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Fidel Castro: Iconic Revolutionary; Island Tyrant

Fidel Castro

Today, the man who had held on to power longer than any other living national leader except Queen Elizabeth II, passed into the West…

Whatever your political views about the man many referred to as: “the beard”, there is no denying that Fidel Castro was an iconic character and a central figure in the greatest dramas of the Cold War.

…Condensed from Wikipedia

Born out of wedlock in Birán as the son of a wealthy Spanish sugar cane farmer, Castro adopted leftist anti-imperialist politics while studying law at the University of Havana. He joined the Party of the Cuban People (Partido Ortodoxo) in 1947, founded by veteran politician Eduardo Chibás. Chibás advocated social justice, honest government and political freedom. His party also exposed corruption and demanded reform. Chibás lost the election, but Castro continued to work on his behalf.

Between 1947 and 1949 Castro cut his revolutionary teeth in a number of different events from an attempt to overthrow the right-wing military junta of Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, to Bogota, Colombia in 1948, where the assassination of a popular leftist leader led to widespread rioting and clashes between the governing Conservatives (backed by the army) and leftist Liberals. Castro stole guns from police stations, before returning to Cuba in 1949, where he became a prominent figure in protests against government attempts to raise bus fares.

In March 1952, Fulgencio Batista seized power in a military coup. Declaring himself president, Batista cancelled the planned presidential elections, solidified ties with both the wealthy elite and the US, severed diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union, suppressed trade unions and persecuted Cuban socialist groups. In response, Castro formed a group called "The Movement" which operated as a clandestine cell system, publishing underground newspaper El Acusador (The Accuser), while arming and training anti-Batista recruits. From July 1952 they recruited around 1,200 members in a year, mostly from the poorer districts of Havana. In July 1953, Castro led a failed attack on government barracks. He was arrested and served 2 years in Santiago prison between 1953 and 1955.

Returning to Havana, Castro gave radio interviews and press conferences; the government closely monitored him, curtailing his activities. A spate of bombings and violent demonstrations in 1955 led to a crackdown on dissent, with Castro fleeing the country to evade arrest. He traveled to Mexico where his brother Raúl befriended Ernesto “Che” Guevara, who was working as a journalist and photographer. Fidel liked him, later describing him as “a more advanced revolutionary than I was”. The pair undertook training in guerrilla warfare and then toured the US in search of wealthy sympathizers. Castro survived an assassination attempt, orchestrated by Batista’s agents, who were monitoring Castro’s activities in the US. Back in Cuba under the Batista regime, an estimated 20,000 cubans were murdered in 7 years. Financial deals between the Batista regime and the American Mafia, meant that Cuba was effectively run by organised crime. This sparked the Cuban Revolution and after 4 years of fighting, Batista eventually fled into exile with over US$300,000,000 on December 31, 1958. Two days later Castro travelled to Havana to form a provisional government.

In response to popular uproar, which demanded that those responsible for the years of oppression and the thousands of murders under the Batista regime be brought to justice, Castro helped set up many trials, resulting in hundreds of executions. Although widely popular domestically, critics – especially in the US press – argued that many were not fair trials. Castro responded that "revolutionary justice is not based on legal precepts, but on moral conviction".

On February 16, 1959, Castro was sworn in as Prime Minister of Cuba and in April he visited the US on a charm offensive where he met Vice President Richard Nixon, whom he instantly disliked. In May 1959 he signed into law the First Agrarian Reform, setting a cap for landholdings to 993 acres (402 ha) per owner and prohibiting foreigners from obtaining Cuban land ownership. Around 200,000 peasants received title deeds as large land holdings were broken up; popular among the working class, it alienated the richer landowners.

In 1960 Castro agreed to provide the USSR with sugar, fruit, fibers, and hides, in return for crude oil, fertilizers, industrial goods, and a $100 million loan. Cuba’s government ordered the country’s refineries – then controlled by the US corporations Shell, Esso and Standard Oil – to process Soviet oil, but under US pressure, they refused. Castro responded by expropriating and nationalizing the refineries. Retaliating, the US cancelled its import of Cuban sugar, provoking Castro to nationalize most US-owned assets on the island, including banks and sugar mills.

