The Cuban Revolution’s major role in the international political arena is without a doubt uncontested. We’ll take a look at a small guerrilla operation that led to the Cuban Revolution and Fidel Castro, as well as Che Guevara’s impact on Cuba and further afield, and efforts to export ideals held by Cuba’s regime to the world.
Whether or not you are for or against the revolution, you cannot doubt the impact it has had in the global sphere. The small island sent shockwaves throughout the world and broke new ground in Latin America by rising against the US – who controlled most of Cuba’s resources – starting an essential shift.
The story of the Cuban Revolution and is an inspirational one of a true underdog, but there are multiple facets to it. It shares similarities with Iran’s Islamic Revolution, with the most significant being that an unexpected regime rises to power following a popular uprising.
In each case, the US was able to chip away at local machinations by using American “henchmen”(the Shah in Iran and Batista in Cuba), resulting in the people uniting under one leader (Khomeini in Iran and Fidel Castro in Cuba) against a common “enemy.”
This happened even if the people didn’t necessarily share the same views as the leader embattled by the US. Both – the Cuban Revolution and the Islamic Revolution – resulted in an unexpected regime cut off from the public.
*Note: If you would like to learn more about Cuba’s relationship with Spain, you can read about developments in chronological order in our Chronological Cuban History.
Pre- Cuban Revolution
Cuba: America’s “sin island”
In the 1920s, American companies owned two-thirds of Cuba’s agricultural land and mines, and Cuba had been under an American mandate since 1903. Before the Cuban Revolution, America saw Cuba both as a source of raw materials and a market source to sell products manufactured in the US.
At the time, Americans even had control of the supply chain: They limited the number of Cuban products, such as sugar, tobacco and raw minerals, that could be put on the marketplace. The American-supported mafia in the country owned all areas and was a large part of daily life, particularly after the US government made alcohol illegal at home between 1919-1933. This led denizens of Americans to turn to Cuba for liquor, gambling and prostitution. In the eyes of Americans, Cuba was “sin island.”
After tourism infrastructure was developed in the country, gambling entered the scene in the 1920s and was at its peak in the 1950s during the Batista period. Batista and his circle sided with the American-supported mafia and used money from state coffers to build resorts on Cuba’s most beautiful coasts. During this pre-Cuban Revolution era, corruption in the country was off the scales.
Both Batista and the mafia started to fill their pockets with money from selling drugs and income made from the casinos. While Batista was in power, prostitution was so widespread that there were 11,500 sex workers and 270 brothels in Havana alone at the end of the 1950s.
The Birth of the Cuban Revolution
Fidel Castro was the main actor of the Cuban Revolution. Fidel Castro’s father Ángel Castro y Argiz was a Spanish soldier who fought in the American-Spanish War of 1898 and earlier in the Cuban Independence War. Ángel owned a sugar cane plantation in Cuba’s Oriente region and sold most of his yields to the United Fruit Company, an American-owned enterprise.
Fidel was born out of wedlock to Lina Ruz González, who worked as a maid to Ángel, who already had 5 children from his first marriage. Fidel was born on the plantation in 1926 as the third child of seven. Fidel’s parents didn’t marry until 1943, and because he was an illegitimate child, his last name was Ruz during the early part of his life.
Fidel’s Early Childhood
Fidel saw the striking differences between himself as the son of a wealthy plantation owner and the African immigrant workers on the farm. When he went to Santiago at the age of 6, he saw how poor his teachers were. A staunch atheist, Fidel was still baptized at the age of 8 and attended a renowned Catholic school in Santiago Colegio Dolores in Santiago de Cuba, and then later El Colegio de Belén in Havana. In high school, Fidel preferred to pursue athletics instead of academics.
Fidel’s University Years and Marriage
Castro’s early years were important in preparing him for the role that he would play in the Cuban Revolution. Before attending Havana University in 1945 to study law, Fidel himself admitted that he was “politically illiterate.” However, it was at university that he started learning about the political process through student activism.
During these years, Fidel participated in anti-government protests in Bogota and stood against American imperialism in the Caribbean. He also joined a committee that worked toward bringing democracy to the Dominican Republic and independence in Puerto Rico. He also campaigned for president of the Federation of University Students to protect students against state-sanctioned violence.
The first of many “rebellions”
Under the failing administration of Ramón Grau, unemployment in Cuba was rampant, and the state wasn’t able to provide adequate social services to its citizen. The police force was composed of ex-gangsters, and violence against university students increased during this time. Much before the Cuban Revolution, Castro was organizing a hunger strike against this increasing violence, receiving death threats and being pressured to leave university. Refusing to leave, Castro started an armed movement with his friends.
In 1947, Fidel also joined the Partido Ortodoxo founded by charismatic leader Eduardo Chibás to reform the Cuban government. The party was founded on guiding principles, such as political freedom, fair governance and social equality.
In 1948, Castro was organizing the Latin American Youth Congress in Bogota, which was funded by Argentine President Juan Perón. During this time Castro was also trying to gain the support of Jorge Eliécer Gaitán Ayala who was assassinated the day of their meeting. The group then got support from the liberal left.
Upon returning to Cuba, Castro married Mirta Díaz Balart, who was from a well-to-do family in the country. In a show of goodwill to the newlyweds, Mirta’s father sent money so they could have a three-month vacation in their rented apartment in the Bronx in New York.
The Carlos Prío Socarrás administration also came to power in 1948. However, he was unable to prevent the clashes between the leftists and American-supported mafia. Under these conditions, Castro began leaning towards Marxism as he read works by Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels and Vladimir Lenin, all of whom influenced the main tenets behind the Cuban Revolution.
Through his readings, Castro began to form his ideas on problems faced by Cuba, which he interpreted as stemming from capitalism or the “dictatorship of the bourgeoisie” instead of from corrupt politicians. He thought that the only meaningful political change would come about through popular revolution of the working class.
