“Men do not shape destiny, destiny produces the man for the hour.” – Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz
I came to admire Fidel Castro over years of what some would call indoctrination, a time in my life when I began taking note of the injustices caging my countrymen and the lackluster approach with which my government aimed to end those maladies. It occurred to me that the world was molded by visionaries on whom history would look back upon with both admiration and condemnation and ideologies which would carry as many flaws as virtues – the revolutionaries who change the social landscape of our planet often fall short of their own revolutionary ideals and live as bewildering contradictions to themselves and those who come to celebrate their works; and the doctrine which they held so dear, which drove every movement of their lives, will appear to generations unconsidered as irrational and absurd. Fidel Castro is no exception to this rule, nor is the doctrine which guided him through the Sierra Maestra and into Havana, but both are a part of what I’ve become and what I believe.
I took my first steps toward radicalization in college by reading the “Communist Manifesto.” Obviously, there are more people who’ve read the book than there are Communists, but I was taken by its message instantly – it seemed to me then, and does so even more to me now, that the society envisioned by Marx and Engels in that masterpiece of political theory is not only something worth working toward, it is the only thing that will rescue this country from the culture of avarice and narcissism that has so permeated every corner it. Naturally, after reading the Manifesto, I became hungry for more and began studying some of the movements and men inspired by that document – Lenin, Trotsky and the Bolshevics; Collins, Brugha and the IRA; and, most importantly, Castro, Guevara and the 26th of July Movement.
I was first drawn to Che, whose famous visage has been used as an image of resistance since before my birth, but many an aspiring revolutionary has worn that image on a t-shirt without ever knowing the man’s story or ideology – hippy idealists titillated by bearded guerillas, but wholly unfamiliar with the texts from which revolution and those who perpetuate its causes spring. Concerned with being the exception to this rule, I read everything I could on Che – biographies, essays, criticisms and his remarkable battle manual “Guerrilla Warfare.” And the thing I began to notice in studying the life, work and ideology of Che Guevara was that he admired Fidel Castro above all other men, found him to be a man worthy of respect and praise. So struck by the charisma and brilliance of Fidel was Che, an Argentinian doctor with asthma and only pseudo-Marxist leanings before their meeting, that he set sail from Mexico aboard a rickety yacht, Granma, to stand at Fidel’s side during the Cuban Revolution.
But this writing is not about Che, nor is it intended to argue the merits of Communism as an ideal, but about the life and times of a strong and sinister guerilla commander, a brilliant but brutal leader, a man who breathed revolution in and out of his nostrils until his last breath, at the age of 90, on a November night, in his beloved Cuba: El Comandante Fidel Castro.
The details of Castro’s youth are of little concern in reference to his glorification as a revolutionary, except to note that he was a rabblerouser from an early age – he became interested in leftist anti-imperialism while studying law in Havana and participated in many student revolts. After engaging in revolts in Colombia and the Dominican Republic, Castro launched a failed revolution against Cuban dictator President Fulgencio Batista in 1953…
It is important here to explain a bit about Fulgencio Batista, who rose to power after the 1933 overthrow of Gerardo Machado’s authoritarian government. He declared himself leader of the nation’s armed forces, though he maintained control through a series of hand-picked presidents, before being elected president in 1940. Initially pushing a progressive agenda, Batista retired to Florida at the end of his term only to return eight years later to run for re-election. Realizing his imminent defeat in the election, Batista lead a military coup, assumed power of the country and schemed with the island’s wealthiest landowners to exploit the working class, as well as revoking the vast majority of the people’s civil liberties. Batista went on to further profit personally from Cuba’s commercial interests by dealing with the Mafia. As revolts began happening, including the one for which Castro was arrested, Batista cracked down on dissent using violence, torture and public executions of as many as 20,000 people. Batista’s government received financial, logistical and military support for many years up to its end at the hands of Fidel and his guerilla fighters.
