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Commentary Last Updated: Feb 25th, 2008 - 00:55:08

Cuba�s curmudgeon, Castro
By Jerry Mazza
Online Journal Associate Editor

Feb 25, 2008, 00:50

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Cuba�s curmudgeon, Fidel Castro, is now in his 80th year, having struggled as constant revolutionary, lawyer for the poor, the conquering guerilla who overthrew the corrupt President Batista and the oppressive history he represented in 1959, driving Batista to the Dominican Republic. In doing so, Fidel also stood up to the most powerful nation on earth, the US, for the next 49 years, protecting his and Cuba�s independence in the face of incredible odds. So, hats off to Fidel, one-time baseball pitcher and bit Hollywood actor. Take a bow, if it doesn�t hurt too much!

What with an estimated 638 CIA assassination attempts, we find him still kicking at 80, joking with Hugo Chavez that he never expected to live this long. We find Fidel responding to George Bush�s wish that �One day the good Lord will take Fidel Castro away� with �Now I understand why I survived Bush�s plans and the plans of other presidents who ordered my assassination: the good Lord protected me.� Checkmate.

Nevertheless, he recently resigned as Cuba�s president, a position he feels he no longer has the physical strength to hold. As with most things, he takes it as a matter of conscience: �It would betray my conscience to take up a responsibility that requires mobility and total devotion that I am not in a physical condition to offer.�

Yet, despite his son from his first wife, five sons from his second wife and two daughters from his mistress, perhaps his life-long love child has been Cuba, which he has reared through corruption and poverty to worldwide recognition as the master of its own fate.

But the many of the one million-plus Cuban exiles of Miami�s �Little Havana� and others see him as a dictator. I see Castro as a liberator who in his passion to protect the poor perhaps forgot those of the middle and upper classes who supported him (or not) once and saw their fortunes and life�s work fade as he nationalized industry for the �the people.� That impulse in my humble opinion was love for the �people,� the land, the masses of campesinos whose blood, sweat and tears nurtured it too long, with scant reward from United Fruit, the casinos, the Mob, the corporatos and the wealthy elites.

Meanwhile, this �impoverished� country Cuba has achieved the lowest infant mortality rate, one of the best educational and medical systems in the world, plus a green and healthy environment second to none. No wonder. Average Cubans haven�t had a new car since the 1950s. And those that are left remain in mint condition or are used as spare parts to refurbish those still in one piece. You have to love too these people that made do for their political ideals, who were willing to sacrifice so much to retain their freedom and equality. Hint hint, America.

From birth to adulthood

Born out of wedlock to a well-off Galician sugar-cane plantation owner and his household servant, Fidel Alejando Castro Ruz did not become Fidel Castro until his 17th year when his father, Angel Castro y Argia took Lina Ruz Gonazalez as his bride, divorcing his first wife. Perhaps tha aura of illegitimacy instilled in the boy lingered in the man, the sense of the outsider, the disenfranchised, the boy raised in various Catholic foster homes, far from his father�s house. In fact, Fidel was not baptized in the Roman Catholic faith until he was eight.

Whatever the reason, his loss was Cuba�s historic gift. He finished school at the Jesuit El Colegio de Belen in Havana in 1945. Rumors still float that the 21-year old Castro pitched for the school�s baseball team and was scouted by US baseball teams.

In 1945, he went off to law school at the University of Havana and moved to the center of the volatile political culture of Cuba. In the following years, his passion for social justice grew. Suffice it to say, the Partido Ortodoxo formed by the charismatic and emotional Eduardo Chibas, which fought rampant corruption, helped form Castro�s outlook. Reform was called for and independence from the United States, which included dismantling the power of the elite over Cuban politics.

Though Castro�s mentor Eduardo Chibas lost the presidential election, Castro stayed committed to working for his cause. In 1951, Chibas ran again for president, shooting himself in the stomach during a radio broadcast. Castro was by his side and went with him to the hospital where Chibas died. This tragedy spurred Castro to go deeper into Cuban politics.

In 1948, he traveled to Bogota, Colombia, to a political conference of Latin American students and the Pan American Union Conference. A few days later, the populist Colombian Liberal Party leader Jorge Eliecer Gaitan was assassinated, which triggered massive riots in the streets in which mostly poor workers were hurt or killed.

Rioting spread to other cites in Columbia, opening an era of unrest known as �La Violencia.� Students were caught up in the violent chaos that shook the city, grabbing rifles and passing anti-US pamphlets to stir a revolt. Castro, pursued by Columbian forces, took refuge in the Cuban Embassy and was flown back to Havana. Experiencing the power firsthand of popular insurrection was a milestone in his political thinking and his life.