At a later date, Castro would say this about Marxism: “Marxism taught me what society was. I was like a blindfolded man in a forest, who doesn’t even know where north or south is. If you don’t eventually come to truly understand the history of the class struggle, or at least have a clear idea that society is divided between the rich and the poor, and that some people subjugate and exploit other people, you’re lost in a forest, not knowing anything.”
The Political Debut of Castro
Fidel’s first son was born in 1949. Yet, Castro continued to take part in protests and put himself at risk by involving himself in the country’s political struggle. He finished his law degree in 1950 and went on to practice law at a firm he opened in Havana. However, he couldn’t stay far enough away from political debates and protests. In this period, his practice did poorly, and this put his family in debt.
After the death of Chibás, who was the leader of the Partido Ortodoxo, Castro became a candidate for parliament for the 1952 elections. This election was slated to be the fourth free election after the 1940 Constitution was put into place, and it seemed like Castro’s entrance into Parliament was going to be a sure thing. But the vote didn’t happen.
A pre-election coup
On March 10, 1952, General Fulgencio Batista staged a military coup against the Carlos Prío Socarrás, canceling the elections. Batista cut off relations with the Soviet Union and suppressed free elections and Cuban socialists groups, while simultaneously strengthening ties with Cuban elites and the US. No matter how much Castro tried to solve Cuba’s problems through political means, he couldn’t.
This was important to realize, as the Cuban Revolution would not happen through the apparatus of the state. So, he started looking for alternative methods to topple the Batista regime.
First Move against the Regime
Castro organized a secret cell system within a group called “The Movement,” which was a significant step in the lead up to the Cuban Revolution. Within this secretive cell system, only one person within each cell knew who the other members were. If anyone found out information on any of the cells, then the breach would only be contained to that cell, leaving the others safe.
Castro started circulating an underground publication called “El Acusador” to spread information about this kind of organization. This allowed members to organize and arm themselves against the Batista regime. This method seemed to work and, in only one year, Castro was able to recruit 1,200 new members from some of Havana’s most impoverished neighborhoods.
This was how Castro was able to build up his mini-militia and bolster support for the future Cuban Revolution. On July 23, 1953, the organization prepared for their attack on the Moncada Barracks in Santiago. The plan was for 119 rebels in 16 cars to storm the barracks; however, this failed miserably.
The military fired on the rebels, killing 8 and injuring 12. Fifty-five were put to death without due process of law. Batista ordered his soldiers to kill 10 insurgents for every soldier that died. Castro and what remained of the mini-militia retreated to the mountains. Batista, in turn, censored the media and spread disinformation and declared martial law in the country. In the following days, Castro and his brother Raul were caught and sent to prison.
Prison Time and the Start of the “July 26 Operation”
Castro used his experience as a lawyer to defend all those in his organization who were up for trial. His defense emphasized the cruelty of the military’s attack and the torture endured by the defendants before coming to court. The court let most of the defendants free. However, Castro, Raul and 25 others were sent to prison on sentences ranging from 7 to 13 years.
On October 16, Castro gave one of his famous speeches, saying: “Condemn me. It does not matter. History will absolve me.” This was when Fidel started to become a rebel leader in the eyes of Cubans, but also a hero, something that brought legitimacy to his leadership in the Cuban Revolution.
A prisoner’s education
While doing his time at Santiago prison, Castro and 25 of his comrades started the “July 26 Operation” at a small prison school they set up. During his 22 months in jail, he would read works from significant figures such as Marx, Dostoevsky, Freud, Kant, Shakespeare, Martí, Rousseaux, and Lenin – 15 hours each day. Castro is quoted as saying that prison served as an excellent education for him and helped to shape his perspectives and his goals in life.
Prison also served another purpose for Fidel. He sent his speeches and writings on inequality in Cuba to his wife Mirta, who printed and distributed 20,000 copies. However, while still in prison, he later divorced Mirta upon hearing that she had gotten a job at the Ministry of Interior. He also lost custody of his sone by Mirta, Fidelito.
Works after Prison
In 1954, Batista held elections without an opposition and received backing from the US. Following the elections, on May 15, 1955, Batista gave Raul and Fidel an amnesty deal, setting them free from prison. Batista got the amnesty idea from politicians who had convinced him that letting Fidel and Raul go would create a better image among the public. He also didn’t think that Castro was a threat.
Upon returning to Havana, Castro did radio interviews and press speeches under the watchful eye of the government. By doing this, he was also able to strengthen the group behind the “July 26 Operation” he had created while in prison, and gain enough popular support to move the Cuban Revolution along.
Castro meets Che Guevara in Mexico
Castro and Raul fled Cuba following a government clampdown after several violent protests and bombs in 1955. They traveled to Mexico, where Raul met a Marxist-Leninist doctor named Ernesto Che Guevara. Castro took to Guevara and would go on to describe him as a better revolutionary than he was. Castro met up with Spaniard Alberto Bayo, who acted as teacher to Castro’s men in the way of guerrilla warfare tactics. During this time, Castro also went to the US to search for sponsors who would help his cause. He was being followed and monitored the whole time by Batista’s men.
The Failed “Granma” Operation to Take Cuba
After Castro was finally able to round up some funds, he and his men set sail for the southeast of Cuba aboard the “Granma,” a yacht designed to carry 12 people at most. But Castro and his men were 81 passengers. They had planned for the passage to Cuba to take only 5 days. However, the 1,900-km journey proved not to be that easy. Setbacks in the trip, such as a leak in the yacht as well as a man falling overboard meant that they were delayed 2 days.
