Fidel Castro Said That History Would Absolve Him. It Didn’t.Photo courtesy of Getty Politics Features Fidel Castro
Fidel Castro’s death sent shockwaves across the planet on Friday night. Despite controlling just a small island in the Caribbean, Castro etched himself into the center of 20th Century lore as the Soviet Union’s prime surrogate against the United States, as well as the leader of a revolution that significantly curtailed U.S. corporate interest in Cuba. His struggle inspired a generation of baby boomers in the states, whose influence has trickled down to millennials like Colin Kaepernick. As Twitter shockingly revealed to me over the weekend, there are a staggering number of liberals who remember Castro solely by his revolution, and not by the realities of his rule.
The Miami Herald predictably wrote the best eulogy for Castro, summarizing his titanic impact succinctly:
Few national leaders have inspired such intense loyalty — or such a wrenching feeling of betrayal. Few fired the hearts of the world’s restless youth as Castro did when he was young, and few seemed so irrelevant as Castro when he was old — the last Communist, railing on the empty, decrepit street corner that Cuba became under his rule.
Fidel Castro helped lead the charge to usurp Fulgenico Batista, who overtook the Cuban government in a military junta in the 1950s. His revolution was based around many of the same liberal ideals that inspired groups like Occupy Wall Street, as well as the central tenets of Bernie Sanders’ candidacy. A common refrain is that Castro provided a model for progressive causes, which is true, but a better version already existed in the French Revolution. Granted, there are some notable differences, like the lack of public bourgeoisie beheadings in the modern model; but the basis of Western civilization was taken from the men and women who inspired our founding fathers to mold a government based off the liberal ideals established in the face of European tyranny.
Castro’s Revolution was simply a version of one that has repeated itself across the globe for centuries. The difference is that he succeeded where so many others had failed: the literal battlefield. His and Che Guevara’s guerilla tactics overwhelmed the Batista regime’s conventional warfare. The rebels used around 300 soldiers to overtake the entire country and push the Batistanos into exile.
Fidel Castro initially attempted to fight Batista’s military dictatorship through conventional methods like the courts. Those failures, combined with those of opposition like Partido Ortodoxo’s non-violent tactics lead Castro to create The Movement. It contained both a civil and military council whose support was derived from Havana’s poorest districts. In 1952, he launched a failed attack on the Moncada Barracks, which lead to some rebels taking over a hospital in desperation. Batista executed 22 of them without due process and declared martial law. Castro was then captured and put on trial along with 122 of his men.
He embarrassed the regime by successfully defending most of his revolutionaries against the charge of “organizing an uprising of armed persons against the Constitutional Powers of the State” by highlighting the fact that they were simply opposing Batista, who claimed power in an unconstitutional manner. When pressed for the author of their revolution, he cited José Martí, a national hero who fought a similar struggle in the late 1800s. Unfortunately for him, Castro was not set free, and during his sentencing, he made his famous “History Will Absolve Me” speech.
While imprisoned, he renamed his struggle the “26th of July Movement” in honor of the failed attack on Moncada. He taught the prisoners a variety of history, philosophy, and English all through a Marxist lens. FDR’s New Deal was a particular point of inspiration for him. However, he denied ever being a communist only until after he was firmly established in office and allied with the Soviet Union. After the 1954 “election” in which Batista won comfortably, he released Castro and many of his revolutionaries, believing them to be no political threat. As soon as Fidel hit the streets, he proved this to be a catastrophic error, as he strengthened his movement. A handful of his followers bristled at his newfound fervor, and talk of Castro the dictator began to rise.
He soon established an appointed 11-person National Directorate, and fought back against the push to create a democratically elected council. As violence and social discord rose on the island, Castro fled to Mexico to train an army to overthrow the regime. It was here that he met Ernesto “Che” Guevara, whom Castro described as “a more advanced revolutionary than I was.” They traveled back to Cuba with 81 men in 1956, with all but 19 being killed or captured in an assault on the government. Over the next two years, he and Guevara would launch raids from the jungle, eventually amassing a fighting force of well over 200. Batista became increasingly desperate and carried out extrajudicial killings across the island, which lead to mass defections in the army and caused the United States to stop selling weapons to him.
The U.S. sensed that Castro would support the U.S.S.R. over America and devised a plan with General Eulogio Cantillo to double cross Castro. They convinced him to ally with the general so they could try Batista as a war criminal, but instead Cantillo attempted to install what would likely be a U.S.-backed military dictatorship. Castro countered by venturing into Havana as what the Western media called a “Christ-like figure,” and setting up an unofficial government office in a penthouse in the Havana Hilton Hotel. By combining his manipulation of the media with the hammer that was the rebel army, Castro began to wield massive influence in this new Cuba.
He orchestrated what amounted to show trials for the perpetrators of Batista’s atrocities, with the first taking place in front of 17,000 at the famed Estadio Latinoamericano. He was so powerful that he ordered a retrial when a group of pilots were absolved for bombing a village, with the 2nd returning a guilty verdict. Many experts consider most of the defendants in these trials to be guilty, as Batista slaughtered nearly 20,000 trying to keep his rule, but the trials most certainly did not follow any model of due process. The goal was vengeance, not justice. On Jan. 3, 1959, his primary choice for president, Manuel Urrutia Lleo, assumed office, but it was already clear to everyone who really ran the joint.
The first few years of Castro’s rule were highlighted by new laws providing equality for black Cubans and women, as well as a litany of progressive causes like improved healthcare, education, and affordable housing. By the beginning of the 1960s, it was clear that the new Cuba was dramatically superior to the one previously repressed by a military dictatorship. Building on this momentum, one of his first moves in power was to give the land back to the Cuban people – as roughly 75% of arable land was foreign owned.