“A revolution is a struggle to the death between the future and the past.” – Fidel Castro
Fidel Castro was released from prison after only serving a year in prison in an attempt by Batista to quell public rage – this would prove to be Batista’s undoing, as on December 2, 1956, Castro, Guevara and 80 guerilla fighters landed on the Cuban shore with the intent of overthrowing the Batista regime and installing a Socialist government in its place. The days following the guerilla band’s landing were treacherous, at best – numerous government airstrikes battered the small army upon arrival, splitting the group into two factions and forcing the band to leave most of its supplies. Of the 82 men who arrived on the Granma that day, little more than a dozen survived to regroup in the Sierra Maestra mountains. It was from these mountains that the army did most of its damage – because the movement had popular support amongst the peseantry and working class, resistance was mounting in the cities while the miniature army struck repeatedly against army barracks and moving regiments. It was ultimately Guevara’s band that won the Battle of Santa Clara to put an end to the three-year skirmish and send Batista fleeing from the country on New Year’s Day 1959.
In this description of Castro’s struggles as a revolutionary, one can not help but be struck by the courage and audacity that this man had – he waged a war with a rickety yacht and 82 poorly armed men against an established national government, all in the effort of providing a better life to the poor and suffering he so frequently saw in the streets. Castro took note of the injustices being levied against his people by the bottomless pit that is the capitalist gut. As his comrade Guevara would say: “We must struggle every day so that this love for humanity becomes a reality.” In my mind, this idea is the single biggest reason that I admire Fidel Castro, and especially Che Guevara: the idea that it is the duty of each person to do whatever is necessary to better the lot of their neighbor, even when – no, especially when – what is necessary may well be your life. People will inevitably note that for such “loving revolutionaries,” they were certainly keen on executing their detractors during their struggle for liberation. To this, I have no argument – Castro, Guevara and the leaders of the 26th of July Movement certainly took part in many executions of captured soldiers or informants. While such actions should not be whitewashed or ignored, I would argue that every war, whether worthy of the blood it spills or not, is rife with atrocities just as bad, if not worse, than those seen in Cuba – in fact, I would argue that our own government is responsible for such atrocities abroad, as well as at home.
After the battle for liberation was won, a provisional government was installed until Castro was sworn in as Prime Minister in 1959. Almost immediately Castro began implenting agrarian reform, setting a cap on land holdings and barring foreigners from owning Cuban land, effectively decimating the stranglehold that American business interests had on the island. The reforms provided pieces of land to some 200,000 peasants. He cut in half the rents of the islands poorest tenets and raised the wages of the lowest paid workers, paid for in part by cutting the salary of some of the island’s wealthiest citizens. In the first 30 months of Castro’s rein, more classrooms were opened than had been in the last 30 years and the education system provided a work-study program to prepare students for various careers. Healthcare was nationalized and widely expanded, with numerous free clinics being established across the island, and universal vaccinations were instituted, dropping the infant mortality rate drastically. Castro also invested extensively in infrastructure, with more than 600 miles of roads built in the first six months and substantial improvements made to water and sanitation infrastructure. Also at the start of his administration, 800 houses were built each month, as well as new childhood and senior centers. In an effort to maintain a repoir with the populace, Castro used radio and television to develop a “dialogue with the people,” the vast majority of which supported his efforts to better their plight.
But not everyone was happy with the new reforms, chiefly the upper-middle class and those who had grown so fat on the previous capitalist leader’s policies. Militant anti-Castro groups, funded by wealthy exiles, the CIA and the Dominican Republic, and chiefly staffed by former Batista soldiers and loyalists, launched the Escambray Rebellion within Castro’s first year. Though the rebellion lasted six years, the bandits were eventually overwhelmed and summarily executed.
“I find capitalism repugnant. It is filthy, it is gross, it is alienating… because it causes war, hypocrisy and competition.” – Fidel Castro
By 1960, the Cold War was raging between the United States and the Soviet Union – because Castro’s Marxist-Leninist views put him at odds with imperalism and capitalism, two pillars on which the United States’ worldview rests heavily, Castro sided with the USSR and became an ally to the Socialist nation. Castro’s regime agreed to provde the Soviets with sugar, fruit and other goods in exchange for crude oil, fertilizers and machinery. Because Cuba’s oil refineries were still owned by American companies, they refused to process the Soviet oil. Thus, Castro nationalized the refineries, causing America to decrease its import of Cuban sugar and, in retalliation, Castro to take control of all American-owned assets on the island, including banks and mills. Relations between the U.S and Cuba were further strained after the explosion of the Le Coubre off the coast of Havana, and in March 1960 President Eisenhower authorized the CIA to work alongside the Mafia, with a budget of $13 million, to overthrow Castro’s government. The back and forth continued – the Cuban Embargo was initiated, causing Castro’s regime to take control of 383 American-owned private businesses and 166 U.S. companies. As a result, the U.S. prohibited the import of Cuban sugar, the island’s main export. For those even nominally familiar with history, it is well-known that Castro was soon the victor in the “Bay of Pigs Invasion” and set the world on the end of its seat during the Cuban missile crisis.
