Obit­u­ary: Fidel Cas­tro

Sunday Express - - WORLD -

AS com­mu­nist regimes col­lapsed across the world, Cas­tro kept the red flag fly­ing right on the doorstep of his great­est en­emy, the United States. A di­vi­sive fig­ure his sup­port­ers praised him as a cham­pion of so­cial­ism, the sol­dier-politi­cian who had given Cuba back to the peo­ple.

But he faced ac­cu­sa­tions of bru­tally sup­press­ing op­po­si­tion and pur­su­ing poli­cies that crippled the Cuban econ­omy.

Fidel Ale­jan­dro Cas­tro Ruz was born on 13 Au­gust 1926, the il­le­git­i­mate son of a wealthy farmer, An­gel María Bautista Cas­tro y Ar­giz, who had im­mi­grated to Cuba from Spain.

His mother, Lina Ruz González was a farm ser­vant who be­came his fa­ther’s mistress, and later, af­ter Fidel’s birth, his wife.

Cas­tro at­tended Catholic schools in San­ti­ago be­fore go­ing on to the Je­suit-run El Cole­gio de Be­len in Ha­vana.

How­ever, he failed to ex­cel aca­dem­i­cally, pre­fer­ring to spend his time in sport­ing ac­tiv­i­ties.

It was while study­ing law at Ha­vana Uni­ver­sity in the mid-1940s that he be­came a po­lit­i­cal ac­tivist, hon­ing his skills as a pas­sion­ate pub­lic speaker.

Marx­ism

His tar­gets in­cluded the Cuban gov­ern­ment, led by the pres­i­dent Ra­mon Grau, which was mired in ac­cu­sa­tions of cor­rup­tion.

Vi­o­lent protests be­came the order of the day and Cas­tro found him­self tar­geted by the po­lice.

He also be­came part of a plot to over­throw Rafael Tru­jillo, the right-wing leader of the Do­mini­can Repub­lic but the at­tempt was thwarted af­ter US in­ter­ven­tion.

In 1948 Cas­tro mar­ried Mirta Diaz-Balart, the daugh­ter of a wealthy Cuban politi­cian. Far from en­cour­ag­ing him to join the coun­try’s elite, he turned in­creas­ingly to Marx­ism.

He be­lieved Cuba’s eco­nomic prob­lems were a re­sult of un­bri­dled cap­i­tal­ism that could only be solved by a peo­ple’s rev­o­lu­tion.

Af­ter grad­u­at­ing Cas­tro set up a le­gal prac­tice but it failed to pros­per and he was con­tin­u­ally in debt. He re­mained a po­lit­i­cal ac­tivist, tak­ing part in a se­ries of of­ten vi­o­lent demon­stra­tions.

In 1952 Ful­gen­cio Batista launched a mil­i­tary coup which over­threw the gov­ern­ment of the Cuban pres­i­dent, Car­los Prío.

At­tack

Batista’s pol­icy of closer ties with the United States and the sup­pres­sion of so­cial­ist or­gan­i­sa­tions ran counter to Cas­tro’s fun­da­men­tal po­lit­i­cal be­liefs.

Af­ter le­gal chal­lenges had failed Cas­tro formed an or­gan­i­sa­tion called The Move­ment, which worked un­der­ground in a bid to over­throw the Batista regime.

Cuba had be­come a haven for the play­boy rich, and was run largely by or­gan­ised crime syn­di­cates. Pros­ti­tu­tion, gam­bling and drug traf­fick­ing were en­demic.

In July 1953 Cas­tro planned an at­tack on the Mon­cada army bar­racks near San­ti­ago in order to seize weapons for use in an armed up­ris­ing.

The at­tack failed and many rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies were killed or cap­tured. Cas­tro was one of a num­ber of pris­on­ers who went on trial in Sep 1953.

Cas­tro used his court ap­pear­ance to ex­pose atroc­i­ties com­mit­ted by the army which fur­ther raised his pro­file, par­tic­u­larly among mem­bers of the for­eign press who were al­lowed to at­tend the hear­ing.

Guer­rilla war­fare

He was sen­tenced to 15 years in prison. In the event he was re­leased in a gen­eral amnesty in May 1955 hav­ing served just 19 months in rel­a­tively com­fort­able con­di­tions.

Dur­ing his short time in prison he di­vorced his wife and im­mersed him­self in Marx­ist texts.

