Summing up Castro’s life in a short blog is an extremely difficult task. There have been many books written about the man, yet I will attempt to limit my comments to 1,000 words or less.
Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz was one of those rare persons who could be identified solely by his first name. Say the word “Fidel,” and everyone immediately knows about whom you are talking. He was one of the most divisive and controversial figures in my lifetime. Love him or hate him. There was no middle ground. His supporters, mostly communists or socialists, looked up to him as a strong leader who “stuck it” to the big bad USA. His detractors, who were far more numerous, viewed him as a brutal, repressive dictator, and habitual violator of human rights who brooked no dissent, destroyed his country’s economy, and forced thousands of Cubans to flee the country to avoid death or imprisonment. There are thousands of exiles and their descendants who are overjoyed at his demise.
Castro was born on August 13, 1926 on a sugar cane farm in the Cuban province of Oriente. His father was a financially-successful planter; his mother was a household servant and his father’s mistress. Fidel had six siblings. He was baptized into the Catholic church and attended a series of schools. However, he had little interest in academics, and focused primarily on sports.
Fidel’s revolutionary bent manifested itself at an early age. At 19 he attended the University of Havana to study law, but he spent most of his time and energy on student activist activities and causes. In particular, he spoke out repeatedly against “US imperialism” and then Cuban dictator Ramon Grau.
In the early 1950’s he became more violent. He joined leftist rebellions in the Dominican Republic and Colombia. In addition, he led an unsuccessful attack on a Cuban army barracks. He was caught and spent a year in prison. Following his release he went to Mexico where, along with his brother, Raul, and Che Guevara, he formed the revolutionary group the 26th of July Movement. This was the group that he led in the revolution to overthrow the government of the dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959.
The US had supported Batista. Even though he was a brutal dictator he protected US business interests in Cuba and provided political stability to the region. His defeat was a significant blow economically and geo-politically. Castro wasted no time in showing his true colors. In 1960 he nationalized the US oil refineries and expropriated virtually all US businesses in Cuba. In September of that year he spoke at the UN, where he delivered a 4 1/2 hour speech railing against the US and its “imperialism.” In April, 1961 he made the obvious official by declaring Cuba a socialist state and aligning with the Soviet Union. Thus, the US was faced with the terrifying prospect of a socialist state allied with the Soviet Union only 90 miles from Florida.
The US tried everything it could to oust Castro. Trade embargoes proved to be ineffective as Cuba was able to trade with other communist states. We backed the ill-advised and ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion in which nearly all 1,350 invaders were either killed or captured. We even tried to assassinate Castro, to no avail. Then, Castro’s actions almost led to disaster for the entire world. In October, 1962 we discovered that the Soviets were installing offensive missiles with nuclear capability in Cuba. This precipitated a crisis, which almost culminated in a nuclear war between Russia and the US. Such a war could easily have escalated into a global conflict. Finally, President Kennedy, in his finest hour as president, faced down the Soviets and the crisis was averted. Eventually, like all other communists/socialist states, Cuba’s economy could not sustain itself. It began to self-destruct. The collapse of Russia’s economy in 1991 and its resultant impact on Cuba was the final straw.
Castro was a thorn in our side for nearly 60 years. The mere presence of a communist state 90 miles from Florida was bad enough by itself. It was a constant reminder of the US’s inability to secure its own region. In addition, Castro continually fomented and supported revolution in other countries in Latin America, such as Venezuela and Argentina (the Falkland Islands).
Castro passed away on November 25. At the time of his death he had ceded power to Raul, due to ill health, so it remains to be seen what immediate changes will occur. Nevertheless, for Cuba and Cubans, the ultimate symbol of repression is gone.
Some interesting factoids regarding Castro:
- He was an avid sports fan, especially baseball. He fancied himself a capable pitcher. He would sometimes insert himself into a winter league game to pitch. Obviously, neither the umpires nor the other players would object.
- He required very little sleep. He would often work until 3-4:00 a.m. He had a habit of scheduling meetings at that late hour to gain an advantage, believing that the other person would be tired and not at their sharpest.
- His favorite writer was Ernest Hemingway, who had lived and written for a time in Cuba.