The Cuban Revolution

As discontent over Batista�s coup grew, Castro left his law practice to form an underground group of supporters, including his brother Raul and Mario Chanes de Armas. The trio plotted Batista�s overthrow, collecting guns and ammunition, finalizing plans for an armed attack on Moncada Barracks, Batista�s largest garrison outside Santiago de Cuba. They attacked on July 26, 1953, a disaster, since more than 60 of the 135 militants were killed.

Castro and the other survivors escaped to the rugged Sierra Maestra Mountains east of Santiago and were eventually captured. The tale goes that perhaps an officer recognized Castro from their university days and went easy on the rebels despite the �illegal� unofficial charge to execute the leader. Castro was tried and sentenced to 15 years in prison in 1953. During his trial, he gave his famous defense speech, History Will Absolve Me, full of the bold rebelliousness that would characterize the rest of his life . . .

�I warn you, I am just beginning! If there is in your hearts a vestige of love for your country, love for humanity, love for justice, listen carefully . . . I know that the regime will try to suppress the truth by all possible means; I know that there will be a conspiracy to bury me in oblivion. But my voice will not be stifled -- it will rise from my breast even when I feel most alone, and my heart will give it all the fire that callous cowards deny it . . . Condemn me. It does not matter. History will absolve me.�

In the prison for political activists (sound familiar?) on Isla de Pinos, he plotted Batista�s overthrow. On release, he�d reorganize and train in Mexico. After serving less than two years, he was out in May 1955, the result of a general amnesty from Batista, under heavy political pressure. Fidel then went to Mexico.

The 26th of July Movement

In Mexico, Castro kept his singled-minded focus, reuniting with other Cuban exiles, founding the 26th of July Movement, the date of the failed Moncada Barracks raid. This time the plan was to employ underground guerrilla attacks, a still unknown form of combat at that time. It his appropriate that here Castro met Arentine-born Che Guevara, a former medical student and proponent of guerrilla warfare. Guevara joined the rebels and helped shape Castro�s beliefs, based on Che�s experience with the misery of the poor in Latin America. His conclusion was that violent revolution was the only way to unseat power.

The guerrilla war against the Batista government that followed in cities, towns, and countryside, picked up momentum, supporters, and the succor of the people. The New York Times� Herbert Matthews came to interview Castro. A TV crew of Andrew Saint George, said to be a CIA contact, followed. Thus television plus Castro�s fractured English and charismatic persona, gave him a direct appeal to a US audience.

Operation Verano

Operation Verano which aimed to crush Castro fell apart, even though it outnumbered by far Castro�s rebels. At LaPlata, his forces routed an entire battalion. Despite the fact that Castro�s small army often came close to defeat, he secretly pulled his troops out of a military trap by opening negotiations with General Cantillo.

At the Battle of Yaguajay, December 1958, columns under the command of Guevara and Camil Cienfuegos advanced through Las Villas province. They put off fierce assaults and won Yaguajay. Defeated on all sides, Batista�s forces crumbled. The provincial capital was theirs after less than a day of fighting, December 31, 1958.

The rest is history

It is not my purpose nor do I have the space to tell the whole story, which you can find linked in the first paragraph. I would remind you that threaded with revolutionary conviction and the mantle of the Cuban people, Castro and his brave men were able to conquer a US-supported dictator, survive the US itself, and turn Cuba around. In the following years, Castro�s desire to run his country with a revolutionary agenda made him a US outcast, despite his celebrated visits here, especially in 1960 when he met with Malcolm X at the Hotel Theresa in New York.

Castro and Cuba weathered the Bay of Pigs invasion, a reduced US sugar import quota, and finally a crippling US embargo. This while the rebels nationalized some $850 million in US property and businesses. They collectivized agriculture, and sought to work for �the common good,� unfortunately alienating members of the middle and upper classes. Revolution is not pretty in that context, unless you are the poor handed a bowl of food, collective land to work, and have the yoke of corporate oppressors removed from your neck, making you feel like a human being not an ox.

The Cuban Missile Crisis and beyond

Having spurned and been spurned by the US, Castro�s allegiance veered to the Soviet Union, which aided in supporting Cuba by buying its products, and supplying weapons. Both Cuba and the Soviets crossed a line when they began to build missile installations 90 miles from Key West, Florida. John F. Kennedy was swift to tell them clearly, remove them or else. Khrushchev, if not Castro, understood the full meaning of �or else� and swiftly brokered a deal with Kennedy to remove the missiles.

