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By Shannon Maxwell Eldridge
When researching such a controversial figure as Fidel Castro, one has
to be very objective. The fact that he is loved and hated by so many and the massive
amounts of propaganda associated with him makes it difficult to discover who the true man
is. There is ample information concerning his life after the revolution, his relations
with the United States, and his iron-fisted rule over Cuba. However, little focus is given
to his life before the Cuban Revolution. It is the purpose of this essay to piece together
the story of his youth and discover what may have influenced his rise to dictator when
only in his thirties.
Fidel Castro Ruz was born on August 13, 1926, to Angel Castro y Argiz and Lina Ruz Gonzáles. Born an illegitimate child, his father and mother married soon after his birth, and his parents baptized him in a Roman Catholic ceremony. 1
Little is written about his relationship with his family. Fidel kept his private affairs and feelings to himself. It is known that he did not have a good relationship with his father unlike the affectionate relationship he had with his mother. Although his parents saw little necessity in schooling, he demanded to be sent to school. He went to stay with his godparents in Santiago to attend a Jesuit school called the Colegio Dolores. However, his godparents treated him badly. Upon his graduation at age sixteen, he went to Colegio Belen, a prep school in Havana. In the fall of 1945, he entered the University of Havana. He began the study of law and became active in student affairs. This involvement in student politics helped lead him into Cuban politics. 2
Castro will discuss little about his university career. According to university reports, he seems to have done well in his studies, even though he is quoted as saying that he never really enjoyed the study of law. With support from the Communist Party, Fidel won a seat as the Vice-President of the student body. However, once elected he ran a violent campaign against them, and the Communists labeled him a traitor. He became President of the student body upon the resignation of the acting President. 3
Castro reportedly carried a revolver during his university days to protect himself, an act not uncommon among students involved in intra-university struggles or in politics He also reportedly had to go into hiding several times to avoid being gunned down by rival factions because of openly clashing with leaders of the student federation. Castro's enemies charge Castro with killing two people during these years; however, neither these enemies nor the CIA has found convincing evidence. 4
Castro left school in 1947 to join an expeditionary force training on the coast of the Oriente where he had spent time vacationing. The force intended to invade the Dominican Republic and to overthrow its dictator, Generalissimo Rafael Leonidas Trujillo. Fidel boarded one of the landing craft as part of the invasion expedition; however, President Ramon Grau San Martín of Cuba ordered the expedition intercepted. Castro escaped capture by jumping overboard and swimming to shore. 5
He returned to school shortly after this incident, rejoining student politics. He graduated from the University of Havana in 1950. Following graduation, he became a member of the law firm Azpiaza, Castro y Rezende. He spent most of his time working for pro-bono for the people of the poorer classes. 6
During this time, Fidel also began his family. He married Mirtha Díaz Balart on October 12, 1948, in a Roman Catholic Ceremony. His wife gave birth to his son, Fidel, Jr., on September 1, 1949. However, the marriage did not last, possibly due to her inadvertently being involved with the Batista regime. Fidel did not remarry, although other romances are reported. 7
One of the most controversial episodes of his career was his participation in the "Bogotazo," which were riots of April 4, 1948, in Bogotá, Colombia. A student congress was planned to meet at the same time that a Pan-American Conference was scheduled. The Communists intended to break up the congress. When the popular leader of the Liberal Party, Jorge Elecier Gaitán, was assassinated, riots broke out, and the Communist Party took over the Governor'sf Palace. After an agreement was reached between Colombian President Ospina and the Liberals to end the conflict, the Cuban students involved were viewed as Communists. Castro's life became endangered; however, he escaped unharmed with new experiences in guerrilla fighting and being a rebel. 8
On March 10, 1952, Batista took over the armed forces in Cuba and engineered a coup. Shortly after the coup, Castro, a candidate for the Ortodoxo Party for congress, wrote a letter to Batista prophesying that the coup would lead to graft, corruption, and torture for many, and that Batista would eventually be overthrown. A few days later, Castro also filed a brief before the Court of Constitutional Guarantees in Havana, requesting that Batista's assumption of power be declared unconstitutional. He also advocated for prison terms against the dictator. The court rejected Castro's petition, stating that the "revolution is the source of law." Therefore, Batista could not be in violation of the constitution. As a result of the verdict, Castro decided that revolution was the only way to settle the issue. 9
Fidel began meeting with a group of young men to plan a military revolution that might have a chance to spark a nation-wide revolt against Batista. Eduardo Chibas captivated Castro and most of the younger generation by preaching of nationalism and improving the lot of the common man in his campaign. He particularly influenced Castro's group, and they devised a political program to accompany the military with Eddy Chibas and the reforms he advocated in mind. 10
Castroism came into existence with the unsuccessful attack on the Moncada army post in Santiago de Cuba on July 26, 1953. On this date Castro and about 200 supporters led an unsuccessful revolt against Batista. The group planned to overtake the airwaves and broadcast Eduardo Chibas' speeches, but these broadcasts were never made. They lost the element of surprise when a soldier had to be gunned down before the scheduled attack, alerting the Moncada garrison. Instead of overtaking the garrison as expected, Fidel's forces battled for nearly two hours until Castro retreated. In the end, the attack had left three assailants dead and another sixty-eight executed upon their capture. Another forty-six captives later faced trial, including Fidel Castro, who was discovered after he had gone into hiding. 11
