He was the personification of the evil dictator – clad in his familiar khaki uniform and cap and chomping on his cigar, he ruled with an iron fist over his island nation. He took on the United States and brought the world to the brink of nuclear holocaust. Shifting attention to his own country he decimated the economy, creating a Communistic dictatorship that forced the people to revere him, even as he ruined their lives. In this week’s Biogragphics we take a close look at the life of Fidel Castro.
Birth of a Dictator
Fidel Castro was born on August 13th, 1926 in the small farming village of Manacas in northern Oriente, Cuba. His father,Angel Castro y Igas, had immigrated from Spain in 1898 and picked up work as a bricklayer and railroad worker before starting his own business selling lemonade to field workers. From this humble start, he built a small sugarcane empire comprising 26,000 acres and 300 worker families.
Angel’s first wife, Maria Argota, gave birth to two children and then either died or simply walked out on the family. Angel soon took up with his young maid, Lina Ruz Gonzalez, who bore him three children; Angela, Ramon and Fidel. The couple were married shortly after Fidel’s birth.
They were a relatively wealthy family who lived in a Galician style two storey country house. Still, they lived a decidedly country lifestyle with chickens and pigs wandering through the house. Fidel was named after a local politician, with his name meaning ‘Faithful’. He had his father’s temperament, which meant that he was prone to violent outbursts. His sister recalls that if he was playing baseball and his team were losing he would simply gather up the equipment and walk off the field. Close friend and future novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez recalled that Fidel was the worst loser he had ever met.
When he reached school age, Fidel was sent to study in Santiago, the second largest city in Cuba. For the first two years he stayed with his Godparents and as homeschooled by them. After that he was enrolled at the Marist La Salle School along with brothers Ramon and Raul. Fidel soon gained a reputation as a troublemaker and a bully.
When he was in the fourth grade, Fidel’s father received a letter stating that his three boys were the biggest bullies in the entire school. Angel was furious and pulled the boys out of the school. This enraged Fidel who threatened to burn down the house. He ended up being set to a more demanding Jesuit school in Havana, with his father threatening to cut off his allowance if his grades dropped below a certain level. Fidel responded by forging his school reports.
Castro proved to be a decidedly average student but there was one area in which he excelled. He had a photographic memory, a fact which hugely impressed his fellow students. They would call to him a page number from their textbooks and he would recite the page word for word.
In his teens, Fidel began to develop his ability as a public speaker and debater. After an initial rejection he gained acceptance into the Allevenada Literary Academy, which was the literary wing at the Jesuit school. At first he was paralyzed by stage fright but he gradually became more relaxed and confident in his presentations.
In October, 1945, Fidel entered law school at the University of Havana. At the time the university was a self governing body which forbade the police or army from setting foot on campus. As a result, it was a hotbed of clandestine activity by gangsters and political agitators. It was a very attractive environment for the hotheaded Castro.
Fidel’s first foray into political agitation was precipitated by a rise in bus fares that had been authorized by Cuban President Ramon Grau. Castro organized a protest against the fare rise and led a march to the Presidential palace. The police beat the students, with Fidel himself receiving slight injuries. He used the incident to his advantage by going to the press and receiving some sympathetic coverage.
At the time that Castro enrolled at the University, there were two main gangster groups who were vying for control; the Socialist Revolutionary Movement (MSR) and the Insurrectional Revolutionary Union (UIR). There were frequent violent clashes between the two groups. Fidel quickly sized up the situation and began to maneuver between the two groups. In December, 1946 there was an assassination attempt on a leading member of the UIR and Castro was fingered as the triggerman, his assumed motive being to ingratiate himself with MSR leadership.
A revolution is a struggle to the death between the future and the past.
As it turned out, it was the leader of UIR, Emilio Tro, who took Castro under his wing. He gave Fidel a pistol, which the young budding revolutionary carried with him at all times. Tro had been planning an invasion of the Dominican Republic in conjunction with a group of Dominican exiles in response to the terrible conditions brought about by the rule of Rafael Trujillo. Castro quickly jumped on board and sailed with about 12,000 fellow revolutionaries to Cayo Confites on July 29th, 1947.
For two months they underwent paramilitary training before setting off for the Dominican mainland. Meanwhile,Trujillo had learned of the planned attack and had even appealed to the United States for aid. The revolutionary leaders got cold feet and called off the invasion and the embarrassed Cuban army began rounding up the ships and taking the would-be attackers into custody. Castro manage to evade custody by jumping ship and swimming the eight miles to shore.
