Fidel Castro – Biography, Cuban Revolutionary, Cuban Revolution, Politician, Legacy

Fidel Castro Essay
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Fidel Castro. Image by OpenClipart-Vectors from Pixabay

Fidel Castro Biography and Legacy

Few other men in history have been as controversial as the great Cuban revolutionary and political leader Fidel Castro. Few other men have provoked such mixed reactions from people as Castro managed to do during the course of his lifetime and even after his death.

To many in Cuba, and throughout the so-called Third World, Castro was a heroic revolutionary who stood bravely and fought against injustice, tyranny, and oppression. And to many others, especially in the west, he was nothing more than an egotistical, cruel dictator who only cared for power.

Some considered him a legendary, almost mythical figure, who stood his ground against the mighty U.S. government. While some, especially in the U.S., were convinced that he was the reincarnation of the devil himself.

So now what is true? What is accurate? Who was Castro really, a saint or a devil?

Well, the truth, as always, lies somewhere in the middle, I believe. It changes based on one’s perspective, upbringing, and background. The truth, as in most cases, is far from the extremes.

Allow me to go into a little more detail. But first, let me introduce you to the man. Trust me, the background is necessary to understand any matter if you hope to discover something even remotely close to the truth. In short, without some background, my essay will be quite pointless.

Fidel Castro was born on 13th August 1926 in the village of Biran at his father’s farm. His father was a wealthy farmer who owned around 23,000 acres of plantation in Biran.

From a young age, Castro was somewhat of a rebel, often misbehaving in school. As he grew older and began studying law at the University of Havana, he became actively involved in violent student activism and politics that existed at the university.

As a law student, he campaigned against the violence and corruption of President Ramon Grau’s government, even delivering a public speech that would receive front-page coverage in many newspapers.

Castro’s political literacy led him to participate in rebellions against right-wing governments in Colombia and the Dominican Republic, as his anti-imperialist views became stronger. He also began to despise U.S. intervention in the Caribbean.

Castro became a regular in the city’s political life, actively taking part in protests against the government. He began condemning the economic and social inequality prevailing in Cuba and became more and more influenced by leftist political philosophy. Getting interested in Marxist philosophy, he voraciously read the writings of Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, and Friedrich Engles.

Through these writings, his worldview changed completely. He would later credit Marxism for teaching him what society was, for helping him understand the history of the class struggle, and for making him realize that society was divided between the rich and the poor and that some people subjugated and exploited other people.

It was only around this time that Castro began looking at the problems of Cuba in a wholly different light, coming to the conclusion that corrupted politicians were not solely responsible for all the evils in Cuban society, but that the bourgeoisie class was equally to be blamed.

Being deeply influenced by the Marxist point of view, he realized that meaningful political change could only be brought about by a proletariat revolution, as in the case of Russia.

In September 1950, Castro graduated with a Doctor of Law and co-founded a legal partnership to serve poor Cubans who could not ideally afford legal guidance. The partnership was a financial failure that left Castro, who was already married by then, without any money to pay his bills. And although Castro himself did not care much about money or material goods, the situation caused his wife much distress. Soon their electricity was cut off and their furniture was repossessed due to non-payment of bills.

But even until the early months of 1952, Castro had no real political ambitions. Not obvious ones at least. He was still a supporter of Eduardo Chibas, the founder of the Party of the Cuban People, or Orthodox Party. He believed that Chibas would be the man to bring change to Cuba for the good. However, two subsequent events would bring a drastic change in his ideas.

The first event was Chibas’ politically motivated suicide in 1951. And the second was General Fulgencio Batista seizing power in a military coup on 10th March 1952 and declaring himself President. Batista went on to cancel the planned presidential elections and confirmed his ties with the U.S. government and the elite class.

As soon as he came into power, Batista began oppressing socialist groups, trade unions, and opposing political parties, effectively making his presidency a one-man dictatorship.

Castro tried in vain to bring legal cases against the government, but nothing came of it. This was when he began to seriously consider other ways to overthrow the Batista government. He soon realized that he had to resort to a radical method, as legal and passive methods certainly would not work.

From July 1952 onward, Castro began recruiting members for his newly-formed anti-Batista group, The Movement. Within a year, he was able to recruit over 1,200 members. The group collected weapons for a planned attack on the Moncada barracks (a military garrison outside Santiago de Cuba).

This time, Castro’s goal was ambitious and radical. With the attack on the barracks, he wanted to seize control of it before reinforcements could arrive, and with this act of rebellion, he wished to ignite a revolution amongst the poor citizens of the province of Oriente.

