By Mia Speier ‘18
This week, Cuba pays its respects to the late Fidel Castro, who passed away on November 26th. Castro, a revolutionary and politician, served as Cuba’s president for over 47 years from 1979 to 2006 and its Prime Minister for 17 years prior to that. As a Marxist-Leninist nationalist, he implemented socialist reforms throughout Cuba and established the first communist state in the Western hemisphere. While Cuba has been mourning the loss of their leader, many expatriates and Cuban-Americans have been jubilantly celebrating. To understand the stark contrast between the two reactions, we need to gain more insight into the historical context of Castro’s rise to power and the impact of his leadership.
In the early 1950s, Castro headed a group called The Movement that opposed the leadership of Fulgencio Batista who was the president of Cuba during the time. While to the United States, Castro was an oppressive dictator, it must be recognized that Batista was just as bad or even worse. The Cuban people under Batista were starving and impoverished for many, many years. In fact, the United States supported Batista’s dictatorship through economic aid and weapons. Castro sought to change this through revolution.
He recruited over 1200 revolutionaries to train to eventually raid the armory and overthrow the government. However, his plan initially went awry. When met with armed resistance, Batista’s government proclaimed martial law and violently responded to dissent. The government broadcasted false information about the uprising, claiming that the revolutionaries were communists, despite the fact that up until this point the revolutionaries had not yet associated themselves with the Communist Party. Most revolutionaries, including Castro, were thrown into prison, where as they carried out their sentences, they renamed their movement the 26th of July Movement.
Meanwhile, the 1954 elections in Cuba had Batista’s government faced with no opposition, except for growing desire from Castro’s supporters to free the perpetrators of the uprising a few years earlier. Believing Castro wasn’t a threat anymore, Batista set him and many of the prisoners free. Fleeing Cuba to evade arrests after bombings and violent demonstrations shortly after their freeing, Castro and his brother, Raul, fled to Mexico and the U.S. in search of anti-Batista sympathizers. He eventually returned to Cuba by boat with approximately 80 revolutionaries.
When Castro returned, the years 1956-1959 were characterized by violent guerilla warfare. Revolutionaries clashed with the Cuban government under Batista, and at one point, the U.S. even ceased supplying Batista with supplies as a result of anti-Batista sentiment among U.S. citizens due to his administration’s torture, violence, and censorship. After many bloody attacks by the revolutionaries, Batista responded with a all-out-attack that included a strategy of 10,000 soldiers led by General Eulogio Cantillo.
However, as the United States began to realize that Castro was socialist, the U.S. asked Cantillo to replace Batista. Such a situation would be better than the possibility of Castro ruling Cuba. In secret, Cantillo and Castro agreed to ceasefire and to try Batista as a war criminal; however, when Batista heard this news, he fled the country. Angered that the agreement was not held up, Castro ended the ceasefire and ordered to arrest Cantillo. Shortly after, Castro traveled to Santiago where he was met with a cheering public.
During these years of war and conflict, the government, under Batista, had killed approximately 4000 Cubans. To carry out both personal and public sentiment, Castro organized trials that resulted in hundreds of executions. But many critics, primarily in the U.S., argued that these were not fair trials.
Under Castro, Cuba became a single party, pro-soviet, socialist state under rule of the Communist Party. His administration focused on public policy that centralized much of the economic planning within the country, expansion of health care and education, and government. Under his leadership, major emphasis was placed on education and more schools opened in the first two years of his administration than ever before. Health care was expanded dramatically and many free medical aid and clinics were opened up. Part of this expanded health care policy included universal vaccinations that significantly reduced infant mortality rates.
While many students, workers, and members of the lower classes rallied behind Castro, most of the domestic opposition came from the educated middle class. In fact, many doctors, engineers, and professionals fled to Florida during this time. Castro also faced opposition from many counter-revolutionaries who were angered by the revolutionaries of the 50s. Many were imprisoned and subjected to rough treatment and punishment.
Cuba was then thrust even more into the international spotlight during the Cold War. Two superpowers, the United States, a liberal, capitalist society, and the USSR (Soviet Union), a Marxist-Leninist socialist state under a communist rule, faced off against one another. Cuba, whose ideologies were more aligned with the Soviets, began a series of mutually beneficial trade deals that further strained tensions between Cuba and the U.S..
In 1961, Cuba, fearing retaliation from the U.S., decided to cut a majority of the United States Embassy’s staff of 300, suspecting that many of them were working as spies. As a result President John F. Kennedy created a plan for the Bay of Pigs Invasion, a failed attempt of a CIA military group to invade Cuba. The outcome of the Bay of Pigs was symbolic in that it strengthened the idea of a strong socialist state in the West and humiliated the Kennedy administration.
Soon after, in 1962, a tense military and political 13 day confrontation occurred. Nikita Khrushchev, leader of the Soviets, and Castro agreed to install nuclear missiles in Cuba in order to make even the balance of power between the Soviet Union and the United States and stop harassment of Cuba by the U.S.. While Castro was for using the weapons in instances of United States aggression and invasion, Kruschev was desperate to avoid using the missiles in order to avoid a full scale nuclear conflict. Eventually, Khrushchev and Kennedy negotiated that the missiles would be pulled out of Cuba so long as the U.S. stopped invasions of Cuba and promised to pull their missiles out of Turkey and Italy. Although feeling betrayed by the Soviets, Castro continued to try and spread anti-imperialist, socialist ideas on a global level and strengthen the power of his own government.
To this day, Castro’s legacy can still be seen in relations between Cuba and The United States. The United States embargo against Cuba is a “commercial, economic, and financial embargo imposed by the United States.” On February 7, 1962 the embargo was extended to include almost all imports. However in recent years, the U.S. has lifted the import limits on cigars, alcohol, and a few other products. The United States has also come under massive criticism by Cuban humanitarian groups and the United Nations for violating the Charter of the United Nations and international law. Conversely, those who are pro-embargo argue that the policy is an appropriate response to the fact that the U.S. holds $6 billion worth of claims against the Cuban government. This embargo has not only hindered free trade between the two nations, but also prevented tourism for decades. That being said, in 2009, President Obama eased the ban on travel for Cuban-Americans and later, allowed for missionaries and students to go to Cuba.
Earlier this week, the death of Castro has prompted a mixed reaction of both joy and grief. Many in Cuba are mourning the loss of the long ruling face of their nation, saying that he was, “loved by many,” and that, “he was good man.” However, in Little Havana in Miami, Florida, people rejoiced in the streets. Little Havana is home to many Cuban expatriates and exiles. People celebrated and waved Cuban flags. According to CNN, one Cuban man said that they were not celebrating death, but a new sense of liberty.
President Obama released a statement offering “a hand of friendship” to the Cuban people and stating that “History will record and judge the enormous impact of this singular figure on the people and world around him.”
photos from jfklibrary.com, theguardian.com, dailymail.com, abcnews