The Cuban dictator who defied the U.S. for half a century
Fidel Castro 1926–2016
Just after midnight on Nov. 25, 1956, a group of 82 Cuban exiles boarded a leaky motor yacht in the Mexican port of Tuxpan and set off for their homeland. The revolutionaries planned to overthrow Cuba’s brutal, U.S.-backed dictator, Gen. Fulgencio Batista. Their mission didn’t start well. The Granma ran aground off the Cuban coast, forcing the men to wade ashore and abandon much of their equipment. For three nights they trudged toward the Sierra Maestra mountains, and at dawn on Dec. 5 they were attacked by government troops. Most of the rebels were killed or captured, but the group’s leader—a charismatic leftwinger named Fidel Castro—escaped. Together with his younger brother, Raúl, and Ernesto “Che” Guevara, Castro spent the next 20 months waging a guerrilla war—and fuming at U.S. support for Batista. “The Americans will pay dearly,” he wrote. “When this war is over, a much longer and greater war will begin for me, the war I am going to wage against them.” Castro was true to his word. After seizing power in 1959, El Comandante turned Cuba into a repressive, Moscow-allied communist state; became a thorn in the side of 11 U.S. presidents; and pushed the world to the brink of nuclear war. “Condemn me, it doesn’t matter,” he’d declared during his 1953 trial for a failed uprising. “History will absolve me.”
Born on the eastern tip of Cuba, Castro was the illegitimate son of a Spanish soldier turned wealthy landowner and his maid, said The Washington Post. Educated at prestigious boarding schools, he was mocked by richer kids as a “guajiro, or peasant,” instilling in him a hatred of moneyed people. Castro became interested in politics while studying law at the University of Havana, and after graduating ran for Congress. But shortly before Election Day, Batista took power in a coup and canceled the vote. The 25-year-old Castro “declared personal war on the new dictatorship,” said The Miami Herald. He built a clandestine revolutionary group, and in 1953 led 111 poorly armed rebels in an attack on Cuba’s second-largest army barracks. The raid was a disaster and 69 rebels were killed. But it made Castro, who was arrested and sentenced to 15 years in prison, “the top anti-Batista leader overnight.”
Granted amnesty two years later, Castro “fled to Mexico,” said BBC.com. There he met Che Guevara, a young Argentine revolutionary, and the two men began building their ragtag invasion force. After setting up base in the Sierra Maestra, Castro won over oppressed peasants and urban intellectuals and issued manifestos promising free elections, social reform, and justice. His band of several hundred fighters scored enough victories against Batista’s demoralized army to force the dictator to flee Cuba on Jan. 1, 1959. “A week later, a cigar-chomping Castro, then 32, entered Havana atop a tank,” said The Wall Street Journal. He immediately halved rents and turned cattle ranches and sugar plantations into small farms for the poor. He also “revealed a ruthless streak.” Thousands of Batista police and military officers were executed; elections were postponed and dissidents and gay men were jailed. “Revolutionary justice is not based on legal precepts,” Castro said, “but on moral conviction.”
The U.S. broke off diplomatic relations with Cuba in January 1961, after Castro began nationalizing U.S.-owned businesses, said CNN.com. Four months later, with concern mounting in the U.S. over Havana’s shift toward Moscow, “a group of CIA-trained Cuban exiles, armed with U.S. weapons, landed at the Bay of Pigs in Cuba.” The attempted coup “failed miserably” and cemented Castro’s status as a national hero. He “formally declared Cuba a socialist state,” prompting the U.S. to impose a full trade embargo that still exists today. Furious at his humiliation on the world stage, President John F. Kennedy ramped up his anti-Castro campaign. The CIA considered dozens of ways to kill the Cuban leader—exploding seashells, poisoned diving suits, mafia hitmen—all to no avail.
Tensions rocketed further in October 1962 when CIA aerial surveillance identified several new Soviet nuclear missile installations on Cuba—bases within 100 miles of Florida. Kennedy demanded Moscow withdraw its 42 missiles and ordered a naval blockade of the island, said The Times (U.K.). “For 13 days the superpowers confronted each other, and the world came as close as it ever has to nuclear war.” When Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev backed down, “Castro was furious.” He kicked his office wall, bringing a mirror smashing down, and called Khrushchev a “faggot.”
Meanwhile, the “disastrous consequences” of Castro’s economic strategy and the U.S. embargo were becoming clear, said The Daily Telegraph (U.K.). Basic items—lightbulbs, soap, paper—disappeared from stores. Desperate to flee poverty and repression, more than 260,000 Cubans immigrated to America in a U.S.-organized airlift from 1965 to 1973. In 1980, another 125,000 fled in the chaotic Mariel boatlift. With the help of Soviet aid, Castro did make some “notable advances.” Free health care raised life expectancies, and improved schooling raised standards of literacy. Yet the Cuban leader seemed less concerned with domestic affairs and more with becoming “the chief apostle of global revolution.” At great expense, he sent soldiers to support communist uprisings around the world, “from Algeria to Laos, from Afghanistan to Colombia.”
Castro’s greatest challenge came in 1991, when the Soviet Union’s collapse “brought an end to the subsidies that had kept his government afloat for so long,” said The New York Times. Cuba’s GDP plummeted 40 percent in two years, power cuts lasted 16 hours a day, and emigration surged. Yet Castro “fought on.” He made it legal for Cubans to hold U.S. dollars, opened the country to foreign tourism, and persuaded Pope John Paul II to visit Cuba in 1998.
Despite his love of the limelight—he often gave grandstanding speeches lasting 12 hours—Castro “kept his private life largely hidden from public view,” said The Economist. He lived for most of his life with his second wife, former schoolteacher Dalia del Soto Valle, with whom he had five sons, but he also had numerous mistresses and illegitimate children. “In his later years, Castro appeared increasingly frail,” said the Los Angeles Times. He temporarily handed over power to his brother Raúl after undergoing intestinal surgery in 2006, and resigned two years later. Raúl “embarked on a reform program that would have been unthinkable under his brother,” allowing Cubans to buy and sell cars and homes and to open small businesses. In 2014, Raúl and President Obama “announced a stunning turnaround in U.S.-Cuban relations,” restoring diplomatic ties after five decades of estrangement. Fidel didn’t approve. “We do not need the empire,” he wrote, “to give us anything.”