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The Reign of Fidel Castro
Sana W. Hamed
Latin America Since Independence
November 20, 2009
History of Cuba
Ten Years' War
Disbanding of the rebels
Politics in play
Protectorate of the US
Havana's drug port
Poverty in Cuba
Weapons for revolution
Lost the battle
Imprisonment and trial of Castro
Trials gained supports for Castro
International pressure after trials
Release of prisoners
Castro as Robin Hood
Helping the poor
More and more support for Castro
The army's behavior
Middle class supported Castro
The hunt for Castro
Blow after blow
More support for Castro
The role of the US
Helping Batista with weapons
Batista held elections
Citizens boycott elections
Castro declared himself president
Marched into the cities with followers
Batista decided to flee
Castro becomes president
Castro began making changes
Property was distributed
Mafia kicked out of Cuba
Closed down night clubs and casinos
Made education free
Dropped the number of the illiterate Cubans
Health care reforms
Redistributed doctors throughout Cuba
Opened training schools for doctors
Batista regime murderers brought to justice
Executions shocked people
United States affected by Castro's decisions
Property of US distributed
US threatens Castro
Castro continues without fear
Embargo on Cuba placed
Soviet Union supplies Cuba
Soviet Union allied with Cuba
CIA plans to assassinate Castro
Paid the Mafia
FBI to help cover up
Bay of Pigs Invasion
Castro wary of the US
US figures they can't destroy the government by removing the leader
Still, US plays along
The purpose of this paper is to bring attention to how Fidel Castro gained control of Cuba and how he has managed to keep it under his control.
I will also explore just how Castro used the Cuban Revolution of 1959 to gain the trust of Cuba's citizens. Castro has gone through 10 US presidents and still has maintained his control; I will examine how he has managed US-Cuba relations. Since the US has placed an embargo on Cuba, how has Cuba managed to trade will also be researched. Also, the economy, health, etc. will be evaluated from before his reign and after he gained control of Cuba, did he improve Cuba's citizens standing. Castro's history will also be discussed and see what influential events in his life helped him get where he has gotten. Before we get into the Revolution, we must first explore Cuba's history and the government. Since Castro has become dictator of Cuba, there have been many improvements in health care, schooling, economy, etc.
Fidel Castro, born on August 13, 1926, to a wealth family came to rule Cuba in 1959. He led revolts and meticulously planned until he gained a free Cuba under his rule. Outliving 10 US presidents and all of their assassination attempts. Cuba, an island in the Caribbean has a rich history and to understand why and how Castro became president (at the age of 32); one must understand what led him to his dream of free Cuba.
To understand the current state of Cuba, one must gain an understanding of its history. Cuba was first discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1492. In 1868-1878, The Ten Years' War in Cuba occurred when Cuba proclaimed independence from Spain. Following this War, the Cuban War of Independence took place in 1895-1898; Cuba gained its Independence in 1898. Finally in 1902, The Republic of Cuba was established.
Cuba's economy played a huge role in its fight for independence. According to Skidmore, Cuba's "commercial and strategic importance grew in the eighteenth century with the expansion of the regular fleets between Spain and its American colonies. (Skidmore. Modern Latin America, p. 259). Before the reforms of Charles III, who ruled from 1759 through 1788, the economy of Cuba languished under the "rigid mercantilist policies of the Spanish crown, (Skidmore. Modern Latin America, p.259). In the nineteenth century, Cuba experienced a brief coffee boom that eventually gave way to tobacco cultivation. Tobacco cultivation became a major crop by the mid-century and it still holds that position today due to the fact that Cuban cigars are considered to be the finest in the world (Skidmore. Modern Latin America, p. 259). According to Skidmore, Cuba's main and most important source of wealth was cane sugar. "By 1860, Cuba was producing nearly a third (500,000 tons) of the world's entire sugar supply.
