Reflections on the life and legacy of Fidel Castro (Part 2)

by Dan Miller.

(Read Part 1 here.)

Fidel’s astonishing luck continued over the next two years. Resistance to Batista boiled over in the urban centers and was bloodily repressed. Thousands of mostly young revolutionaries gave their lives to the cause of restoring democracy on the island. The urban guerrilla campaign failed to dislodge Batista but the cruel methods he used to defeat it discredited his regime in the eyes of most Cubans and most North American observers as well. The urban struggle also drew Batista’s attention away from the Sierra Maestra where Fidel’s little band was slowly gaining recruits from among the isolated peasant population who appreciated the literacy and medical services that Fidel’s city-bred revolutionaries offered them. Fidel also gained recruits from members of the urban guerrilla movements who were fleeing Batista’s brutal crackdown. By the spring of 1958, Fidel’s guerrilla army was the only remaining center of resistance to the dictatorship.

Fidel Castro (left) marches with Che Guevara (center) in a 1959 parade in Havana. (Image source: Universal History Archive/Getty Images, via NY Daily News.)

Fidel Castro (left) marches with Che Guevara (center) in a 1959 parade in Havana. (Image source: Universal History Archive/Getty Images, via NY Daily News.)

Eighteen months after the “Granma” landing, Batista felt confident enough in the military situation to turn his attention toward Fidel’s jungle enclave which he seemed to regard as a mere nuisance. By then however, Fidel’s guerrilla army numbered in the hundreds and was well acquainted with the terrain. The result was a shocking series of defeats for Batista’s troops who proved much better at breaking into safe houses than fighting in the impenetrable jungle of the Sierra Maestra. Within a few weeks of its beginning, Batista’s jungle offensive had clearly failed and the initiative passed suddenly and decisively to the rebels.

Batista’s unpopularity meant that his only hold over the public was his appearance of strength, and when that was punctured, his regime collapsed with surprising speed. The US, embarrassed by Batista’s brutality, cut off military aid. Defections from Batista’s forces began to multiply. Fidel’s little army began spreading out from the Sierra Maestra and wherever it appeared, would-be rebels begged to join. By the fall of 1958 it had grown to several thousand and was seizing control of the major towns. On January 1, 1959, Batista fled the island. Eight days later, after a triumphal procession along the length of the island, Fidel arrived in Havana to a hero’s welcome.

Fidel’s defeat of the dictator Batista made him a hero in Cuba and in all of Latin America; his defiance of the United States and embrace of the Soviet Union made him a figure of world-wide importance. As with the controversy about when exactly Fidel embraced Marxism, there has been a lot of debate about the question of who was to blame for the breakdown in relations between Cuba and the US and whether it could have been avoided. My own view is that the rupture was inevitable from the time Fidel came to power.

In personal correspondence written during his time in the Sierra, Fidel made clear that he anticipated, even relished, the prospect of a confrontation with the United States. Fidel blamed the US for undermining Cuba’s independence with the infamous Platt Amendment. He blamed the US for overthrowing Cuba’s first socially progressive regime in 1934 and replacing it with a military regime led by Batista. As noted above, he blamed the US for overthrowing President Arbenz’ reformist government in Guatemala. In fact, he viewed the United States as the enemy of all progressive movements in the Third World. Hence, the idea that a more conciliatory policy by the US might have prevented the breakdown in relations appears unrealistic. In fact, it would seem that Fidel deliberately baited the US into opposing him in order to discredit his conservative, pro-US opponents inside Cuba and to establish a total identification between loyalty to Cuba and loyalty to himself. It was a strategy with which successive US administrations unwittingly collaborated.


Hiding his intentions, Fidel initially allowed a “revolutionary junta” comprised of moderate and leftist political leaders to run the government while he retained command of the Revolutionary Armed Forces. It soon became clear that Fidel was the real power in Cuba. On his own authority he initiated hundreds of hasty “trials” of Batista supporters, most of whom were summarily shot. The executions were condemned by the US but were widely popular among Cubans and they gave Fidel his first opportunity to defend his revolutionary nationalism from “US interference.”

