Shortly after coming to power in 1959, a heavily whiskered Fidel Castro informed the American journalist Edward R. Murrow that, “when we have fulfilled our promise of good government, I will cut my beard.” For over half a century the Cuban people waited on the fulfillment of both those promises.
Castro, whose death at age 90 was announced Friday night by Cuban state television, outfoxed 11 United States presidents and transformed Cuba from a corrupt and vice-ridden backwater into a repressive communist state just 90 miles off the coast of Florida. Along the way, he took the world to the brink of a nuclear apocalypse.
Castro was a rebel from early childhood. By the time he was 13 he was agitating for his first insurrection, accusing his father Ángel of exploiting sugarcane workers on his farm. He was later sent away from his birthplace in Birán, a small outpost in eastern Cuba, to Jesuit schools in Oriente Province and Havana. According to Carlos Franqui, a former comrade who edited the newspaper Revolución before falling out of favor, Castro would go on to impose on Cuba all the punishments he suffered as a boy in a Jesuit school: censure, thought control, discipline, and a Spartan mentality.
After finishing high school Castro studied law at the prestigious University of Havana and became embroiled in the gangsterism which characterized Cuba in the 1950s. While at university he gained a reputation as a leader, and subsequently put his name forward in 1952 for national congressional elections as a candidate for the Orthodox party on an anti-corruption ticket. The elections never happened. In March of that year General Fulgenico Batista staged a coup and overthrew the government of Carlos Prío Socarrás, ushering in a corrupt dictatorship and leaving Castro with no choice—in his eyes—but to resort to violence to oppose Batista’s takeover. As he would write in a letter to Franqui, “All doors to a peaceful political struggle have been closed to me.”
On July 26, 1953, Castro and a group of 111 followers, including his brother Raúl, set off in poorly-fitting uniforms to attack the Moncada military barracks in Santiago de Cuba. The attack itself was a disaster, but the subsequent trial gave the budding solipsista his first public platform. He used it well, delivering a now-famous speech in which he taunted the dictator to “Condemn me, it does not matter. History will absolve me.” Castro was subsequently imprisoned along with 24 of his comrades. He was released in 1955 following an amnesty by the Batista regime, only to launch a fresh military assault on Batista a year later, this time from Mexico in a ship named Granma.
Throughout the two-year long guerrilla campaign in the Sierra Maestra jungle, few suspected that Fidel Castro was a Communist, not even his closest confidantes. Ernesto “Che” Guevara, by that time a dedicated Marxist, described Castro dismissively in his notes as “an authentic leader of the left-wing of the bourgeoisie.” According to declassified Soviet documents, at one point Fidel’s brother Raúl even considered splitting the Twenty-Sixth of July rebel movement to convince Fidel that he could not govern without the Communists.
Over the years various explanations have been proffered to explain Castro’s embrace of the Soviet Union. For western liberals the fault (as always) lay with the United States for not respecting the revolution, therefore driving Castro into the arms of the Communists. Meanwhile anti-Castro groups maintained that Castro was a Communist all along; he simply hid the fact to prevent panic among the Cuban bourgeoisie before his regime was secure. In truth both opportunism and expediency were at work—the U.S. foolishly put itself in a corner but Communism ultimately served as the best vehicle for Castro’s nascent caudillismo and militarism. As Guevara told the French weekly L’Express in 1963, “Our commitment to the eastern bloc was half the fruit of constraint and half the result of choice.”
Soon after taking power Castro outmaneuvered both internal and external rivals and allowed the one-time Batista-supporting Communists to gain control of the state. During the anti-Batista guerrilla war Castro had promised “freedom with bread, and bread without terror,” but in power the motto soon became “Within the revolution, everything; against the revolution, nothing.” And the revolution meant the politics and opinions of Fidel Castro. While the bourgeoisie fled to the United States, Cuban trade unions, which had voted overwhelmingly against Communist influence, were neutralized and anti-Stalinist leftists were harassed and imprisoned. Mass executions of Batista’s henchmen took place and the court system became the tool of the government. The previously vibrant Cuban printed press was requisitioned by the government and reduced to a single newspaper, once described by the Argentinean journalist and dissident Jacobo Timerman as “a degradation of the act of reading.”
