Fidel Castro: What a man!

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In this open editorial in Vanguard, Yinka Odumakin examines the man, Fidel Castro, his life and legacy.

FIDEL Alejandro Castro Ruz took his final breath on November 26, 2016 taking along with him our beloved Fred Agbaje,Lagos-based activist Lawyer;and bringing closure to a long era. He was born on August 13, 1926, near Birán, in Cuba’s eastern Oriente Province as the third of six children.

With early education in private Jesuit boarding schools, Castro grew up in wealthy circumstances amid the poverty of Cuba but was infected  with a sense of Spanish pride from his teachers. Right from tender  age, Castro showed he was intellectually gifted, but he was also something of a troublemaker and was often more interested in sports than studies. He attended Colegio Dolores in Santiago de Cuba and then El Colegio de Belén in Havana, where he pitched for the school’s baseball team as well as played basketball and ran track.

After his graduation in late 1945, however, Castro entered law school at the University of Havana and became immersed in the climate of Cuban nationalism, anti-imperialism and socialism, focusing his energies more exclusively on politics and increasingly passionate about social justice.

 Early political moves

In no time, he travelled to the Dominican Republic to join an expedition attempting the overthrow of the country’s dictator, Rafael Trujillo. Though the coup was foiled before it got started, the incident did little to dampen Castro’s passion for reform, and he travelled to Bogotá, Colombia, the following year to participate in the anti-government rioting there.

Meanwhile , Castro married Mirta Díaz Balart, who was from a wealthy political family in Cuba. They had one child, named Fidel, in 1949. The marriage exposed Castro to a wealthier lifestyle and political connections. At the same time, however, he developed an interest in the work of Karl Marx and became intent on running for a seat in the Cuban congress. But in March 1952 a coup led by General Fulgencio Batista successfully overthrew the government and the upcoming election was cancelled, leaving Castro without a legitimate political platform and little income with which to support his family.

Batista set himself up as dictator, consolidated his power with the military and Cuba’s economic elite and had his government recognised by the United States. In response, Castro and fellow members of the Partido Ortodoxo organised a group they called “The Movement” and planned an insurrection.

On July 26, 1953, Castro and approximately 150 supporters attacked the Moncada military barracks outside of Santiago de Cuba in an attempt to overthrow Batista. However, the attack failed and Castro was captured, tried, convicted and sentenced to 15 years in prison. His brother Raúl was also among those imprisoned. While incarcerated, Castro renamed his group the “26th of July Movement” and continued to coordinate its activities through correspondence. He and his compatriots were ultimately released in 1955 under an amnesty deal with the Batista government, and he travelled with Raúl to Mexico, where they continued to plan their revolution.

In Mexico, Castro met with other Cuban exiles, as well as the Argentinian rebel Ernesto “Che” Guevara, who believed that the plight of Latin America’s poor could be rectified only through violent revolution. He joined Castro’s group and became an important confidante, helping to shape Castro’s political beliefs.

On December 2, 1956, Fidel Castro returned to Cuba aboard the boat Granma with little more than 80 insurgents and a cache of weapons near the eastern city of Manzanillo. In short order, Batista’s forces killed or captured most of the attackers. But Castro, Raúl, Guevara and a handful of others were able to escape into the Sierra Maestra mountain range along the island’s southeastern coast. Over the course of the next two years, Castro’s steadily growing forces waged a guerrilla war against the Batista government, organising resistance groups in cities and small towns across Cuba. Castro was also able to organise a parallel government, carry out some agrarian reform and control provinces with agricultural and manufacturing production.

Castro’s  campaigns Beginning in 1958, Castro and his forces mounted a series of successful military campaigns to capture and hold key areas throughout Cuba. Combined with a loss of popular support and massive desertions in its military, Castro’s efforts finally led to the collapse of Batista’s government, and in January 1959, Batista himself fled to the Dominican Republic. At the age of 32, Castro had successfully concluded his guerrilla campaign to take control of Cuba. A provisional government was quickly created, with Manuel Urrutia installed as president and José Miró Cardona as prime minister. It quickly gained the recognition of the United States, and Castro himself arrived in Havana to cheering crowds and assumed the post of commander-in-chief of the military.

