Fidel Castro Early Life as President of Cuba
Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz (born August 13, 1926) is the current President of Cuba. On July 31, 2006, Castro, after undergoing intestinal surgery for diverticulitis, transferred his responsibilities to the First Vice-President, his younger brother Raúl Castro. While the transfer was not intended to be permanent, there are no indications when or if he will return to his previous duties.
On July 26, 1953, Fidel Castro led 150-plus men to capture the Moncada Barracks in Santiago de Cuba. This act of nationalist voluntarism failed. The revolutionaries had hoped the heroic act would catalyze an island-wide uprising. In January 1959, however, Fidel’s guerrilleros took control of the island.
He led the revolution overthrowing Fulgencio Batista in 1959 and shortly after was sworn in as the Prime Minister of Cuba. Castro became First Secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba in 1965, and led the transformation of Cuba into a one-party socialist republic. In 1976 he became president of the Council of State as well as of the Council of Ministers. He also holds the supreme military rank of Comandante en Jefe (“Commander in Chief”) of the Cuban armed forces.
In its first hundred days in office Castro’s government passed several new laws. Rents were cut by up to 50 per cent for low wage earners; property owned by Batista and his ministers was confiscated; the telephone company was nationalized and the rates were reduced by 50 per cent; land was redistributed amongst the peasants (including the land owned by the Castro family); separate facilities for blacks and whites (swimming pools, beaches, hotels, cemeteries etc.) were abolished.
In February 1960, Cuba signed an agreement to buy oil from the USSR. When the U.S.-owned refineries in Cuba refused to process the oil, they were expropriated, and the United States broke off diplomatic relations with the Castro government soon afterward. To the concern of the Eisenhower administration, Cuba began to establish closer ties with the Soviet Union. A variety of pacts were signed between Castro and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, allowing Cuba to receive large amounts of economic and military aid from the USSR. The mould was set. U.S. disappointment with their lack of power in Cuban decision making fueled Castro’s fears leading to increasing Cuban dependence on USSR support.
Fidel remains a larger than life leader who never relied on TV spots or political “handlers” to preach his messages to Cubans and millions of others around the world. People listen because he has something to say. His agenda – justice, equality, ending poverty, facing the perils of environmental erosion – retains urgent cogency. Compare his presentation to the “lite ideas” offered by major power heads of state!
In June 1960, Eisenhower reduced Cuba’s sugar import quota by 7,000,000 tons, and in response, Cuba nationalized some $850 million worth of U.S. property and businesses. The revolutionary government grabbed control of the nation by nationalizing industry, expropriating property owned by Cubans and non-Cubans alike, collectivizing agriculture, and enacting policies which would benefit the population. While popular among the poor, these policies alienated many former supporters of the revolution among the Cuban middle and upper-classes. Over one million Cubans later migrated to the U.S., forming a vocal anti-Castro community in Miami, Florida, actively supported and funded by successive U.S. administrations.
Castro had strong views on morality. He considered that alcohol, drugs, gambling, homosexuality and prostitution were major evils. He saw the casinos and night-clubs as sources of temptation and corruption and he passed laws closing them down. Members of the Mafia, who had been heavily involved in running these places, were forced to leave the country.
Castro believed strongly in education. Before the revolution 23.6 per cent of the Cuban population were illiterate. In rural areas over half the population could not read or write and 61 per cent of the children did not go to school. Castro asked young students in the cities to travel to the countryside and teach the people to read and write. Cuba adopted the slogan: “If you don’t know, learn. If you know, teach.” Eventually free education was made available to all citizens and illiteracy in Cuba became a thing of the past.
The new Cuban government also set about the problem of health care. Before the revolution Cuba had 6,000 doctors. Of these, 64 per cent worked in Havana where most of the rich people lived. When Castro ordered that doctors had to be redistributed throughout the country, over half decided to leave Cuba. To replace them Cuba built three new training schools for doctors.
The death of young children from disease was a major problem in Cuba. Infant mortality was 60 per 1,000 live births in 1959. To help deal with this Cuba introduced a free health-service and started a massive inoculation program. By 1980 infant mortality had fallen to 15 per 1,000. This figure is now the best in the developing world and is in fact better than many areas of the United States.
Following the establishment of diplomatic ties to the Soviet Union, and after the Cuban Missile Crisis, Cuba became increasingly dependent on Soviet markets and military and economic aid. Castro was able to build a formidable military force with the help of Soviet equipment and military advisors. The KGB kept in close touch with Havana, and Castro tightened Communist Party control over all levels of government, the media, and the educational system, while developing a Soviet-style internal police force.
Castro’s alliance with the Soviet Union caused something of a split between him and Guevara, who took a more pro-Chinese view following ideological conflict between the CPSU and the Maoist CPC. In 1966, Guevara left for Bolivia in an ill-fated attempt to stir up revolution against the country’s government.