Other provocations quickly followed. An agrarian reform law confiscated large sugar estates, including those owned by North Americans. While vehemently denying he was a communist during a visit to the US, Fidel began pressing the Junta to promote communists to positions within the government. When the Junta resisted, Fidel mobilized popular support to force its resignation and he took over as effective ruler of Cuba. Promised elections were postponed indefinitely, the independent press was curtailed. Those who challenged the leftward movement, including Huber Matos, a high ranking guerrilla fighter, were given long prison terms. Seeing the betrayal of their hopes for democracy, middle and upper class Cubans began fleeing to the US. Fidel demonized them as “worms,” making it clear that that opposition to Fidel was disloyalty to Cuba.

At the same time, Fidel expressed open admiration for the Soviet Union, and his government signed a treaty with it to exchange sugar for oil. When the US government advised American-owned refineries to refuse to process the Soviet crude oil, Castro nationalized them. And in massive public rallies, Fidel denounced the US as an imperialistic power that was trying to control Cuba and called for ever more radical measures to overturn Cuba’s neocolonial economic and social structure.

The US reacted with alarm. Overtly it punished Cuba by limiting, and then ending trade with the island. Covertly, it began arming anti-Castro Cubans to overthrow Fidel’s government, not only the well-known Brigade 2506, but others who fought inside Cuba for several years. The climax in the breakdown of US-Cuban relations came in 1961 and 1962 with the notorious Bay of Pigs Invasion and the subsequent Cuban Missile Crisis.

Contrary to what some writers have asserted, it appears to me that the fate of the Miami-based exiles was sealed even before they came ashore on April 16, 1961. Fidel’s spies had given him plenty of information about the coming invasion and he had preemptively arrested 10,000s of Cubans whose loyalty was suspect to prevent them from cooperating with the invaders. The Kennedy Administration permitted air sorties to be made against Cuba by planes based in the US but desisted in the face of international condemnation before Cuba’s tiny air force was entirely destroyed. Far from determining the outcome, the air war made little difference in the land battle because the invaders were hopelessly outnumbered. A successful invasion would have required the commitment of US armed forces, something Kennedy was not willing to contemplate. The failure of the invasion cemented Fidel’s reputation as a revolutionary hero throughout the non-Western world, and also among idealistic young people in the West who were disenchanted with their own nations’ militaristic response to revolutionary movements in Third World.

In the wake of the Bay of Pigs fiasco, Fidel abandoned all pretense and declared himself to be a Marxist-Leninist and his revolution to be irrevocably communist. Churches suffered persecution, dissidents filled the prisons, and a military alliance was concluded with the Soviet Union to avert the possibility of any further US incursions. Just one year later, the Soviets began basing nuclear weapons in Cuba. When the US responded with a quarantine of the island, Fidel urged with his Soviet allies not to back down even if war resulted. Chillingly, he was ready to see the island of Cuba immolated if that was the price for a nuclear attack on the United States. More than any other event, the Cuban Missile Crisis reveals the intensity of Fidel’s Manichean worldview and the strength of his refusal to back down from a fight, regardless of the cost.

(This entry is the second in a multi-part series reflecting on Fidel Castro. The rest of the series will be posted in the coming weeks.)

Professor Daniel Miller has been a member of the Calvin History Department since 1983. He regularly teaches a survey of Latin American history and has taken students there on several January Interim trips. His research interests include the history of Protestantism in Latin America and U.S.-Mexican relations.

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Reflections on the life and legacy of Fidel Castro (Part I)

by Dan Miller.
Fidel Castro (August 13, 1926 - November 25, 2016)

Fidel Castro (August 13, 1926 – November 25, 2016)

The announcement of Fidel Castro’s death on Friday, November 25, was a bit of an anticlimax. Had it occurred twenty years ago or even ten, it would have been much bigger news. But Fidel relinquished his duties as head of government to his brother Raúl in 2006 and from that time onward his public appearances became fewer and his role as the personification of the Cuban Revolution became largely symbolic, much like that of the iconic Ché.

