It is said that in his childhood he liked listening to news on the radio about the Spanish Civil War alongside the family cook. At the height of WWII he sent a letter to Franklin Delano Roosevelt letting him know that in an area near his house there were enormous deposits of nickel.
In exchange for this information he asked Roosevelt for a ten-dollar reward. There was no reply. His adolescence and youth were free of poverty. He liked to leave his father’s farm to scale the mountains. His mother would call him to lunch with two shots of a rifle.
He got his diploma from a strict Jesuit school in Havana. Even then he was obsessed with being a political leader. He would practice fiery speeches in front of his bedroom mirror. He dreamed of being president.
By the time he entered the University of Havana’s law school, he had not yet developed a fixed ideology. He read voraciously — everything from Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf to the writings of José Ingenieros and Machiavelli.
He joined the university gangs of the times, the kind whose members had short fuses and were prone to settling their affairs with guns. He tried to enter the republican political stage through the back door. One morning in the 1940s he went into the offices of Dr. Eduardo Chibás — that rare specimen, an honest politician — to join the Orthodox Party.
When his secretary, Conchita Fernández, told him Castro wanted to see him, Chibás reacted like a frightened child who had seen a ghost. “Conchita, please, don’t let that gangster in here,” he said according to Fernández, who died in 1998.
He was not put off by this insult. To reach the political summit, he had to look for other shortcuts. He found allies, godfathers and people with deep pockets such as his father-in-law, Rafael Díaz-Balart, who had been the political manager of a certain army sergeant and stenographer named Fulgencio Batista.
And although Díaz-Balart did not like the way his son-in-law bragged, he was the father of his grandson. Some people who knew Fidel in the 1950s describe him as being visionary, adventurous, crazy. His political ambitions could withstand hurricanes. He knew how to seduce.
Journalism was his next step. He wrote articles denouncing the corruption of the Carlos Prío Socarrás government and took part in student marches. He was participating in one of these when on March 10, 1952 Batista led a coup d’état. This action served as the perfect pretext for Fidel to turn to armed struggle.
There are crucial moments in history. One way or another Hitler was going to achieve absolute power in Germany in the 1930s. The Reichstag fire only sped up his plan. Castro would have been Castro even if there had not been a coup d’état.
Power was in his genes and the only way to achieve it was through the use of force. After the coup Castro organized a paramilitary group, later known as the July 26 Revolutionary Movement. He had the qualities of a leader. He recruited the humble: laborers, bookkeepers and the unemployed.
He did not recruit intellectuals or politicians. Castro wanted obedient soldiers. The group was not a school for democratic debate or a fledgling political party with a plan for gaining power through the popular vote. It was a private army. His shield.
With this group he launched an assault sixty years ago on the Moncada Barracks in Santiago de Cuba, 500 miles east of Havana. He took advantage of the fact that the city was celebrating its Carnival. On July 26, 1953 they attacked. The operation was a military disaster. In the span of a few hours fifty-five attackers died in combat or were later executed by government forces.
Not even the Socialist People’s Party — the Communist party of its time — applauded this hare-brained action. In a press release it condemned the attack, characterizing it as a “small bourgeois putsch.”
Looking back, if there is one thing that is most telling in Fidel Castro’s personal story, it is that he was an expert at turning defeats into victories. Disasters do not frighten him.
After the failed attack and his capture by army forces, Fidel drafted a document entitled “History Will Absolve Me” based on remarks he made as part of his self-defense at the trial. He was sentenced to fifteen years in jail.
The intercession of his father-in-law, Díaz-Balart, led to the Batista regime proclaiming a general amnesty, and Castro, his brother Raúl and the rest of the rebels were freed after only two years.
It is while in prison at the Presidio Modelo that the outline of his political profile emerges and he develops the chameleon-like abilities that will distinguish him in the future. In a letter to Melba Hernández, one of his most loyal collaborators, on the future of other political players he writes, “Let them talk. Later, when we are in power, we will squash them like roaches.” As so it was.
Before his triumphant entrance into Havana on January 8, 1959 surrounded by cheering crowds, Fidel Castro had led a three-year-long guerrilla war in the mountains of the Sierra Maestra. His victory was due to his own skill and the military ineffectiveness of Batista’s army.
Once in power he systematically went about doing away with any vestige of democracy and freedom of expression. He has been on the crest of the information wave many times. His decision in 1962 to install nuclear warheads on the island pushed the world to the brink of catastrophe. In a daring letter he told Nikita Khrushchev he should be the one to first pull the nuclear trigger.
Under Castro’s leadership a formidable apparatus of subversion was launched in America and Africa. Cuba was the school for guerrillas, Basque ETA members and revolutionaries transformed into terrorists. He turned the country into a fortress, with a million men under arms. More than 3000 tanks. And a fleet of 200 fighter planes.
For the first time in history, the Cuban regular army moved beyond its borders. In the conflicts in Angola and Ethiopia — and earlier in Algeria and Syria — he ignored the directions coming from the Kremlin, asking him not to intervene.
In the ’80s he established a command post at his residence in Nuevo Vedado. From there he drove much of the civil conflict in Angola and the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale against the army of South Africa. Lounging on a black leather swivel chair, pointer in hand, he led major battles from Havana. He was aware of everything: the exact amount of rations to be distributed among the troops or the infidelities of the wives of senior officers.
Economically he’s amassed failures. So many that they could fill several anthologies. He did everything on his own. At the cost of a depressed economy.
Fidel Castro has survived 54 years. Only an illness could part him. He has escaped numerous attacks and the stagnating economic crisis that has lasted 22 years has failed to pulverize his revolution.
The effectiveness of his Special Services is one of the keys to the permanence in office of the brothers from Biran and the Communist Party. Despite the exhaustion of power, Raul designs the succession. The Castro Clan pulling the strings of everything that moves in Cuba.
He will make changes that must be made to make his work endures. No matter the name and surname of the future president. Nor the ideology. Fidel Castro was always a political chameleon. His only vocation is power. And he is one for the history books.
27 July 2013