Fidel Castro and His Revenge

“The tyranny has been overthrown. The rejoicing is immense. But there is still much to be done. We mustn’t fool ourselves into believing that the future will be easy; everything may be more difficult in the future. Telling the truth is the first duty of all revolutionaries. Deceiving the people, raising false hopes, always brings the worst consequences, and I feel it’s necessary to warn everyone against over-optimism.”

Speech by Fidel Castro upon his return to Havana following the successful revolution, on January 8, 1959

Castro’s revolution produced icons like none other: Che Guevara, Castro himself, the attack on the Moncada barracks… It is a revolution that cemented the Castro brothers’ power, and one that lives on to this day. The fact is, much remains to be seen in terms of what has gone on in Cuba during the 50+ years of the Castro regime, though the everyday images we see speak for themselves. 

Needless to say, half a century of Cuban history offers some interesting points to reflect on. Not only regarding the role of ideology in shaping a vision of reality, but more importantly on how context changes the course of history. We like to say that rather than changing people, it is more effective to change the context in which they operate. In the case of Fidel’s Cuba, we feel that many of its realities have been shaped more by the clumsiness of some than by the brilliant plans of others. 

Because the Castro Revolution had everything to lose. It was likely to fail. A handful of young guerrillas, in the middle of the Sierra Madre jungle in Cuba, doing whatever they could to flee from the national troops. It was 1956; the Castros and Che, fresh out of the university, represented the last vestige of resistance against General Batista’s regime. However, two years later, on the morning of January 1, 1959, Batista left Cuba and Fidel Castro became the country’s prime minister. Largely because many soldiers, fed up with the corrupt regime, felt these young idealists might just bring something different to the country’s government.

At that time the United States and the rest of the international community did not necessarily consider the change of regime to be a bad thing. In fact, Castro’s first international tour took him around the United States: visiting the universities of Harvard and Princeton, New York and some important figures in American society. But not President Eisenhower, who sent Vice President Richard Nixon while excusing his own absence: he would be out of town playing golf.

Despite his guerrilla appearance, Castro was anything but ordinary: a distinguished student coming into the university, from a well-to-do self-made family, a student representative… and then a revolutionary, when he realized nobody was going to do anything to unseat Batista. 

But he was not a hypocrite like Stalin: the first property he expropriated for the state when he promulgated his agrarian law was the one that belonged to his parents: a lifetime of effort, the inheritance that they were going to leave to their family. The Castros had been willing to die a few years prior, at the outset of the revolt, and these sacrifices reflected their commitment to the revolutionary ideal.

But we also find signs of contradiction from the beginning: One of the things they promised in their fiery proclamations from the jungle was to open up all government positions to democratic processes. This was one of the first promises they failed to keep. Did Castro foresee such contradictions when he delivered the speech that we quoted above?

The answer is probably an ambiguous one: in his triumph we see a combination of detailed planning (the assault on the Moncada barracks was meticulously prepared) and luck (not always good: the attack failed because it was the night of Carnival and the barracks were more heavily guarded than usual). And unexpected events, due to the clumsiness of some or the clashing of interests. 

The clearest example would be the defining of his ideology. Castro initially looked for an alliance with the United States, willing to make a deal with the world’s leading power (and neighbor) before the USSR. But the Americans distrusted his lack of clarity around his ideology; so they started disseminating propaganda leaflets against Castro to spur internal opposition. They entrusted these missions to Cuban exiles, many of whom were followers of the Batista regime, to avoid being accused of meddling in Cuba. One of these missions, which consisted of airplanes dropping leaflets over the cities, had an unfortunate outcome: a few Cubans were killed, either by the impact of the boxes or by the shell fragments that fell to the ground. Castro’s speech the next day, holding the leaflet accusing him of being a communist, is very revealing:

“It’s always the same, always the same. Always the same as Díaz-Lanz and Urrutia. Accusing us of being communists—for what? Accusing us of being communists to earn praise and to get the support of the reactionaries, to get the support of foreign ministries; coming out and accusing the most valuable comrades of this communist revolution. Accusing the revolution just like the big land owners accuse, and the war criminals, and the moneylenders, and the speculators, and Trujillo and his station in Santo Domingo, and the big international monopolies.” 

Speech after General Díaz-Lanz’s operation of dropping propaganda leaflets from an airplane, accidentally killing several people

On his next visit to New York for the United Nations summit, the Cuban delegation continued to suffer from American suspicion: the assigned hotel kicked them out, so they had to find another place to stay. They opted for in a more humble hotel in Harlem. But the interesting part is what happened next: some of the key meetings took place at the hotel where the Cuban delegation took up residence. Everyone from Khrushchev of the USSR, Nehru of India, and leading social figures like MalcolmX and even the secretary-general of the UN himself. They all visited Castro in his unassuming hotel in Harlem, giving him a victory in a key terrain: the media. Nikita Khrushchev famously remarked: “I do not know if Castro is a communist, but I am a Fidelist.” 

Was Castro really a communist, and Khruschev’s comment intentionally misleading? We may never know. What we do know is how the U.S. reacted: On the eve of ceding the presidential throne to John Fitzgerald Kennedy, President Eisenhower outlined a plan for the disembarkation of opposition troops in the Bay of Pigs, with the aim of unseating Castro. The plan resulted in a colossal failure, strengthening Castro more than he could have ever imagined. 

The Bay of Pigs not only meant humiliation for the United States: it was apparently the final push for Castro in his process of espousing communism as a political ideology. The day after the failed invasion he would proclaim:

“This is what they cannot forgive: the fact that we are here right under their very noses. And that we have carried out a socialist revolution right under the nose of the United States!” 

Speech delivered at the funeral of those killed by the bombing of the Bay of Pigs, April 16, 1961

Would Castro have embraced the USSR if Americans had acted differently? Or are we facing the obvious signs of attachment to power at any price, justifying even the most blatant deception to his fellow citizens? Because, in the first case, we would be facing a historical blunder that could have led to nuclear war due to the infamous missile crisis; and in the second case, Castro would be just another victim of the pathology of power, which is characterized by the drive to shape reality to self-interests and resort to the most blatant deception to perpetuate itself.

Or maybe it’s a combination of the two scenarios, and in the case of Cuba it was a perfect storm. We are already accustomed to major foreign policy gaffes by the United States, which in the case of Cuba very likely helped Fidel to remain in power. 

Just a few months after seeing the lifting of the embargo on Cuban products, which the U.S. had hoped would suffocate the Castro regime, it is remarkable to see his ability to maintain his iconic image as a revolutionary, having spent over 50 years in power—a reign that created a very painful legacy: the stifled freedom of the Cuban people, who in distressing amounts—nearly 30% of the island’s population—ultimately opted for exile from the paradise promised by Fidel.

And still, numerous question marks remain: Did Fidel loyally seek the common good of his people? Did he fulfill the promises he made when stepping into power? Is this another revolution where the ability to tear down the old has far exceeded the ability to build something better from the wreckage?

A life like that of Fidel Castro leaves an abundance of teachings, such as:

  • The halo effect that brings a person success oftentimes prevents us from seeing how luck factored into their rise.
  • Before attacking an enemy, it is wise to know them thoroughly.
  • The diplomacy of embassies pales in comparison to diplomacy in the camera eye.
  • Nothing destroys a society more than an ideology that creates antagonistic and irreconcilable factions.