Castro, Cuba and Change (?)

This month, after decades of control over the country of Cuba, Raul Castro promised to step down as the countries president when his current term is up. This will bring an end to a regime which began when Fidel Castro took power in 1959, turning Cuba into a communist state.

Born on 13th August 1926, Fidel Castro came from the town of Biran in eastern Cuba. The son of a wealthy Spanish sugarcane farmer and a Cuban servant, Castro grew up with an acute interest in politics and the law. He studied law at the University of Havana, and entered the world of politics by joining the anti-corruption Orthodox party. In 1952, Castro ran for election into the Cuban House of Representatives but the election never took place. For in March 1952, the dictator, Batista, seized power. Castro famously stated this as being the beginning of his political journey: “From that moment on, I had a clear idea of the struggle ahead.”

That journey was to be a complex and bloody one. In 1953 he led a failed assault on the Moncada army barracks in Santiago de Cuba and was sentenced to 15 years in prison. However, two years later, in a bid to improve his standing with the USA, Batista released Castro as part of a general amnesty. Castro headed to Mexico, where he formed a working relationship with the revolutionary “Che” Guevara.

Determined to return to Cuba, in 1956 Castro, with a force of 81 men, sailed to the east coast of Cuba. As soon as they landed, government forces ambushed them. Only a handful of men survived, including Castro and his brother Raúl. They went into hiding in the Sierra Maestra Mountains. It was from there, with few resources at their disposal, that Castro and his brother began to organise the revolution which would change Cuba forever. By 1957 they were attracting recruits and winning small battles against armed patrols.

On January 1st, 1959, Fidel Castro arrived in Havana, and a week later he’d taken the position of prime minister. He wasted no time in turning Cuba into his idealised state. He nationalized all U.S. owned businesses, which prompted the United States to end diplomatic relations and impose a trade embargo. Reprisals were to go further than this, however. In April 1961, 1,400 Cuban exiles, funded by the CIA, landed near Cuba’s Bay of Pigs hoping to overthrow its new leader. Their plans ended in disaster though, as more than 100 exiles were killed and nearly everyone remaining was captured.

After declaring himself a Marxist-Leninist in late 1961, Castro began to make Cuba dependent on the communist Soviet Union for both its military and economic support. Cuba’s association with the USSR soon led to a dramatic escalation of tensions between the USA and Cuba; something that worsened in 1962 when it was discovered that Cuba was keeping a number of nuclear missiles just 90 miles from Florida.

As world diplomacy fought hard to stem panic that World War Three was imminent, after almost 2 weeks the Soviet Union agreed to remove the missiles. In return for the removal of the weapons, President Kennedy of America promised not to re-invade Cuba or attack Castro.

Despite his hostile approach to the rest of the world, Fidel Castro did many positive things within Cuba itself. He abolished legal discrimination, established electricity supplies to the countryside, provided for full employment and advanced improved education and health care. A recent report from Havana by The Guardian, explains that, “Thanks to universal and free education and healthcare, however, Cuba boasts first-world levels of literacy and life expectancy. The commandant made sure the state reached the poorest, a commitment denied to many slum-dwellers across Latin America.” However, these perks came at a price. Castro stopped any opposition to his rule, jailed thousands of political opponents and ended political elections.

The biggest impact of Fidel Castro’s rule on the population of the country was the abolition of private business and housing. The ruling government owned everything. This meant that hundreds of thousands of Cubans, including vast numbers of professionals and technicians, left Cuba, leaving the country, despite its educational gains, poor and lacking a skilled workforce. It was a status that would remain in place for many years to come.

Having switched his title from Prime Minister to President, Fidel Castro stayed in power until 2008, when he passed the rule to his brother, Raúl. Now, ten years later, (and 2 years after Fidel’s death), Raúl Castro has promised to step down at the end of his second term as president. Whether this will bring the hoped for upturn in Cuba’s economy and the life of its population remains to be seen. The chosen successor to the Castro dynasty, Miguel Díaz-Canel, shares the ethos of the family, and Raúl Castro himself will remain in control of the Communist Party and the armed forces until 2021. However, the fact that a change has been made has to be seen as a positive sign.Whatever happens next, the world at large, and the USA in particular, will be watching Cuba with interest.

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Dr Kathryn Bates is a graduate of archaeology and history. She has excavated across the world as an archaeologist, and tutored medieval history at Leicester University. She joined the administrative team at Oxford Open Learning twelve years ago. Alongside her distance learning work, Dr Bates is a bestselling novelist, and an itinerant creative writing tutor for primary school children.

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