Castro now began seeing himself as heir to the great Cuban nationalist poet and independence leader Jose Marti.

On 26th July 1953, Castro, along with 165 revolutionaries conducted a failed attack on the barracks. Four of them were killed before Castro ordered a retreat. In total, 6 were killed and 15 were left seriously wounded. Some rebels who took over a civilian hospital were captured, tortured, and executed without trial.

Castro, along with 19 other rebels, fled into the Sierra Maestra mountains to establish a guerilla base there. Unfortunately for them, their plans did not work out as expected. The rebels were captured in the mountains. Some were executed, while others, including Castro, were transported to a prison north of Santiago.

On 16th October, after Castro made his now-famous History Will Absolve Me speech, he was sentenced to 15 years imprisonment along with 25 others. Being imprisoned in a relatively comfortable section of the prison, Castro used his time to read widely the works of Jose Marti, Immanuel Kant, Sigmund Freud, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, etc.

It was in prison that he also renamed the group’s name to the 26th of July Movement in memory of the Moncada barracks attack.

Holding a false presidential election in 1954, Batista, backed by the U.S. government and some major corporations, was advised to release the Moncada prisoners for some good publicity. On 15th May 1955, Castro and his comrades were released, as Batista was convinced that they were no threat to him.

The same year, after some violent demonstrations, the government began to crack down on dissent once again, prompting Castro and his brother Raul to flee Cuba for Mexico in order to avoid arrest. Upon arriving in Mexico, they met a young Argentine doctor named Ernesto Guevara, who would go on to become the great revolutionary leader and icon of rebellion Che Guevara.

The rebels in Mexico soon began to train in guerilla warfare under the guidance of Alberto Bayo, a Cuban military commander of the Republican faction during the Spanish Civil war.

Now is the time for me to cut short the history and not go into too much detail, for if I did so, this essay would probably lose its purpose and never end. So allow me to skim through the actual guerilla war that would take place over a two-year period in Cuba.

On 25th November 1956, Castro, along with 81 comrades, including Raul, Che, and Camilo Cienfuegos, set sail for Cuba onboard an old yacht named Granma. The journey, which was filled with problems and difficulties, took seven days instead of the planned five.

Upon arriving at Playa Las Coloradas in a mangrove swamp, they were attacked by Batista’s forces, forcing them to flee into the Sierra Maestra mountain range to reach the base there. On reaching the base, Castro realized that only 19 rebels out of 81 had made it. The rest were either dead or captured alive.

But, Castro and his rebels did not give up. Over the course of the next 2 years, they staged a guerilla war from the Sierra Maestra mountains that would eventually lead to Batista fleeing the country on 1st January 1959 and the rebels conquering Havana on 2nd January after Che and Camilo led their columns into the capital.

On 9th January, Castro arrived in Havana after stopping at every town along the way to give speeches, interviews, and press conferences. The majority of the Cubans were in favor of the revolution, and in every town, the revolutionaries were met by excited cheering crowds.

Now, I shall begin addressing the primary aim of this essay, so that you can decide for yourself if Castro was a saint, a devil, or just a human somewhere in between these two extremes.

Granted what Castro did immediately upon entering Havana can be deemed as somewhat shady. Lawyer and Politician Manuel Urrutia Lleo was appointed as provisional president of the new revolutionary government without any election as such.

Needless to say, Castro, who had proclaimed that he did not want any power for himself, exercised a lot of influence over the new government which was filled with the members of the revolution.

Immediately, Castro did something good and something terrible. Let us start with the good. He made sure the government implemented quick decisive measures to implement policies to fight illiteracy and corruption, and he also ensured that the officials that had been elected to the previous governments through rigged elections were barred from congress. In fact, he dismissed the existing congress altogether.

Of course, the decision might not have been entirely his alone, and, without a doubt, most members probably supported the decision, but still, Castro’s hand in this is almost like a given.

Then came the somewhat oppressive decisions that were taken to protect the newly-established revolutionary government. Under Castro’s directions, the new government imposed a temporary ban on all opposing political parties, promising to eventually hold multiparty elections as in any democratic state.

However, his true intentions either changed or were later revealed to be different. In spite of consistently denying that he was a Marxist or Leninist or Communist, he began holding secret meetings with members of the Popular Socialist Party (PSP) to discuss the establishment of a socialist state.