In Cuba, one of Castro’s men Frank País was at the helm of a revolt on the 5th day of Granma’s journey in Santiago and Manzanillo, but they had to retreat after only 2 days. They never received the reinforcements they needed from the yacht. On December 2, the Granma landed at Playa Las Colorado and was attacked by Batista’s forces. As Castro and his men fled inland toward Sierra Maestra, only 19 survived, including Raul, Fidel, Camilo Cienfuegos and Che Guevara. Still, the Batista government claimed they had killed Castro.
Guerrilla Fighting in Sierra Maestra
In guerilla tactics that contributed greatly to the Cuban Revolution, Fidel’s men started attacking army posts in the thickly forested Sierra Maestra mountains to steal weaponry. They then raided La Plata, killing Chicho Osorio, who was the local mayoral (or overseer of the land company). The locals hated him, and he had bragged about once executing one of Castro’s revolutionaries.
The locals viewed what Castro’s men did favorably, and began contributing to the cause of the Cuban Revolution. With this help, the rebels numbered in the 200s, which allowed for the Castro brothers and Guevara to divide the army into three, with each one as a leader.
Fidel, a Global Symbol of Resistance
Castro’s rise to the political forefront was how the Cuban Revolution began taking shape in the country. Groups against Batista started bombing areas all across Cuba, prompting the police to make mass arrests and carry out executions.
In March 1957, Castro and his men attacked the presidential palace in an attempt to assassinate Batista. However, this failed. Castro lost Antonio and Frank País, two of his leading men. País’s funeral was wildly popular, filling the streets with people from all walks of life.
Castro turned to the international press to spread his message, as news of a Cuban Revolution was being heavily censored by the government. Castro soon became renowned internationally after he was interviewed by Herbert Matthews, a journalist for the New York Times. An interview with Castro became much-sought from the likes of CBS and Paris Match.
Similar to Iran’s Islamic Revolution, one that began with a small faction of people, Cuba’s uprising became a symbol to the entire world.
End of US Support to Batista
With the the eyes of world beginning to focus on Caribbean waters, Fidel’s men continued their guerrilla attacks in the name of the Cuban Revolution on outposts in the Sierra Maestra mountains. Various factions of the opposition, from parties and underground organizations, met Castro in the mountains to discuss how a coalition would be formed.
The rebels were able to take control of schools, a hospital, a printing house, a slaughterhouse and a cigar factory in the region by 1958. Batista began receiving criticism from both domestic and foreign circles on his military defeats. As American citizens started to adopt a more anti-Batista sentiment, the US cut off military supplies to Batista.
Batista’s Last Shot: “Operation Verano”
Still, Batista tried to defeat the rebels in one last-ditch effort. Batista rounded up an army of 10,000 men to aerially bomb the forests and nearby towns. Operation Verano lasted from June 28 – August 8. Castro was able to use the fact that the army did not possess knowledge of guerrilla warfare tactics to his advantage. He got his men to stall the soldiers by using landmines and strategic attacks. The soldiers, most of whom were young and inexperienced, defected to Castro’s revolutionaries.
By the time November rolled around, Castro and his men had the majority of the Oriente and Las Villas under their control and were able to stop the flow of traffic on the country’s major roads and railways. Che Guevara and his men were able to derail a train in Santa Clara that was carrying Batista’s soldiers and ammunition, both of which fell into rebel territory.
The US ordered Eulogio Cantillo, an army general to get rid of Batista. In secret, Castro and Cantillo reached a ceasefire, which saw that Batista would be tried as a war criminal. Before he could be tried, Batista found out about the secret arrangement and fled to the Dominican Republic with $300 million on December 31, 1958.
Upon entering the Presidential Palace, Cantillo began selecting a new cabinet and appointed Carlos Piedra president, who was a judge on the Supreme Court at the time. This angered Castro, who ended the ceasefire and ordered Castillo’s arrest.
When people realized that Batista had fled the country, celebrations began on January 1, 1959. Castro ordered his men to take precautions to prevent any looting or vandalism. The following day, on January 2, Castro gave a speech in Santiago about the wars of independence and the Cuban Revolution. As he went toward Havana, he was greeted by the locals at towns and villages he visited to give interviews and press conferences.
Castro’s Rise to Commander-in-Chief of the Cuban Revolution
Castro ordered that Manuel Urrutia Lleó, who was a politically moderate lawyer, be made a temporary president. Most of the administration’s cabinet was made up of Castro’s men. Castro set himself up in Havana in the penthouse of the Havana Hilton Hotel and proclaimed himself Representative of the Rebel Armed Forces of the Presidency.
Even though Urrutia was technically in charge, Castro played a significant role in the administration by issuing some decrees. He worked to eliminate corruption, illiteracy and the remnants of Batista supporters in the government. He also ordered Urrutia to ban political parties, but insisted that it was only a temporary move. On several occasions, Castro denied being a communist. Yet, he met with several members of the Popular Socialist Party to plan how to turn Cuba into a socialist state.
While it’s uncontested that Batista had killed thousands of Cubans, Castro and other members of the press placed this number at 20,000. However, a list of the victims published revealed 898 people. Half of this figure were rebels who fought in the Cuban Revolution.
Many people wanted justice, and Castro gave it to them by setting up trials that led to hundreds of executions. In three months, about 500 people who were found to be pro-Batista were put to death. While Castro was held in high acclaim, the US criticized these executions as not being fair trials. In response to the criticism, Castro said in 1959: “Revolutionary justice is not based on legal precepts, but on moral conviction…we are not executing innocent people or political opponents. We are executing murderers, and they deserve it.”
Castro becomes Prime Minister
Castro became Prime Minister of Cuba on February 16, 1959, and almost immediately went on a trip to the US to visit Vice President Richard Nixon from April 15-26. Castro hired a public relations firm for his trip to the States so he could be seen as a “man of the people” by the American government. At the time, President Dwight D. Eisenhower had refused to meet him, so Castro met with Nixon instead.