Not that Fidel didn’t weigh in on contemporary events. As recently as last spring he declared publicly that Cuba should be wary of President Obama’s efforts to normalize relations with the US. But that episode only seemed to confirm the impression that Fidel was no longer master of the island’s destiny. Rather he sounded like a cranky old man who didn’t realize or refused to accept that the world, including Cuba, was moving on without him.

In his prime, of course, it was very different. Then, Fidel could hold the attention of huge crowds in Havana for several hours at a time. What the crowds saw in him was a hero. The source of that reputation came from his victories against a domestic dictator and an imperial neighbor. And those victories in turn reflected the willfulness and impetuosity of Fidel himself.

Fidel showed himself to be extremely strong-willed even as a child. When he was kicked out of a Jesuit-run school for misbehaving, he demanded that his parents have him readmitted and vowed to burn down the family home if they did not comply with his request. As a law student at the University of Havana, he threw himself into the thuggish student politics of the place and was charged, though not convicted, of murdering a political rival.

In 1952, having failed as a lawyer, the young Fidel sought election to the national legislature as a reform candidate. When Fulgencio Batista, a military strongman, took power and annulled the elections, Fidel responded by leading a foolhardy attack against the Moncada Barracks near Santiago, Cuba. The attack was a fiasco; a majority of the attackers were captured and killed in cold blood.

Fidel too was captured but escaped execution largely owing to the good offices of a local Catholic bishop. Fidel was tried for treason and he put his lawyerly skills to good use in a smuggled document that described the dictator as the real traitor to Cuba and ended with the ringing claim “History will absolve me.” The speech revealed that Fidel’s vision for Cuba extended far beyond merely overthrowing a dictator. He wanted nothing less than to transform the island’s highly inequitable society into one where black cane cutters and urban workers received education, health care, better housing, and a fairer share of the nation’s wealth.

Fidel was sent to prison where he spent much of his time reading books of political theory including a hefty dose of Marxism. After less than two years in prison, he was pardoned. He soon left Cuba for Mexico where he set about preparing another effort to oust the dictator. There he met Ché Guevara, an Argentine medical student and convinced Marxist. Together they hatched the scheme that would eventually bring Fidel to power in Cuba.


Much ink has been spilled on the question of when Fidel embraced communism. My own view is that the idea took root during his time in prison and was solidified by his conversations with Ché in Mexico. Crucial, I believe, was the eye witness report Ché brought of the CIA-initiated coup in Guatemala that brought down democratically-elected President Jacobo Arbenz.

Arbenz was deemed too radical by the US government because of his friendliness to labor unions, his distribution of cropland including property belonging to the US-based United Fruit Company, and, most crucially, his willingness to collaborate with the Guatemalan Communist Party. The 1954 coup not only overthrew Arbenz’ government and reversed his land and labor reforms, it created a military dictatorship that swiftly rounded up and executed thousands of Arbenz’ supporters.

Fidel Castro (left) lights his cigar while Che Guevara looks on in the early days of their guerrilla campaign. (Image source: Hulton Archive/Getty Images, via NY Daily News.)

Fidel Castro (left) lights his cigar while Che Guevara looks on in the early days of their guerrilla campaign. (Image source: Hulton Archive/Getty Images, via NY Daily News.)

Doubtless the lesson that Ché and Fidel drew from this experience was that any effort to make serious changes in the land tenure system in Cuba, a key reform in Fidel’s eyes, would face resistance from the US government which would ally with conservative forces inside the country to bring down the government. Hence the need for an iron-clad dictatorship that could control all elements of society, especially the armed forces that were the preferred instruments of US interference in Latin American politics. Marxist-Leninism provided the blue print for just such a totalitarian government.

But premature declaration of the revolution’s communist character would be an even worse error than failure to establish total control. This was the height of the Cold War and the US had shown itself ready in Guatemala and elsewhere to react decisively whenever it feared that a political movement was heading in a leftward direction. Moreover, Cuba’s political class, whose support would be crucial if the movement to overthrow Batista was to succeed, favored a return to democracy, not a communist revolution. Thus it would be necessary to disguise the radical aims of Fidel’s revolution until his control over the island was total enough to withstand the predictable counterrevolutionary attacks from inside and outside the island.

