuban exiles landed at the Bay of Pigs, in an attempt to overthrow the Castro regime. Castro himself assumed command of the defending forces, and the invasion failed spectacularly. The CIA had both trained and armed the attackers. Planning for a Cuban invasion had started back in the Eisenhower administration, in 1959. The new U.S. President, John F. Kennedy, had approved the plan reluctantly, but wanted to conceal U.S. involvement, so he denied the expeditionary force air support. It’s possible the plan would have succeeded, and cold war history would have unfolded differently, had President Kennedy approved the use of those planes.
Castro used the failed invasion to his benefit, consolidating his power, banning all democratic elections, and making Cuba fully communist, in the Marxist-Leninist tradition. This lead to a full economic Embargo by the United States in 1962, which lasted until the Obama Administration. Cuba continued to receive more and more economic and military advice from the Soviet Union under Castro’s leadership, and the stage was set for one of the most dramatic and dangerous confrontations in world history.
The Cuban Missile Crisis
Castro and the Soviet Premiere, Nikita Kruschev, ostensibly in an effort to prevent another invasion like the Bay of Pigs, and citing U.S. missiles recently installed in Turkey, attempted to install nuclear missiles on the island of Cuba. But Cuba is only 90 miles off the coast of the United States, and President Kennedy was greatly concerned by this development. He demanded the removal of the missiles (spy plane reconnaissance indicated the base wasn’t complete) and ordered the U.S. Navy to stop and search all ships bound for Cuba, which lead to 13 excruciating days, as the two governments struggled to resolve the crisis while the world teetered on the brink of nuclear war.
At one point Castro suggested that Kruschev should fire his missiles first, in a preemptive strike. Fortunately Kruschev balked at this recommendation, recognizing that it meant certain destruction for the human race in the ensuing nuclear inferno, and certainly the annihilation of Cuba. Ultimately a deal was struck. The U.S. publicly agreed not to invade Cuba again, and secretly agreed to remove the nuclear missiles located in Turkey. And the Soviet Union agreed not to arm Cuba with nuclear missiles.
An exporter of revolution to many nations
Following the Cuban Missile Crisis, Castro’s Cuba promoted revolution in third-world countries throughout Latin American, Africa and Asia. Cuba was heavily subsidized by the Soviet Union, but it’s revolutionary activities around the world still took an economic toll on the tiny island nation. And the economic challenges only grew as the Soviet Union collapsed, and their funding dried up. In the meantime, over the years the CIA attempted well over 600 assassinations against Fidel Castro, using a variety of means—-even exploding cigars! All met with failure.
Cuba in mourning
The political repression of Castro’s Cuba is well known, but today, following the death of Fidel Castro at 90, average Cubans on the streets of Havana revere the late dictator. They drive around in insanely outdated cars, an artifact of the U.S. embargo, since new vehicles were impossible to come by, and struggle to make sense of their loss. The legions of Castro detractors, the vast majority with legitimate grievances for sure, have left that tiny island long ago to try their luck in the United States. And so his supporters remain to make sense of his loss. Now Cubans begin many days of mourning for their favorite leader and revolutionary icon. Though he remains controversial on the world’s stage, and hated in Miami, it’s clear that, at home, Fidel Castro was much loved by his people.