by Dan Miller.
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.
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.