Relations with the US continued to deteriorate. On the night of April 16 to 17, a 1,400-strong army of Cuban exiles landed along Cuba’s Bay of Pigs, and engaged in a firefight with a local revolutionary militia. Castro ordered a counter-offensive, before taking personal control of it. After bombing the invaders’ ships and bringing in reinforcements, Castro forced the Brigade to surrender on April 20. He ordered the 1189 captured rebels to be interrogated by a panel of journalists on live television, personally taking over the questioning on April 25. 14 were put on trial for crimes allegedly committed before the revolution, while the others were returned to the US in exchange for medicine and food valued at US $25 million. Castro’s victory was a powerful symbol across Latin America, but it also increased internal opposition primarily among the middle-class Cubans who had been detained in the run-up to the invasion. Although most were freed within a few days, many fled to the US, establishing themselves in Florida.

A post-bay of pigs consolidation of the various socialist and marxist elements of parties and directorates into a governing party followed and began shaping Cuba using the Soviet model, persecuting political opponents and perceived social deviants such as prostitutes and homosexuals. In 2010, Castro took responsibility for this persecution, regretting it as a "great injustice". By 1962, Cuba’s economy was in steep decline, a result of poor economic management and low productivity coupled with the US trade embargo. Food shortages led to rationing, resulting in protests.

In 1962, Soviet Premier Khrushchev wanted to install nuclear missiles on Cuba to even the power balance with NATO. Although conflicted, Castro agreed, believing it would guarantee Cuba’s safety and enhance the cause of socialism. US aerial reconnaissance discovered the missiles and in October 1962, the US implemented an island-wide quarantine to search vessels headed to Cuba, sparking the Cuban Missile Crisis. The US saw the missiles as offensive; Castro insisted they were for defense only. Castro urged Khrushchev to threaten a nuclear strike on the US should Cuba be attacked, but Khrushchev was desperate to avoid nuclear war and Castro was left out of the negotiations, in which Khruschev agreed to remove the missiles in exchange for a US commitment not to invade Cuba and an understanding that the US would remove their missiles from Turkey and Italy. Feeling betrayed by Khruschev, Castro was furious and soon fell ill. Proposing a five-point plan, Castro demanded that the US end its embargo, withdraw from Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, cease supporting dissidents, and stop violating Cuban air space and territorial waters. Presenting these demands to U Thant, visiting Secretary-General of the United Nations, the US ignored them, and in turn Castro refused to allow the UN’s inspection team into Cuba.

In 1963 Castro’s government cracked down on Protestant sects in Cuba, with Castro labeling them counter-revolutionary "instruments of imperialism". Many preachers were found guilty of illegal US-links and imprisoned and measures were implemented to force perceived idle and delinquent youths to work, primarily through the introduction of mandatory military service. In September 1963 the government temporarily permitted emigration for anyone other than males aged between 15 and 26, thereby ridding the government of thousands of critics, most of whom were from upper and middle-class backgrounds.

Between 1963 and 1969 Castro continued calling for global revolution, funding militant leftists and those engaged in national liberation struggles. Cuba’s foreign policy was staunchly anti-imperialist, believing that every nation should control its own natural resources. Castro supported Che Guevara’s "Andean project", an unsuccessful plan to set up a guerrilla movement in the highlands of Bolivia, Peru and Argentina and allowed revolutionary groups from across the world, from the Viet Cong to the Black Panthers, to train in Cuba. He considered Western-dominated Africa ripe for revolution, and sent troops and medics to aid the socialist regime in Algeria during the Sand War. He also allied with the socialist government in Congo-Brazzaville, and in 1965 Castro authorized Guevara to travel to Congo-Kinshasa to train revolutionaries against the Western-backed government. All this helped to increase Castro’s role on the world stage.

The first 5 years of the 1970s saw significant economic problems with Castro warning of sugar rations. The 1969 crop was heavily damaged by a hurricane and to meet its export quota, the government drafted in the army, implemented a seven-day working week and postponed public holidays to lengthen the harvest. When attempts to meet the quota failed, Castro offered to resign during a public speech, but assembled crowds insisted he remain. Despite the economic issues, many of Castro’s social reforms were popular with the population largely supportive of the "Achievements of the Revolution" in education, medical care, housing, and road construction, as well as the policies of "direct democratic" public consultation.

