On this day in 1959, revolutionary Fidel Castro overthrew the corrupt Fulgencio Batista, and became the 16th Prime Minister of Cuba. This was the start of long dictatorship which initiates much controversy and debate, especially in wake of his death in November last year.
Fidel Castro was born on August 13th 1926 to a wealthy sugarcane farmer who had emigrated from Spain during the Cuban War of Independence (1895-1898). During his early years he witnessed harsh inequality, with the farm’s labour force comprising primarily of poor Haitians.
Fidel developed his political interests and revolutionary ideals as a law student at the University of Havana. He became dismayed at the stark injustices and corruption under the current government, which had even manifested in the university itself, with armed political gangs in control of the distribution of books. This led him to joining the Partido Ortodoxo in 1947, a populist anti-corruption party formed by Eduardo Chibás, an important influence of Castro’s. Castro’s increasingly radical politics was alarming for the family of Castro’s young wife and fellow student Mirtha Diaz Balart de Nunez, her father a prominent Cuban politician with close ties to Batista. However, the suicide of Chibás in 1951 initiated deeper study into the ideas of communist philosopher Karl Marx, and in 1952 Castro’s campaign for election to the Cuban congress was thwarted by a military coup which established Batista as dictator. This series of events put Castro’s thinking at odds with democracy, and instead of a political route to power he and his brother Raul formed an underground revolutionary organisation.
In July 1953, a failed 140-strong armed attack on federal army barracks in Moncada, Santiago saw him and Raul sentenced to 15 years in prison and many others executed, but his enhanced public profile allowed him to popularise his ‘History Will Absolve Me’ speech, which deeply resonated with much of the repressed and poverty-stricken Cuban population. Encouraged by the USA to soften his authoritarian image, Batista released the Castros in 1955 as part of a general amnesty of political prisoners; however they fled to Mexico as poverty worsened and Cuba became a haven for wealthy US tourists and the mafia.
In Mexico Fidel met the young Argentine doctor and fellow revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara and alongside 80 other rebels they formed the ’26th of July Movement’. In 1956 they took the Granma yacht to the eastern coast of Cuba, armed with weapons and supplies, but they were immediately ambushed by the government. Circa 18 managed to flee to the Sierra Maestra Mountains with virtually no supplies left. The rebels began recruiting many civilians to the cause, unlocking the feverish anger and nationalism caused by years of American exploitation and the spiraling inequality and brutality associated with the Batista regime. The armed campaign was able to sweep across the country, defeating Rural Guard patrols in small battles and by 1958 securing major towns. Huge military offensives initiated by Batista using the army, air force and navy were unable to defeat the guerrilla fighters and the rebels seized the capital of Havana on January 1st 1959. Fidel Castro became Prime Minister soon after.
Fidel Castro’s premiership achieved a huge amount, including free universal healthcare which is now one of the most advanced in the world and eliminating illiteracy through free quality education for all; despite a continuous US economic embargo. However his legacy will be blemished by his dubious human rights record, with political dissidents routinely imprisoned and access to information very controlled.