The economic development of Cuba, according to Skidmore, has been "typical of tropical America: a monoculture, slave-based, export-oriented agricultural society, (Skidmore. Modern Latin America, p. 259). Cuba was ruled by Spain and the political control of Cuba seemed to have belonged in another time. By 1880, trade and investments were almost exclusively made with the United States. The US made numerous offers to Spain to purchase Cuba which the Spaniards refused. In 1878, the Cubans who never accepted the defeat in the Ten Years' War began plotting a new rebellion which was the Cuban War of Independence that began in 1895. Concentration camps were used to weaken the "guerilla-style patriots" (Skidmore. Modern Latin America, p. 260). The US could not stay out of this war due to the fact that it was deeply economically involved with Cuba. When the US Congress declared war on Spain, they had no choice but to grant Cuba its independence. Cuba was granted its independence in 1898 (Skidmore. Modern Latin America, p. 260).
The US military ruled Cuba and disbanded the Cuban rebels so that no opposition from anyone against the US can occur. Schools, sewers, roads, and telegraph lines were built by the US. According to Skidmore, the "U.S. government leaders saw these economic, moral, and political responsibilities all going hand in hand. The Cubans, were allowed, even encouraged to choose a constitutional convention, which produced a charter in 1901. (Skidmore. Modern Latin America, p. 261). The US held doubts about Cuba self ruling itself, so the US decided to impose a law, called the Platt Amendment, which "gave the United States the right to intervene in domestic politics at will (Skidmore. Modern Latin America, p. 261). This made Cuba a protectorate of the US; this stayed in effect until 1934.
The first president of Cuba, Tomas Estrada Palma, who governed from 1902-06, pushed for outright annexation from the US; he did not see a future for Cuba without the US. Palma ran again for a second in which he won by electoral fraud. This bought the US military to occupy Cuba (from 1906-1909) to impose in the election by bringing in an interim president, Charles Magoon, who then oversaw a new election. After another election won by fraud, the US military interfered in 1917. This made the US economic interest in Cuba to deepen the hold over Cuban economy (Geyer, 2001).
Cuba was under the dictatorship rule of Fulgencio Batista, who came into power in 1933 as a result of a rebellion by the armed forces, known as the "Revolt of the Sergeants." Batista overthrew the liberal government of Gerardo Machado and entered a partnership with the U.S. mafia, establishing a 30-year regime of corruption. One of Batista's first partners was U.S. gangster Meyer Lansky. (Geyer, 2001) Through him, Batista made the acquaintance of Lucky Luciano, a sponsor of Frank Sinatra, who made his singing debut in Havana, Cuba, in one of Batista's casinos. By this time, Havana was "Mecca" for large-scale gambling, mostly controlled by the Mafia.
Because of international pressure, an election was held in 1952. A young lawyer named Fidel Castro opposed Batista. In a falsified election, Castro lost and was later imprisoned. During Castro's imprisonment, Lansky, a supporter of the U.S. Mafia interests, converted Havana into the biggest international drug port. (Patterson, 1994) Huge amounts of money poured into Cuba. Batista's wife collected 10 percent, and Batista, himself, got 40 percent, making the Batista family equal partners with the Mafia. (Patterson, 1994)
In the midst of all this, the people of Cuba starved. There was virtually no education. Except for the friends and employees of Batista, everyone lived in poverty. Outside of Havana, Cuba was a poor, agricultural society. (Bunck, 1994)
In 1955, Castro was freed from prison. He exiled himself to Mexico believing he would be assassinated by Batista's government (Skierka, 2006). Once he moved to Mexico he became friends with freedom-fighter Ernesto Guevara but better known as Che Guevara, a firm Marxist.
Castro, being penniless, travelled from state to state on borrowed money raising monies to start a revolution in Cuba. He hid out in the forests coming out once in awhile killing the supporters of Batista and gaining his own supporters along with means (weapons and money) to fully start a revolution and win.
On July 26, 1953, Fidel Castro and 100 rebels launched an assault on the Moncada barracks, the headquarters of Batista military in the south, and the second most important military spot in the country (Skierka, 2006). If Castro and his men took the barracks, he would have the weapons needed for the revolution. The attack failed and Fidel escaped to the nearby Sierra Maestro Mountains. Over one-third of the rebels were immediately captured; they were tortured and killed. Several weeks later Castro was captured and put on trial (Batista wanted to make an example of him), where he defended himself and delivered his "History will absolve me" speech (Skierka, 2006).
