By Steven R. Maher
In 1953 Fidel Castro stood in the dock of a Cuban court. On July 26, 1953, Castro had led an armed attack on the Moncada Barracks, the second largest army base in Cuba, in an attempt to overthrow the tyrant Fulgencio Batista. Castro and his 135 followers planned to take the 1,000-man garrison by surprise, and use the barracks and captured weaponry as a “Free Territory” to set off a civil war. The attack failed, and approximately sixty of Castro’s followers were brutally murdered.
Castro in court denounced the state of Cuban society, the savagery of Batista’s dictatorship, and concluded with an inspiring battle cry.
“Condemn me, it does not matter. History will absolve me!” Castro cried out.
Thirty years earlier Adolph Hitler had stood in a German dock after he, too, had led a failed revolt.
“You may pronounce us guilty a thousand times over, but the goddess of the eternal court of history will smile and tear to tatters the brief of the state prosecutor and the sentence of the court. For she acquits us!” Hitler cried out.
Castro biographer Georgie A. Geyer in “Guerrilla Prince” quoted historian Ward M. Morton: “Both [Hitler and Castro] put the accusers and the regime they represented on trial for cowardice, cruelty, persecution, and base betrayal of the national spirit. Both announced a mission: to realize the true destiny of the fatherland by purging it of all its faults. Both speeches contained many references to blood, death and sacrifice and both ended with almost the same identical phrases.”
It seems Castro had intellectual mentors other than Marx and Lenin.
Fifty three years later Castro died on November 25, 2016. It is unlikely history will absolve Castro of the terrible legacy he has left Cuba. Today Cuba is a totalitarian dictatorship in which the populace at large has access to decent health care and education, but little else. By every other measure, Cuba has been bankrupted.
Such a denouement seemed unlikely in 1953. After serving two years of a fifteen year prison sentence, Castro went to New York and raised money to fund an expedition from Mexico mostly of Cuban exiles (and the group’s doctor, the Argentine Che Guevara.) Castro landed in Cuba with 82 men in November 1956 and was attacked by Batista’s army. His force reduced to fifteen men, Castro went into the Sierra Maestra Mountains at the opposite end of the island from Havana.
What followed was one of the most heroic and romantic stories of the 20th century. With only fifteen men, Castro launched a guerrilla war, attacking isolated army barracks and ambushing army units sent out to capture him. He built up his guerrilla army in the Sierra Maestra, equipping his men with captured weapons. Because his guerrillas often went without shaving gear, they grew long beards and became celebrated as the “Barbudos,” the “bearded ones.” “Our beards and hair belong to the revolution now,” Castro told his followers.
Castro waged his war in the North American media as much as he did in the mountains of Cuba. He often submitted to interviews with media outlets like the New York Times and television stations. Castro sounded like a Hispanic Thomas Jefferson, talking of liberty, the right to free expression, the need for elected representation, the necessity of dissent.
Castro’s guerrillas won battle after battle against overwhelming odds. When Batista sent 10,000 men into the Sierra Maestra to destroy the insurgents, Castro defeated them with only 300 guerillas. Che Guevara successfully attacked Santa Clara in central Cuba with 300 men, a city defended by thousands of soldiers armed with tanks and artillery.
On January 1, 1959 Batista fled Cuba. Castro then rode a tank from the Sierra Maestra down the central highway of Cuba, to be cheered by millions of Cubans along the way. “Havana went out to cheer,” wrote historian Hugh Thomas in his excellent historical tome, “Cuba: The Pursuit of Freedom”, when Castro arrived in Havana amidst the applause of a million Cubans. Castro rode to the biggest military base in Cuba and promised not to become a dictator himself.
“We cannot become dictators,” said Castro. “We shall never need to use force, because we have the people, and because the people shall judge, and because the day the people want, I will leave.”
While Castro spoke, someone released several doves. One dove flew to Castro and rested on his shoulder the entire time he spoke. Castro was then 32 years old.
Frozen in time
“To many people the month of January 1959 in Havana was a unique moment of history,” wrote Thomas, “golden in promise, the dawn of a new age; great projects which had already begun; however, in a way that most of them scarcely appreciated, it was also the end of an era.”
This was the image that liberals and leftists kept frozen in their minds as they came to the defense of Castro over the decades to follow – Castro being cheered by millions of Cubans thronging to hear him, the bearded insurgent in the hills who sounded like Thomas Jefferson, the victorious guerrilla standing triumphant with the symbol of peace, a dove, perched on his shoulder as he spoke to thunderous applause.
Within months of arriving in Havana Castro began tightening the screws. There were mass executions of Batista war criminals. Over time newspapers were shut down, opponents shouted down by mobs or imprisoned, and massive numbers of Cubans fled the country. Cubans who talked of liberty, like Castro did at his Moncada trial, found themselves in prison. Cubans who took up arms to fight the new dictatorship, like Castro did, found themselves in front of firing squads. In 1968 Castro, who had taken power as a bearded insurrectionist, ordered “mass shavings of long-haired men and the departure of mini-skirted girls, who were said to have made ‘passionate love in their school girl uniforms’, to forced labor camps in the countryside,” wrote Thomas.
The new tyrant proved the accuracy of the old dictum that “absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Castro had talked of improving the lives of Cuban peasants. While they went hungry in collective farms, Castro lived opulently in beach front homes, dined on gourmet dinners, and wanted for nothing. The country became his experimental laboratory where Castro failed at genetically improving cows, grew watery strawberries the size of softballs that no one would buy, and set up a “coffee cordon” around Havana that died out, because of bad soil.
Backed wrong side
Castro’s biggest mistake was backing the wrong side in the Cold War. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and the Russian subsidies went away, Cuba’s standard of living during the “special period” plunged below that of Haiti.
“Lower than Haiti?” asked historian Thomas. “It seems possible.”
History is unlikely to absolve Fidel Castro. In 1959 he was an internationally recognized hero, an almost messiah-like figure to Cubans, and was overwhelmingly popular in the United States. Only 90 miles away from the world’s richest economy, Castro could have built a parliamentary democracy, a strong export economy based on sugar cane converted into ethanol, brought social justice to the Cuban masses, and been remembered as a Latin George Washington. That is likely to be history’s judgment on Fidel Castro: the man who had the world at his feet, and then blew it.