In 1947, Castro visited a new model prison on the Isle of Pines as part of his legal studies. When he returned to Havana he criticized the prison and its inhumane treatment of its inhabitants. The following year he was part of a student congress that travelled to Bogota, Colombia. On April 7th, the group met with the leader of the Liberal Party, Jorge Gaitan, who looked likely to win the upcoming general election. Two days later, Gaitan was shot dead. Bogota erupted in violence and the students from Cuba were caught in the middle of it. Castro became actively involved, participating in the takeover of a police station. After three days, the authorities restod order, but not before some 3,500 people had been killed.
Castro returned to Havana where he became a follower of Senator Eddie Chibas, the main opponent of President Grau. Chibas was the founder of the Cuban People’s Party. Castro campaigned hard for Chibas in his unsuccessful bid for the presidency in 1948. Still, the two men were never close. Chibas saw Fidel as somewhat of an embarrassment due to his gangster background and Fidel only ever viewed the leader as an obstacle to his own path to power.
In order to gain political respectability, Fidel cut off association with his gangster associates. He gave speeches on campus denouncing the two main gangs and naming names of those who were responsible for criminal activity. This made him a target for both groups and he was forced into hiding.
Around this time Fidel, who was generally awkward and shy around women, met Mirta Diaz-Balart, the daughter of one of the wealthiest men in Cuba. The couple fell in love and were married in 1948, with Mirta’s father gifting them $10,000 for ap three month honeymoon in the United States. Most of their time was sent in New York, where Fidel learned some English.
Returning to Cuba, the newlyweds moved into a hotel across the street from a military camp in Havana. In September, 1949 Mirta gave birth to a son, who would come to be known as Fidelito. Having graduated from University, Fidel began a small law practice. Most of his time, however, was spent dabbling in politics.
On August 15th, 1951, People’s Party leader Eddie Chibas was giving his usual Sunday radio address, urging the people to stop accepting the corruption of the government and take action. He then pulled out a pistol and shot himself in the stomach. The dramatic act was intended to rouse the people but Chibas had spoken for too long and his suicide attempt was not broadcast.
For the next eleven days, Chibas lay in a hospital bed in terrible agony. At his side the whole time was Fidel Castro. When the leader died, Castro was prominent as part of the honor guard that stood outside the University Hall of Honor, where Chibas lay in state. As the military escort prepared to lead the body through the streets in a large procession, Castro entreated the captain to divert the route to the Presidential Palace. Fidel was convinced that he could rouse the people to overthrow the government. But the army captain refused, fearing that a bloodbath would ensue.
The following year, Castro ran for a seat on the Chamber of Deputies. He managed to garner the support of the majority of the People’s Party members and looked in line to win in the upcoming election. However, on March 10th, former president Fulgencio Batista staged a military coup and seized power. He began rounding up political adversaries, including members of the People’s Party. Fidel and his brother Raoul went into hiding.
The Batista coup diverted Castro from what could have been a promising diplomatic career in favor of becoming a fully fledged revolutionary. He gathered together his own political group, drawn from former People’s Party members and followers from his University days. Traveling up and down the country, he put his oratorical and propaganda skills to full effect. After fourteen months, he had a following of 12,000 people.
Castro ran his organization with military precision and discipline. Drinking alcohol was forbidden and he imposed strict sexual standards. He also organized his forces at a cellular level, with members of each cell being unaware of the existence of other cells.
By the middle of 1953, Castro had the support base he needed to stage his own coup. What he didn’t have were weapons – or the money to buy them. His solution was to attack a military base and seize its weapons. The base selected was located at Moncado. The attack, however, was bungled from the start – one of the twenty six vehicles en route to the base had a flat tire; another took a wrong turn and did not arrive until the attack was well under way. When the remainder of the vehicles arrived at the base they were surprised to find it heavily fortified. The military defenders soon beat back the invaders, with eight of Castro’s men being killed. The remainder fled, but over the next few days many of them were rounded up by the authorities. Sixty-nine of them were tortured and then put to death.
Castro himself was put on trial before a military tribunal. He used the opportunity to speak out about the regime of Batista and the harsh treatment of his fellow revolutionaries. His courtroom defense statement ‘History Will Absolve Me’ would become probably his most famous speech. Still, he was convicted and sentenced to 15 years imprisonment.
Castro and his followers were sent to Isle of Pines prison. Fidel used his time there to instill a supreme level of order and discipline in his men. The Castro rebels gained a reputation for their good behavior and were given ever greater freedoms.
On May 6th, 1954, bowing to public pressure, president Batista granted amnesty to Castro and his men. The show of good faith from the president, however, did not stop Castro from speaking about the regime. When two of his men were badly beaten by Batista enforcers, Fidel became increasingly concerned for his own safety. He would move houses every two to three days and then, just two months after being released from prison, he left Cuba for Mexico.
