Fidel Castro, leader of Cuba since 1959, was born in 1926 in Biran, Cuba. Castro’s father was a sugar-planter. Fidel Castro got deeply into politics during his student days when he studied Law at Havana University. After qualifying as a lawyer in 1950, Castro spent his time giving legal representation to the poor in Havana. The capital of Cuba had become something of an American playboy’s playground and while some did very well out of the situation, very many Cubans were poor.
In 1952, Fulgencio Batista took over control of the island and, supported by the army, ruled as a dictator. Castro was jailed in 1953 after forming an armed resistance unit with his brother Raul. That attacked the Moncada barracks near to where he was born in Santiago del Cuba. Castro lost 60 supporters in this attack. In 1955, Batista released Castro under an amnesty and he went to live primarily in Mexico. He met Che Guevara here in the same year and together they plotted for a violent revolution to overthrow Batista.
In December 1956, Castro attacked the Cuban Army in the east of the island. They were unsuccessful and the survivors fled inland to the relative safety of the Sierra Maestra. Here, Castro’s followers worked to help the peasants who lived in rural eastern Cuba. By taking this stance, Castro won over these people and his views began to spread out from the eastern enclave where he had his followers were. By 1958, Castro felt strong enough to launch a full-scale attack on Batista. It was so successful that on January 8th, 1959, Castro entered Havana in triumph and the dictator was forced to flee the island and Castro was proclaimed the leader of the revolution one month later.
Many in Cuba were very poor – health and educational facilities for the poor were either extremely basic if they existed at all in some areas. To pay for the development of such things, in 1960, Castro nationalised American-owned businesses on the island. Money from these businesses was ploughed into schools and hospitals. America responded by putting Cuba under a trade embargo. Prior to this America had been the primary purchaser of Cuba’s sugar – a major money-earner for the island. Cuba turned to the USSR for support and Khrushchev, head of the USSR, saw this as an opportunity to developed a close relationship with a nation just 90 miles from the coast of Florida.
The Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 showed Castro just how vulnerable Cuba could be. The Bay of Pigs invasion was a fiasco but the American president, J F Kennedy, told the world that he had been forced into supporting the venture because of what Castro had done – i.e. that it was the fault of the Cuban leader. Castro knew that the island could not hold out against a sustained attack by America and turned to the USSR for help.
The end result of this was that the USSR based intermediate range nuclear missiles on the island. Castro argued that they were for defensive purposes and that Cuba was entitled to place on its soil whatever it chose to. Kennedy saw the missiles as being nothing more than a gesture of aggression to America. After a period when many thought that the world was being pushed into a nuclear war, Khrushchev agreed to remove the missiles. However, even after this had happened, as far as the American government was concerned, Castro had shown where his true loyalty lay – Moscow. The trade embargo, which encompassed travel restrictions, remained.
To the American government Castro was a major thorn in their side. Figures vary as to how many times America has tried to assassinate Castro but the Cuban Secret Police, charged with protecting Castro, claim that there have been 638 attempts on the Cuban leader’s life since he took office in 1959 ranging, so it is claimed, from CIA developed exploding cigars to a wet suit lined with poison – to take advantage of Castro’s love of diving.
According to one of Castro’s personal assistants the plot must have had an impact as Castro ordered that his underwear be burned after each wear in case they were impregnated with poison while being laundered. ‘Operation Good Times’ was a plot to discredit Castro internationally by producing fake photos of the leader in compromising positions surrounded by luxury goods. The idea was that the Cubans would turn against their leader after he would be seen with luxury goods despite what he preached whilst they remained in poverty. The plot failed. In ‘Operation Freedom Ride’ thousands of free one-way air tickets to Mexico were dropped on the island.
Castro had declared himself to be a ‘Marxist–Leninist’. However, his definition of this varied as time moved on and he involved himself in Africa and wherever a movement of the people seemed to be occurring. All the time, Cuba had to face up to the fact that her economy was being withered by America’s trade embargo. However, by 2000, both the health and education systems had been massively reformed so that all in Cuba have a right to free education and health care. Literacy has increased many times and Cuban hospitals, though basic, provide a good service for the people.
In August 2006, Castro temporarily stood down following an operation for intestinal bleeding. His brother, Raul, was appointed to lead the country while Fidel Castro recuperated.
Raul was with his brother from the start of the movement against Batista. It was Raul who befriended Che Guevara before Fidel met him and brought him into the revolutionary’s armed camp. Raul proved loyal to his brother and no one has ever doubted his loyalty to communism:
“Only the Communist Party, as the institution that brings together the revolutionary vanguard and will always guarantee the unity of Cubans, can be the worthy heir of the trust deposited by the people in their leader.”
“We have in Raul a colossus in the defence of revolutionary principles. Raul is Fidel multiplied by two in energy, in inflexibility, in fibre. Raul is tempered steel.” Alberto Bayo