Cuba’s literacy campaign was perhaps his biggest measurable success. In a single year, Cuba raised the literacy rate from about two thirds of the country to nearly 100%. The inherent argument behind more literacy is that it empowers more individuals, creating a positive exponential cascading effect across society. However, when the government is restricting what people can and cannot read, that progress is blunted, and that’s exactly what happened under Fidel Castro’s rule.
One year prior to this massive advancement, Castro created the infamous Committee’s for the Defense of the Revolution, which is essentially a localized secret police force. They patrol neighborhoods and keep detailed records on each family’s spending habits, work and education history, as well as “suspicious” behavior. Unfortunately, the most frequent targets of “suspicious behavior” were homosexuals, as Cuba became one of the worst places on earth to be a gay man.
Adolf Hitler established something similar called “committees of territorial vigilance,” and Donald Trump’s idea to monitor Muslim communities comes from this same compulsion. Fidel Castro didn’t just want to inspire a people’s revolution, he wanted to enforce his own version of it with him entrenched at the top. The CDR still exists to this day, with Amnesty International compiling a 2006 report which detailed its extensive human rights abuses. In 2011 and 2012, the CDR was responsible for the brutal crackdown of the Ladies in White, who are peaceful protestors/relatives of jailed dissidents. Before security agencies had the ability to monitor the entire internet, entities like the CDR served as a mass surveillance tool in addition to being its own enforcement mechanism.
There are a litany of examples of Fidel Castro’s horrors in the pursuit of his own larger gains. The CDR essentially works in tandem with the Cuban Criminal Code which prohibits nonviolent political dissent. Per the Constitution of the Republic of Cuba, the courts are “subordinate in the line of authority to the National Assembly…and the Council of State.” In other words, they take their cues from Castro, and have precisely zero constitutionally protected impartiality. Cubans do have a right to a legal defense, but Castro banned any independent bar associations, and in 1973 eliminated private law firms and required all attorneys not working for the state to join collective law firms supervised by the government. The populace was unable to democratically fight back against these restrictions as Castro reneged on his promise to create free elections.
Cuba’s prisons are Hell on Earth, as Human Rights Watch described:
Most prisoners suffer malnourishment from an insufficient prison diet and languish in overcrowded cells without appropriate medical attention. Some endure physical and sexual abuse, typically by other inmates with the acquiescence of guards, or long periods in isolation cells. Prison authorities insist that all detainees participate in politically oriented “re-education” sessions or face punitive measures. In many prisons, authorities fail to separate all of the pretrial detainees from the convicts and minors from adults. Minors risk indefinite detention in juvenile facilities, without benefit of due process guarantees or a fixed sentence.
The most frequent targets of the regime are human rights activists and independent journalists, as they are forced into a house of horrors for simply trying to shine light on Fidel Castro’s rotted revolution. He also set up internment camps which house mostly homosexuals and long-haired young people (because apparently that’s how you can spot a revolutionary). The gains of the early 1960s have simply been buried under an ocean of human rights abuses. I could go on and on and on and on and on, but if you’re still not convinced, I strongly suggest you read through this entire 1999 Human Rights Watch study on the barbarity of the regime.
But if you do find yourself in the camp defending Castro, you can take solace that you are not the only one mistaken, as the Prime Minister of the last remaining Western country for grownups issued a statement that looks like something The Onion would print, not the Canadian Prime Minister:
“It is with deep sorrow that I learned today of the death of Cuba’s longest serving President.
“Fidel Castro was a larger than life leader who served his people for almost half a century. A legendary revolutionary and orator, Mr. Castro made significant improvements to the education and healthcare of his island nation.
“While a controversial figure, both Mr. Castro’s supporters and detractors recognized his tremendous dedication and love for the Cuban people who had a deep and lasting affection for “el Comandante”.
“I know my father was very proud to call him a friend and I had the opportunity to meet Fidel when my father passed away. It was also a real honour to meet his three sons and his brother President Raúl Castro during my recent visit to Cuba.
“On behalf of all Canadians, Sophie and I offer our deepest condolences to the family, friends and many, many supporters of Mr. Castro. We join the people of Cuba today in mourning the loss of this remarkable leader.”
“Cuba’s longest serving president.” Wow. That’s called a dictator.
Trudeau’s statement works under the assumption that Cuba has free and fair elections that have legitimized Castro’s popularity, which couldn’t be farther from the truth. My freshman year Polisci 101 TA would have laughed him out of the room on that premise. This was so far detached from reality that the next day he was forced to acknowledge the simple fact that Castro was indeed a dictator. Yet he still defended the sentiment behind his statement, which seems to suggest that “good” dictators are OK. If that’s the case, then perhaps the United States isn’t the country that must be most concerned about their recently democratically elected leader eliminating future referendums.
Fidel Castro betrayed his own revolution. He fought against a despotic rule only to install his own cronies once he arrived in office. In theory, it’s the exact same thing Donald Trump is doing. You can assert that his revolution was inspirational AND that he was also a certifiable monster; but simply dismissing his crimes in the larger context of other atrocities perpetrated by American puppets completely misses the point.
If Castro pursued the exact same domestic agenda but was a puppet of the United States instead, I have no doubt that a much larger proportion of the left would justifiably denounce him in the same way they have Augusto Pinochet, Ferdinand Marcos, Hosni Mubarak, or any other U.S.-backed despot (and on the flip side, you would certainly see far more apologists for Fidel Castro on the right). A dictator is a dictator, no matter what super power is pulling the strings. This isn’t about us, it’s about the thousands of Cubans dancing in the streets of Miami Friday night, free from the man who tortured countless families in order to maintain a dictatorship resembling the one he overthrew.