In his trial, Castro did not deny his actions but was proud of what he did (Skierka, 2006). He was gaining support from the citizens of Cuba who believed he was all for Cuba. The government, embarrassed and fearful, decided to lock Castro up, claiming that he was too ill to proceed with the trial. Somehow Castro got the word out that he was fine and that he can face trail, the Batista government was further embarrassed (Paterson, 1994). The government held the trial in secret and convicted Castro. He was sent to prison for 15 years. (Paterson, 1994).
Pressured by international supports, Batista made a mistake and released many political prisoners-including Castro and some of his supporters in the Moncada barracks attack. His most loyal followers followed him to Mexico to organize the next assault, the Cuban Revolution (Smith, 1987).
Castro and his rebel followers arrived in Cuba in 1956. This group of rebels became known as the July 26 Movement (Smith, 1987). The plan was to set up their base in the Sierra Maestra mountains. On the way to the mountains they were attacked by government troops. By the time they reached the Sierra Maestra there were only sixteen men left with twelve weapons between them. For the next few months Castro's guerrilla army raided isolated army barracks and eventually was able to gain a good supply of weapons. (Bunck, 1994)
Castro started being Robin Hood-stealing from the rich and giving to the poor. This gave him more support. When the guerrillas took control of territory they redistributed the land amongst the peasants. In return, the peasants helped the guerrillas against Batista's soldiers. Some peasants also joined Castro's army, as did students from the cities and occasionally Catholic priests.
In an effort to find out information about Castro's army people were pulled in for questioning. Many innocent people were tortured. Suspects, including children, were publicly executed and then left hanging in the streets for several days as a warning to others who were considering joining Castro (Bunck, 1994). The behavior of Batista's forces increased support for the guerrillas. In 1958, 45 organizations signed an open letter supporting the July 26 Movement; lawyers, architects, dentists, accountants and social workers were amongst those who signed. Castro, who had originally relied on the support of the poor, was now gaining support from the middle class. (Smith, 1994)
Batista decided to respond to this by sending more troops to the Sierra Maestra. He now had 10,000 men hunting for Castro and his 300-strong army. Although outnumbered, Castro and his followers dealt blow after blow. In the summer of 1958, over a thousand of Batista's soldiers were killed or wounded and many more were captured. Unlike Batista's soldiers, Castro's troops had developed a reputation for behaving well towards prisoners. This encouraged Batista's troops to surrender to Castro when things went badly in battle. Complete military units began to join the guerrillas. Many factions opposed Batista by this time and decided to wait until Castro overthrew him. They helped him with monies and weapon along with support (Smith, 1987). The US did not like the fact that Castro will overthrow Batista and they believed they should step in and let a moderate group govern Cuba before Castro gains control (Smith, 1987).
According to Smith (1987), the US supplied Batista and his decreasing number of supports with ships, planes, and tanks. This did not help them by much. The US believed (somehow they were made to believe) that Batista was actually gaining support once again and that he was in control of Cuba, told him to hold the elections. Listing to the US, Batista held the elections but the citizens of Cuba refused to vote. According to Smith, more than 75% of the voters in Havana boycotted the polls (1987). And in some places, the boycott was as high as 98% (Smith, 1987).
By this time, Castro was overly confident that in a head on battle, he would defeat Batista. Leading his followers, Castro marched to the main towns. He entered Havana on New Year's Eve in 1958. In the early morning's hours of January 1, 1959, Batista decided to flee Cuba to safety in Spain (Smith 1987). Castro then declared himself leader of Cuba.
Castro began making changes immediately. House rent was cut down by 50% for low wage earners (Skierka, 2001). Property owned by Batista and his ministers were confiscated, the telephone company was nationalized and the rates were reduced by 50% , land was redistributed amongst the peasants (including the land owned by the Castro family), separate facilities for blacks and whites (swimming pools, beaches, hotels, cemeteries etc.) were abolished.(Skierka, 2001).
Under his new rulings, members of the Mafia were forced to leave Cuba because of his strong views on morality. He considered alcohol, drugs, gambling, homosexuality, and prostitution to be major evils. He believed that casinos and night clubs were a source of temptation and he passed a law closing them down. (Geyer, 2001).
