In 2006, President George W. Bush said, “One day the good Lord will take Fidel Castro away.” On November 25, 2016, to the delight of Cubans both on the beautiful island nation and all over the world, Raul Castro announced the death of his brother, 90-year old dictator and former Cuban President Fidel Castro.
Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz was born on August 13, 1926, in Birán, a village in the province of Holguín to a wealthy family. His father was a well-respected and successful farmer – in fact, he owned a 23,000 acre plantation in the village. Castro then went on to study law at the University of Havana in 1945, where he was a classmate of my grandmother. While studying at the University of Havana, he began to develop leftist ideals and began to rebel against the imperialist notions of his family and the Cuban government, led by then-President Fulgencio Batista.
After developing more and more left-leaning policies and notions, Castro did not immediately rebel against his own country. He first led rebellions against right-leaning governments in Colombia and the Dominican Republic, honing his strategies for the day he would overthrow his own country’s government. Castro had always been a charismatic man, and he did not have much trouble gaining followers and convincing others to join his militia. In 1953, Castro returned to Cuba and attacked the Moncada Barracks in Santiago de Cuba, an attempt that failed miserably. He was imprisoned for a year.
Upon his release from prison, Castro traveled to Mexico and joined forces with his brother Raúl Castro and Ernesto “Che” Guevara. The trio called their group the 26th of July Movement. As more and more Cubans were tiring of the imperialistic rule of Fulgencio Batista, his rag-tag group gained more and more members. My great-uncle was one of those members. He later told me that he felt that the ideals Castro first espoused to his followers would be good for the nation, and would finally give the Cuban people the freedoms and independence they craved. The group hid in the Sierra Maestras and waged guerilla warfare upon Batista’s troops. While hiding in the Sierra Maestras, Castro and his leaders would summarily shoot any of their own men who showed any dissent or doubt about their leader’s true intentions. Che Guevara proved himself to be quite enthusiastic about permanently silencing any of those with doubts. Thus began Castro’s habit of murdering those who did not agree with him or completely support him.
After several battles and skirmishes, Castro and his men were ultimately successful, and on January 1, 1959 former President Fulgencio Batista fled Cuba. The nation was officially in the hands of Fidel Castro.
Following his decisive victory, Fidel Castro named himself Prime Minister of Cuba. Slowly but surely, Castro turned Cuba into a Communist nation, which would be the first in the Western Hemisphere. He began to limit freedom of the press and freedom of speech, and turned to a socialist form of government. As my great-uncle saw that his former hero had no intention of fulfilling his promises to aid the Cuban people and become a better, more empathetic leader to his countrymen, he began to fight against his former friend. My great-uncle and several other brave men and women formed the Contra-Revolución (Counter-Revolution) in an attempt to force Castro to live up the promises that had led so many to support Castro’s overthrow of Batista. He had seen too many of his friends and relatives killed because they had voiced a simple opinion, and he knew that Castro’s government would not be any different. Dissidents would be dealt with harshly. However, Castro had gained too much power by then, and a bounty was put on my great-uncle’s head. Castro wanted him dead, and he was hunted, his family threatened, and he was eventually forced to flee to the Brazilian Embassy and seek asylum there. Through the gates of the Embassy, he was able to kiss his wife and young children good-bye, and was given safe passage to the United States. It was a harrowing nightmare, fought by a brave man who had the foresight to see that Castro would become a dictator like his predecessor. He was not the only one who fought against Castro – however, he was one of just a few who survived speaking out against Castro. Others who were not so lucky were led to el paredón – a wall where they would face a firing squad for voicing their dissent or displeasing their leader in any other way.
The members of the Contra-Revolución were not the only ones who did not have faith in the future of Castro’s leadership. The United States began to grow more and more worried about a Marxist leader only ninety miles to the south of Florida. Presidents Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy were not going to allow such a government to exist in such close proximity. In 1961, the United States government began to gather Cuban exiles who opposed Castro’s rule and barely escaped with their lives to the United States, in order to plan an invasion and overthrow Castro’s regime. These Cuban exiles were poorly trained, poorly instructed, and poorly armed, and the Bay of Pigs invasion was a stunning loss of life and an incredible failure on the part of the United States government.
