An exploding cigar, Martina Lorenz, and a poisoned milkshake, these were but some of the alleged more than 600 methods the Central Intelligence Agency used to try and assassinate Fidel Castro. Yet, in the end, El Comandante succumbed to more earthly afflictions, as was announced by Cuban state TV on November 26.
“Maybe this is the last time that I will speak in this hall,” Castro announced on the final day of the Communist Party Congress in April, as he proclaimed the end of Cuba’s “historic generation.” He had long bequeathed the post of president to his brother Raúl, and transitioned into a role as a respected elder statesman, while remaining fervently devoted to the cause of Marxist-Leninism.
As with all influential and charismatic leaders, to understand Castro, one must unravel the myth, the cult of personality and vilifications that have encrusted the man’s legacy. Behind the embroidered red-star berets and radical chic posturing that popular culture has co-opted, lies the reason behind why Cuba remains one of the last surviving bastions of state-socialism, while the red wall has collapsed all around it.
Born out of wedlock to a sugar-cane farmer and his mistress, later wife, in 1926, Castro’s true political awakening came during his attendance at Havana University.
On campus, he became a vehement campaigner against anti-imperialism and corruption, and joined protests against President Ramón Grau’s government, whose administration was notorious for using gangs to infiltrate and quell student opposition. In 1947, Castro attempted to join an expedition of 1,200 troops to overthrow the US-backed military junta of Rafael Trujilo, in the Dominican Republic. However, this attempt was foiled by Grau’s government.
On his return to Havana, Castro’s politics started to take a decidedly leftist turn. He credited the works of Marx and Lenin with opening his eyes to the “history of class struggle,” and began to realise that corruption and unscrupulous politicians were only symptoms of the problem: Capitalism. Only through a sustained proletarian revolution, he believed, could Cuba escape its vast economic inequality.
In 1952, Fulgencio Batista seized power in a military coup, curtailed plans for a free election, and started administering a system of “disciplined democracy,” that included crushing trade unions, tightening ties with the US, and driving an inquisition against leftist groups. Castro, who had planned to stand as a candidate for the House of Representatives before the coup, was driven underground and formed a clandestine guerilla organisation along revolutionary socialist lines to oust the Batista regime.
The group swiftly grew in ranks, recruiting mostly from impoverished neighbourhoods, and Castro, inspired by the actions of José Martí, the independence leader against Spanish rule, planned to raid the Moncanda Barracks, a military garrison in Oriente province. His hope was that the attack would inspire poor peasant farmers to rise up against the Batista regime, and fan the flames of a full-blown revolt.
The mission took place on July 25, 1953, but was an utter failure, with Castro and any surviving guerilla forces fleeing to the Sierra Maestra Mountains.
Batista led a crackdown on rebels following the raid, and Castro and members of his group were soon captured. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison. However, under mounting public agitation, Batista granted amnesty and released him and his fellow prisoners in 1955.
Upon his release, Castro renamed his group the “26th of July movement” or MR-26-7, in commemoration of the failed uprising. He escaped to Mexico, along with his brother and several other revolutionaries. There, he met an Argentine doctor, Ernesto “Che” Guevara, who would go onto become the emblem of the Cuban Revolution worldwide.
The MR-26-7 waged a guerrilla struggle against the Batista regime, coupling sabotage and bombings with armory raids to terrorise the security forces and police. Batista responded in kind, with an iron fist, censoring the press, and ordering torture and extrajudicial killings on the guerrillas.
How one remembers the legacy of Fidel Castro, revolutionary or terrorist, progressive leader or malevolent dictator, will no doubt hinge on one’s political leanings
Defeated in the Battle of Santa Clara in December 1958, Batista’s options were depleted, and fearing that he was to be tried as a war criminal by the next government, he escaped to the Dominican Republic.
Castro, a newly crowned celebrity feted for his role in the revolution by renowned publications such as The New York Times, took reins of the new government and began his attempt to restructure Cuban society.
He arranged for sweeping reforms, including universalising healthcare, stomping illiteracy, modernising the backwater countryside with electricity, and issued a no tolerance approach to any racial discrimination. He also shut down opposition newspapers, and imprisoned thousands of dissidents.
On foreign policy, he shunned what he saw as the imperialist affinities of the US, and nationalised all US private-owned businesses, including oil refineries, without compensation. This prompted the US to impose a unilateral trade embargo against Cuba.
The US also spearheaded many unsuccessful efforts throughout the decades to oust Castro, including, most famously, the doomed Bay of Pigs Invasion under Kennedy.
He allied himself with the Soviet Union, which provided millions in military and social aid. This alignment also led to the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 that brought the world to the brink of nuclear war.
However, Castro’s most enduring foreign policy decision in the Cold War era might have been the expansion of Cuban Medical Internationalism throughout the ailing third world. Medical workers remain, to this day, Cuba’s most renowned export.
Perhaps Cuba’s most trying time under Castro was after the collapse of the Soviet Union, which heralded the “Special Period.” Bereft of the petro-currency of its former ally, Cuba’s economy slipped into depression.
Owing to shortages in hydrocarbons such as gasoline and diesel, Cubans were forced to live life without many of the luxuries of the past. The economic uncertainties led Castro to implement food rationing, decreased use of automobiles, and environmentalist policies such as sustained agricultural growth.
How one remembers the legacy of Fidel Castro, revolutionary or terrorist, progressive leader or malevolent dictator, will no doubt hinge on one’s political leanings. However, indubitable is the fact that he will go down in history as one of the most influential political figures of the 20th Century.
Mahmood Sadaat Ruhul is a freelance contributor.