Tensions between Cuba and the U.S. heightened during the 1962 missile crisis, which nearly brought the US and the USSR into nuclear conflict. Khrushchev conceived the idea of placing missiles in Cuba as a deterrent to a possible U.S. invasion and justified the move in response to US missile deployment in Turkey. After consultations with his military advisors, he met with a Cuban delegation led by Raúl Castro in July in order to work out the specifics. It was agreed to deploy Soviet R-12 MRBMs on Cuban soil; however, American Lockheed U-2 reconnaissance discovered the construction of the missile installations on 15 October 1962 before the weapons had actually been deployed. The US government viewed the installation of Soviet nuclear weapons 90 miles south of Key West as an aggressive act and a threat to US security. As a result, the US publicly announced its discovery on 22 October 1962, and implemented a quarantine around Cuba that would actively intercept and search any vessels heading for the island. Nikolai Sergevich Leonov, who would become a General in the KGB Intelligence Directorate and the Soviet KGB deputy station chief in Warsaw, was the translator Castro used for contact with the Russians during this period.
In a personal letter to Khrushchev dated 27 October 1962, Castro urged Khrushchev to launch a nuclear first strike against the United States if Cuba were invaded, but Khrushchev rejected any first strike response. Soviet field commanders in Cuba were, however, authorized to use tactical nuclear weapons if attacked by the United States. Khrushchev agreed to remove the missiles in exchange for a US commitment not to invade Cuba and an understanding that the US would remove American MRBMs targeting the Soviet Union from Turkey and Italy, a measure that the US implemented a few months later. The missile swap was never publicized because the Kennedy Administration demanded secrecy in order to preserve NATO relations and protect Democratic candidates in the upcoming elections.
It has been estimated that in his seven-year reign, Batista’s regime had murdered over 20,000 Cubans. Those involved in the murders had not expected to lose power and had kept records, including photographs of the people they had tortured and murdered. Castro established public tribunals to try the people responsible and an estimated 600 people were executed. Although this pleased the relatives of the people murdered by Batista’s government, these executions shocked world opinion.
Some of Castro’s new laws also upset the United States. Much of the land given to the peasants was owned by United States corporations. So also was the telephone company that was nationalized. The United States government responded by telling Castro they would no longer be willing to supply the technology and technicians needed to run Cuba’s economy. When this failed to change Castro’s policies they reduced their orders for Cuban sugar.
Castro refused to be intimidated by the United States and adopted even more aggressive policies towards them. In the summer of 1960 Castro nationalized United States property worth $850 million. He also negotiated a deal where by the Soviet Union and other communist countries in Eastern Europe agreed to purchase the sugar that the United States had refused to take. The Soviet Union also agreed to supply the weapons, technicians and machinery denied to Cuba by the United States.
President Dwight Eisenhower was in a difficult situation. The more he attempted to punish Castro the closer he became to the Soviet Union. His main fear was that Cuba could eventually become a Soviet military base. To change course and attempt to win Castro’s friendship with favorable trade deals was likely to be interpreted as a humiliating defeat for the United States. Instead Eisenhower announced that he would not buy any more sugar from Cuba.
In the three years that followed the revolution, 250,000 Cubans out of a population of six million left the country. Most of these were from the upper and middle-classes who were financially worse off as a result of Castro’s policies.
Through the 1970s, Cubans remembered the murderous practices and invidious capitalism of the pre-revolutionary era. Today, 75 percent of the population doesn’t remember Batista’s cruelty or U.S. neo-colonialism. Lacking vivid memory and without having political input, they have grown tired of Party jargon and slogans that bear little relationship to their reality.
Of those who stayed, 90 per cent of the population, according to public opinion polls, supported Castro. However, Castro did not keep his promise of holding free elections. Castro claimed the national unity that had been created would be destroyed by the competing political parties in an election.
Castro was also becoming less tolerant towards people who disagreed with him. Ministers who questioned the wisdom of his policies were sacked and replaced by people who had proved their loyalty to him. These people were often young, inexperienced politicians who had fought with him in the Sierra Maestra.
Politicians who publicly disagreed with him faced the possibility of being arrested. Writers who expressed dissenting views and people he considered deviants such as homosexuals were also imprisoned.
The Cuban Missile Crisis was the first and only nuclear confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union. The event appeared to frighten both sides and it marked a change in the development of the Cold War.
Castro remained dependent on the support of the Soviet Union. Nikita Khrushchev was ousted from power on 15th October, 1964, but his successors, including Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov, Konstantin Chernenko and Mikhail Gorbachev provided aid to his government. However, after the fall of communism in the Soviet Union in 1989 this economic help came to an end.
In 1991 Cuba suffered an economic crisis. Its outdated and un-repaired equipment meant that sugar and tobacco production fell. At the same time Cuba could no longer rely on former countries in Eastern Europe to buy its goods. Castro suffered great embarrassment when his own daughter sough asylum in the United States in 1994.