Castro elected to act as his own counsel during his trial. According to his address at his trial, he remained in constant danger while being detained. Attempts were made to poison or otherwise kill him, and he was denied several of his constitutional rights. However, the judges convicted Castro and sentenced him to fifteen years in the penitentiary on the Isle of Pines. During his incarceration, he actually wrote the "History Will Absolve Me" speech, originally delivered at his trial in October 1953. The speech was later distributed in pamphlet form, and as Cubans understood it, it represented a program of radical social reform within the framework of traditional Cuban left-wing politics. 12
Even while in prison, Fidel influenced the Cuban political scene. During the 1954 campaign, Batista often faced chants of "Viva Fidel Castro!" while on tour. Castro had become a hero for the people who had lost faith in the old-line politicians. However, Batista went to the polls unopposed after the withdrawal of the other candidate and was inaugurated on February 24, 1955, for a four-year term. 13
Although Castro had denounced amnesty in place of suffering for a cause, amnesty was granted on May 13, 1955. Castro's wife and son did not go to welcome him as he left prison, but photographers and reporters soon surrounded him. After traveling to Nuevo Gerona, the entire city turned out to welcome him. He arrived at Havana the next morning by train, and the crowd, consisting of the entire national committee of the Ortodoxo Party and most of the members of the University of Havana Students' Federation, rushed into the train and carried Castro out on their soldiers. Castro had become a legend in Cuba, and his views became important to those who saw in him some hope for regeneration in the country. 14
In 1955, Fidel became a non-violent agitator against the Batista government. However, this got him nowhere. He became censored, banned from talking on the radio or at public meetings. His radical ideals also led to the closing of newspapers that printed his views. It became impossible for him to work as he wished. It became clear to him that he would not be able to achieve his revolutionary ideals in a peaceful, civil manner. It was then that he decided on a renewal of violence with an invasion from Mexico and left for Mexico in July of 1955 to prepare for an invasion. 15
Following a common Latin American practice of naming new movements after the dates of symbolic events, Castro launched the 26th of July Movement less than two weeks after arriving in Mexico. After the Ortodoxo leadership decided to try to reach an agreement with Batista at the end of 1955, Castro seized the opportunity to make a final break with the Ortodoxo party. He contended that although he was breaking away organizationally, he would continue their political aims. 16
Castro and his followers faced lean times while plotting in Mexico. Money was scarce, and the Mexican government continually seized the few arms they could collect. After purchasing a beaten-up yacht in need of repair, Castro and 82 of his men landed in Cuba on December 2, 1956. By normal standards, the expedition had been a disaster. However, the revolution had begun, and Fidel Castro came to power on January 1, 1959. 17
Castroism as a movement seems to have been created in four stages. It began with the attack on the Moncada army post on July 26, 1953. It matured during Castro's imprisonment on the Isle of Pines. It was officially launched in Mexico in 1955, and it severed any remaining ties with any other movement in March 1956. In early Fidelista pronouncements there are no programs or policies addressed. Instead, there is simply the vague intention to bring about a social revolution on behalf of the people. By sifting through articles, speeches, and letters, scholars find that Fidel is years away from Communism or Marxism-Leninism while in Mexico. Until Castro decided to carry his revolution into the Communist camp around the mid-1960s, he remained indignant when Communist charges were leveled against him. 18
Astonishingly, Fidel Castro began his rule of Cuba at the age of thirty-three. However, by reviewing his experiences in revolutionary activities, it is easy to see how he accomplished so much in such a short amount of time. Although Castro has a very controversial image in the world, many authors relate the fact that he truly did have the best interest of Cuba at heart in all of his endeavors. How he chose to rule once he gained power may seem to many as though this was far from his mind.
1 Jules Dubois, Fidel Castro: Rebel-Liberator or Dictator? (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1959), 14; Herbert L. Matthews, Fidel Castro (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1962, 17.
2 Matthews, Fidel Castro, 20, 18, 21; Dubois, 15.
3 Matthews, Fidel Castro, 22, 23; Dubois, Fidel Castro: Rebel, 17.
4 Matthews, Fidel Castro, 25; Dubois, Fidel Castro: Rebel, 17.
5 Ibid., 16, 17.
6 Ibid., 17, 25.
7 Ibid., 25; Matthews, Fidel Castro, 28, 29.
8 Dubois, Fidel Castro: Rebel, 17, 19, 22, 23.
9 Ibid., 26, 27, 30.
10 Ibid., 30, 25.
11 Theodore Draper, Castroism, Theory and Practice (New York: Frederick A Praeger, Publishers, 1965), 4; Dubois, Fidel Castro: Rebel, 31, 38; Edward Gonzalez, Cuba Under Castro: The Limits of Charisma (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1974), 82.
12 Dubois, Fidel Castro: Rebel, 40, 55, 83; Draper, Castroism, 5, 6.
13 Dubois, Fidel Castro: Rebel, 84, 85, 86.
14 Ibid., 92, 93, 94, 95.
15 Matthews, Fidel Castro, 83; Dubois, Fidel Castro: Rebel, 96.
16 Draper, Castroism, 9, 10.
17 Matthews, Fidel Castro, 86, 90, 92; Nicholas Rivero, Castro's Cuba: An American Dilemma (New York: Van Rees Press: 1962, 14.
18 Draper, Castroism, 11; Matthews, Fidel Castro, 83.
Draper, Castroism, 11; Matthews, Fidel Castro, 83.
Brennan, Kay. Castro, Cuba, and Justice. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1959.
Draper, Theodore. Castroism, Theory and Practice. New York: Frederick A. Praeger Publishers, 1965.
Dubois, Jules. Fidel Castro: Rebel-Liberator or Dictator? Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1959.
Matthews, Herbert L. Fidel Castro. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1962.
Rivero, Nicholas. Castro's Cuba: An American Dilemma. New York: Van Rees Press, 1962.