Meanwhile, Castro began to reorganize the country and place an emphasis on the social aspect of the nation, while mostly ignoring the economic needs of the people and the country at large. While Castro did build many schools and expand and nationalize health care, which led to a drastic drop in the infant mortality rate, the country was still reliant on its allies for any economic support. At the same time, Castro quickly began to deny his citizens their basic human and civil rights, and many innocent Cubans were jailed and even killed for showing any political dissent. The notion of free speech was quickly cast aside, and religion was soon to follow. Cubans were not allowed to celebrate Christmas and any who did were thrown in jail. He also instituted a network wherein neighbors would spy on one another. In every neighborhood, a designated “watcher” would walk around, covertly listen in on conversations, watch their friends and loved ones, and report any “anti-government” behavior. Cubans would be sent to prison for owning a television when they were not supposed to, making a comment that could be construed as an insult towards their exalted leader, or even complaining that they did not have enough food to feed their family that week.
In retaliation for the Bay of Pigs, Castro began to ally himself with the Soviet Union. Of course, this made the United States government quite nervous, and thus began several decades of Cold War, with Cuba squarely in the middle. Throughout his alliance with the Soviet Union, Castro survived assassination attempt after assassination attempt, from an exploding cigar to a sniper attack. Somehow they were all bungled and Castro continued to reign.
In 1962, Nikita Khrushchev, leader of the Soviet Union during the Cold War, asked Castro to store Soviet missiles in Cuba. While at first nervous at the thought of having these missiles on his lands, Castro eventually agreed, as he thought it would enhance his country’s safety against his mortal enemy, the United States. The storage of these missiles led to the Cuban Missile Crisis from 1962 through 1968, a time of great fear and anxiety throughout the world.
Although the Cuban Missile Crisis ended peacefully enough, the United States eventually instituted an embargo against Cuba. Americans were forbidden to buy Cuban goods, and any trade between the two nations completely ceased (if it had even existed before).
The Cuban people lived on a system of rations, and because they lived in a Communist society, where a doctor would earn as much as a store clerk, many Cubans lost the incentive and drive to work. Why work hard (or work at all) when you would receive a check no matter how many hours you worked? Cubans who had been doctors would leave their jobs to become taxi drivers, because their fares and customers would pay in the currency of their home nations, which were worth more than Cuban pesos any day and would buy much on the black market. Cubans would stand in line for hours at a rations depot, and certain foods were reserved for certain members of society. For example, only new mothers and the elderly were granted access to milk. If a Cuban waited in line and the rations store was out of any item on their shopping list, they were out of luck until the next month. As I was told by Cubans who had come to the United States within recent years, many Cubans turned to eating stray cats or other animals because there was not enough meat.
As Castro grew older, he took a less active role in politics but continued to give hours-long speeches to his people. In 2006, he stepped down and designated his brother Raúl as the Cuban president. Although Raúl announced the death of his brother and called it a “sad day” for the Cuban people, instituting a nine-day period of mourning, no cause of death has been announced.
To end on a personal anecdote – my grandparents left Cuba with their children in the 1960s, when, in a deal with the United States, Castro “opened the door” and let out those Cubans with family members in the United States who were willing to sponsor them. Once a Cuban was granted permission to leave, a barrage of military would arrive at the Cuban’s home and take inventory of every item in the home – after all, it was property of the state, not of the individual. On the day before the family was to leave for the United States, that same group of military men would return to the home. If one item was missing – one spoon, one picture frame – their permission was rescinded and they would be jailed. Additionally, the children of the families were treated as outcasts at their schools once it was announced that they were leaving. My mother, who was 8 years old when they began the process of leaving Cuba, was called a gusano (worm) by her classmates and was not allowed to participate in any school activities. This behavior was encouraged by the teachers and administration of the schools, as anyone who wanted to leave was seen as unpatriotic and traitorous. On the day they were to leave, each individual was allowed one small suitcase with one change of clothing, and any jewelry worn would be surrendered to the military at their leisure. My grandparents and their children survived this harrowing experience, but have never been able to return to the beautiful country of their roots.