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Fidel Castro | Article

Fidel Castro (1926 - 2016)

For the leader of a small Caribbean nation, Fidel Castro's impact on the latter half of the twentieth century has been inordinate.

Fidel Castro arrives MATS Terminal, Washington, D.C. 1959. Library of Congress

Hero or Villain?
In the United States, the Soviet Union, China, Latin America, and Africa, politicians, intellectuals, people from all walks of life, either despise him as a ruthless dictator or lionize him as a champion of social justice. Generations to come will debate the merits of Fidel Castro's revolution, but nearly five decades since assuming power, the outline of Fidel Castro's legacy is beginning to take shape.

The Costs of the Revolution
Norberto Fuentes, a writer once close to Castro and now living in exile, believes the Cuban leader's relevance is as "the spokesman for silence, for the man who has no army, no Congress, no face. The man who has nothing." Wayne Smith, a U.S. diplomat with long experience in Cuba, believes Fidel Castro will be remembered because "he stood up to the United States and survived." Professor Marifeli Pérez Stable, a Cuban American who once supported the revolution, reflects on the costs of the Cuban revolution. "[There were] thousands of executions, forty, fifty thousand political prisoners. The treatment of political prisoners, with what we today know about human rights and the international norms governing human rights ... it is legitimate to raise questions about possible crimes against humanity in Cuba."

Target: U.S.A.
The first evidence of Castro's anti-Americanism appeared in June 1958. Six months before his triumphant entry into Havana, high in the Sierra Maestra mountains, his 300-strong rebel army under siege by 10,000 of dictator Fulgencio Batista's soldiers, the rebel commander wrote to his friend and confidant Celia Sánchez: "Once this war is over I will start what for me is a much longer and bigger war, the war I am going to wage against the Americans. I realize this will be my true destiny."

Roots of Anti-Americanism
Castro's anti-American outburst was partially a response to American policy toward the Batista regime. Following a lukewarm response to Batista's coup in March 1952, the United States had looked the other way, while the Cuban president, who now fashioned himself a fervent anti-Communist, grew more repressive and corrupt. In the spring of 1958, three months prior to Castro's letter to Sánchez, the United States, embarrassed by Batista's brutality, stopped all arms sales to Batista -- too late to change the widespread perception that the U.S. backed Batista's bloody regime. But Castro's anti-Americanism went even deeper. It was rooted in his personal experience, filtered through intellectual convictions born out of an interpretation of the history of U.S.-Cuban relations, and on his psychological need to play an important role in history.

American Business Dominance
Fidel Castro came of age in a remote region of Cuba dominated by two sugar mills, the Preston and the Boston, owned by the United Fruit Company, a symbol of American dominance in Latin America. His father, Angel Castro, had come to Cuba to fight against the U.S. in the Spanish-American War. After Spain's defeat, Angel remained on the island and made a fortune growing sugar cane for the Americans. Though Angel Castro kept up good relations with his American neighbors, he likely harbored anti-American feelings in his Spanish soul.

Jesuit Influence
At Havana's exclusive El Colegio de Belén, Fidel Castro studied under Jesuit priests. It was the 1940s, and the experience of the Spanish Civil War was still fresh. Spanish Nationalists under Francisco Franco had identified with the Fascists, and anti-Americanism ran high within their ranks. Castro's Jesuit teachers imbued the young Fidel with the idea of Hispanidad, stressing the superiority of Spanish values of honor and pride as opposed to the materialistic values of the Anglo-Saxon world. Once he entered the University of Havana, Castro came in contact with the writings of nationalist professors who believed Cuba's destiny had been thwarted by the intrvention of the United States. The intervention of 1898, the Platt Amendment and U.S. economic domination had combined to strip Cuba of its independence and national pride. In Castro's belief system, Cuba's political failure was America's fault.

Castro with Mirta Díaz Balart. Courtesy: George Anne Geyer

American Playground
In 1948, Fidel Castro married Mirta Díaz Balart, the daughter of a lawyer for the United Fruit Company. Castro came to know the exclusive and prosperous world of Banes, United Fruit's company town. In Banes, the Americans lived and played separate from Cubans. Access to the town beach was controlled by a gate, and only United Fruit employees had the key. Each time he crossed that gate, friends at the time recall, Castro became enraged.

Taste for Glory
After coming to power in 1959, Castro fused ideology and expediency. "Castro came to the realization that American influence in Cuba was so profound that he could not make the revolution he wanted to make unless he extirpated the United States from Cuba's economy and society," explains Professor Jorge Domínguez. "His great struggle had to be against the United States because that is how he was going to attain glory and a place in history," adds author Carlos Alberto Montaner.

For Love of Country
As he tapped into a dormant nationalism within the Cuban people, playing up a history of America's high-handed behavior toward its weaker neighbor, "Cuba Sí, Yanquis No" became the rallying cry of revolutionary Cuba — a rallying cry that would be kept alive by Fidel Castro for nearly five decades.

Fidel Castro died November 25, 2016.

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