The plan which Fidel and Ché hatched was to land in the undeveloped eastern part of Cuba and establish a nucleus of resistance in the forests of the Sierra Maestra that would gradually grow into a popular rural guerrilla movement. This new effort was not much better planned than the previous attack on the Moncada Barracks. The yacht “Granma” on which the 82 would-be revolutionaries sailed was seriously overloaded and nearly foundered. The landing was quickly discovered by Batista’s forces who captured and killed most of the invaders. Miraculously Fidel, his brother Raúl, and Ché, were among the eighteen survivors who escaped into the interior. They spent the next several months lying low and learning how to survive in the unfamiliar jungle environment. Their first act of resistance was to set up a short wave radio that broadcast denunciations of Batista, made exaggerated claims of rebel numbers and successes, and offered assurances that the rebels were fighting to restore democracy to Cuba.

(This entry is the first in a multi-part series reflecting on Fidel Castro. The rest of the series will be posted in the coming weeks.)


Professor Daniel Miller has been a member of the Calvin History Department since 1983. He regularly teaches a survey of Latin American history and has taken students there on several January Interim trips. His research interests include the history of Protestantism in Latin America and U.S.-Mexican relations.

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What to binge watch over break

Whether you are a student relaxing after exams, a professor done with grading, or just someone with time off for the holidays, the end of the year can be a great time for binge watching television. Here’s some recommendations from the History Department for great shows to add to your streaming video queue:

Will Katerberg:

tv-wallanderYou’d think that since I study the American West, and have written about and taught courses on the Western, that I’d watch Western themed TV shows. And there are some good TV series.

Deadwood (2004-2007) is set in the Old West of the gold rush in the Dakota Territory in the 1870s. It’s marvelous television, with an odd use of the English language that may not be historically accurate but feels old-timey and gives a gravitas of sorts to the characters. It’s very gritty, with a lot of violence, profanity, and sexuality, but also evocative in the way it plays with the history and legends of the time. Longmire (2012-2015) is more crime genre, set in contemporary Wyoming, and has a strong Western feel. I don’t think it’s as good as Deadwood, but it’s solid. Firefly (2002-2003) and the associated film Serenity (2005) are science fiction, set in a galactic future, and have a lot of Western themes.

But I don’t watch Western TV shows or movies for fun, either classic ones from the past or recent ones. It feels too much like work. The same is true of science fiction. I read a ton of science fiction as a kid, a teenager and an adult. Then I wrote a book on science fiction novels and films set in the American West of the future. Watching and reading sci-fi now feels a bit like work too.

Instead, for fun, I watch crime/detective TV series, and also read some fiction. My favorite has been Wallander. I like both the BBC version in English and the Swedish language version, the latter especially. The two series are based on a series of novels. I also have been enjoying Hinterland (2013-), set in Wales, and Foyle’s War (2002-2015) set in England during World War II. Wallander and Hinterland are “noir” in character. Foyle’s War is more “stiff upper lip.” I have no interest in writing about crime fiction, TV, or film. It’s just fun.

Kate van Liere:

tv-foyles-warOur family doesn’t get much time to watch TV together, and when we do, we gravitate towards British series, because we have very fond memories of living in England and because the Brits just know how to make good television. About two years ago, disenchanted with the increasingly soapy flavor of Downton Abbey and frustrated that the next Sherlock episode was so long in coming, we discovered the historical detective series Foyle’s War, and it quickly became a family favorite. Inspector Foyle is a police detective in the seaside town of Hastings during the Second World War. 1940s Hastings is a quiet, provincial seaside town, but as the place where the last successful invasion of England was clinched in 1066, it’s a site well chosen to highlight British fears of a new foreign invasion. The setting is as beautifully portrayed as any Merchant Ivory film; if you like English landscapes, you’ll find yourself equally taken in by the posh country houses and the gritty back alleys where the show’s crimes are committed and solved. But it is the thoroughly likeable main characters and the well-crafted plots that make the show so compelling. Inspector Foyle, a brilliant but soft-spoken and self-effacing police detective (close to retirement by 1939, when the series begins, but so indispensable once the war is on that he can no longer think of quitting), shares center stage with two equally likeable, if less brilliant, assistants: Paul, an injured veteran who returns to civilian life as a police detective, and Sam, the spunky young woman who works as Foyle’s driver but often contributes to solving the crimes (and provides some occasional romantic side plots).

