Seven Key Moments in Fidel Castro’s Exceptional Life

Seven Key Moments in Fidel Castro’s Exceptional Life

Michelle Powell-Smith - December 7, 2016

On November 25, 2016, Fidel Castro died after spending some 50 years of his life in control of Cuba, from 1959 to 2008. Castro, over the course of his life, grew from a young and hopeful rebel to a dictatorial communist, maintaining control of Cuba until his resignation. The young and hopeful rebel progressively rejected the ideas of the 1940 Cuban constitution, in favor of ever-harsher communist policies. Even when he resigned, control of Cuba passed to his chosen successor.

We’ll look at seven of Castro’s individual interactions with others, both inside the Cuban Revolution and with external forces to see how those interactions shaped the life of Fidel Castro and the future of Cuba as a nation. These include interactions and relationships with U.S. presidents, the president of Cuba, and other Cuban revolutionaries.

Seven Key Moments in Fidel Castro’s Exceptional Life

November 6, 1940: Castro and Roosevelt

Fidel Castro’s first interaction with another public figure took place when he was only 14 years old. The day after Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected to serve a third term as U.S. President, young Fidel Castro, then a student at a Jesuit school in Cuba, wrote a letter to President Roosevelt.

Castro wrote, in only slightly broken English, that he had heard on the radio that Roosevelt had been re-elected, and that he was only 12 years old. This was, based on more accurate records, incorrect, as he was 14 at the time of the writing. He asked Roosevelt to send him a ten-dollar bill, as he’d never seen one and would like to. He offered to show Roosevelt Cuba’s largest iron mines, if he needed iron for his ships.

Roosevelt never saw Castro’s letter, and Castro received only a standard form-letter reply. He did not get his ten-dollar bill. Castro confirmed the existence of his letter, and that he had received a reply in an interview in 1975. The letter was rediscovered in the National Archives in 1977.

Only a few weeks before the boy wrote this letter, Cuba had passed one of the most progressive constitutions in the world. The constitution provided for a minimum wage, voting rights, and a number of constitutional protections for the people of Cuba. This constitution, based on the Second Spanish Republic’s Constitution of 1931 and Germany’s Weimar Constitution, had a lasting impact on young Castro. This was a time of great hope for Cuba, and the constitution remained in effect until 1952.

As a young rebel in the 1950s, in direct opposition to the military leader Fulgencio Batista, Castro claimed the restoration of the 1940 Constitution as one of the key goals of his movement. He reiterated this intention again in 1957; however, the constitution drafted in 1976 had no resemblance to that of Castro’s 1940 Cuba.

Seven Key Moments in Fidel Castro’s Exceptional Life

July 26, 1953: Castro & Batista

After attending Jesuit schools as a boy, Castro enrolled at the University of Havana to study law. He first took a strong interest in politics, and particularly revolutionary politics, while studying law. While still a student, he participated in an attempted coup against the violent dictator of the Dominican Republic, Rafael Trujillo. He joined the Orthodox party, which ran on an anti-corruption platform.

Two years after Castro’s law school graduation, in 1952, he ran for election to the Cuban House of Representatives, established by the 1940 Constitution. The election never occurred; Fulgencio Batista seized power in a military coup. Batista had the support of the United States.

In July 1953, Castro led a group of 120 men in an armed assault on the Moncada army barracks in Santiago de Cuba. The assault failed; Castro was captured in the assault. He made a four-hour speech in his own defense in court, commonly called, “History Will Absolve Me.” No records were kept of the speech, but Castro recreated it in writing to produce the manifesto for the 26th of July Movement.

He was sentenced to 15 years in prison for the assault on the Moncado Army Barracks. Some 100 men were arrested after the assault; however, 65 of those had played no part in Castro’s effort. The others tried included many elected politicians, and the last democratically elected president of Cuba. Castro’s defense, and the efforts of others, were successful. Only 31 of the 100 tried were sentenced to prison, and most were treated with some leniency.

In 1955, Batista granted a general amnesty to a number of prisoners, including all those sentenced for the 1953 assault, in an attempt to appear less authoritarian.

Castro left Cuba for Mexico after he was freed from prison.

Seven Key Moments in Fidel Castro’s Exceptional Life

December 2, 1956: Castro & Guevara

In Mexico, Fidel Castro and Che Guevara met. Che Guevara was an Argentinian revolutionary, and, by the time he met Castro, already a Marxist. His political ideologies were largely in response to the widespread poverty and oppression he had witnessed throughout South America. Guevara went to Mexico in 1954, and met Fidel Castro in 1955.

