Few figures in the world are as polarizing as Cuban revolutionary leader, Fidel Castro. He is both admired and demonized throughout the world. Some see him as a merciless despot who has oppressed his people for more than 40 years. Others see him as a charismatic leader who has resisted the might of the United States in favor of his revolutionary ideals. While writer hero and Nobel prize winner Gabriel Garcia Marquez sees him as one of the great leaders of the 20th Century, every single U.S. President since John F. Kennedy has painted him as the most ruthless despot in the Western Hemisphere.
Fidel Alejandro Castro RuizBorn: August 13, 1926
Birth Place: Biran, province of Oriente, Cuba
Education: University of Havana Law School
Revolutionary Victory: January 1, 1959
Years in Power: 1959 to Present
Successes: Universal health care and education, nationalized industry, has formed a truly revolutionary government, has resisted and outlasted eight U.S. Presidents who have promised his demise .
Failures: Economic collapse of Cuba, national poverty, became a dictator while fighting against dictatorship, violently oppressed homosexuality, thousands of Cubans have died trying to flee their island nation.
The son of a wealthy Spanish landowner, Fidel Castro grew up in the Cuban province of Oriente. He attended Catholic school in Havana and excelled in sports, particularly baseball. In 1950, after receiving a law degree from the University of Habana, he set up a law firm with two friends and quickly got involved in social work, defending the poor and refusing to take money from them.
In 1952 Castro wanted to run for a parliamentary seat but a coup d'etat led by General Fulgencio Batista cancelled the elections and short-circuited his plans. Outraged, Castro sued the dictator for violating the constitution, but the court rejected his petition, leaving him no other recourse than armed insurrection. In July 26, 1953, Castro launched an attack on the Moncada Barracks that was a complete failure, landing him in prison for treason. In his trial he gave the famous five-hour speech, "History Will Absolve Me," in which, in no uncertain terms, he condemned the dictatorship of Batista and called for his ouster. Sentenced to 15 years in prison, he was released two years later -- on May 15, 1955 -- in a general amnesty.
After his release Castro went on a fund-raising tour in the United States and met Argentine revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara in Mexico. He returned to Cuba from Mexico on a fishing vessel called the "Gramna" with 82 men to start the revolution. The rebels established a parallel state in the Sierra Maestra mountains with a system of education and schools in the surrounding rural areas which made them very popular with the poor and disenfranchised. For many Cubans "Fidel" -- as he is universally known -- represented hope, glamour, pride, youth and a bright future. Batista, seeing his days in power dwindling, fled the country on New Year's Day 1959. Castro and his long-haired revolutionary "army" made their victorious entry into Havana heralding the dawn of a new era of equality and justice for Cuba, a nation that had been besieged by dictatorships since the inception of its independence in 1902.
On April 17, 1961, a CIA-led force of 1,300 exiled Cubans launched an attack on a southern coastal area of Cuba known as the Bay of Pigs. The counter-revolutionaries forces were quickly fought off, scoring a huge moral and military victory for the emergent revolutionary government. The assumption by the exile force and the CIA was that the invasion would inspire the Cuban population to rise up and overthrow Castro never materialized.
As the relationship with the U.S. soured the Soviet Union provided money and military equipment to Castro, which brought him closer to their Communist ideals. This Soviet aid fueled many of Castro's social programs, such as his war on illiteracy and free universal health care. Meanwhile the U.S. kept exploring ways -- from exploding cigars to deadly flowers -- to depose him from power. All of which, obviously, failed.
As a socialist leader Castro nationalized industry, confiscated property owned by non-Cubans and Cubans, collectivized agriculture, and enacted policies to benefit laborers and peasants. In an attempt to export his revolutionary goals, he supported a number of other revolutionary movements in Latin America and Africa. During the 70s and 80s Castro, emboldened by the economic support of the Soviets, became an icon of the struggle against American Imperialism throughout the world. He also turned Cuba into a model of a successful revolutionary society.