Foyle’s War dramatizes many familiar subjects of the wartime home front–child evacuations, air raids, war profiteering, German POWs, spying and sabotage–and quite a few specific undercover operations that are not so widely known, and fun to learn about. True to the detective genre, every episode centers on a crime, which the inimitable Foyle always solves, but the show usually weaves in more moral and political commentary than the classic Whodunit. Foyle commands respect for his moral insight as much as his crime-solving brilliance. Some of the morals are more or less conventional, as when Foyle excoriates war profiteers for disregarding the public good. But the show often challenges conventional notions of patriotism. Foyle will not tolerate acts of real injustice that that are justified by the ‘greater good’ of fighting the Nazis, and he is particularly dogged in pursuing powerful men who think they should be above the law because of their service to the war effort. Sometimes Foyle just seems a bit too brilliant, or too moral, to be entirely plausible, and occasionally the series veers into not-so-subtle moralizing that is more characteristic of American film and television. This happens especially in the later episodes, set after the war, where it seemed to me some of the charm of the early series was starting to wear off. I have still not watched the final episodes. But even if these don’t thrill me as much as the first ones did, this is an exceptionally enjoyable series.

William Van Vugt:

tv-wolf-hallWolf Hall is surely the best TV series ever. This is true for several reasons. First, no one can make up stories more fascinating than the history behind this series, which features Thomas Cromwell as the central figure, as presented by Hillary Mantel in her book by this title. The people and events in England during the time of Henry VIII and the Reformation are some of the most dramatic and formative in world history. Second, the lead actor, Mark Rylance, is truly brilliant: he can say more with a single raised eyebrow than most actors can say in an entire soliloquy. And finally, the story is more relevant to today than one might think. Thomas Cromwell was a blacksmith’s son who rose to the highest rank in government below the king because of his abilities. He was more clever and able than the king and aristocracy that he served–and in several ways more virtuous–and yet we know what ultimately happens to him. He was destroyed by people who merely had the wealth and power that came with their high birth. People born to privilege had control of the government and the country, and they did whatever they could to expand their wealth and power, at the expense of more ordinary people like Cromwell. And they made some disastrous decisions that only wasted resources on senseless wars, increased inequality, and created social misery. One would think that after 500 years we would see more progress, but I see too many similarities in this new millennium, and the recent election—especially the common assumption that people with merely great wealth deserve to rule. The lessons of Wolf Hall are “Huge.”

Bob Schoone-Jongen:

My favorite Netflix binge, House of Cards, of course! Sure it’s melodramatic. Sure it has cringing plot twists recycled from afternoon soap operas. But the sets are spiffier! Sure there is only hero–Freddy, the barbecue guy. Sure, everyone else exhibits reptilian moral sensitivity. Sure it plants a human Jurassic Park in the District of Columbia. What could be implausible about any of this?

It’s the historian in me that finds Frank and Claire’s little shop of horrors so fascinating. It’s an alternative history where we can speculate about what would have happened if Cesare Borgia had married Catherine d’Medici, or Jack the Ripper had had political ambitions inspired by a life with Lizzie Borden. Or, if Lady Macbeth met Tony Soprano.

During a political campaign such as we’ve seen this year, House of Cards serves as a reminder that things could be worse. Or, could they?

This favorite binge is subject to change in the near future. I recently heard there will be 460 episodes of Bob Ross’s Joy of Painting available on Netflix–230 hours of happy trees with friends in the forest!!


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