Castro: Death of a statesman
On 25th November 2016, Cuba went into mourning. At around 03:29am GMT it was announced by the President that Fidel Castro, leader of the Cuban Revolution had died. Behind him, Castro left a decades-long legacy of controversy and power. In this article I will look back at the life and impact of one of history’s most divisive figures.
To see a whistle-stop tour of his life, watch the video below:
1926–45: The Early Years
Born in Birań, Cuba, Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz was the 3rd of 6 children. Educated in private Jesuit boarding schools, he was an intelligent child although some said he was more interested in sport than studies. Following his graduation in 1945, Castro went on to study Law at the University of Havana. It was here that he first became immersed in Cuban nationalism, socialist politics and anti-imperialism.
Castro vs Batista: Overthrowing a Dictator
In March 1952, former President Fulgencio Batista overthrew the Cuban government to rule as a dictator.
Just over a year later, Castro and other members of the Partido Orthodoxo group planned an insurrection to try and overthrow him. On July 26th 1953, Castro and his supporters attacked the Moncada Military Barracks, just outside of Santiago de Cuba. The attack failed and both Castro and his brother Raúl were imprisoned. During his time in jail, Castro continued to co-ordinate his organisation’s activities through written correspondence.
In 1955, an amnesty deal was reached with Batista’s government that saw Castro, his brother and several of his compatriots released from jail. Following their release, both Castro brothers fled to Mexico where they continued to plan their revolution. It was in Mexico that they first met Che Guevara, a man whose face would become synonymous with the Cuban revolution.
December 1956: Starting the Revolution
In 1956 Castro returned to Cuba with 80 insurgents and a cache of weapons aboard the boat Granma near the town of Manzanillo. The insurgency was crushed by Batista’s forces but some of the revolutionaries, including Castro and his brother managed to flee to the mountains.
1958: The Cuban Revolution
Following the failed insurgency in 1956, Castro mounted a series of successful military campaigns which gradually took over key parts of Cuba. Finally, in January 1959 Batista fled to the Dominican Republic and a month later, Castro had been sworn in as Cuban President.
Castro’s Cuba & the Soviet Union
Whilst initially Castro had denied being a Communist, many in the USA saw his policies as becoming increasingly Soviet-style. As the 1960s dawned, Castro’s government would continue to form ever-closer ties with the Soviet Union.
The year 1961 would prove to be a key year for both Castro and Cuba. On January 3rd that year, outgoing President Eisenhower would sever diplomatic relations with Cuba. Three months later on April 14th, Castro would go on to declare Cuba a socialist state.
April 17th 1961: The Bay of Pigs Incident
Three days after declaring Cuba a Soviet state, over 1,000 Cuban exiles invaded Cuba at the remote Bay of Pigs in an attempt to overthrow the Castro regime. The attack failed and left hundreds dead and over 1,000 captured.
1962: Relations worsen
February 7th 1962 would see the USA impose a full economic embargo on Cuba. It was the first of two major incidents to test the Castro regime that year.
October 1962: The Cuban Missile Crisis
In order to try and avoid further attempted invasions of Cuba, Castro and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev decided to place nuclear missiles on Cuban soil. The choice was justified by Khrushchev because of the US placement of Jupiter Missiles in Turkey.
It would take 13 days of anxious secret negotiations between the Kennedy and Khrushchev administrations to settle the matter. However, this left Castro humiliated as both parties had left him out of talks completely.
The Assassination Attempts
Whilst the USA had publicly announced that they would not invade Cuba, there were still other ways in which they attempted to topple the Castro regime. According to estimates, Castro survived over 600 assassination attempts at the hands of the CIA. From fungus-infected wetsuits to shootings and probably most famously, the exploding cigar.
Castro: Hero or Tyrant?
Fidel Castro has been a polarising figure ever since he rose to prominence in the Cuban Revolution of the 1950s. Some see him as the hero who brought universal healthcare and a 98% literacy rate to Cuba. His regime has also seen infant mortality drop to just 1.1% and 10,000 new schools being built.
Others, however, see him in a different light. They see him as the man who took away civil liberties, shut down independent newspapers and harassed religious institutions. He also is said to have taken away strike rights for labour unions.
The ways he kept power have also attracted controversy too. Over 5,000 people are documented to have been killed by firing squads. More are alleged to have died at the hands of state forces when trying to flee the country.
Whilst his handling of dissidents had been controversial to say the least, it is also fair to say that he managed to just about keep his nation afloat following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
1991: The Iron Curtain Falls
The early ’90s would see the Castro regime’s biggest backer collapse as the Soviet Union became no more. Its collapse meant the Cuban economy shrank and 85% of its markets disappeared.
Castro’s response to the crisis was to press the USA to lift the economic embargo. Whilst this move was unsuccessful, his later actions worked a lot better. He adopted quasi-free market policies, legalised the US dollar and invited Cuban exiles back to start businesses. It was around this time when he also encouraged limited tourism in Cuba.
The End of the Castro era
Whilst the late ’90s would see speculation about Castro’s health increase, it wasn’t until February 19th 2008 that he officially gave up the Presidency, which his brother Raúl gained through election soon after. Three years later in 2011, Castro retired from his Communist party role.
Then, at 22:29 local time on November 25th 2016, the President of Cuba, his brother Raúl announced to the world that at the age of 90, Fidel Castro had passed away.
His impact was far-reaching, he stood up to a superpower nation and his nation remained intact. It is fair to say that his impact and name will last for a long time even though he is no longer with us. He was to some a tyrant, to others a saviour.