After John F. Kennedy’s botched U.S. Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, opposition and counter-revolution in Cuba became synonymous. The notorious Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDRs) were set up on every block in order to, in Castro’s words, “establish a system… in which everyone knows who everyone is, what each person who lives on the block does, what relations he had with the tyranny, to what he is dedicated, whom he meets, and what activities he follows.”
“Always the eyes watching you and the voice enveloping you,” as Winston Smith put it in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.
According to Castro’s own estimates, at one point there were as many as 15,000 political prisoners in Cuba. One of the darkest periods of the repression occurred in 1963 when Castro approved “Operation P,” named because of a black “P” (for pimps, prostitutes, pederasts) emblazoned on the uniforms of those arrested. The operation saw Castro’s newly formed secret police sweep through Havana targeting homosexuals, religious believers, and “deviants”—often no more than men with long hair and blue jeans. Those rounded up were placed in UMAPs (Military Units to Help Production), a euphemism for concentration camps, and forced to do hard labor. According to the poet Armando Valladares, imprisoned by Castro in 1960, “there have been few examples of repression of homosexuals in history as virulent as in Cuba.”
In the ’70s Castro institutionalized his regime along Soviet lines and cultural Stalinism reached its high point, culminating in what the Cuban writer Ambrosio Fornet called the “Quinquenio Gris” (the Gray Five-Year Period), from 1971 to 1976. The Cuban joke that best sums up the period goes like this: In the Cuban family the mother is the nation; the father the comrade; the child the future. One night the child starts crying and wakes up his older brother, who in turn wakes up his father saying, “Comrade, the future is covered with shit.”
In 1989 Cuba was rocked by scandal, this time involving allegations that one of the country’s most celebrated generals and “heroes of the revolution” was corrupt and involved in the lucrative drugs trade. The accusations directed at Arnaldo Ochoa by the Castro brothers were followed by the general’s hasty trial, public confession, and execution by firing squad. According to Roberto Ortega, a former colonel of the Cuban armed forces who defected in 2003, Ochoa was executed because of his popularity with the troops and support for Mikhail Gorbachev’s liberalizing reforms in the Soviet Union. When Che Guevara himself became disillusioned with Sovietization in the mid-1960s, he was encouraged by Castro to leave Cuba in order to ferment guerrilla war in Africa and then Latin America, where he died soon after. Guevara was a zealous and fanatical Communist; but he was never a party man. Despite subsequently admonishing Cuban children to “be like Che,” Castro was undoubtedly glad to be rid of a potential rival.
From the earliest days of the revolution western celebrities and intellectuals paid homage to Castro. Jack Nicholson (“Castro is a humanist”), Oliver Stone (“Castro is very selfless and moral, one of the world’s wisest men”), and the supermodels Naomi Campbell and Kate Moss (Castro is “an inspiration to everyone”) were just some of those who lavished praise on the dictator. “I just spent an hour and a half talking with your president, Fidel Castro,” a star-struck Campbell told a press conference in the Hotel National in 1994. “But he told me there was nothing to be afraid of because he already knew a lot about us from reading the press.” As the high-ranking Cuban intelligence defector Delfin Fernandez would later disclose, the information did not come from the media. “My job was to bug their hotel rooms with both cameras and listening devices,” Delfin noted.
Admirers of the revolution often resembled the fellow travelers Arthur Koestler described as peeping toms, peering through a hole in the wall at history while not having to experience it themselves. The novelist Gabriel García Márquez, a personal friend of Castro, once told The New York Times that he personally could never live under the Cuban system. “I would miss too many things. I couldn’t live with the lack of information. I am a voracious reader of newspapers and magazines from around the world.” For Cubans those privations were apparently acceptable.
Fidel Castro relinquished the presidency in 2008, handing power to his brother Raúl after a period of illness. Since then he has gradually disappeared from public life, occasionally penning a column for the state newspaper, Granma.
Long after the heroism and mystique of the revolution has faded, Fidel Castro will likely be remembered for his role in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, when civilization came as close as it has yet come to nuclear Armageddon. During that 13-day trilateral confrontation, while the world watched the stand-off on black and white television sets, behind the scenes Castro was furiously writing to his Soviet counterpart Nikita Khrushchev demanding that the Ukrainian press the button and incinerate us all by launching a first nuclear strike on the United States. “However hard and terrible the solution might be, there is no other,” wrote Castro. Thankfully Stalin’s former henchman, who by his own admission was “up to his elbows” in blood, chose not to heed Castro’s advice.