Shortly before being sentenced, Castro would make a speech which would seal the fate of the nation. Standing in front of the judge, barely recognisable from the bearded, harsh-looking man who would emerge from the mountains six years later, he would outline the manifesto which he was willing to die for. His initial attempt to spark revolution in 1953 was a disaster and woefully miscalculated. The Moncada Assault would land him on the infamous Isle of Pines, but the 26th of July – the day of the attack – would become a symbol of change and provide Castro with an important learning curb; revolution was not something you could rush into to.
Revolution would become personified as something that needed to be nurtured and learnt from, something that could be good to you or cruel. His speech turned out to be prophetic. As he ended his four-hour defence, he claimed that ‘history would absolve him’. He would go on to free the country of a tyrant and, many would argue, bring dignity back to a country which for years had existed solely on the straddles of US imperialism. Whether or not history will treat his revolution with such sympathy is a far more complex question.
Castro was born the son of a reluctant capitalist, a sugar cane farmer contracted by United Fruit, a company whose name was synonymous with the American’s hegemonic control of Cuba. As a young man and student, it was impossible, even for the “political illiterate”, bibliophile law student Fidel, not to get dragged into the turmoil of the time. Castro would grow vehemently anti-American as he watched the US prop up a series of dictators profiting from power whilst the majority of the country struggled with illiteracy, hunger and poverty.
But Cuba was not without inspiration for Castro. Jose Marti, the so-called “intellectual author of the revolution” and “apostle of independence, would be constant source of advice and the politician Eduardo Chibas, a anti-corruption and, ironically, anti-corruption maverick, would instil in Castro the importance of keeping the people hanging onto every word. It was with these notions of true liberation mixed with a healthy portion of populism that Castro would reemerge in the mountains late 1956.
Castro was an astute leader driven by power. He knew when are where to take control, often leaving military tactics to his column leaders unless it interrupted with his bigger political picture. A master of PR, his revolution was romanticised all over the world as journalists and writers were carefully selected by Castro to cover the guerrilla war and ensuing takeover of power. He carefully manipulated other revolutionary groups so that MR-26-7, the movement named after his unsuccessful first attempt at revolution, would be the most idolised in Cuba.
The revolution would immortalise Castro leading to his election as Prime Minister in 1959. He would stay the centre of the revolution for the next forty-seven years, but in the early years his presence was carefully minimalized allowing for radical economic and social reform to take place without he himself taking the full brunt of the backlash. Hundred’s of thousands of ‘cockroaches’ would leave the island in these early days, increasing rapidly with Castro’s embracement of Marxism following a series of aggressive US actions.
It is Castro’s relationship with socialism which continues to confound historians. His early apolitical life give few clues as to where his radical attraction to the ideology emerged from. Some claim that Castro’s only ideology was independence, something which required a radical change rather than the soft approaches which had always led Cuba back into the arms of the United States. It is possible that he was slowly influenced by his closest advisors, his brother Raul and Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara.
The reality is that, like so many of Castro’s coldly calculated moves, his turn to the Soviet Union was to do with power. When asked in the late 1950’s about his attitude towards socialism he joked “I will be Communist if I can be Stalin”. When asked in 1959, a few years later, if he had made his mind up he replied that he had only finished the first couple of chapters of Marx’s Das Kapital. It was an answer meant to buy time and within three years he had made up his mind. Power would be maintained through ‘class war’ allowing for the perfect excuse to exile his enemies, censor the press and commit heinous human rights violations.
On the international stage, he will be remembered as the man who stood up to the United States right on their doorstep. The Bay of Pigs invasion, much to the chagrin of the Americans, consolidated his power and allowed for him to become a spokesperson for the global underclass who were the victims of neo-colonialism and his relationship with the Soviet Union, culminating in the October Crisis, would present countless US administrations with a thirty year conundrum.
Communism failed in Cuba. When I visited in 2013 it was a country on the brink, held only together through a reluctant determination and a vibrant culture. It was, however, the most authentic attempt at Communism in history. If power was the reason for Castro’s decision, he was certainly no Stalin. There is no clear cult of personality surrounding him, but rather a cult based on martyrs. Unluckily for Castro, the time for dying a hero has long gone.
Cuba will continue to act as a lesson for the developing world, but whether it is a positive or negative one is not clearly defined. Castro liberated a nation from exploitation and tyranny but his revolution failed to deliver in the way he envisioned, but he could be accused of allowing his vision to be perturbed even when mistakes were clear. Instead what he created was a symbol which continues to inspire, giving hope to young countries that exploitation does not have to be a consequence of being poor.
History will unlikely absolve Castro’s regime, but his might absolve his some of his ideals. He was a megalomaniac, but a man driven by power because he truly believed that no one would be able to adhere to the principles of revolution better than him.
Fidel Castro. 1926-2016.