They talk about the failure of socialism but where is the success of capitalism in Africa, Asia and Latin America?
It was Castro’s plan to build up and train a new wing of his revolutionary army in Mexico and then return to join forces with those already in Havana in a huge push to oust the Batista regime. His Mexican army began as a group of about sixty Cuban defectors who lived in six small houses under strict disciplinary conditions imposed by Fidel. It was during this period that Castro met Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, who would play a key role on the coming revolution.
Castro launched his revolution in late November, 1956 from the port of Tuxpan on the Mexican coast. It was planned to coincide with another uprising organized by a rival anti-Batista group. Fidel had bought a 60 foot boat that was designed to take a maximum of 25 passengers and piled 82 of his men onboard. As it chugged its way toward Cub, the boat was in constant danger of capsizing. The journey was so slow that the planned five day trip took seven days, meaning that they would miss the uprising of the other group.
The boat beached at a place called Purgatory Point on December 2nd. But by now Batista’s army, who had already put down the first rebellion, had learned that Castro was on his way and had planes overhead ready to strafe the invaders and bomb the area. Only about a dozen men survived, Castro and Guevara among them. They began a three day march through the forest, constantly being hounded from the air by the Cuban air force. They finally reached the Sierra Maestra region where they settled with the local villagers and began to regroup.
Six weeks later Castro led thirty three men on a guerilla raid on a tiny army garrison in La Plata. Two soldiers were killed and the rebels stole off with a number of weapons. A month after this attack, Castro decided it was time to get his propaganda machine in motion. He sent one of his men to Havana to bring a foreign journalist back to the camp. The man chosen was from the New York Times and soon a three part story had appeared in that paper describing the massive military buildup that Castro was organizing in the south of Cuba.
Castro’s support base grew exponentially, with more and more disaffected Cubans joining his ranks. In March, 1958, younger brother Raoul began to establish a second force out of Oriente, which soon grew in number. Raoul proved to be a highly capable military commander, with his force capturing and destroying many planes, tanks and military vehicles.
In April, Fidel called upon the people of Cuba to stage a nationwide strike. He believed that this would be the start of his long planned for uprising. President Bautista responded by threatening to shoot anyone who participated in the strike. As a result, more than 140 people were shot down in the street. But this action only fuelled Castro’s support base and even more people streamed to him.
With the tide now decidedly turned in his favor, Castro decided to move. He sent Che Guevara and another of his commanders, Camilo Cienfuegos, on a westward march toward Havana, along with their rebel forces. The government forces put up virtually no resistance and the rebels were able to take control, one town after another.
On December 31st, 1958, with Castro’s men closing in, Batista resigned and fled the country. Three days later, Castro arrived in Santiago to a hero’s welcome. He gave a speech in front of 200,000 people. Hours later, Guevara and Cienfuegos marched into Havana and seized control of the reigns of power.
The Castro era had begun.
The transfer of power was amazingly orderly. Castro had wanted his men against looting or destroying property. He had come to power on the backs of a huge army of poor and illiterate peasants. Now that he had gained power, he would need educated men to help him to govern. He chose to appoint his former professor, Jose Miro Cardona, as prime minister and Manuel Urrutia to be president. He made himself supreme commander of armed forces.
Behind the scenes, however, Castro put the organization in place to ensure that he was the holder of overall power. In the weeks following the revolution more than 500 Batista officials were tried, convicted and put to death. That number would rise to 1,900 over the coming year.
Within 7 months of seizing power, Castro decided that he no longer had any need for the puppet government. On July 16th, he announced that he was resigning his position as army commander because he could no longer work with President Urrutia, who he accused of corruption. Castro then disappeared for a number of days. Just as Fidel had intended, the people rose up in protest and demanded that the President must go. A frightened Urrutia sought sanctuary in the Venezuelan embassy before escaping the country. This allowed Castro to return in triumph and appoint himself as President.
Men do not shape destiny, Destiny produces the man for the hour.
Castro now imposed totalitarian rule. Those who did not give him their absolute support were in danger of being seized and put on trial or simply shot. Within a few short months all signs of resistance within Cuba, including critical media, had been removed. Now Castro fixed his attention on securing external security. A focus was put on increasing the size and strength of the army.
Six months after seizing power, Castro visited the United States, where he was greeted with enthusiasm by the media, politicians and public alike. Behind the scenes, however, the Eisenhower government were already making plans for Castro’s removal.
