Castro: hero to millions, a villain to many more
The Cuban revolutionary took on the United States but reduced his country to poverty
Fidel Castro, who has died aged 90, became a revolutionary hero when he overthrew the corrupt and brutal dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista in 1959; during nearly five decades in power, however, his triumph increasingly appeared as a disaster - for Cuba; for the world; even, ultimately, for himself.
Had Castro died in 1959, his reputation as a guerrilla commander would have retained a romantic allure. With a handful of men, he had hazarded his life in a desperate venture against a vile regime, and through a combination of courage, shrewdness and luck brought off the gigantic gamble.
Within three years of taking power, however, Castro had installed in Cuba all the apparatus of a Communist dictatorship, complete with councils for planning and committees for the reform of the revolution.
Opponents were executed and former allies imprisoned; Cuba was declared an atheist state; priests, churchgoers and homosexuals were singled out for persecution. No one complained, of course, because dissidents were incarcerated and the press censored. Castro had proclaimed himself the father of his people, and there was a heavy price to be paid for doubting his good intentions.
The problem was that he had led a revolution without having any firm intentions at all beyond the overthrow of Batista, and an ill-defined aspiration to improve the lot of the rural poor.
The other consistent driving force of his career was a visceral anti-Americanism, a determination that his sway should never be overshadowed or compromised by the superpower which lay 130km to the north.
Notwithstanding the ecstatic welcome which Castro received when he visited the US in 1959, he was never tempted to turn in that direction. Later that year he high-handedly demanded that the Americans should increase the quota for Cuban sugar imports, and, when that ploy failed, began in 1960 to harass the operations of American oil companies in Cuba. Washington retaliated with economic sanctions, and in no time the two countries were at loggerheads. Fearing an American invasion, Castro turned towards the Soviet Union, and found a ready ally in Nikita Khrushchev. This policy provoked the disastrously bungled Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961. A band of some 1,400 Cuban exiles attempted, under American auspices and with the help of American bombers, to wrest Cuba from the dictator's control.
The crisis showed Castro at his best. Anticipating the threat from the bombers, he dispersed his own planes and saved his meagre air force, which he then used to eliminate the invaders' ships as soon as they landed. Cut off, the invaders were soon surrounded and captured.
Castro exploited his triumph to the full. One of the first politicians fully to appreciate the possibilities of television, he appeared before the cameras to lecture the nation both on his own strategic genius and on the incompetence of the imperialist planners. The prisoners taken at the Bay of Pigs were displayed on television, debating with their victorious opponent and, inevitably, being worsted. Eventually they were sold to the US for $53m worth of food and medicine.
After the Bay of Pigs fiasco, Khrushchev conceived an infinitely more dangerous strategy. In May 1962, the Soviet Union began the secret installation of nuclear missiles in Cuba. Though Castro understood that Khrushchev's aim was not to defend Cuba, but rather to achieve parity in the global balance, he had no compunction about accepting the missiles. Careless of the risk to the world, he rejoiced at the opportunity to humiliate, perhaps even to destroy, the arch-enemy. The world survived, thanks to Kennedy's firm handling of the crisis, and Khrushchev's willingness to step back from Armageddon by removing the missiles in return for an American promise not to invade Cuba. Castro, however, was disgusted by the Russian climb-down.
In Cuba, the consequences of the regime were becoming evident. Castro had inherited an economy which, thanks to US investment, was more prosperous than most in Latin America, and he proceeded to enhance his popularity by increasing wages and halving rents. Within two years, the country's reserves were exhausted and foreign investment had fled. Having turned his back on the US, Castro negotiated trade agreements with the Eastern bloc, and made deals whereby the Soviet Union bought Cuban sugar and paid in arms and heavy manufactures.
The Cuban population, however, was left with little more than the means of survival. Basic items - paper, light bulbs, soap, towels - were lacking; in the absence of new cars, American models of the 1950s had to be endlessly and ingeniously repaired; and formerly elegant Havana declined into a shambles of deteriorating buildings, peeling paint and ruined gardens.
In the countryside, it is true, the regime could claim notable advances. In 1959, some 200,000 peasants became possessors of their own land, even if they were told exactly what they had to grow and what price they should charge.
Over the years, better health care raised life expectancy; malaria and tuberculosis were virtually eradicated. Improved schooling raised standards of literacy, and higher education eventually became universally available, making possible the replacement of the professional classes who had fled.
Such achievements beg the question of what Castro might have accomplished had he been prepared to concentrate on Cuba's problems in a systematic and practical manner. But his attention span tended to be brief, and his ideas unpredictable.
Had the welfare of the Cuban people been Castro's first priority, however, he would never have committed so much of the country's meagre wealth to interference in the Third World, where he dreamed of establishing himself as the chief apostle of global revolution.
Within months of taking power in 1959, Castro had dispatched small expeditions against Panama and the Dominican Republic, while Che Guevara, who had served under him since 1955, was sent on tour to search for potential alliances in the Third World.