He joined Castro’s 26th of July Movement, and played a key role in the overthrow of Fulgencio Batista in 1959. The 26th of July Movement took its name from Castro’s failed 1953 attack on the barracks in Cuba.

On December 2, 1956, 82 revolutionaries, including Guevara, led by Castro, sailed from Veracruz, Mexico to Cuba. They landed in daylight and were attacked by the Cuban air force. The attack divided their party into two, and caused massive casualties. Batista inaccurately announced Castro’s death. Twelve of the 82, including Guevara and Castro, took refuge in the Sierra Maestra mountains to reform and gain additional support.

This was the first phase of the Cuban Revolution. It resulted in a significant amount of guerilla warfare, as Castro gained supporters. Che Guevara was wounded in the fighting, but continued to provide medical care to others.

Che Guevara remained a close friend and associate of Castro’s after the successful revolution. He remained in Cuba until 1965, actively encouraging Cuba to engage in a close relationship with the Soviet Union. In 1965, Castro announced that Guevara had left Cuba to help aid in other revolutionary efforts. After a short time in Africa, Guevara returned to Cuba, welcomed by Castro. He stayed only briefly before leaving for Bolivia. Guevara was executed in Bolivia in 1967, after his capture by the U.S.-supported Bolivian army. He was exhumed and reburied in Cuba in 1997. Guevara’s grave was the first spot on Castro’s final tour, as his remains reverse the course of his victory in 1959.

Seven Key Moments in Fidel Castro’s Exceptional Life

January 1, 1959: Castro and Batista

Fidel Castro returned to Cuba on December 2, 1956. This began a two-year conflict. Fulgencio Batista had been the elected president of Cuba from 1940 to 1944, then had seized power in a military coup in 1952. During his first term, he had the support of the Communist Party; however, he lost that following the military coup, when he took on the clear role of dictator. This led to Castro’s 26th of July Movement.

Batista worked actively to suppress the Cuban Revolution, began with an air force attack on the landing forces, and continuing with active suppression of communist movements in Cuba’s cities. Castro and his small bands of guerilla forces worked to harass and disrupt Cuban troop movements.

In February 1958, the rebels set up a pirate radio station, spreading their message across all of Cuba. Castro’s forces were exceptionally small, rarely numbering more than 200 total men. In comparison, Batista had a combined military and police force numbering more than 37,000. The U.S. imposed an arms embargo in March of 1958, weakening Batista’s forces significantly.

During the summer of 1958, battles continued, eventually culminating in a series of battles in December 1958. Many of these were relatively small skirmishes, but some were significantly larger. Castro progressively gained standing, and support over this time. On December 31, 1958, rebel forces took control of Santa Clara.

On January 1, 1959, Batista fled Cuba, heading for the Dominican Republic by air. Fighting continued in Cienfuegos. The following day, Batista’s forces stood down, leaving Castro and his rebels in power in Santiago de Cuba.

Manuel Urrutia Lleo, Castro’s choice for president, took power on January 3. Castro himself reached the city of Havana on the 8th of January, 1959. The 26th of July Movement had succeeded. This interaction, when Batista fled Cuba, marks the beginning of Castro’s political power in Cuba.

Seven Key Moments in Fidel Castro’s Exceptional Life

April 1961: Castro and Kennedy

The most memorable interaction between Castro and a U.S. President occurred in 1961, with the incident commonly known as the Bay of Pigs. Tensions came to a head between Fidel Castro and John F. Kennedy for the first time in 1961; the Cuban Missile Crisis the following year would worsen these.

Between 1959 and 1961, the United States worked to oust Castro from power in Cuba. American companies had significant business interests in Cuba, particularly in sugar and tobacco. Not long after Castro’s 1959 takeover, these were nationalized without compensation for U.S. interests.

The U.S. government was concerned about Castro’s close ties to the Soviet Union, particularly Cuba’s proximity to the U.S. Over these two years, the attempts made against Castro’s government were largely covert, driven by the CIA.

In January 1961, the U.S. and Cuba officially severed diplomatic relations. Some of Kennedy’s advisors recommended largely ignoring Cuba; however, Kennedy felt that a victory over Cuba would signal a win in the Cold War.