In 1979, Castro appeared at the United Nations General Assembly in October 1979 and gave a speech on the disparity between the world’s rich and poor. His speech was greeted with much applause from other world leaders, though his standing in was damaged by Cuba’s abstinence from the U.N.’s General Assembly condemnation of the Soviet war in Afghanistan.

There is often talk of human rights, but it is also necessary to talk of the rights of humanity. Why should some people walk barefoot, so that others can travel in luxurious cars? Why should some live for thirty-five years, so that others can live for seventy years? Why should some be miserably poor, so that others can be hugely rich? I speak on behalf of the children in the world who do not have a piece of bread. I speak on the behalf of the sick who have no medicine, of those whose rights to life and human dignity have been denied.

- Fidel Castro’s message to the UN General Assembly, 1979

Cuba’s US relations improved under President Jimmy Carter. Carter continued criticizing Cuba’s human rights abuses, but adopted a respectful approach which gained Castro’s attention. Considering Carter well-meaning and sincere, Castro freed some political prisoners and allowed some Cuban exiles to visit relatives on the island, hoping that in turn Carter would abolish the economic embargo and stop CIA support for militant dissidents.

By the early 1980s, Cuba’s economy was again in trouble, following a decline in the market price of sugar and 1979′s decimated harvest. Unemployment became a serious problem in Castro’s Cuba and desperate for money, Cuba’s government secretly sold off paintings from national collections and illicitly traded for US electronic goods through Panama. Increasing numbers of Cubans fled to Florida, but were labelled “scum” by Castro. In one incident, 10,000 Cubans stormed the Peruvian Embassy requesting asylum and so the US agreed that it would accept 3,500 refugees. Castro conceded that those who wanted to leave could do so from Mariel port. Hundreds of boats arrived from the US, leading to a mass exodus of 120,000 refugees. Castro’s government took advantage of the situation by loading criminals and the mentally ill, onto the boats destined for Florida. The event destabilized Carter’s administration and in 1981, Ronald Reagan was elected US President.

The late 1980s saw the economic reforms of Mikhail Gorbachev’s "perestroika" which had a significant impact on Castro’s Cuba, as Gorbachev conceded to US demands to reduce support for Cuba. In April 1989, he informed Castro that perestroika meant an end to subsidies for Cuba. Ignoring calls for liberalization in accordance with the Soviet example, Castro continued to clamp down on internal dissidents and in particular kept tabs on the military, the primary threat to the government. A number of senior military officers were investigated for corruption and complicity in cocaine smuggling, tried, and executed in 1989, despite calls for leniency. In Eastern Europe, socialist governments fell to capitalist reformers between 1989 and 1991 and many Western observers expected the same in Cuba. Increasingly isolated, Cuba improved relations with Noriega’s right-wing government in Panama (despite Castro’s personal hatred of Noriega) but it was overthrown in a US invasion in December 1989.

In February 1990, Castro’s allies in Nicaragua, President Daniel Ortega and the Sandinistas, were defeated by the US-funded National Opposition Union in an election. With the collapse of the Soviet bloc, the US secured a majority vote for a resolution condemning Cuba’s human rights violations at the United Nations Human Rights Commission in Geneva, Switzerland. Cuba asserted that this was a manifestation of US hegemony, and refused to allow an investigative delegation to enter the country.

By 1992, Cuba’s economy had declined by over 40% in under two years, with major food shortages, widespread malnutrition and a lack of basic goods. Castro tried improving relations with the capitalist nations. He welcomed Western politicians and investors to Cuba, befriended Manuel Fraga and took a particular interest in Margaret Thatcher’s policies in the UK, believing that Cuban socialism could learn from her emphasis on low taxation and personal initiative. He ceased support for foreign militants, refrained from praising FARC on a 1994 visit to Colombia and called for a negotiated settlement between the Zapatistas and Mexican government in 1995. Publicly, he presented himself as a moderate on the world stage. Support for Castro remained strong, and although there were small anti-government demonstrations, the Cuban opposition rejected the exile community’s calls for an armed uprising.