Cuban soldiers and agents were sent all over the world, from Algeria to Laos, from Afghanistan to Colombia, from Mozambique to Guatemala. Without the 18,000 troops that Castro dispatched to Angola in 1975, that country might never have fallen under communist control.
He exercised a mesmeric spell over mass audiences, no matter how many hours he addressed them. He would flatter them by asking what he should do, as though they were the true arbiters of their destiny, he but the means of expressing their will.
It was a tribute to Castro's charisma that so many Cubans retained their respect for him, despite the poverty to which he condemned them, and despite the gathering evidence that, in the last analysis, he cared very little for anyone save himself.
Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz was born on August 13, 1926, on his father's farm near the town of Mayari, in the Oriente province of Cuba, a harsh and mountainous region on the north coast. Fidel's father, Angel, had been born in Spain, but had come to Cuba as a cavalryman in the Spanish Army in 1905. By sheer hard work, in mines and on the railways, he amassed considerable wealth, which he spent on shrewd purchases of land. By the 1950s, he was worth some $500,000.
Angel, however, hated the US, which he considered had betrayed the native independence movement in the 1890s and effectively stolen Cuba from Spain.
Angel had married and fathered two children when, during the First World War, Lina Ruz Gonzalez arrived at his house as a maid. Soon she was pregnant by Angel, whose wife eventually obtained a divorce.
Meanwhile, Lina gave birth to three children out of wedlock: Angela, Ramon and Fidel. Later, after marrying Angel, she had four more children. Fidel was thus the illegitimate offspring of a broken home. As he grew up, he had vicious rows with his father.
After having problems in two schools, in 1942 he was sent to Belen in Havana, the best Jesuit school in Cuba. Fidel responded positively to Jesuit discipline, which he would admire for the rest of his life. He did outstandingly well at Belen, not only in class and as a debater, but also as a sportsman, excelling at baseball, basketball, soccer and athletics. The school yearbook declared when he left in 1945: "We are sure that he will make a brilliant name for himself."
As a law student Castro became closely associated with the Union Insurrecional Revolucionaria, and in national politics he attached himself to the Party of the Cuban People (Ortodoxos), under the leadership of Eduardo Chibas. In 1948, he married Mirta Diaz Balart.
Castro graduated in 1950. For a while he worked as a journalist, until the suicide of Chibas in 1952 opened up the possibility of leading the Ortodoxo Party. He decided to stand for the House of Representatives; the election, however, was cancelled, owing to the coup which brought Batista to power.
Castro began training men to overthrow the dictatorship by force. On July 26 1953, he led a motley group of farm labourers and factory workers in a suicidal attack on the Moncada military barracks at Santiago de Cuba.
Defeat was inevitable, Castro was arrested five days later and sentenced to 13 years' imprisonment. Astonishingly, in May 1955, Batista decided to release the Moncada terrorists. Castro immediately began attacking the government in the press, and then, as Batista's police closed in, fled to Mexico. In Mexico, he met Che Guevara, with whom he plotted armed insurrection against Batista. Once more he set himself to train a guerrilla force, visiting the US to raise money. Then, having acquired a 54-ft motorboat, he crammed 80 men on board, together with weapons and ammunition, and on November 25 1957 set sail for Cuba.
A week later their landing in south-east Cuba was virtually a shipwreck; the men had to wade to the shore; heavy arms, food and a radio transmitter were lost. On December 5 they were attacked by government forces. Three of the invaders were killed; 39 were captured and either imprisoned or executed; 21 fled. Castro led the 20 men remaining into the Sierra Maestra, where they endured terrible privations of cold and hunger. But Castro never seemed to doubt his eventual triumph, and as news of his survival spread, his rebellion began to gain support throughout Cuba.
In 1958 an interview in 'The New York Times' brought international recognition; for the first time in his life Castro had grown a beard, as befitted a guerrilla leader.
Batista struck back by attempting to bomb the rebels out of their mountain strongholds, but succeeded only in killing villagers. These casualties reinforced Castro's rage against the US. "I swore to myself," he wrote to his friend Celia Sanchez, "that the Americans were going to pay dearly for what they are doing. When this war is over, a much wider and bigger war will commence for me."
By the end of 1958, however, Batista had lost the support of the Americans, and on New Year's Day 1959 he fled Cuba. A week later Castro and his army marched triumphantly into Havana.
Castro had been suffering from ill health for some time when in February 2008 he announced that he would not seek a new term as president. The Communist Party, Cuba's National Assembly elected his younger brother, Raul, to succeed him as president and it was Raul who, with US President Barack Obama, began the process of normalising relations between the two countries.
Fidel Castro's marriage to Mirta Diaz Balart was dissolved in 1954; they had a son who became the director of the Cuban Atomic Energy Commission. He married, secondly, Dalia Soto del Valle, with whom he had five sons. By a relationship with Naty Revuelta, Castro also had a daughter. (© Daily Telegraph, London)