On April 15, 1961, the U.S. sent Cuban exile pilots, in U.S. planes painted to look like Cuban planes, to bomb Cuban air force airfields. The attack failed, as Castro had already moved his planes. On April 17, the U.S. sent a small force of 1,400 men, military-trained Cuban exiles, to invade Cuba. The attempt failed within just 24 hours, as the U.S. force were significantly outnumbered by Castro’s forces and soon surrendered. Most were captured; the events of the assault were broadcast all over Cuba by a local radio station.

Kennedy feared the potential of World War III, so refused to engage in any further assaults on Cuba. In October 1962, the Soviet Union installed nuclear missiles in Cuba. These missiles were, of course, aimed directly at the United States. The conflict in the Cuban Missile Crisis was not between Castro and Kennedy, but the Soviet Union and the United States. It was resolved when Soviet leader Khrushchev agreed to remove the missiles, in exchange for a promise not to invade Cuba, and to remove missiles from Turkey.

Seven Key Moments in Fidel Castro’s Exceptional Life

April 1980: Castro and Carter

On April 20, 1980, Fidel Castro publicly announced that any Cubans who wished to leave Cuba for the United States could do so at the port of Mariel, west of Havana, Cuba. They only needed someone willing to pick them up. Cuban exiles in the United States responded by sending boats.

The Cuban economy was struggling, causing both job and housing shortages. Throughout April, Cubans were crowding into embassies of other countries, requesting political asylum. Spain and Costa Rica each agreed to accept a small number of refugees.

The Mariel boatlift addressed these issues by reducing the population of Cuba. In the late 1970s, U.S. President Jimmy Carter had begun the process of re-establishing contact with Cuba. Travel to Cuba was once again allowed, and Cuban-Americans could send money to emigrating family members in Cuba.

The Carter administration had an open-door immigration policy for Cubans; they could immigrate to the U.S. with ease if they could leave Cuba and were treated as refugees. With the Mariel boatlift, a much larger number of Cubans entered the U.S. Some 1,700 boats left Cuba, containing a total of 125,000 individuals. While the journey was short, the boats were frequently overloaded, and 27 migrants died on the journey to the United States.

While many of the Cuban exiles who fled to the United States had family to sponsor them and transitioned relatively easily to life in the United States, refugee camps were established for others. The United States learned that some of those in the Mariel boat lift had been released from prison or from mental institutions, and others lacked sponsors in the United States. Some 1,700 of the 125,000 were jailed when they reached the United States and nearly 600 were detained while a sponsor was found for them.

The Mariel boatlift continued until October 31, 1980, when Castro again closed the borders, eliminating the easy ability to Cubans to flee to the U.S. Normal immigration was suspended for several years, and continued to be erratic for a number of years thereafter.

Seven Key Moments in Fidel Castro’s Exceptional Life

July 31, 2006: Fidel Castro & Raul Castro

Raul Castro is the younger brother of Fidel Castro, and became president of Cuba in 2008. He joined Fidel Castro’s rebel movement from the beginning, but was a much quieter voice in the movement, more often working behind the scenes. He was imprisoned alongside Fidel Castro, went to Mexico with him, and led a band of guerilla fighters during the Cuban Revolution.

While Fidel Castro maintained a strong public presence, his brother Raul served in many different positions, both military and political. He was defense minister and deputy prime minister in a much less public capacity than his brother’s, with fewer public appearances. Sibling interactions and even rivalry, were, occasionally apparent, as when Raul told an interviewer that Fidel would be sure to speak longer than he had.

Not long after Fidel Castro’s rise to power, Raul took on a clear role as a hardline communist. He implemented a number of communist reforms in the government and was, throughout Fidel Castro’s government, a key participant in all government affairs.

In 1997, Fidel Castro formally named Raul Castro his successor, and progressively, Raul Castro took on greater roles of power. In 2006, he took power for a short time while his brother was incapacitated by illness and surgery. This was the first public sign that Fidel Castro was ailing, and likely to retire in the near future. In February 2008, Fidel Castro resigned the presidency of Cuba. Days later, the National Assembly of Cuba chose him as president.

While Raul Castro had a reputation as a hardline communist, in the years since he assumed the presidency, he has implemented a number of reforms within Cuba, including privatization of some businesses, economic reforms, term limits for the presidency and resumed diplomatic relations with the U.S.

On November 25, 2016, Raul Castro announced his brother’s death, quoting a slogan of the Cuban Revolution, “Towards Victory, Always!”. Days later, Raul Castro interred Fidel Castro’s ashes in a granite boulder, following their final tour of Cuba.