Castro believed in the need for reform if Cuban socialism was to survive in a world now dominated by capitalist free markets. In October 1991, a number of important changes to the government were announced; Castro would step down as head of government, although he would remain the head of the Communist Party and Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces. Many older members of government were to be retired and replaced by their younger counterparts. A number of economic changes were proposed, and subsequently put to a national referendum. Free farmers’ markets and small-scale private enterprises would be legalized in an attempt to stimulate economic growth, while US dollars were also made legal tender. Some restrictions on emigration were eased, allowing more discontented Cuban citizens to move to the United States. Castro welcomed debate between proponents and opponents of the reforms, although over time he began to increasingly sympathise with the opponent’s positions, arguing that such reforms must be delayed.

In the early 1990s Castro embraced environmentalism, campaigning against global warming and the waste of natural resources, and accusing the US of being the world’s primary polluter. In 1994 a ministry dedicated to the environment was established, and new laws established in 1997 that promoted awareness of environmental issues throughout Cuba and stressed the sustainable use of natural resources. By 2006, Cuba was the world’s only nation which met the United Nations Development Programme’s definition of sustainable development, with an ecological footprint of less than 1.8 hectares per capita and a Human Development Index of over 0.8. Castro also became a proponent of the anti-globalization movement, criticizing US global hegemony and the control exerted by multinationals.

We do not have a smidgen of capitalism or neo-liberalism. We are facing a world completely ruled by neo-liberalism and capitalism. This does not mean that we are going to surrender. It means that we have to adopt to the reality of that world. That is what we are doing, with great equanimity, without giving up our ideals, our goals. I ask you to have trust in what the government and party are doing. They are defending, to the last atom, socialist ideas, principles and goals.

- Fidel Castro explaining the reforms of the Special Period

In 1990, mired in economic problems, Cuba was aided by the election of socialist and anti-imperialist Hugo Chavez to the Venezuelan Presidency in 1999. Castro and Chavez developed a close friendship and together they built an alliance that had repercussions throughout Latin America. In 2000, they signed an agreement through which Cuba would send 20,000 medics to Venezuela, in return receiving 53,000 barrels of oil per day at preferential rates; in 2004, this trade was stepped up, with Cuba sending 40,000 medics and Venezuela providing 90,000 barrels a day.

That same year, Castro initiated a joint medical project which aimed to provide free eye operations on 300,000 individuals from each nation. The alliance boosted the Cuban economy and in May 2005 Castro doubled the minimum wage for 1.6 million workers, raised pensions, and delivered new kitchen appliances to Cuba’s poorest residents. Some economic problems remained however and in 2004, Castro shut down 118 factories, including steel plants, sugar mills and paper processors to compensate for the crisis of fuel shortages. Cuba and Venezuela were also the founding members of the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas which sought to redistribute wealth evenly throughout member countries, to protect the region’s agriculture, and to oppose economic liberalization and privatization.

In July 2006, Castro underwent surgery for intestinal bleeding, believed to be caused by diverticulitus and went into a long period of recuperation. His brother Raul was voted in as president in 2008, effectively putting Fidel into retirement. Following his retirement, Castro’s health deteriorated further but he continued to interact with the Cuban people, published an opinion column titled “Reflections” and gave occasional public lectures. On April 19, 2011, Castro resigned from the Communist Party central committee, stepping down as party leader. Now without any official role in the country’s government, he took on the role of an elder statesman. In January 2015, he publicly commented on the "Cuban Thaw", an increased normalization between Cuba-US relations, by stating that while it was a positive move for establishing peace in the region, he mistrusted the US government. He did not meet with Barack Obama on the latter’s visit to Cuba in March 2016 and sent him a letter stating that Cuba "has no need of gifts from the empire".

Cuban state television announced that Castro had died on the night of November 25, 2016.

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One Comment for: Fidel Castro: Iconic Revolutionary; Island Tyrant

  1. Visitor Comment # 1
    Graham Norton : (Visitor)

    Viva Fidel!

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