A firm believer in education since he was young, he eventually made free education available to Cuba's people. Under Batista's rule, 23.6% of Cubans were illiterate. In the rural areas, over half of the population could not read or write and 61% of the children did not attend school. (Geyer, 2001). Cuba adopted the slogan, "If you don't know, learn. If you know, teach." (Geyer, 2001). Castro asked Cubans in the cities to travel to the countryside and teach the people to read and write. Using these methods, he made illiteracy in Cuba, a thing of the past. (Geyer, 2001).
Castro also improved health care. Before the revolution and under Batista's rule, Cuba had 6,000 doctors. And 64% worked in Havana, where most of the rich people lived. Castro ruled that the doctors had to be redistributed throughout the country; over half decided to leave Cuba. To replace them Cuba built three new training schools for doctors. (Geyer, 2001).
The death of young children from disease was a major problem in Cuba. According to Geyer (2001), infant mortality was 60 per 1,000 live births in 1959. To help deal with this, Cuba introduced a free health-service and started a massive immunization program. By 1980, infant mortality had fallen to 15 per 1,000. This figure is now the best in the developing world and is in fact better than many areas of the United States. (Geyer, 2001).
It has been estimated that in his seven-year reign, Batista's regime had murdered over 20,000 Cubans (Skierka, 2006). Those involved in the murders had not expected to lose power and had kept records, including photographs of the people they had tortured and murdered. Castro established public tribunals to try the people responsible and an estimated 600 people were executed. Although this pleased the relatives of the people murdered by Batista's government, these executions shocked world opinion. (Geyer, 2001).
Some of Castro's new laws also upset the United States. Much of the land given to the peasants was owned by United States corporations. So also was the telephone company that was nationalized. The United States government responded by telling Castro they would no longer be willing to supply the technology and technicians needed to run Cuba's economy. When this failed to change Castro's policies they reduced their orders for Cuban sugar. (Paterson, 1994).
Castro refused to be intimidated by the United States and adopted even more aggressive policies towards them. In the summer of 1960, Castro nationalized United States property worth $850 million. (Geyer, 2001).
He also negotiated a deal where the Soviet Union and other communist countries in Eastern Europe agreed to purchase the sugar that the United States had refused to take. The Soviet Union also agreed to supply the weapons, technicians and machinery denied to Cuba by the United States. (Geyer, 2001).
President Dwight Eisenhower (President of the United States at this time) was in a difficult situation. The more he attempted to punish Castro the closer Castro became to the Soviet Union. His main fear was that Cuba could eventually become a Soviet military base. To change course and attempt to win Castro's friendship with favorable trade deals was likely to be interpreted as a humiliating defeat for the United States. Instead Eisenhower announced that he would not buy any more sugar from Cuba. (Geyer, 2001).
In March I960, Eisenhower approved a CIA plan to overthrow Castro. The plan involved a budget of $13 million to train "a paramilitary force outside Cuba for guerrilla action, (Geyer, 2001). An estimated 400 CIA officers were employed full-time to carry out what became known as Operation Mongoose. Edward Lansdale became project leader whereas William Harvey became head of what became known as Task Force W. The JM WAVE station served as operational headquarters for Operation Mongoose. (Geyer, 2001).
Sidney Gottlieb of the CIA Technical Services Division was asked to come up with proposals that would undermine Castro's popularity with the Cuban people. Plans included a scheme to spray a television studio in which he was about to appear with a hallucinogenic drug and contaminating his shoes with thallium which they believed would cause the hair in his beard to fall out. (Paterson, 1994).
These schemes were rejected and instead Bissell decided to arrange the assassination of Castro. In September 1960, Richard Bissell and Allen W. Dulles, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), initiated talks with two leading figures of the Mafia, Johnny Roselli and Sam Giancana. Later, other crime bosses such as Carlos Marcello, Santos Trafficante and Meyer Lansky became involved in this plot against Castro. (Paterson, 1994).
Robert Maheu, a veteran of CIA counter-espionage activities, was instructed to offer the Mafia $150,000 to kill Fidel Castro. The advantage of employing the Mafia for this work is that it provided CIA with a credible cover story. The Mafia was known to be angry with Castro for closing down their profitable night clubs and casinos in Cuba. If the assassins were killed or captured, the media would accept that the Mafia was working on their own. (Paterson, 1994).