In February 1960, the Cuban leader signed an agreement with the Russians, by which Cuban sugar would be traded for military arms and oil. This was at the height of the Cold War and many of the oil refineries in Cuba were American owned. When the owners refused to process Soviet oil imports, Castro seized their businesses. The US Government responded by cutting 700,000 tons from the US annual purchase commitment. In turn, Castro nationalized US owned agricultural and industrial businesses.
Castro’s’ move had a huge impact on the US Mafia, which lost about $100 million worth of property in the tourist industry alone. During the period of the nationalization of industry, more than 200,000 professional and upper class citizens fled the country.
Relations between the United States and Cuban governments became so strained that, in March 1960, President Eisenhower green lighted the training of a group of Cuban exiles to stage an invasion to seek control. The ball was picked up by President Kennedy, resulting in the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion. Castro had gotten wind of the invasion and had his forces ready and waiting. With the lack of promised US air support, the Cuban rebels were cut to pieces.
In December 1st, 1961 Castro went on national television and declared that he was a Marxist-Leninist and would be one until the day he died. The Soviets took a wary view of their newly declared Communist fellow but the Americans responded immediately, imposing a total economic blockade of Cuba. This led to economic disaster, with massive food shortages resulting.
Finally, the Soviet Government decided to embrace Castro. They offered to station Soviet missiles on the island. In mid October, 1962 the American government got concrete evidence of the missile operation, leading to what became known as the Cuban Missile Crisis. President Kennedy placed a total military blockade around Cuba and announced that a military attack from Cuba on any nation would be seen as a direct attack by the Soviet Union on the United States.
Castro urged the Russians to make a pre-emptive strike on the United States if the Americans attacked his island. After thirteen days, during the world was a hair trigger away from Nuclear destruction, the Russians backed down and agreed to remove the missiles.
Castro was left completely out of the negotiation process – and he was not happy. Soviet President Nikita Khrushchev tried to placate him by inviting Castro on a 40-day trip through the Soviet Union. Durg the trip, Khrushchev offered to provide economic aid to the struggling island.
In 1965 the United States announced that it was willing to take in Cuban refugees. This led to a mass exodus with a resultant huge loss of skills and manpower.
The Sugar Cane Fiasco
With the international situation having settled, Castro set his focus on making agricultural reforms to improve the economy. He wanted to increase the sugar harvest and set a target for national production in 1965 of 5.5 million tons, increasing to 10 million tons by 1970. These expectations, however, were totally unreasonable. Still he poured nearly all of the country’s economic resources into the sugarcane industry, leaving all other economic activity barren. The whole country, including the elderly, young children and military workers were put to work in the fields in a desperate quest to reach his targets. Even Castro himself was said to have cut cane for four hours every day.
As the rest of the Cuban economy fell by between 20 and 40%, the sugarcane project failed dismally to reach its projected targets. In 1970, Castro announced that the plan had failed. Typical of his flair for the dramatic he resigned his presidency. The people demanded he return and soon he was back in power with the sugar cane crisis behind him.
Throughout the 1970’s Castro began looking for ways to extend his influence abroad. He began involving himself in revolutionary movements and sending forces to train and lead various guerrilla operations. His support of civil wars in Angola and Somalia ate up more of his country’s limited resources.
During the early 1980’s sugar prices and production had increased significantly. This allowed the Cuban economy to grow at a rate of 24%. But when the sugar price slumped dramatically, ballooning Cuba’s international debt to the west to $6 billion. At the same time, she owed $19 billion to the Soviet Union. The Soviets tried to help by increasing trade but, with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989, all the agreements fell apart. The already weak Cuban economy was severely restricted. Strict rationing was put in place, the electricity supply became sporadic and tractors were replaced with ox-drawn carts.
With his country on the brink of collapse, in 1993 Castro allowed Cubans to start private businesses. The following year he permitted foreign investors to own Cuban businesses. The economy, which had declined by 40% in the past three years, finally began to grow.
The Death of a Dictator
By the 1990’s Castro was an aging, isolated and largely depressed dictator. The majority of his close associates were either dead or had been exiled. He still kept up his habit of only staying in a place for two or three nights, so he was constantly being moved around in a bulletproof Mercedes limousine.
I think that a man should not live beyond the age when he begins to deteriorate, when the flame that lighted the brightest moment of his life has weakened.
During this period Castro’s tight grip on the country seemed to loosen slightly. But then, in March 2003, he imposed a crack down which saw scores of journalists, students and professional people arrested as dissidents of the regime.
In July 2006, the eighty-year-old Castro underwent surgery for internal bleeding. The following year he handed over the Presidential reigns to his brother Raul. From then, Fidel’s health gradually deteriorated. The end came on November 26, 2016, though the exact cause of his death was never released. The country was in mourning for nine days.