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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