Fidel Castro (1926-2016) was born in Cuba, the illegitimate son of a Spanish immigrant who had prospered in the sugar industry. The teenaged Castro was academically gifted and, with his tall and powerful physique, was also a talented sportsman. In 1945, Castro began studying law at the University of Havana. It was there he became interested in politics, firstly student politics and then those of the national government. He graduated with a doctorate in 1950 and worked briefly for a small law firm in Cuba’s capital city, Havana. Castro held nationalist and anti-American political views. He wanted Cuba to be economically and politically independent from the US, which he viewed as a major exploiter of Latin American nations. Castro was especially outraged by the 1952 coup which brought Fulgencio Batista, a military officer, to the Cuban presidency. Batista’s regime was recognised by Washington days after the coup – to Castro, this was evidence that the coup was backed, if not orchestrated by the Americans.
During the first two years of his rule, Batista introduced progressive policies like an eight-hour working day, annual holidays, sick pay, even 12 weeks’ paid maternity leave. In proportion to its population, Cuba had the highest number of doctors, the fifth-highest number of televisions and the eighth-highest number of radios. But as he implemented these social reforms, Batista was also undermining Cuban democracy, allowing corruption in his government and opening Cuba up to mobsters. The US-based Mafia ran Havana’s casinos, racecourses, brothels and drug trade through most of the 1950s. Anyone willing to cross Batista’s palm with cash was given approval to set up a casino in Havana. The sex trade flourished, with almost 12,000 prostitutes working the streets of Havana, visible day and night. Yet beyond the cities, ordinary Cubans continued to struggle with poverty and inadequate social services.
Quest for revolution
In July 1953, Castro led a group of 160 rebels armed with shotguns and rifles and attacked Cuba’s second-largest military barracks. The raid was a disaster; though numbers are vague, more rebels died than soldiers. Castro and his brother, Raul, were quickly captured and charged with treason. Fidel Castro used his trial to deliver a four-hour speech, where he condemned Batista as a dictator and outlined his own political platform for a new Cuba. It included a return to the socialist constitution of 1940, land reforms and redistribution, and profit sharing for both industrial workers (30 percent of the population) and sugar workers (55 percent). This monologue attracted publicity, though days later Castro was handed a 15-year prison sentence. In 1955 the government announced an amnesty for all political prisoners and Castro was released. He traveled to Mexico and completed military training with Spanish Civil War veterans and the Argentinian revolutionary ‘Che’ Guevara. Castro also made contact with Soviet agents (an unsuccessful attempt to acquire supplies) then spent some time in the US trying to drum up support for a counter-coup to remove Batista.
Gabriel Marquez, writer
In December 1956, Castro, Guevara and about 80 other rebels returned to Cuba, determined to overthrow the Batista regime. On landing, they were met by a sizeable contingent of the Cuban military and utterly defeated, with three-quarters of the group either killed or taken prisoner. The survivors fled into Cuba’s remote mountain ranges, where they spent the next two years. During their exile in the Cuban highlands, both Castro and Guevara were sought for interviews by the American press, which portrayed them as idealistic revolutionaries fighting against government corruption. This, along with the continued failures of the Batista regime, caused Castro’s numbers to swell. By 1958 he commanded more than 1,000 armed men and enjoyed widespread civilian support. Alert to Castro’s growing appeal, Batista ordered military detachments into the highlands to engage with and wipe out the rebels. But Batista’s own army of conscripts was inadequately treated and poorly paid; many were persuaded to abandon the government and join the revolutionaries. Through 1958, Castro and his lieutenants swept through Cuba, province by province. They eventually marched into Havana in January 1959, overthrowing the government and forcing Batista to flee. He wound up in Portugal, carrying a swag of more than $US500 million in cash, art and jewels acquired through years of corruption.
The political unknown
As Castro swept into power and made headlines around the world, nobody seemed to know what political road he might take. Earlier in his life Castro had been a social democrat, a supporter of centre-left Cuban politicians. In the late 1940s, as Castro became more aware of Cuban poverty and the exploitation of labour, he gravitated towards the writings of Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin. Later in life he explained this epiphany:
Marxism taught me what society was. I was like a blindfolded man in a forest, who doesn’t even know where north or south is. If you don’t eventually come to truly understand the history of the class struggle, or at least have a clear idea that society is divided between the rich and the poor, and that some people subjugate and exploit other people, you’re lost in a forest, not knowing anything.
Both the US and the Soviet Union were aware of Castro’s communist affiliations – but there were doubts about how strong or sincere they were. Castro had no ties with Moscow, nor did he seek any, even after seizing power. According to the memoirs of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, his government “had no idea what political course his [Castro’s] regime would follow … We had no official contacts with any of the new Cuban leaders and therefore nothing to go on but rumours”. Some in Washington wondered whether Castro was an opportunist rather than a hardline communist. This argument seemed valid in the first weeks of Castro’s rule, when he attempted to forge economic ties with the US. The new Cuban leader even visited the US in April, though president Eisenhower preferred to play golf instead of meeting Castro. He was eventually given a brief meeting with vice-president Richard Nixon but it did not go well, and Castro returned to Cuba immediately after.
Cleaning up Cuba
Washington’s refusal to acknowledge Castro or his revolutionary government pushed him closer to the Soviet Union. Castro also initiated an undeclared ‘economic war’ on America, nationalising oil refineries, US-owned factories and businesses. The Mafia was thrown out of Cuba, their casinos and brothels closed, their henchmen thrown in prison or frog-marched to ports for return to the US. Castro soon found himself in an unenviable position, a ‘wanted man’ by the US government and the American ‘Mob’; recently declassified documents revealed an unlikely alliance between CIA agents and the Mafia to assassinate Castro. Domestically, Castro refused to call elections; he instead employed the slogan “Revolutions first, elections later”. His government introduced land reforms that returned small holdings to local farmers; he made improvements to welfare, education and healthcare that were popular with poorer Cubans.
For the duration of the Cold War, Castro remained a divisive figure, both loved and loathed by his fellow Cubans. Though he began his reign with a flurry of idealism and reformist policies, Castro soon grew suspicious, paranoid and intolerant of opposition. In late 1961 he declared Cuba a one-party socialist state. All newspapers, radio and television stations not owned or controlled by the government were closed. Fearing a CIA-led assassination attempt, Castro banned American tourists from visiting Cuba. In 1962 he began accepting Soviet military equipment and expertise, which led to the Cuban missile crisis in October that year. Individuals who posed a threat to Castro’s regime – former allies of Batista, political liberals, radical academics and teachers, organised crime bosses – were imprisoned indefinitely, and some reportedly tortured. Castro’s regime also targeted maricones (homosexuals), claiming them to be a subversive and socially disruptive group. Despite Cuba’s location at the doorstep of the United States, for the next 40 years it existed as a pariah state, hated and shunned by its powerful neighbour.
1. Fidel Castro was a young Cuban lawyer who, outraged by the 1952 Batista-led coup, became a left-wing revolutionary.
2. By the mid-1950s Castro was leading a small group seeking to replace Batista with a socialist government.
3. Castro received military training abroad then returned to Cuba, where his forces gathered in the island’s highlands.
4. In 1959 Castro had enough support to march on Havana and remove Batista, promising to end poverty and corruption.
5. Castro’s political loyalties were unclear and inconsistent. He sought the support of the US at first, but when this was refused, Castro aligned himself with the Soviet Union.