First Agricultural Reform
In May 1959, Castro passed the First Agrarian Reform, which set a limit for landholdings for landowners to 402 hectares. This reform also made it illegal for foreigners to own land. Large chunks of land that had been previously owned were divided, and the government gave 200,000 peasants title deeds. While these reforms were highly acclaimed by the working class, they were unsurprisingly not well-received by wealthy landowners.
Communism’s Increasing Influence as Reforms Continue
Castro used the main ideas behind the Cuban Revolution to continue introducing social reforms to the country. Castro’s next order of business was to curb the salaries of public employees. These policies cut pay for professions such as judges and politicians, while increasing that of lower-level civil servants. With this and other reforms passed to increase purchasing power, production would decline within two years, drying up the country’s financial reserves.
Castro made use of radio and television broadcasting in an effort to establish a “dialogue with the people,” which turned out to be quite useful. While his administration and policies were popular among workers, peasants and students, it wasn’t as popular among doctors, engineers and other highly specialized professions. They began fleeing to Florida, leading to a brain drain in Cuba.
A communist reality
Castro repeatedly denied being a communist or that his administration was socialist. However, his actions revealed an entirely different agenda. He appointed mainly Marxists to high-level positions in the government and military. Notably, Che Guevara was named Governor of the Central Bank and the Minister of Industries, and Raul became Defense Minister. To anyone watching, it was clear the country was becoming a communist state.
Upon hearing of these appointments, Pedro Luis Díaz Lanz, Chief of Cuba’s Revolutionary Air Force, went to the US, and President Urrutia said that he was concerned about the number of Marxists in high-level positions in the government and military.
Upon hearing Urrutia’s concern, Fidel announced that he would resign as prime minister. But more than 500,000 pro-Castro citizens came to the Presidential Palace asking for Urrutia to resign. Urrutia left office, and Castro named Marxist Osvaldo Dorticós as president.
Education, Health and Infrastructure Reforms
Many were happy in the first year of the Cuban Revolution. There was trust in Castro’s administration, which meant that a lot of power rested in the center. During this period, Castro promulgated a number of reforms in education, health and infrastructure.
In the first two years of Castro’s rule, he opened a number of new classes and schools as a way of highlighting the importance of education. Students were required to do a work-study program in primary education, where they went to class half of the time and used the other half to do productive activities.
The system started producing quality engineers and doctors. Prostitution and gambling were no more. Castro further universalized health care. Health centers in both rural and urban areas were opened throughout Cuba and offered free services. This included vaccinations for children as well as care during childbirth, which led to a reduction in infant mortality rates.
The third phase of the Cuban Revolution was to develop the country’s infrastructure. Within the first six months of Castro’s reign, 1,000 km of road were constructed, and $300 million was spent on projects focusing on water and sanitation. Over 800 houses every month in the early years of the administration were built to combat homelessness, and nursing home and nurseries were established for children and the elderly.
Cuba during the Cold War
The 1960s are known the US-Soviet Union Cold War. Of course, Castro followed in the Soviet Union’s lead and established ties with other Marxist-Leninist states. This was when the US started seeing Cuba as a threat. It worried the tiny island nation would use the Soviet Union against the US, and that Cuba would begin to spread the USSR’s influence throughout all of Latin America.
In February of the same year, Castro struck a deal with Soviet First Deputy Premier Anastas Mikoyan to ship sugar, fruit, fiber and leather hides to the Soviet Union. Under the agreement, Cuba would receive crude oil, fertilizer, industrial goods and a $100-million credit. Castro ran into a bit of a problem, however.
The country’s refineries were controlled by US companies Shell and Esso, and they refused to process oil from the Soviet Union. On June 29, 1960, Castro instead decided to nationalize the country’s refineries without providing compensation to the companies. In return, the US stopped buying sugar from Cuba, which resulted in Castro nationalizing even more US-owned assets, including financial institutions and sugar mills.
US as adversary
In the post Cuban Revolution era, relations between Cuba and the US deteriorated even further. In March 1960, the French ship La Coubre exploded in the Havana harbor. The ship was carrying weapons from Belgium. The explosion resulted in the deaths of 81 people with more than 200 injured; the cause was never uncovered. However, without any evidence, Castro blamed the US for “the bombing” in a public speech, and he ended with the famous words “¡Patria o Muerte!” (“Fatherland or Death”).
In March 1960, with a budget of $13 million, US President Eisenhower ordered the CIA to stage a coup against Castro’s administration. As part of this plan, Eisenhower allowed the CIA to collaborate with the mafia, who resented Castro for closing down their brothels and casinos in the country. From this point onwards, Castro would be vulnerable to hundreds of attacks and assassination attempts, all of which were connected to the CIA and the mafia.
These attempts on Castro’s life included arsenic in his drinks, poison in his cigars and bomb attacks. But somehow, Castro survived. On October 13, 1960, the US began its long-lived embargo against Cuba, blocking most exports to the island. Cuba then retaliated by nationalizing 166 US companies. On December 16, the US completely ended its import of Cuban sugar, the country’s leading export.
On the world stage
In September 1960, Castro attended the General Assembly of the United Nations, where he met with figures such as Malcolm X and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. Despite Castro continually denying he was a communist, all signs pointed to Cuba promoting the Soviet Union’s influence in Latin America.
Castro returned to Cuba on September 28 and decided to buy $120 million in weaponry from the Soviet Union, France and Belgium. He was afraid that the US would orchestrate a coup against him. With the extra weapons, Castro was able to double the size of the Cuban army. Castro was also afraid there would be anti-revolutionaries in the military, so his government decided to start training outside the military and created the People’s Militia. The People’s Militia trained at least 50,000 citizens in warfare techniques.
