Castro!: An Impact Biography

castroI recently posted a commentary about President Obama’s initiative to normalize relations with Cuba. I noticed this small book by Don E. Beyer at the library and I’m glad I checked it out.  The book quickly gets to the point of explaining Fidel’s origins and how he became the face of revolution in Cuba. The first sentences of the book are, “Fidel Castro is a man at odds with the world. He likes to say he came into it under conditions natural for a guerrilla fighter. He was born on August 13, 1926, as an explosive storm swept over the mountains of the Oriented Province, the wild land that has long served as an incubator of revolution in Cuba.”

Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz was born illegitimate, one of seven children from two mothers. His father, Angel Castro, and his mother, Lina Ruz Gonzalez, were not married until several years after Fidel’s birth.  Fidel’s combative nature was displayed frequently in childhood. He was described as rebellious and combative. His brother Raul described him as dominating every situation. “He challenged the biggest and strongest ones, and when he was beaten, he started it all over again the next day. He would never quit.” As a student he displayed a photographic memory. “In later years, Fidel’s prodigious memory enabled him to give the impression of knowledge and competence where it did not exist.” Spanish Jesuit teachers taught him to admire Spanish Fascists such as Francisco Franco. He later admired Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. “He was described as walking around his school with a copy of Mein Kampf under his arm.”

Fidel began to move into revolutionary politics when he went to Havana in 1945 to study law. He admired the stories of Jose Marti who had become a Cuban independence martyr in 1895 when he was killed fighting with a revolutionary army. Castro “…saw himself as Marti’s spiritual heir.”

Fidel couldn’t get elected to any position in respectable student organizations, which pushed him to join a powerful student gang. It was alleged that he killed at least two people during this time. The author writes that the charge has never been proven, but, “…if Fidel did not actually kill someone, it was not for lack of effort.” He did participate in, and apparently enjoyed, at least one armed battle with an opposing gang. He later joined the opposing gang.

Castro began a long career as a revolutionary in the late 1940s and began to focus on Fulgencio Batistia after the former military sergeant somehow overthrew the government of Carlos Prio while promising “…good order, freedom, and democracy.” Fidel attacked Batista for his “…brutal snatching of power,” but immediately went on the run to avoid the inevitable crackdown. Fidel had attracted a modest band of dissidents by the middle of 1953. He chose July 26, 1953, the anniversary of the death of Jose Marti, to attack two army barracks with 160 ill-trained, poorly armed, and poorly organized men and women who had little military experience. Fidel only told six people of the plan, and that didn’t include his brother Raul. Raul “…may have been considered a security risk because of his communist affiliation.”

The attack at Moncada army barracks was a failure and the one at Bayamo was a complete disaster. Fidel and eighteen men headed into the mountains but were captured. The only thing that Fidel and the attack accomplished was gaining negative publicity against the government for the brutality directed against the captives. Fidel survived, but most of his compatriots were either killed during the attack or murdered in captivity. Fidel was tried, but apparently because of his articulate defense was only imprisoned.  The 26 July Movement became the focus of resistance to Batista.

Castro met Ernesto “Che” Guevara in 1955, and Che, the ardent Marxist, would become a legend in revolutionary politics. Castro and his band moved to Mexico to continue their revolutionary plans. In November 1956 Fidel and 85 followers chugged perilously on an overloaded boat toward Cuba. They failed to reach the Cuban coast in time to participate in a planned attack many miles from the planned landing site and were greeted by fire from a Cuban gunboat. Most of the revolutionaries were killed in an ambush by government soldiers. Fidel and two others escaped. They eventually reunited with Raul and four others.

The book makes it clear that Castro was an opportunist who was only interested in Castro. There was a revolutionary named Frank Pias who held control over urban areas where Castro had little influence. It is described that “His contribution to the eventual success of the revolution was every bit as important as that of Fidel Castro.” However, no one remembers his name. Pias often disagreed with Castro, and distrusted the Communists close to Castro (Che and Raul). Pias was killed by a government assassin, and a rival to Castro was eliminated.

The revolution gained strength and Batista was unable to turn the tide. Batista made plans to save himself and his family, and the rebels began to assume control. “A carnival atmosphere consumed the city of Santiago as the rebels entered. Castro gained power, and he managed to not share it. Most of the important Batista officials escaped Cuba, but Castro ordered the arrest of ex-soldiers, policemen, and government officials and shot many after quick show trials. He issued an edict that slashed rents and began to give away land to poor farmers.

The C.I.A. was alarmed by the Communist influence in Cuba. Castro visited the U.S. and was greeted warmly by crowds and suspicion by the government. He met with Nixon for over two hours, and they did not hit it off. Castro called Nixon a “son-of-a-bitch,” and Nixon said Castro was “a Red” and a “charismatic amateur.” Castro returned to Cuba and continued to make massive, sometimes damaging, changes to the economy. The increasingly oppressive government soon packed the jails and prisons with “…real and imagined enemies…” Anti-Castro exiles in Florida began launching attacks. Castro was unable to get arms from the U.S. or its allies and turned to the Soviet Union and received trade agreements and arms. Eisenhower banned all U.S. exports to Cuba with the exception of some foods and medicines. Castro took over 548 private businesses and Eisenhower recalled the American ambassador.

The C.I.A. proceeded with plans for an invasion with Cuban exiles being trained in Guatemala. Air cover would be provided with U.S. planes flown by Cuban pilots. John F. Kennedy, who Fidel called an “…illiterate and ignorant millionaire…” inherited the plans. The invaders landed at the Bay of Pigs, but there was no uprising by unhappy Cubans that had been predicted. The U.S. did not give air support to the invaders and they were cut off with no option but to surrender.

A key point in world history was when Soviets began installing medium range ballistic missiles in Cuba. President Kennedy learned about the possibility of offensive weapons. Kennedy told the world about the missiles and made it clear the U.S. would not shrink from nuclear war if it came to that. He ordered a naval blockade and Fidel began to mobilize his people for war.

Kennedy gave Khrushchev an ultimatum and the missiles were withdrawn from Cuba. The crisis was over, and Castro had not been consulted. “Fidel heard the news by telephone while having a discussion with Che Guevara. He blew up at Khrushchev’s effrontery.

The book documents Cuban support of revolutions in numerous countries including in Angola. The decline into being a poor communist country is also described. Cuba continues to limp along with continual shortages. Only time will tell how President Obama’s initiatives will change things.

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