The charismatic comandante for whom power meant everything
From law student to revolutionary hero onto communist dictator, the life of Fidel Castro had many different aspects - all played out under the Cuban sun
Published 27/11/2016 | 02:30
Fidel Castro, who died on Friday 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 equal to Garibaldi's. 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. He possessed immense panache and charm; his energy was inexhaustible; his ambition, he declared, only to serve his country.
Within three years of taking power, however, Castro had installed in Cuba all the dreary 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, though, 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. As a guerrilla conscious of the need to gain as wide support as possible, he had never tired of declaring that he was not a communist.
He would have joined the party only on one condition, he once remarked in private - "if I could have been Stalin". With Castro, power was all; ideology nothing.
The only 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 80 miles to the north.
Notwithstanding the ecstatic welcome that Castro received when he visited the United States 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 toward 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 US 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. ("I'm going to be brief," he would explain, before embarking on a four-hour harangue.)
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 United States for $53m worth of food and medicine.
In the aftermath of this triumph, Castro announced for the first time that Cuba was a socialist state, and at the end of 1961 declared himself a "Marxist-Leninist". He had not so much been converted to communism as discovered it to be the most convenient means of exercising absolute rule, and of securing his Soviet ally.
In 1960 Khrushchev had openly canvassed the possibility of helping Cuba with "rockets"; and Castro had been quick to hold him to that vague statement. "We planted the idea of an American invasion of Cuba with the Soviets," he explained years later, "and the idea of the measures they should take in order to avoid it."
After the Bay of Pigs fiasco, however, 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 of terror, 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. Publicly, however, he merely spoke of his ambition "to strengthen socialism on the international scale".
The world survived, thanks to John F 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 climbdown, and still more by the failure of Khrushchev even to consult him.
In Cuba, meanwhile, the disastrous consequences of the revolutionary regime were becoming evident. Castro had inherited an economy which, thanks to American 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 United States, 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 the Institute of Agrarian Reform told them exactly what they had to grow and what price they should charge.
Over the years better health care (especially through vaccination) 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 Cuba as the nature of Castro's rule became apparent.
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.
He talked airily of "demythologising money", and toyed with such schemes as creating a weed-free Cuba, of surrounding Havana with a belt of coffee, and of breeding the perfect cow (known as F1). In 1969 he conceived an ambition to secure a 10 million-ton sugar harvest, venturing into the fields himself to set an example in cutting cane. Inevitably, the target was not met, which gave the leader the opportunity to accept his share of responsibility with affecting humility.
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.
To this end - and, of course, to maintain his own security - he turned Cuba into the most militarised state in Latin America. By 1989 his army consisted of 145,000 regulars and 110,000 ready reserves - plus one million more in the Territorial Troops Militia, an astonishing figure for a country with a total population of only 10 million.
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 immediately 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; equally, without Cuba's help the Sandinistas might never have ruled for 11 years in Nicaragua, nor Mengistu sustained his vicious regime in Ethiopia.
The Cuban people certainly paid a high price for their leader's vainglorious fantasies. Yet Castro understood, as Hitler had done, that men may be governed by dreams as well as by riches, that the call to sacrifice and obedience in the face of a common enemy may prove more seductive than the taste of the lotus.
Again like Hitler, 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.
The same process, as Castro well understood, could also be operated in reverse. In 1959, for example, when he wanted to rid himself of President Urrutia, the puppet whom he had installed at the head of the government, it was enough for him to resign as prime minister and explain that he was having difficulties with the president. Return to us, the faithful predictably demanded; Urrutia must go. 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.
He even made love in dictator fashion, according to one mistress not troubling to remove his boots, according to another continuing to read media reports.
Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz was born on August 13, 1927 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 some 500 miles east of Havana. 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 - at first in the nickel mines, then organising gangs of labourers to build railways, and eventually directing the loading of sugar into the wagons of the American United Fruit company - he amassed considerable wealth, which he spent on shrewd purchases of land. By the 1950s, he was supposedly worth some $500,000.
It was a tale in the best capitalist tradition. Angel, however, hated the United States, which he considered had betrayed the native independence movement in the 1890s and effectively stolen Cuba from Spain. Though not himself especially religious, he had deep Catholic roots; for all his money, he retained the conservative values of a Spanish peasant, with an instinctive mistrust of luxury and excess.