Cutting the Cord and the “Bay of Pigs” Invasion
In January 1961, Castro ordered that the US Embassy cut its 300-person staff, since he believed some of them to be spies. The US went a step further and cut its diplomatic ties, and gave more funding to the CIA for those in America who were anti-Castro or pro-Batista. Eisenhower’s successor, John F. Kennedy, also supported plans to overthrow Castro. Militants who were backed by the CIA and trained in Guatemala began bombing Cuban ships, factories and businesses.
On April 15, B-26’s supplied by the CIA were painted in Cuba Air Force’s colors and exiled Cuban pilots on-board bombed 2 Cuban military airfields in an attempt to destroy their airforce. Castro had been warned and the planes at the bases had been moved. Only three planes were hit, and 7 civilians lost their lives. One 17-year-old who was shot wrote “Fidel” in his own blood on the ground before dying. This incident created an ideal opportunity for Fidel to admit he was indeed a socialist.
Three days before the Bay of Pigs invasion, Kennedy said in a speech that the US would not invade Cuba. However, the plan had already long been in place. No matter how much America tried and still tries to conceal what happened, the supergiant was too big to hide its intentions.
April 17: The Bay of Pigs Invasion
The CIA supported a 1,400-person strong army, Brigade 2506, based in Nicaragua. The CIA received support from the Democratic Revolutionary Front, which was made up of exiles who were against the Cuban Revolution. On April 17, Brigade 2506 was dispatched to Cuba’s Bay of Pigs and began fighting with a local militia.
Castro took control himself and bombed the brigade’s ships, forcing them to surrender on April 20. There were 1,189 rebels captured, and Castro ordered that all of them be interviewed by journalists on TV. He even stepped in to question some of the prisoners himself. Only 14 were placed on trial for crimes committed before the Cuban Revolution.
The remaining prisoners from the brigade were sent back to the US and, in return, the US gave Cuba $25 million worth of medicine and food. This victory meant that Castro received widespread acclaim throughout Latin America. However, this also created some opposition within the country. During this time, middle-class Cubans fled Cuba to make a life for themselves in Florida.
Cozying up to the Soviets
Despite Castro’s public outcry throughout the years that he was no communist, relations between Cuba and the Soviets deepened. Technicians from the Soviet Union came to the island, and Castro sent his first son Fidelito to a school in Moscow. Castro was awarded the Leninist Peace Prize during this time.
In 1961, he had admitted to having been a Marxist-Leninist for a number of years, and he also called on the rest of Latin America to start a revolution. After Castro’s call to a Cuban Revolution, the US persuaded the Organization of American States to kick Cuba out. The Soviet Union condemned Castro’s appeal behind closed doors, but the Chinese praised him. Even though Cuba was ideologically closer to China, Castro allied himself with the Soviets in return for economic and military support.
In 1962, Castro wanted to have all the Leninist ideals of the revolution under one roof, and thus founded the United Party of the Cuban Socialist Revolution. Castro’s regime was increasingly following suit with the Soviet model and began prosecuting political opposition and other segments of society considered “social deviants,” such as homosexuals and prostitutes.
Castro made on to make homophobic remarks during his speeches and forced gay men into the Military Units to Aid Production. By 1962, Cuba’s economy fared even worse due to mismanagement of production and the US embargo, leading to protests.
Inching Closer to the Soviets during the Cuban Missile Crisis
As the Soviet army wasn’t as strong as NATO, Khrushchev wanted to correct this imbalance by installing nuclear missiles in Cuba. Castro finally came around to the idea, thinking that it would ensure Cuba’s safety and further his socialist cause. Castro’s line of thinking was that he was ready to sacrifice Cuba if the Soviet Union needed to use nuclear weapons to protect the rest of the socialist world.
There were only a couple of people who knew of the plan: the Castro brothers, Che Guevara, Dorticós and Security Chief Ramiro Valdés. That was, until the US discovered these machinations after an aerial reconnaissance operation and ordered that all vessels heading to Cuba be checked. While the US interpreted the move as an offensive one, Castro saw that it was the only way Cuba could defend itself.
Castro wanted the Soviet Union to threaten a nuclear strike against the US if Cuba was attacked, however, Khrushchev wanted to avoid war at all costs. So, Khrushchev began negotiations with the US and agreed to dispose of the missiles if the US removed its nuclear warheads from Turkey and Italy. This deal angered Castro, who felt that Khrushchev had betrayed him.
He wanted five conditions to be met: for the US to end the economic embargo, for the US to withdraw its troops from Guantanamo Bay, for the US to cut off its support for the anti-socialist militants and for the US to stop violating Cuban airspace and waters. Castro went to the UN with his demands, however, the US ignored them. In retaliation, Castro refused to let an inspection team from the UN into Cuba.
Moving towards Power Consolidation
Castro ordered a clampdown on Protestants, with the government calling them “instruments of imperialism” against the Cuban Revolution. Many preachers were put on trial and found guilty on charges of links to the US. Combined with this, the government also implemented measures to put youths to work, but made most of them complete mandatory military service.
In January 1964, Castro went to Moscow to renew Cuba’s five-year trade agreement with the USSR. He also went to discuss John F. Kennedy’s assassination. In 1962, the Cuban Socialist Party changed to the Cuban Communist Party.
Castro Goes Global
Castro didn’t listen to the Soviet Union’s condemnation when he called Latin America to start a revolution. Instead, he made his message loud and clear, and called for the whole world to revolt. He funded militants around the world who were fighting battles and wars to liberate their countries. While the US was fighting in the Vietnam War, an anti-imperialist movement started in Asia and Africa.