But with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990 and the loss of all economic support from his former allies, Castro has been able to repeatedly -- much to the chagrin of his enemies in Washington and Miami -- buckle the odds against his survival in power. While the exile community in Miami and politicians in Washington keep predicting his imminent downfall, Fidel has been able to surf the adversities befallen on him and his revolution with surprising ease, grace and agility.
Nowadays, more than 40 years after the U.S. government first plotted his fall from power, Cubans remain independent and are a proud-testimony of his survival tactics and remarkable political acumen. With every defeat, Fidel has been able to flip it and turn it into a victory. For example the 1980 Mariel boatlift in which Castro managed to empty his jails of violent criminals and send them to the United States where they were welcomed with open arms. A master of seizing the moment, in the year 2000 he scored perhaps his greatest victory when he turned a young boy called Elian into a symbol of the unscrupulously desperate, abusively money-hungry community of Cuban exiles running rampant throughout Miami. Although the bearded one is now old and grey, "Fidelismo" still holds great sway over many of his people, especially those who remember how it used to be and fear what it could turn into.
Though growing up in somewhat privilege conditions, Fidel betrayed the very foundations of his education when he became a revolutionary. Unhappy with the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista -- who gave him a $1,000 gift after his marriage to the young aristocrat Mirta Diaz-Balart -- Castro launched a failed attack against the Moncada Barracks in Oriente leaving half of his 165 men dead and the rest, including himself and his brother Raul, in prison.
Two years later Batista decided the young rebel was no longer a threat to his government and freed him in a general amnesty. Castro and his brother travelled to Mexico to organize the Cuban exiles into another fighting force called the 26th of July Revolutionary Movement. On December 2, 1956, a group of 82 men launched an attack on the north coast of Oriente province, which again was met with defeat, with only 12 of the attackers surviving. The survivors retreated to the Sierra Maestra mountains from which they waged a guerrilla war against the government. Because the anti-Batista sentiment was prevalent throughout the island, on January 1, 1959, the General, after looting the government coffers of everything he could take, left handing the island to the "young bearded ones."
Without having engaged in any kind of battle Fidel and his rebels rode into Havana victorious but with hardly a clue of how to run a country. By 1960, relations with the U.S. took a turn to the worse as Castro nationalized all U.S. properties and made an oil deal with the Soviet Union. Soon Castro's true colors as a Marxist-Leninist became evident leading to the 1961 Trade Embargo imposed by the U.S. and the subsequent failed Bay of Pigs invasion. Betraying the ideals of his revolution, Castro became autocratic, oppressive and dictatorial, paving the way to the present police state in which Cuba has existed for the past 40 years.
In October, 1962 the so-called Cuban Missile Crisis took the world to the brink of nuclear war. When president Kennedy discovered the Soviet Union was setting up long-range ballistic missiles in Cuba, he instituted a naval blockade of Cuba that lasted until Khrushchev agreed to back down and remove the missiles. Thereafter, U.S.-Cuban relations remained mutually hostile and Castro became more closely aligned with the Soviets who supported him financially by purchasing the sugar crop at inflated prices and supplied oil and military equipment to keep the economy running.
With the full backing of the Soviets Castro became a committed Marxist-Leninist as he ruled Cuba with an iron fist. Not allowing any room for dissention, Cuba's prison population swelled with dissidents, artist, fellow revolutionaries, religious leaders, intellectuals and pretty much anyone who questioned his ways. Many died in custody. The others somehow managed to survive the inhuman prison conditions.
Particularly brutal was the repression of homosexuals, who, Castro insisted, did not exist in Cuba. As Communism engulfed the island, Castro adopted the repressive system favored by the Soviets and the German Stassi in which every citizen acted as a watchdog for the state. By setting up citizen committees he ennacted the perfect police state in which everyone acted simultaneously as the guard and the guarded.