As Batista con­tin­ued to crack down on his op­po­nents, Cas­tro fled to Mex­ico to avoid be­ing ar­rested. There he met a young revo­lu­tion­ary named Ernesto “Che” Gue­vara.

In Novem­ber 1956 Cas­tro re­turned to Cuba with 81 armed com­pan­ions on board a leak­ing cabin cruiser de­signed to carry just 12 peo­ple.

The party took refuge in the Sierra Maes­tra moun­tains. From this base Cas­tro launched a two-year guer­rilla cam­paign against the regime in Ha­vana.

On 2 Jan­uary, 1959, the rebel army en­tered the Cuban cap­i­tal and Batista fled.

Hun­dreds of Batista’s for­mer sup­port­ers were ex­e­cuted af­ter tri­als that many for­eign ob­servers deemed as less than fair.

Ide­ol­ogy

Cas­tro re­sponded by in­sist­ing that “revo­lu­tion­ary jus­tice is not based on le­gal pre­cepts, but on moral con­vic­tion”.

The new Cuban gov­ern­ment promised to give the land back to the peo­ple and to de­fend the rights of the poor.

But the gov­ern­ment quickly im­posed a one-party sys­tem. Hun­dreds of peo­ple were sent to jail and labour camps as po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers.

Thou­sands of mainly mid­dle class Cuban’s fled into ex­ile.

Cas­tro in­sisted his ide­ol­ogy was, first and fore­most, Cuban.

“There is not com­mu­nism or Marx­ism, but representative democ­racy and so­cial jus­tice in a well-planned econ­omy,” he said at the time.

In 1960, Fidel Cas­tro na­tion­alised all US-owned busi­nesses on the is­land. In re­sponse, Wash­ing­ton put Cuba un­der a trade em­bargo that was to last into the 21st cen­tury.

In­vaders

Cas­tro claimed he was driven into the arms of the Soviet Union and its leader, Nikita Khrushchev, although some com­men­ta­tors say he en­tered the USSR’s em­brace willingly.

What­ever the mo­tive, trop­i­cal Cuba be- came a Cold War bat­tle­ground.

In April 1961, the US at­tempted to top­ple the Cas­tro gov­ern­ment by re­cruit­ing a pri­vate army of Cuban ex­iles to in­vade the is­land.

At the Bay of Pigs, Cuban troops re­pulsed the in­vaders, killing many and capturing 1,000. Fidel Cas­tro had blood­ied the nose of a su­per­power and it would never for­give him.

A year later, Amer­i­can re­con­nais­sance planes dis­cov­ered Soviet mis­siles on their way to sites in Cuba. The world was sud­denly star­ing into the abyss of all-out nu­clear war.

“A se­ries of of­fen­sive mis­sile sites is now in prepa­ra­tion on that im­pris­oned is­land. The pur­pose of these bases can be none other than to pro­vide a nu­clear strike ca­pa­bil­ity against the Western hemi­sphere,” warned Pres­i­dent John F Kennedy.

Bizarre

The su­per­pow­ers stood eye­ball to eye­ball, but it was Pres­i­dent Khrushchev who blinked first, pulling his mis­siles out of Cuba in re­turn for a se­cret with­drawal of US weapons from Turkey.

Fidel Cas­tro, though, had be­come Amer­ica’s en­emy num­ber one. The CIA tried to as­sas­si­nate him, most in­fa­mously with Op­er­a­tion Mon­goose. Get­ting him to smoke a cigar packed with ex­plo­sives was one idea.

Oth­ers were even more bizarre, in­clud­ing one to make his beard fall out and make him into a fig­ure to be ridiculed.

The Soviet Union poured money into Cuba. It bought the bulk of the is­land’s sugar har­vest and in re­turn its ships crammed into Ha­vana har­bour, bring­ing in des­per­ately needed goods to beat the US trade em­bargo.

De­spite his re­liance on the Sovi­ets’ help, Cas­tro put Cuba at the head of the new­lye­merg­ing Non-Aligned Move­ment.

Short­ages

How­ever, he also took sides, es­pe­cially in Africa, send­ing his troops to sup­port Marx­ist guer­ril­las in An­gola and Mozam­bique.

By the mid-1980s, how­ever, global geo- pol­i­tics were shift­ing. It was the era of Mikhail Gor­bachev, glas­nost and per­e­stroika, and it proved cat­a­strophic for Cas­tro’s rev­o­lu­tion.

