By Michael Drohan
Fidel Castro was one of the most extraordinary and charismatic leaders and politicians of the 20th century. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that he shook the world of colonialism, neo-colonialism and imperialism to its very depths, which gave rise to fierce loathing and hostility in his regard by the dominant powers of the world.
When Fidel was born on August 13, 1926 in the small town of Biran in Eastern Cuba, that country lived in the shadow and under the control of the US. Havana at the time was host to many casinos owned by Meyer Lansky and the mob. It has been described as the whorehouse of the wealthy and famous of the US at the time. The United Fruit Company dominated the sugar economy, owning 330,000 acres of arable land, especially in the eastern part of the country.
When Castro was in law school in Havana in the late 1940s he became politicized and aware of the tentacles of United Fruit all over Latin America. One of the remarkable things about Castro and many of his fellow militants in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s is that, although they belonged to the Cuban bourgeoisie, they took the side of the exploited, the poor, the peasant and the racially discriminated-against in Cuba. They betrayed their own class and opposed the corrupt ruling elite in Cuba and elsewhere in Latin America.
Castro’s first foray into politics was his participation in an attempt to overthrow the corrupt ruler of the Dominican Republic, Rafael Trujillo, in 1947.Castro burned with a fury at the poverty and oppression of millions of people all over Latin America and its quasi-total domination by the US. This is the passion that ruled Castro’s life and it explains much of his life and exploits.
On July 26, 1953 Castro organized an attack on the army barracks, known as the Moncada, in Santiago in Eastern Cuba. A band of 150 insurgents attacked the barracks but it was a fiasco, with most of the insurgents jailed, including Castro. His next major enterprise was the organizing from Mexico of a group of 81 insurgents who sailed to Cuba in late 1956. Only a handful escaped into the Sierra Maestre Mountains of Eastern Cuba, from which base they organized a general insurrection against Fulgencio Battista, the reigning President. In an ironic twist of relations between the US and Cuba, an adulatory report by the New York Times in 1958 on the guerrillas gave them an extraordinary boost. To make a long story short, the insurgents defeated the regime, Battista fled to the Dominican Republic and on January 1, 1959 Castro and his fellow-insurgents took power in Cuba.
The first months of 1959 represented a kind of honeymoon between the US and Cuba under the new regime. In April 1959 Castro met with then Vice-President, Richard Nixon, and tried to work out an entente cordial. Castro wanted land reform, giving the land back to the peasants and nationalizing their resources, such as the land owned by United Fruit. The US was having none of it. Thereafter came the embargo by the US on Cuba, which then sought a market outlet for its products and an ally in the Soviet Union. In April 1961, the CIA organized an invasion with 1,400 anti-Castro fighters in the famous Bay of Pigs disaster. Once more there is an ironic twist to the event: the invaders thought that if in trouble the US would invade Cuba. But President Kennedy was having none of that either. The invasion had been organized secretly by Nixon before leaving office without even informing Kennedy.
It is estimated that there were 630 assassination plots on the life of Castro by the US and Cuban exiles. This number graphically tells how much of a threat he represented or was perceived to represent to US foreign policy. The US embargo was designed to cripple Cuba, reduce it to penury and instigate domestic uprising. The economic misery imposed on Cuba by the embargo is estimated in trillions of dollars. The repression imposed on the Cuban people by the Castro regime has to be seen through this lens. In an ironic way it was made in the USA. As in the Middle East today, the United States created what they pretend to be fighting and to detest.
But despite the embargo, the suffering and isolation imposed, the Cuban revolution survived. Not only that but despite the embargo and economic strangulation, Cuba produced one of the most extraordinary health care systems in the world for all its people. It eliminated illiteracy and many diseases. Further, Cuba exports medical help and expertise to other poor countries. In addition, Cuba played no small part in ending colonial rule in Portuguese Africa and helped in no small way to end apartheid in South Africa, as they drove the Portuguese out of Angola in the late 1970s. We can only imagine what Cuba might have been without the multitude of attempts to cripple it from the most powerful country in the world.
Viva Cuba, Viva Fidel!
Michael Drohan is a TMC board member and a member of The NewPeople editorial collective.