It is also interesting to note that despite Cuba�s longstanding relationship with Russia, Castro privately criticized the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, duly noted in the Wayne Madsen Report. So, once more Castro put his money where his principles were.

Yet, at the heart of US/Cuba disaffection is a clash of ideologies, which to this day lingers and hurts the Cuban people. But Castro has outlived the ups and downs, the battles and attempts at peace, welcoming Pope John Paul II to Havana, perhaps softening himself in his twilight years. He also in that time has become a friend of Canada, via former Prime Minister Trudeau, which trades with Cuba. More importantly, Castro remains a hero and the leader of the Third World, the genuine and incarnate enemy of wealth and greed.

In 1998, President Nelson Mandela of South Africa bestowed the Order of Good Hope upon Castro. Last December Castro made good on his promise to send 100 medical aid workers to Botswana to fight HIV/AIDS, which is devastating that country and all of Africa.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Bolivian president Evo Morales called Castro �The Grandfather.� What�s more, Cuba is the only country to have embassies in all independent countries of the Caribbean Community.

In December 2001, the European Union opened dialogue with Cuba with a weekend of talks in Havana. The EU lauded Cuba�s openness in discussing questions of human rights.

Trade with individual European countries is strong since the US trade embargo on Cuba leaves the market free from American rivals. The EU is Cuba�s largest trading partner.


As capitalism�s loyal opposition or royal pain in the ass, Castro the communist sina qua non remains a towering if not venerable political figure, even in his stepping down from the presidency. His human rights record is still blasted though I don�t think he�s outdone our own in the more than 50 US military and CIA interventions since WW II, brilliantly noted by William Blum in his book, Killing Hope.

Cuba as Castro stands at the other end of the political spectrum, being an island country that has no dreams of empire, and for the most part has, as Voltaire said, tended its own garden and tried its best to sustain its people. The impetus, the vision, the energy that has powered Cuba�s pre and post-revolutionary life has been supplied by its battery and helmsman, Fidel Castro.

Bizarrely, there are those in the US press, including Forbes magazine, that count him among the world�s richest people, tagging him with an estimated net worth of $550 million, which is a fraction of Warren Buffett�s fortune let alone Bill Gates� billions. Castro responded, �If they can prove that I have a bank account abroad, with $900 million, $1 million, $500,000, $100,000 or $1 in it, I will resign.�

The President of Cuba�s Central Bank, Francisco Soberon called the claims �grotesque slander.� He pointed out that money made from various state owned companies is pumped back into the island�s economy, �in sectors including health, education, science, internal security, national defense and solidarity projects with other countries.�

The heir elected

Having said all this, the question of who will take over for Castro when in retirement and beyond was answered yesterday, when Raul Castro was named the new president by the Cuban National Assembly. Raul Castro, Fidel�s brother who filled in since Fidel was sidelined by illness, is a pragmatist more concerned with putting food on tables than spreading revolution abroad. The question is will Cuba endure as an independent nation, or will it succumb to the forces of globalization?

As the New York Times reported �In his first words as president, Mr. Castro made it clear that any changes would be limited, promising to continue to consult his brother on every important decision. He said his brother was still alive and alert, and the time had yet to come when the leaders of the revolution in the 1950s had to pass the baton to a new generation.

��Fidel is Fidel, you know that well,� he said to the National Assembly shortly after it voted him president. �He is irreplaceable and the people will continue his work even though he is not physically here.'�

Raul went on to say that �the government needed to change to survive in the new era. He proposed putting more power in the hands of provincial governments and streamlining the bureaucracy in Havana. �Today a more compact structure is required.�"

The Times added, �But other actions by the Assembly ensured the continued power of Cuba�s old guard. It not only chose as president Ra�l Castro, who is 76 and the long-time defense minister, but also selected another veteran of the revolution, Jos� Ram�n Machado Ventura, 76, as the first vice president. A former health minister, Mr. Machado Ventura has a reputation as a Communist hard-liner fiercely loyal to the Castros. And the Assembly re-elected Ricardo Alarc�n, 70, as its president.�

Or course, this is just the beginning. Who knows who the �non-apparent heirs� are, waiting less than a 100 miles north. And only god or the devil knows what�s going in their minds. Meanwhile, all the best to Raul, and to you, Commandante Emeritus, hero of my youth. Viva Fidel! To life!

Jerry Mazza is a freelance writer living in New York. Reach him at

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