Here again, Castro shows evermore reasons to be admired, particularly by a student of leftist literature and ideology. While his predecessor was making Cuba a financial playground for American capitalists and mafioso, all at the expense of the working class, Castro set about providing that neglected class with land, expanded education, exceptional healthcare and reliable infrastructure. He was aware that the damage done to his people by the previous administration was allowed and perpetuated by the ideologies of American capitalism, which places the acquisition and retension of wealth above all else, and denied allowing that corrupting machine to once again lay claim to his island – when a tiny island stood up against a world superpower, Fidel Castro was the one leading the resistance. And by repeatedly attempting to undermine his vision, America not only proved his point but made Fidel a David to America’s Goliath. Further, by refusing to do business with Cuba because of its status as a Communist nation, a beast which stands in direct opposition to the tenets of American capitalism, and effectively causing the brunt of Cuba’s economic woes over many decades, it proved the tenets of Castro’s political theory to be faultless and made America an enemy to oppressed peoples the world over – it proved that capitalism is a theory rooted in greed and arrogance, so much so that the wealthiest nation on Earth would allow a country’s people to starve because they disagree with that country’s politics, and that the struggle against it is worth any inconvenience that may be suffered.
In 1969, Castro publicly offered his resignation due to the economic stagnation caused by a hurricane which decimated that year’s sugar cane crop and caused massive sacrifices on the part of workers, but popular opinion demanded that he stay in office – despite the current suffering, the vast majority of the population was still supportive of Castro’s advances in medicine, housing, education and more. During this time, Castro began meeting with Socialist leaders across the globe and cut off relations with Israel because of its connection to the U.S. and its continued mistreatment of Palestinians. Castro continued to export revolution, sending 4,000 troops to Syria to defend against an Israeli incursion and later around 18,000 troops to Angola, and when the Cuban economy boomed in 1974 because of increased sugar prices, Cuba was readmitted to the Organization of American States.
Unemployment first emerged as a serious problem on the island in 1980, when again a hurricane destroyed the island’s sugar cane crop and international prices dropped. As a result, Castro sent many unemployed youths to work abroad and allowed for any wishing to leave to depart from the Mariel port – around 120,000 took advantage of the situation, including Castro who took the opportunity to offload a portion of his prison population onto those American-bound boats. When President Ronald Reagan took office, the administration made it obvious that it wanted nothing more than to see Castro’s government eliminated. At the same time, Mikhail Gorbachev began loosening Marxist policies in the USSR, causing Castro to fear that the influence of capitalism would again start permeating Socialist nations – Gorbachev informed Castro later that year that Soviet subsidies would no longer be provided to the nation because of its refusal to adhere to the more liberalized Soviet model. The ensuing conflict on both fronts bred paranoia in Castro, who began harshly clamping down on dissidents and keeping a suspicious eye on the military, from which he feared a coup may rise.