In February 1959, Miró suddenly resigned, and Castro was sworn in as Cuba’s prime minister.

 Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis

THE year 1961 proved to be critical in Castro’s relationship with the United States. On January 3, 1961, outgoing president Dwight Eisenhower broke off diplomatic relations with the Cuban government. On April 14, Castro formally declared Cuba a socialist state. Three days later, some 1,400 Cuban exiles invaded Cuba at the remote Bay of Pigs in an attempt to overthrow the Castro regime. The incursion ended in disaster, with hundreds of the insurgents killed and more than 1,000 captured. Though the United States denied any involvement, it was revealed that the Cuban exiles had been trained by the Central Intelligence Agency and armed with American weapons.

Decades later, the National Security Archive revealed that the United States had begun planning an overthrow of the Castro government as early as March 1959. The invasion was conceived during the Eisenhower administration and inherited by President John F. Kennedy, who grudgingly approved its action but denied the invaders air support in the hopes of concealing a U.S. role in the effort.

 Rise to power

Castro however was able to capitalise on the incident to consolidate his power and further promote his agenda. On May 1 he announced an end to democratic elections in Cuba and denounced American imperialism. Then at the year’s end, Castro declared himself a Marxist-Leninist and announced the Cuban government was adopting communist economic and political policies.

On February 7, 1962, the United States imposed a full economic embargo on Cuba. In the wake of the Bay of Pigs incident, Castro intensified his relations with the Soviet Union by accepting further economic and military aid. In October 1962, his increasing reliance on Soviet support brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. Hoping to deter another U.S. invasion of Cuba, Castro and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev conceived the idea of placing nuclear missiles in Cuba, just 90 miles off the coast of Florida.

Khrushchev justified the move as a response to U.S. Jupiter missiles that had been deployed in Turkey. However, an American U-2 reconnaissance plane discovered the base construction before the missiles were installed and President Kennedy responded by demanding the removal of the missiles, with orders for the U.S. Navy to search any vessels headed for the island. It took 13 anxious days of secret communications between Khrushchev, Kennedy and their agents for the  Soviets to  agree to remove the missiles in exchange for the United States’ public agreement not to invade Cuba. The Kennedy administration also agreed to secretly remove the Jupiter missiles from Turkey.

Both leaders saved face and gained some admiration for restraint. Castro, on the other hand, was humiliated: Both superpowers had completely left him out of the negotiations. Furthermore, the United States was able to persuade the Organization of American States to end diplomatic relations with Cuba, in response to Castro’s “shameful” actions.

Cuba under Castro

But Castro wasn’t shamed for long. In 1965, he merged Cuba’s Communist Party with his revolutionary organizations, installing himself as head of the party. Within a few years, he began a campaign of supporting armed struggle against imperialism in Latin American and African countries. In January 1966, Castro founded the Organization for Solidarity with the Peoples of Asia, Africa, and Latin America to promote revolution and communism on three continents. In 1967, he also formed the Latin American Solidarity Organization to foster revolution in select Latin American countries.

In the 1970s, Castro continued to promote himself as the leading spokesperson for Third World countries by providing military support to pro-Soviet forces in Angola, Ethiopia and Yemen and other countries . Meanwhile, the U.S. agreement not to invade Cuba did not preclude attempting to topple the Castro regime in diverse ways. Castro was the target of numerous CIA assassination attempts (an estimated 638 in all, according to Cuban intelligence), ranging from exploding cigars to a fungus-infected scuba-diving suit to a mafia-style shooting.

Castro took great delight in the fact that none of the attempts ever succeeded and was quoted as saying that if avoiding assassination attempts was an Olympic sport, he would have won gold medals. Castro’s regime was credited with opening 10,000 new schools and increasing literacy to 98 percent. Cubans enjoy a universal health-care system, which has decreased infant mortality to 11 deaths in 1,000 (1.1 percent).

He however suppressed many democratic rights . He lifted Cubans to greater heights and defied imperialism for long because he had his people behind him.Now that he has exited at 90 his words  during his 1953 trial rings true: “Condemn me. It is of no importance. History will absolve me.”


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