Events soon turned violent and drastic. Popular opinion demanded that Batista’s officials who were responsible for killing thousands of Cubans when in power, and for fueling corruption, be brought to justice. Being a new revolutionary government that had promised the people justice and that was seeking popular support, they conducted trials in so-called revolutionary courts.

These trials led to hundreds of Batista officials being executed by firing squad. As gruesome as it may sound, these trials were immensely popular among the majority of the Cuban population, giving the new government much-needed support.

The trials were condemned and highly criticized abroad, especially by the U.S. and western media. But Castro’s response to such criticisms was straightforward. He declared that revolutionary justice was not based on legal principles but rather on moral conviction.

Once Castro was officially sworn in as Prime Minister in February 1959, he began with his sweeping reforms directed toward the betterment of the poor and the working class.

He passed into law the first agrarian reform intended to break up large landholdings and redistribute land to the peasants who worked it, to cooperatives, and to the state. This set a cap for landholdings to 993 acres per owner only and even prevented foreign nationals from owning Cuban land.

Due to this reform, more than 200,000 peasants received title deeds for the first time in their lives. This reform was extremely popular among the poor peasants and the working class. However, the rich landowners suffered greatly. Even Castro’s father’s land was not exempted. His father’s landholdings were broken up and redistributed as per the new law.

Within a year, Castro’s government had managed to redistribute around 15% of the nation’s wealth, an achievement that gave hope to the Cuban people and gave rise to their optimism.

Castro also took measures to ensure that racial discrimination in Cuba was stopped for good. He reduced the salaries of the civil servants in high posts and increased the salaries of those in low-level posts. He reduced the rents of those who paid less than $100 a month by half and took away the properties and casinos from the hands of American mafia leaders.

But Castro was not yet done with his reforms. He nationalized plantation lands owned by wealthy Americans and confiscated the properties of foreign landowners. The oil refinement and sugar production industries were nationalized and brought under the state, much to the chagrin of foreign investors. Castro also expropriated the properties of wealthy Cubans that had fled the country after he came to power.

All these reforms greatly served to improve the condition of Cubans, at least in principle. Castro’s most important and lasting contributions were in the fields of education and medicine.

Castro’s government opened up more classrooms in the first 30 months of their rule than were opened in the previous 30 years. Great emphasis was laid on specialized education and literacy in general, with the primary education system offering a work-study program, in which half the time would be spent on some productive work, while the other half would be spent in the classroom studying.

As far as the medical field is concerned, they carried out major reforms there as well. Health care was expanded and nationalized, and health centers and polyclinics were opened up across the country to offer free medical services. They undertook vaccination drives to eradicate childhood diseases, drastically reducing infant mortality rates.

Other social programs were undertaken with the aim to improve the standard of living of Cuban citizens. The government focused on developing infrastructure as well, laying down around 600 miles of roads across the country and spending around $300 million on water and sanitation projects within the first six months.

In order to tackle the problem of homelessness, the government built around 800 houses every month for the first few years of the administration. Centers for the elderly and the disabled, and nurseries and daycares were opened up for children.

Castro also attempted to remain in touch with the people through television and radio, giving them all a feeling of being involved in the governance of their country.

Now, you must admit, no matter whether you like the man or not, the above-mentioned reforms undertaken by Castro’s government were truly admirable and had good intentions behind them. One cannot fail to realize that Castro genuinely wished to do good for his people by trying to improve their standard of living with the help of all these reforms.

We shall look into the consequences of these extensive reforms shortly, but their intentions should not be ignored or forgotten, especially by people who consider him to be the devil.

Now, here is the main issue. The people in the U.S., or in the west in general, are quite unaware and ignorant about these reforms undertaken by Castro’s government. They are unaware of the fact that due to these reforms, Cuba has become a country with one of the highest literacy rates in the world. They are unaware that the education system in Cuba is 100% subsidized by the government, meaning that education at all levels is completely free.

As of 2012, the adult literacy rate in Cuba was 99.8%, one of the highest in the world. For a country whose majority of the population was illiterate before the revolution, this is an incredible and commendable achievement, and it is an achievement few westerners have heard or read, or seen about.

Most westerners also remain blissfully unaware of Cuba’s incredible achievements in the medical field post-revolution. They do not know that free medical centers have been opened up in the remotest parts of the country, that state-of-the-art hospitals and centers have opened up in the cities, and that many Cuban doctors and nurses are fulfilling their medical duties in the remotest parts of the world.