Castro supported Che in his endeavors to set up guerrilla bases in the mountains of Bolivia, Peru and Argentina, which were unsuccessful. However, Castro was able to get revolutionaries from all over to train in Cuba. The Castro administration also supported the fight for a socialist regime in Algeria by sending military aid and medicine.
In 1966, Castro held a Tricontinental Conference of Africa, Asia and Latin America in Havana, allowing him to further cement his place in the international political arena. In a speech at this conference, Castro said:
“Without boasting, without any kind of immodesty, that is how we Cuban revolutionaries understand our internationalist duty. That is the way our people understand their duty, because they realize that the enemy is one and indivisible; The one who attacks us along our shoes and on our land is the same who attacks the others. Hence we say and we declare that Cuban fighters can be counted on by the revolutionary movement in any corner of the earth.”
Che Guevara’s Death
Che was Castro’s second-hand man and, in 1965, he vanished into thin air for a number of reasons. Che left Cuba for Congo, and then went to Bolivia. On October 3, 1965, Castro announced a letter had been sent by Che announcing his departure. In the letter, Che explained his solidarity to the Cuban people after fighting in the revolution. However, he was intent on fighting in revolutions overseas, and was resigning as a result.
In the two years following, he went to the Congo, Tanzania, Prague and then to Bolivia. He aimed to begin a movement to free all of Latin America alongside a group of Cubans. He and his group attacked the Bolivian army a number of times in the spring and summer of 1967. However, the CIA was able to provide information to the Bolivian military, which led to his capture. On October 9, 1967, President René Barrientos ordered that Che Guevara be shot and killed.
From Socialism Toward Communism
Castro’s move to have himself heard on the world stage curtailed his relations with the Soviet Union. Adding to this, Castro refused to sign the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons, claiming that it was a way for superpowers US and the Soviet Union to continue asserting control over third-world countries.
Leonid Brejnev, who was the secretary general of the Soviet Union’s Communist Party, penned a letter to Castro, giving him an ultimatum that they would provide the US with the green light to invade Cuba if he continued with his provocative speeches.
Refocusing the lens
Knowing that he wouldn’t be able to spread his ideas about the Cuban Revolution throughout the world, Castro began focusing on home. During this period, the country veered from the Soviet Union’s Marxism and headed straight for communism. Influenced by China, Castro closed any and all privately owned shops and businesses that remained, marginalizing their owners by calling them counter-revolutionaries.
Productivity was declining, and the people felt little to no incentive to work. This was made worse by the perception that the revolutionary elite were the ones in charge of resources, such as access to better housing, private transportation, servants and the ability to purchase luxury goods outside the country.
Castro’s 10th Year and Private Life
In 1969, Castro celebrated his 10th year in power since the beginning of the Cuban Revolution. During the celebrations, he made a speech emphasizing economic problems in the country. This was particularly in regards to sugar production.
The crop had been affected by a hurricane that year, and the government implemented a 7-day workweek and delayed public holidays to meet the country’s export quota. Volunteers even came from America and Vietnam to help with the effort. They couldn’t reach the 10 million-ton quota, falling short by 2 million tons.
Because of this failure, Castro announced that he would resign. However, the crowds wouldn’t have it, and insisted that he stay in power. Despite the dire economic circumstances, the people were still quite pleased with the services offered by Castro’s administration, such as education, health, housing and infrastructure.
A closer look at Castro
Castro liked to meet with the citizens of Cuba domestically and internationally, seeing them as “part of his own giant family,” according to biographer Peter Bourne. Even though was he often intolerant of people who did not share his views, he had a good sense of humor and was able to laugh at himself. Castro was also known for working long hours and going to bed at 3 or 4 in the morning.
He preferred meeting foreign diplomats in the early morning hours, as he felt he could use their tiredness to his advantage during negotiations. His favorite writer was Ernest Hemingway, but he didn’t much care for music. He regularly exercised and was fit.
Castro was very interested in gastronomy, wine and whiskey. Unsurprisingly, Castro loved guns, and he preferred to live in the country as opposed to city life. Some sources claim that he lived more modestly than other Latin American presidents. However, his bodyguard are cited as saying he had a life of luxury. Even though he was baptized in the Roman Catholic Church, Castro was an atheist.
The face and private life of a revolutionary
Unlike other Soviet leaders, Castro and his administration didn’t overutilize propaganda to try to make a culture of his personality, though this developed nonetheless in the earlier years of his administration. It can’t be denied that Castro and his Cuban Revolution are well known around the world. In all corners of Cuba, Castro’s image is plastered everywhere: in stores, classrooms, cars and on TV.
Castro’s charismatic personality attracted a number of women over the years. Though much of Castro’s personal life was censored by the government, we do know that he had 9 children from 4 women and a number of one-night stands. He had one son by his first wife, Fidel Ángel “Fidelito.” While he was married to Mirta, he cheated on her with Natalia Revuelta Clews, with whom he had an illegitimate daughter, Alina Fernández Revuelta.
Alina fled Cuba in 1993 pretending to be a Spanish tourist and left to the US. While in the US, she criticized Castro’s policies. Castro had another son called Jorge Ángel with an unnamed woman and a daughter named Francisca Pupo after a one-night stand. Fidel then had five sons during his second marriage to Dalia Soto del Valle: Antonio, Alejandro, Alexis, Alexander and Ángel Castro Soto del Valle.
Castro’s closest friends were Pepín Naranjo, the mayor of Havana, and René Vallejo, his physician. Castro was also very close with Celia Sánchez, who was a prominent female figure during the revolution. She controlled access to Castro during the 1960s. Castro had another close friendship with renowned Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez.
With the help of the Soviet Union, Cuba restructured its economy between 1970 to 1972. Some Soviet economists founded the Cuban-Soviet Commission of Economic, Scientific and Technical Collaboration. In July 1972, Cuba became a member of the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance, although this hindered Cuba from producing yields in its agricultural sector.