Although Castro called for the end of the pre-existing class structure in Cuba, in the post-revolutionary years a new class structure emerged: those in the Communist party who enjoyed every privilege, and everyone else who remained in abject poverty. Not surprisingly, thousands of Cubans tried to leave the island whatever way they could. Many left for the Florida Keys in inner tubes or homemade boats, with more than a quarter of them perishing to the sea, the sun and the sharks. Throughout the years a large and vocal anti-Castro community established itself in Miami, Florida, actively attacking the excesses of power demonstrated by Fidel and his cohorts.
But with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990 and the failure of Communist regimes around the globe, Castro and his revolution have again found themselves playing the role of orphans. With no financial support from his former allies, Castro once again called on the Cuban citizenry to bare the brunt of his failing policies. Practically unable to feed his people and with no money to purchase fuel and medicines, the Communist government implemented a series of changes -- from accepting dollars as legal tender to building tourist-only resorts throughout the island -- that would have been unthinkable during its revolutionary heyday.
After 40 years of revolution the Cuban people find themselves worse off than what they were when they overthrew Batista. Again Cubans are fearful, hungry, oppressed, living like second-class citizens in their own country, and prostituting themselves to foreigners for a few dollars. And still, Castro arrogantly holds onto absolute power, disregarding any plans for the future of Cuba and ignoring all calls for the democratization of the island.
This clashing of opinions personifies the current debate about the existing relationship between the United States and Cuba which is a mere 100 miles off the coast of Florida but galaxies away in political ideology. While most Cuban refugees and some U.S. politicians believe that a hard-line stance towards Cuba will finally break Castro's firm grasp of power, other more moderate voices believe that a dialogue with the Cuban government and the lifting of the Trade Embargo that was imposed in 1961 is the best and most humane way to deal with our Communist neighbors.
My parents, who left Cuba in 1959, are deeply entrenched in the anti-Castro camp. As far as they are concerned Fidel is the devil, and nothing less than his fall from power, arrest and eventual execution is what he deserves. Before the revolution my parents were part of the Havana aristocracy. My mother, bless her soul, thinks that there was no poverty in Cuba before Castro, and that the poverty now intrinsic to the island came with Communism. My father left Cuba through the Mexican embassy after he was labelled a traitor and counter-revolutionary and was sentenced to death in absentia. Needless to say, at home feelings about Castro and the Cuban revolution were always less than positive.
Being of Cuban descent, I've always wanted to visit the island and see for myself what life was really like thered. In July 2000, after my father's death, I spent a week in Havana which was an eye-opening experience. I traced several of the homes of my parents which I found mostly in ruinous disrepair. I also found the hotel were my parents met -- the Commodore Hotel -- which now is a luxurious tourist-only development. These two divergent extremes are at the crux of the Cuban conundrum.
Like the divided opinions of Castro and his revolution, Cuba itself exist in a state of constant contradiction. Meanwhile one cannot help see the utter poverty people live in, one can also not help notice that the Cubans are genuinely happy people who are proud of their accomplishments.
Although one can sense that it is a totalitarian state with policemen at ever corner, these policemen are unarmed and friendly, and there is no violence or street crime whatsoever. In fact Cuba is a true oxymoron: a benign dictatorship. People are poor and rich, they are oppressed and free, they love their island and want to escape it.
The exile community is not as ambivalent. When I told my relatives in Miami I thought the people there were happy, they assured me it was because they were scared of being turned in to the police. When I said they spoke freely about their feelings, they answered that it was because they feared I would denounce them as traitors. When I said they liked living there, they said they were lying because they thought I was a spy. When I said many did not want to go to Miami, they answered it was because they were already planning their escape.
Do you think Fidel is a hero or a villain? Do you think the United States should normalize trade relations with Cuba, as it has done with Vietnam and Iran, or should it hold on to the embargo and enforce it with greater vigor? Do you think Communism in Cuba has been a success or failure? And has our national policy towards our Communist neighbor had positive or negative effects on the quest for Cuba's democratization? Can a hero ultimately be someone who, by different accounts, is portrayed as both a liberator and a despot? And finally, can we call Fidel Castro -- who has as many supporters as detractors -- a true hero? Or a true villain?