They do not know that Castro established a program to send Cuban medical personnel overseas, especially in Africa, Latin America, and Oceania, to serve in their remotest parts. They also do not know that medical students and patients from around the world come to Cuba for training and treatment respectively.

An interesting fact is that Cuba provides more medical personnel to the developing world than all the G8 countries combined. Cuban doctors are widely regarded as some of the best in the world, all thanks to Castro’s initiatives in the early years of his leadership. But I doubt many westerners actually know about this fact.

But one can hardly blame them for this lack of awareness. Citizens of the west are largely unaware of these facts because the western media propaganda against Castro was so serious and intense that the common man was left with no choice but to believe what they saw on their televisions or read in their newspapers or listened to on their radios.

They were told he was an evil dictator, a selfish, bloodthirsty leader who did not care about his country or his people but only about remaining in power. The western media rarely bothered to highlight the good aspects of his governance, and as far as the U.S. media is concerned, I find it difficult to believe they ever said anything good about the man or his policies.

And due to this relentless propaganda against Castro, people in the west grew up believing he was the devil reincarnate, one who did absolutely nothing to improve the conditions of his country and his people, and only did everything for power. This, of course, as I have tried to establish above, is not true.

But then, there is always another side. There are always mistakes that cannot be entirely ignored or forgotten. Mistakes that have major consequences. Let us shine some light on those mistakes now.

Castro’s policies garnered him much support from peasants, low-level workers, students, etc. But those very policies made the wealthy and middle-class Cubans his main opposition. Thousands of professionals such as engineers, doctors, lawyers, etc fled to the U.S., resulting in a serious case of human capital flight, leading to an economic brain drain.

The government began arresting counter-revolutionaries who opposed the policies of the government and threw them into prisons. Anti-Castro groups began forming in and around Cuba, mostly funded by Cuban exiles and the CIA. These groups attempted to employ the same tactics as Castro and his men had, setting up bases in the mountains and carrying out armed attacks.

Due to these issues, the country’s financial reserves were severely drained within 2 years as productivity drastically decreased.

In the following years, Castro would go on to ally himself completely with the Soviet Union, while publicly condemning the U.S. for its capitalism. Castro’s political philosophy was now aligned with that of the Soviet Union and other Marxist-Leninist states.

The Cold War saw Cuba and the U.S.’s relationship become worse. Castro was responsible for putting Cuba at the forefront of the Cold War between the two great superpowers by allowing the Soviets to build missiles on Cuban soil, leading to the infamous Cuban Missile Crisis that would almost bring the world to the brink of a nuclear war.

As Cuba sided more and more with the Soviet Union, the U.S. began to retaliate with economic sanctions. Castro ordered U.S. oil refineries in Cuba such as Esso and Shell to process Soviet oil, but they refused to do so under pressure from the U.S. government.

Castro responded by nationalizing the refineries. In retaliation, the U.S. banned the import of Cuban sugar, in response to which Castro nationalized U.S. banks and sugar mills.

In October 1960, the U.S. initiated an economic embargo on Cuba by prohibiting the majority of exports to Cuba. This embargo would last for decades to come. And in the long run, this embargo would go on to have severe consequences for Cuba’s economy, especially after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Cuba’s plunging economy would cripple the country, leading to commodities from food items to fuel and everything in between being carefully rationed. This period would be the most trying time of Castro’s leadership.

Over the years, Castro’s government would be accused of violating human rights, oppressing opposition political parties and groups, and curbing democracy in Cuba. Protests against government policies were quickly suppressed by force and freedom of speech and expression was often threatened.

To a large extent, these criticisms were accurate. Under Castro’s longstanding rule, Cuba effectively became a one-party socialist state. This political state prompted the world media to label him a dictator.

Facing these criticisms coming in from the outside world, Castro did not shy away from actively contributing to the freedom and liberation movements of developing and underdeveloped countries across the world.

Castro’s government would extend support to several liberation movements across Africa and Latin America, in countries such as Angola, Mozambique, Ethiopia, South Africa, Nicaragua, etc.

Castro’s strong opposition to Apartheid in South Africa made him a heroic figure across Africa, where he was praised and hailed as a friend and important supporter of national liberation movements from foreign rule. His support of the South African anti-Apartheid movement earned him the admiration and friendship of Nelson Mandela.

Castro’s mistakes have no doubt tainted his reputation, but whether you like him or not, you cannot change the fact that he was an iconic and legendary revolutionary, and one of the most influential political leaders of the 20th century, who gave hope to the oppressed and inspired revolutions for freedom across the globe.