“They talk about the failure of socialism but where is the success of capitalism in Africa, Asia and Latin America?” – Fidel Castro
Despite domestic struggles, Castro continued to speak out against oppression abroad – he denounced the Third World debt problem, arguing that First World banks had created a problem from which they would never rise; Cuban troops were sent to Angola in what Castro believed would be a way of upending the apartheid system there. But his just ambitions across the globe did little for the condition at home and Cuba fell into a horrid depression with the Soviet withdrawal from Marxist/Leninist positions – fuel was rationed, there were food shortages and a lack of basic necessities. During the early 90’s, Castro attempted to rekindle relationships with governments whose policies he opposed, ceased funding foreign militants and negotiated a settlement with the Zapatistas in Mexico. After the Olympic games were held in Havana, and Cuba became the first Latin American nation to top the U.S. at the Gold Medal table, Castro’s support was as widespread as ever – even to the point that an enormous anti-Castro demonstration was thwarted by an overwhelming force of pro-Castro supporters with no violence. Again, Castro’s paranoia got the better of him, and people across the nation were enlisted into the “War of All the People” campaign and put to work building bunkers and tunnels across the island. Castro realized the need for Cuban Socialism to reform if it planned to survive in a landscape dominated by capitalist regimes, and throughout the 90’s he took steps to revitalize the tourism and biotechnology sectors and offered free farmer’s markets and lossened restrictions on private businesses. Further, he became an outspoken environmentalist, accusing the United States of being the world’s worst polluter and agent of global warming.
Things continued to improve for Cuba when Socialist Hugo Chavez was elected president of Venezuela in 1999. Castro agreed to send 20,000 medics to the nation in exchange for 53,000 barrels of oil a day at agreeable rates – a move that was eventually stepped up to 40,000 and 90,000, respectively. Further, Chavez and Castro provided 300,000 free eye exams to peoples in both countries. During this time, Castro doubled the minimum wage for 1.6 million workers, raised pensions and provided new kitchen equipment to the island’s poorest citizens. Over this time Cuba also became the only nation to have embassies in every independent Carribbean nation. Ups and downs continued for the nation, even after Castro handed over the reins of the island to his younger brother Raul in 2006 and President Barack Obama began thawing relations with the Socialist island nation after some 50 years of animosity.
“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.” – Fidel Castro
Fidel Castro is no more a perfect man, or even a perfect role model, than any other man or any other icon of revolution – Nelson Mandela, who unironically became a dear friend to Castro, is viewed around the world as a freedom fighter and an icon of peace and humanitarianism, but Mandela used terrorism which took the lives of thousands of innocent people in his pursuit of equality and levied brutal reprisals against his detractors. And despite Fidel’s oversight of a country that provided every citizen with a world-class education and unrivaled healthcare, one that provided desperate people with homes and land, as well as one whose devotion to humanitarianism across the globe was invaluable to countless nations and peoples, some will only remember Castro as a monster who ignored the humanitarian crises happening in his own Cuba. To this, I can only reply: let’s not be naive. Right now, in this country, native peoples, who have faced mass injustices since Europeans landed, are facing an army with water cannons, tear gas and guns to protest the construction of an oil pipeline…which means that an armed force has been sent to defend the interests of a wealthy oil interest. That aside, we have police officers killing unarmed civilians in the street and facing no legal recourse; we incarcerate more of our citizens than any other nation on the planet; the United States is the most expensive place in the world to have a baby and we’re number one in obesity, anxiety disorders, gun ownership, personal energy use, health expenditures and cocaine use; we have about 1.5 million children living in homelessness, 12 percent of the adult homeless population are veterans and vacant houses outnumber homeless roughly 5-to-1. None of this is to justify the injustices suffered by the Cuban people or the misdeeds of the Castro regime, but it is certainly to say that if we are to judge a leader by his weakest points, then we have also suffered beneath the hands of despots, misanthropes and villains of every kind – and the true oppressor has yet to take office.
Fidel Castro dedicated every day of his life in pursuit of the working man’s triumph: he believed that wealth has been amassed on the backs of the working class and the worker should be privy to a piece of the wealth he has sacrificed so heartily to create; he believed that where there is injustice there should be men willing to stand up to it, no matter who or how large the offender; he believed that a society dedicated to the accumulation of wealth would inevitably destroy itself and all around it; he believed that such destruction could be averted with the establishment of a society dedicated to the well-being of all its people – he was a fighter and a dreamer and a man whose ambitions and paranoias often gave way to results that his younger self would have gone to war over. And for all of the people reveling in the streets of Miami and elsewhere, all the McCarthyists and fascists and general enemies of the people, there are people mourning the loss of a man who gave his life trying, as hard and as best he was able, to create the kind of paradisal society that all good peoples the world over dream about.