Moscow ef­fec­tively pulled the plug on the Cuban econ­omy by re­fus­ing to take its sugar any more.

Still un­der the US em­bargo and with its Soviet lifeline cut off, chronic short­ages and empty shelves in Cuba were in­evitable. Tem­pers grew shorter as the food queues grew longer.

The coun­try Fidel Cas­tro called the most ad­vanced in the world had, in fact, re­turned to the age of ox-drawn carts.

By the mid-1990s, many Cubans had had enough. If ear­lier waves of ex­iles had been as much about pol­i­tics as eco­nomics, thou­sands were now tak­ing to the sea in a wa­ter­borne ex­o­dus to Florida and the dream of a better life. Many drowned but it was a crush­ing vote of no-con­fi­dence in Cas­tro.

Caribbean com­mu­nism

Yet Cuba reg­is­tered some im­pres­sive do­mes­tic achieve­ments. Good med­i­cal care was freely avail­able for all, and Cuba’s in­fant mor­tal­ity rates com­pared favourably with the most so­phis­ti­cated so­ci­eties on earth.

In later years, Cas­tro seemed to have mel­lowed. 1998 saw a ground-break­ing visit by Pope John Paul II, some­thing which would have been un­think­able even five years ear­lier.

The then Pope con­demned Cuba for its hu­man rights abuses, em­bar­rass­ing Cas­tro in front of the world’s me­dia.

Fidel Cas­tro had cre­ated his own unique brand of Caribbean com­mu­nism which, in his last years, he was forced to adapt, slowly in­tro­duc­ing a few free-mar­ket re­forms to save his rev­o­lu­tion.

On 31 July 2006, just days be­fore his 80th birth­day, Cas­tro handed over power tem­po­rar­ily to Raul af­ter un­der­go­ing emer­gency in­testi­nal surgery.

His health con­tin­ued to de­te­ri­o­rate. Early in 2008, Cas­tro an­nounced that he would not ac­cept the po­si­tions of pres­i­dent and com­man­der-in chief at the next meet­ing of the Na­tional As­sem­bly.

In a let­ter pub­lished in an of­fi­cial com­mu­nist news­pa­per, he was quoted as say­ing: “It would be­tray my con­science to take up a re­spon­si­bil­ity that re­quires mo­bil­ity and to­tal de­vo­tion, that I am not in a phys­i­cal con­di­tion to of­fer.”

He largely with­drew from pub­lic life, writ­ing ar­ti­cles pub­lished in the state me­dia un­der the ti­tle Re­flec­tions of Com­rade Fidel.

He re-emerged in July 2010, he made his first pub­lic ap­pear­ance since fall­ing ill, greet­ing work­ers and giv­ing a tele­vi­sion in­ter­view in which he dis­cussed US ten­sions with Iran and North Korea.

The fol­low­ing month Cas­tro gave his first speech to the Na­tional As­sem­bly in four years, urg­ing the US not to take mil­i­tary ac­tion against Iran or North Korea and warn­ing of a nu­clear holo­caust if ten­sions in­creased.

When asked whether Cas­tro may be re-en­ter­ing gov­ern­ment, cul­ture min­is­ter Abel Pri­eto told the BBC: “I think that he has al­ways been in Cuba’s po­lit­i­cal life but he is not in the gov­ern­ment. He has been very care­ful about that. His big bat­tle is in­ter­na­tional af­fairs.”

Pres­i­dent Obama’s an­nounce­ment in De­cem­ber 2014 of the be­gin­ning of an end to US trade and other sanc­tions saw the be­gin­ning of a thaw in what had been half a cen­tury of hos­tile re­la­tions be­tween the two coun­tries.

Cas­tro wel­comed the move stat­ing it was it was “a pos­i­tive move for es­tab­lish­ing peace in the re­gion”, but that he mis­trusted the US gov­ern­ment.

While many Cubans un­doubt­edly de­tested Cas­tro, oth­ers gen­uinely loved him.

They saw him as a David who could stand up to the Go­liath of Amer­ica, who suc­cess­fully spat in the “Yan­qui” eye.

For them Cas­tro was Cuba and Cuba was Cas­tro. — BBC

FIDEL Cas­tro (cen­tre) with his brother Raul (left) and Camilo Cien­fue­gos while op­er­at­ing in the Moun­tains of Eastern Cuba.

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