By 1974, Cuba’s economy began to grow due to higher sugar prices and loans from Argentina, Canada and western Europe. A string of Latin American states also asked for Cuba to be readmitted into the Organization of American States. A year later, the US caved on the back of Henry Kissinger’s advice.
From the US’ point of view, they had no problems with Cuba being communist; however, they did have a problem with exporting communism and the tenets of the Cuban Revolution to the rest of the world.
Relations with Other Countries
In 1971, Castro visited Marxist President Salvador Allende in Chile, where he warned of right-wing military elements in the country. Only two years later, Augusto Pinochet staged a coup d’etat and established a military junta. After Chile, Castro went on a 7-week tour of Guinea, Algeria, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia and other Soviet states that had a left-wing militant arm.
He was given awards in all of these countries. During this trip, he visited factories and farm workers and praised each government publicly. Behind closed doors, he would ask the leaders to help with revolutionary movements around the world, particularly in the Vietnam War.
Angola’s Dilemma and Military Aid
Castro viewed Africa as the weakest link in the imperialist chain and, therefore, saw the continent as having the most significant opportunity for revolutionary movements. In 1975, Castro sent 230 military advisers to help Marxists MPLA fight in the Angolan Civil War at the request of Angolan President Agostinho Neto. The US increased their support in the region, which made Castro send further assistance and ordered 18,000 troops into Angola.
This was a critical component that led to South Africa’s retreat. Castro went to Angola to celebrate this victory with Neto, Sékou Touré and Guinea-Bissaun President Luís Cabral. While there, they struck an agreement to support Mozambique’s Marxist–Leninist government in the Mozambique Civil War.
Later on, Castro’s army played an important role in winning civil wars in Ethiopia and Nicaragua. Because of this, Castro fell victim to criticisms from the US about interfering in other countries’ affairs. About 14,000 Cubans lost their lives as a result of fighting wars in other countries.
Government Restructuring: Castro becomes President
In 1976, the Cuban government underwent restructuring to more closely follow the Soviet template. It was thought that this new structure would bring more democracy and decentralize Castro’s power.
First, the Cuban Communist Party arranged the first International Congress where Cuba would officially announce that it was a socialist state, removing positions such as president and prime minister. Of course, Castro was among the top names to be put in charge. The new governmental order took over both the Supreme Court and the Council of Ministers.
In 1979, Castro was named president of the Conference of the Non-Aligned Movement, which was hosted in Havana. Castro remained president until 1982. The same year, he became president of NAM, and gave a speech at the United National General Assembly in October. While his speech was well received, his position in NAM was sullied by the fact that he was silent on the role that the Soviet Union played in Afghanistan.
Relations with North America
Cuba’s relations with North America improved under the administrations of Mexican President Luis Echeverría, Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and US President Jimmy Carter. Carter maintained a precise balance of treating Castro with respect while also criticizing specific human rights abuses in Cuba.
Castro liked this approach, freeing political prisoners and allowing for some Cuban families in the US to visit their families on the island. In return, Castro hoped that Carter would put a halt to the economic embargo and stop the CIA’s support of militants that were anti-Castro.
During this period, the relationship between Cuba and China suffered somewhat. Castro had accused the Chinese government, led by Deng Xiaoping at the time, of straying from certain principles by solidifying trade links with the US, as well as participating in the Vietnam War.
In the 1980s, the Cuban economy experienced another downturn due to falling sugar prices and decreased crop yields in 1979. Unemployment was rampant throughout the country for the first time since the revolution. As a way to solve this, Cuba sent unemployed youth to other countries, such as East Germany, to find work.
The government was desperate to once again fill its state coffers, so they surreptitiously sold national collections and illegally imported electronic goods from the US. This period also saw denizens of Cubans flee to Florida. Castro and his supporters referred to them as “scum.”
In a diplomatic crisis, as many as 10,000 Cubans stormed the Peruvian embassy as asylum seekers. Before this incident, Castro had been unaware of how many Cubans were unhappy on the island, especially since the beginning of the Cuban Revolution.
Castro allowed those who wanted to leave to flee. However, he had other plans. The US had also agreed to accept 3,500 asylum seekers from Cuba, which led to 120,000 leaving the island. Castro released criminals and the mentally disabled from prisons and institutions, and ensured they were on boats heading to Florida.
Reagan and Gorbachev Era
In 1981, Ronald Reagan was elected president of the US, and his administration took a more severe stance than Carter’s against Castro. Reagan let it be known that he wanted Castro ousted. Later that year, Castro claimed that the US was spreading the dengue fever outbreak in Cuba through biological warfare.
By the time July 1983 rolled around – which marked the 30th anniversary of the revolution – Castro called Reagan’s government a “reactionary, extremist clique” that was promulgating an “openly warmongering and fascist foreign policy.”
Mikhail Gorbachev, who was elected Secretary-General of the Soviet Communist Party in 1985, proved himself to be a reformer, enhancing press freedom and economic liberalization. Castro was afraid that these reforms would leave cracks in the socialist veneer, ultimately allowing for capitalism to spread in the Soviet Union.
The US demanded that the Soviet Union decrease its support to Cuba, and Gorbachev complied, leading to a breakdown in relations between the USSR and Cuba. Castro ignored Gorbachev’s call for liberal reforms in Cuba and continued his government’s clampdown on dissidents and anyone who posed a threat to the state.
Senior officials in the military, such as Ochoa and Tony de la Guardia, were charged with corruption and smuggling cocaine and subsequently executed.
Collapse of the Soviet Union
Socialist governments in Eastern Europe fell between 1989-1991, following the collapse of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989. All eyes turned to small island nation to see what would happen to Castro’s government, now years after the Cuban Revolution. It was from this moment that Cuba became isolated from the rest of the world.