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) had to be brought into this plan as part of the deal involved protection against investigations against the Mafia in the United States. (Paterson, 1994).
The CIA attempted another method to overthrow Castro and his government by the battle called the Bay of the Pigs Invasion (Geyers, 2001). This invasion plan was approved by Eisenhower's successor, John F. Kennedy. (Geyers, 2001). On April 17, 1961 about 1300 exiles, armed with U.S. weapons, landed at the BahÃÂa de Cochinos, Bay of Pigs, (located on the southern coast of Cuba). Hoping to find support from the local population, they intended to cross the island to Havana. It was evident from the first hours of fighting that the exiles were losing. President Kennedy had the option of using the U.S. Air Force against the Cubans but decided against it. (Geyers, 2001) Consequently, the invasion was stopped by Castro's army. By the time the fighting ended on April 19, 90 exiles had been killed and the rest had been taken as prisoners.
The failure of the invasion seriously embarrassed the young Kennedy administration. Some critics blamed Kennedy for not giving it adequate support and others for allowing it to take place at all. The captured exiles were later ransomed by private groups in the U.S.
The invasion made Castro wary of the U.S. He was convinced that the Americans would try to take over the island again and that they will keep attempting to assassinate him. Castro claimed that there were twenty CIA-sponsored attempts on his life. (Geyers, 2001). From the Bay of Pigs on, Castro had an increased fear of a U.S. incursion on Cuban soil. (Smith, 1987).
It became apparent to Johnny Roselli and his friends that the Cuban revolution could not be destroyed by simply removing its leader. They continued to play along with this CIA plot in order to prevent them being prosecuted for criminal offences committed in the United States. (Paterson, 1994).
In conclusion, Castro is a great leader. Although he has caused a lot of damage and has severed ties with the US, his work for the people of Cuba is very significant. Because of his socialist system, practically everyone on the island is now literate, social workers are assigned to nearly every area of habitation, there is no longer any starvation, and there is no involvement of U.S. organized crime. His actions have led to an embargo between Cuba and the US.
In recent news, Castro is no longer president of Cuba. In July 2006, Castro temporarily handed power over to his brother, Raul Castro; due to his failing health. And on February 19, 2008, he resigned as president of Cuba. On February 24, 2008, Raul was elected president.
Here is a look at some numbers:
Number of years Castro ruled
11,394,043 Number of people in Cuba (the entire population) supposedly covered by the country's universal health insurance
5,000 Number of "medical tourists" who travel to Cuba every year for health care, ranging from cosmetic surgery to treatments for Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis and drug addiction
$20 million Estimated amount that medical tourism brings to Cuba annually
80,000 Number of political prisoners reportedly held in Cuban jails between 1959 and 1978
3,238 Number of political prisoners being held at the end of 1978. About 425 others were being held for war crimes, mostly from the Batista era, and some 600 more for trying to leave Cuba illegally.
234 Number of political prisoners in Cuba at the end of 2007; the country still has the highest number of detained journalists per capita in the world
125,000 Number of refugees who fled Cuba for the U.S. in the Mariel Boatlift of 1980
522 Number of Cuban refugees intercepted at sea by the U.S. Coast Guard in September 1993, the largest number of refugees in one month since the Mariel Lift.
Taken from Castro's Reign by the Numbers by Kate Stinchfield.
Bunck, J.M. (1994). Fidel Castro and the quest for a revolutionary culture in Cuba. USA: The
Pennsylvania State University
Geyer, G. A. (2001). Guerrilla Prince: The Untold Story of Fidel Castro. Missouri: Andrews
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Goodwin, P. B. (2009). Cuba. (pp.132-136) Latin America. (13th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.
Paterson, T.G. (1994). Contesting Castro. The United States and the Triumph of the Cuban
Revolution. New York: Oxford Press.
Skidmore, T. E., & Smith, P. H. (2001). Cuba: Late Colony, First Socialite State. (pp. 259-288)
Modern Latin America. (5th ed.). New York: Oxford University Press.
Skierka, V. (2006). Fidel Castro: A Biography. USA: Polity Press.
Smith, W. S. (1987). The Closest of Enemies. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
Stinchfield, K. (2008, February 19). Castro's Reign by the Numbers [Electronic version]. Time