Sunday, March 02, 2008

A Simple History Lesson: Fidel Castro.

When I heard the news that Cuban president Fidel Castro had stepped down, I intended to write down some thoughts immediately. Somehow I got sidetracked and am just now returning to that subject. The truth is that I've never known very much about the long-standing head of the only Communist government in the Western Hemisphere. Like anybody else in the United States, the few things I have heard about the man have been tainted by rabid cold war sentiment. Even today (fifteen plus years after the fall of the Soviet Union) Castro is still vilified by the American government. For some reason we are supposed to be pleased that he has ceded his position to his younger brother Raul, but I'm not sure what difference it really makes to anyone in the US.

Fidel Castro (born in 1926) graduated with a law degree from the University of Havana. For all intents and purposes he was a nationalist, and became known for his critiques of the US political and economic influences in the existing Cuban government. He ran for a seat in the Cuban House of Representatives in 1952, but the election was interrupted by a coup d'etat led by General Fulgencio Batista, a fervid supporter of US interests in Cuba. Castro began to assemble a small force of rebels, and eventually attacked an Army Barracks in protest- but he was captured and imprisoned for three years. Upon his release he went to Mexico and trained a force of rebels (the 26th of July Movement). In 1956 his group invaded Cuba and was able to survive heavy losses. They maintained a presence in the mountains, and Castro built momentum for his revolution. In 1959 Batista fled Cuba under the threat of increasing support for Castro.

The United States was an ardent backer of the Batista regime, and resisted an embrace of the new Castro-led government. The Cuban government contracted with Russian firms to supply oil, and US-owned refineries located in Cuba refused to process the fuel. In response Castro expropriated the companies. When the US boycotted Cuban sugar, Castro moved to nationalize all US-owned businesses throughout Cuba. The Kennedy Administration then approved a CIA plan to depose Castro (resulting in the infamous Bay of Pigs operation), and the Cuban president formed ties with the Soviet Union for protection against another US incursion. When Soviet Premier Krushchev offered to ship nuclear missiles to Cuba, Castro readily accepted. However the weapons would never reach the island, as the US and the USSR entered a potentially disastrous showdown called the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Originally Castro expressed an explicit rejection of Communism. Had he not been drawn into the Cold War by the US government's refusal to accept limited influence in Cuba, it is likely that he would never have aligned himself with the USSR. It is possible that there would have been democratic elections within the first two years of Castro's regime had the United States not tried to overthrow his government. In fact it was only after the failed invasion that Castro announced his intention to stay in power in order to safeguard the revolution. Additionally it was after that event that Castro declared himself a Communist. Castro was justified in feeling persecuted by the United States- he was repeatedly the target of assassination schemes sponsored by the CIA (including attempts prior to the Bay of Pigs).

While a case can be made that Castro's policies of collectivized agriculture, the nationalization of key industries, and expropriation of property stymied the Cuban economy- there is plenty of evidence that a US-led, 40-year-and-counting, embargo did just as much to curtail the nation's development. Had he not been forced into the arms of the Soviets, their eventual collapse wouldn't have devastated the Cuban economy in the 1990's. But even in the post-Cold War era, the Cuban exile community in Southern Florida has mobilized a powerfully wealthy lobby to resist the normalization of relations between the US and Cuba. Despite the obstructions and difficulties that Castro has had to contend with, he has managed to achieve low infant mortality rates and a high percentage of literacy among his citizens. He remains to this day a hero of the poor and disenfranchised in Cuba, and throughout Latin America and Africa.

As far as the claims of repressive tactics that Castro is said to have employed throughout his reign- I have no way of determining their validity. Certainly some proportion of those charges will have been cooked up as anti-Communist propaganda. Still I have no doubt that Castro has taken occasional harsh measures to maintain control of his country over the last 40-some years. These are things we would protest in our own nation. Yet the United States has never based its alliances on perceived adherence to human rights. And as we have seen in other parts of the world, sometimes developing nations need to be ruled with a heavy hand. The only sure way to discern the truth behind claims of abuse is to open the borders between nations. This is something our leaders refuse to do. It is time to put aside old grievances and establish exchanges once again. We need every friend we can make.

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Blogger Rob.Baran said...

I enjoyed this piece-well thought out and even handed.

4:39 PM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...

Thanks Rob. I'm glad you liked it.

11:07 PM  

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