Castro was hopeful that the Marxist-Leninist strand would make a comeback in the Soviet Union. However, improving relations between the two countries under the Gorbachev leadership simply wasn’t possible. In September 1991, the Soviets pulled all their troops out of Cuba, and Boris Yeltsin dissolved the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and replaced it with a capitalist multiparty democracy.
With the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the UN Human Rights Commission met in Geneva and condemned human rights violations in Cuba. Castro did not allow for UN investigation committees to enter the country.
Castro started to roll out reforms that aligned with the tenets of the Cuban Revolution for the socialist government to survive against the dominant capitalist world order. For this reason, the Fourth Congress of the Cuban Communist Party was held in 1991.
Several economic changes were announced at the Congress to be put to a national referendum, such as small-scale enterprises, legalization of US tenders, the easing of emigration to the US. Castro supported debates surrounding the reforms, but ended up claiming that these changes should be delayed.
Cuba entered a “Special Period” with the fall of the Soviet Union. During this period, the government drastically cut petrol rations. The regime implemented other measures in hopes of decreasing reliance on petrol, such as bringing Chinese bikes into the country to replace cars and shutting down individual factories.
Local farmers used animals such as oxen to replace tractors, and used wood for fire. The government implemented electricity cuts that often lasted 16 hours a day. Even Castro admitted that the economic situation in Cuba was as dire as it had ever been. By 1992, Cuba’s economy had plunged by 40%, accompanied by a lack of basic goods and widespread malnutrition.
In 1994, 200-300 citizens who wanted to flee Cuba demonstrated in Havana by attacking police with stones. However, they were faced down by an even larger pro-Castro group. Even though there were no injuries, Castro was afraid that this could be the beginning of an anti-government movement, so he ordered that the government implement a guerrilla campaign. This provided unemployed youth with jobs constructing a network of bunkers and tunnels throughout the island.
Turn towards Tourism and Better Relations with the Church
In 1995, the government began emphasizing the biotechnology and tourism sectors. This pivot in emphasis meant that tourism made more revenue that year than Cuba’s sugar industry, which had traditionally been the country’s primary source of income.
These tourists mainly came from Mexico and Spain, which resulted in rising sex work. Castro allowed it to go on, as he feared that there might be a backlash if he cracked down on prostitution. With increased foreign currency inflows, the economy slowly began to recover.
During this period, many people began turning toward religion, and religious people were allowed to join the Communist Party for the first time. Even though the government’s official view was that the Roman Catholic Church was a pro-capitalist institution, Castro allowed for Pope John Paul II to visit in January 2008. This was crucial in strengthening the relationship between Castro’s administration and the church.
Rapprochement with Venezuela
Cuba was still experiencing economic challenges in 1999. This was somewhat offset by Hugo Chavez, a socialist and anti-imperialist who became president of Venezuela in 1999. Chavez and Castro became close, the latter acting as a father figure and mentor. They were able to build alliances all across Latin America.
In 2000, both countries inked an agreement for Cuba to send 20,000 healthcare workers to Venezuela, which would provide 53,000 of oil per day to the island in return at competitive rates. This trade was increased in 2004, with Cuba sending 40,000 medics and Venezuela sending 90,000 barrels of oil per day. This deal proved to be beneficial for the Cuban economy.
In May 2005, Castro doubled the minimum wage for 1.6 million workers, increased pensions and gave new kitchen appliances to the most vulnerable communities. However, this didn’t completely fix the economy, and Castro closed 118 factories, including steel and sugar factories as well as paper processors. This was primarily due to the fuel shortage in the country.
Fidel’s Final Years in Power
In 2006, Castro underwent surgery for internal bleeding, giving his brother Raul his presidential responsibilities. In February 2007, Fidel’s health was improving, so he began involving himself in crucial government issues once again. He was appointed president for a one-year term at that year’s NAM summit held in Havana.
After hearing of Castro’s recovery, then-President George W. Bush commented: “One day the good Lord will take Fidel Castro away.” Castro, a staunch atheist, responded: “Now I understand why I survived Bush’s plans and the plans of other presidents who ordered my assassination: The good Lord protected me.”
In February 2008, Castro announced that he would not be able to fulfill his duties as President of the Council of State and Commander in Chief. He said, “It would betray my conscience to take up a responsibility that requires mobility and total devotion, that I am not in a physical condition to offer.”
The same month, Raul was voted by the National Assembly of People’s Power as president. Raul described his brother as irreplaceable and requested that Fidel be consulted on critical governmental matters.
Castro’s health got worse. While the international media claimed that Fidel had diverticulitis, the Cuban government never confirmed this. Castro continued to meet with locals and published a column called “Reflections” in Granma, as well as used Twitter to voice his opinions. He would also give public lectures, and he continued to meet with foreign dignitaries and representatives.
In April 2011, Castro stepped down from the Communist Party central committee, and his role went to Raul. Without an official title in Cuba’s government, he became an elder statesmen. Still, he continued to be politically active during his retirement.
Relations between the US and Cuba normalized in 2015. Castro put in his two cents, calling it a positive move but warning that the US was not to be trusted. In April of the same year, he made a public appearance in front of the Communist Party, emphasizing that he was approaching 90 and that he hoped members of the party would not deviate from their communist principles and hold the ideals of the Cuban Revolution close.
Castro’s death was announced on Cuban public television on November 25, 2016, without no cause stated. Raul further confirmed the death, saying: “The commander in chief of the Cuban revolution died at 22:29 this evening.” Nine days of mourning were declared following Castro’s death, and he was cremated on November 26, 2016. His ashes were placed in the Santa Ifigenia Cemetery in Santiago following the mourning period. But Castro and his Cuban Revolution will forever live on in the hearts and streets of Cuba.