Angel Castro 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 left him and 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, hardly an auspicious beginning in a society where the family was sacrosanct. As he grew up he had vicious rows with his father, not so much because Angel was wantonly cruel, as because the two of them were alike in brooking no opposition to their own wills.
He became a boarder at the La Salle school, run by the French Marianist Brothers in Santiago de Cuba, where he proved a turbulent pupil, often in trouble for fighting; as a result he was transferred first to Colegio Dolores, a school run by the Jesuits in Santiago, and then, in 1942, 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."
He went on to read law at Havana University, where he managed to achieve good results even while devoting most of his time to politics. Though the Jesuits had taught him to admire General Franco for ridding Spain of both communism and Anglo-Saxon materialism, his own ideal was the Cuban national hero Jose Marti, who had inspired the national revolt against the Spanish in the 19th century.
As a student Castro became closely associated with the Union Insurreccional Revolucionaria, and in national politics he attached himself to the Party of the Cuban People (Ortodoxos) which, under the leadership of Eduardo Chibas, was campaigning against the corruption of president Ramon Grau San Martin.
In addition, he was already fascinated by anti-imperialist movements beyond Cuba, travelling to Panama and Colombia in 1948. In Bogota he was caught up in the riots that followed the murder of Jorge Gaitan, the leader of the Liberal Party in Colombia - a valuable lesson in the power of the mob.
The other notable event in Castro's life in 1948 was his marriage, to Mirta Diaz- Balart, the sister of a fellow law student. They spent their honeymoon in the United States where, in New York, the groom bought a copy of Das Kapital.
Castro graduated in 1950, but showed no interest in pursuing a legal career. For a while he worked as a radical 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 reacted by filing a criminal suit demanding that Batista should be sentenced to 100 years' imprisonment for crimes against the constitution. More practically, he began training men to overthrow the dictatorship by force.
On July 26, 1953 he led a motley group of farm labourers, factory workers and shop assistants in a suicidal attack on the Moncada military barracks in Santiago. They killed 19 soldiers and lost only three men themselves; but once the element of surprise had been lost, defeat was inevitable.
Castro was one of those who escaped, though he was arrested five days later. While those taken at the barracks were tortured to death, Castro was brought unharmed to trial, where he gave a two-hour oration in defence of his motives - "History will absolve me," he concluded. He was sentenced to 13 years' imprisonment.
Confined in the Presidio Modelo on the Isle of Pines, he read voraciously and produced a political testament in which he set out his rather hazy ideas for winning justice for "the vast unredeemed masses". 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 on him, fled to Mexico. "I am leaving Cuba because all the doors of peaceful struggle have been closed to me," he wrote. "From journeys such as this, one does not return, or else one returns with tyranny beheaded at one's feet."
In Mexico City, Castro met Che Guevara, with whom he plotted armed insurrection against Batista. Once more he set himself to train a guerrilla force, visiting the United States to raise money. Then, having acquired a 54ft motorboat designed to sleep eight people, 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 under his command 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 against the unpopular dictatorship 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 in the field.
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 United States. "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.
For 30 years under Castro the Cuban people were merely reduced to penury, but after the Soviet empire collapsed in 1989 they found themselves in such straits that they struggled to avoid starvation. Thousands attempted to reach the United States on precarious home-made rafts, only to be sent back when caught by the Americans.
In this crisis Castro found himself compelled to allow Cubans to earn and spend more dollars, to open the country to tourism, to lift restrictions on religion. But he could not bring himself to do what was really required - admit that his anti-Americanism was now redundant and make the concessions required to obtain the relaxation of the US trade embargo.
Failing that, Castro could do no more for his people than provide distractions, the most dramatic of which was the visit of Pope John Paul II in January 1998. For the occasion Castro abandoned his green fatigues in favour of an Armani suit, and sat in the Plaza de la Revolucion listening with rapt awe to the Vicar of Christ, while the image of the ferociously anti-Catholic Che Guevara peered down upon the spectacle.
Castro had been suffering from ill health for some time, and in February 2008 he announced that he would neither seek nor accept a new term as either president or commander-in-chief. While he retained the office of first secretary of the Communist Party, Cuba's National Assembly elected his younger brother, Raul, to succeed him as president and it was Raul who, working 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 was educated in Russia and 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.