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Fidel Castro

Fidel Castro
(1927-    )
Cuban Revolutionary

Fidel Castro led a politico-military revolution in Cuba and established the first Communist state in the Western Hemisphere. Cuba, with Castro still in charge, remains today one of the world’s few surviving Communist countries. Although his influence is waning, Castro continues to provide the greatest threat to peace and political stability in the Americas.

Castro, born on August 14, 1927, in Mayari in the Cuban province of Oriente, lived a childhood of privilege on his parents’ sugar-cane plantation and attended a Catholic high school in Havana. In 1945, Castro entered the University of Havana as a law student and became politically active with several groups opposing the Cuban regime and other governments across Latin America. Castro aided exiles preparing to overthrow Dominican Republic leader Rafael I. Trujillo until the Cuban government broke up the group in 1947. a year later, Castro participated in riots in Bogotá designed to disrupt the Ninth International Conference of American States.

Castro graduated with a law degree in 1950 believing in the power of politics. He joined the reform-minded Ortodoxo Party and sought a position in the Cuban Congress, but the overthrow of the government of Calos Prio Socarras by Fulgencio Batista terminated the planned elections. When he became aware of the corruption and excesses of the Batista regime, Castro began plans for military rather and political action.

On July 26, 1953, Castro led 160 fellow revolutionaries in an attack against the Moncada army barracks in Santiago de Cuba, capturing weapons and supplies and encouraging the civilian population to rally to his cause. All of his objectives failed. Government troops killed or captured most of his force. Castro received a fifteen-year prison sentence; Raul, his younger brother, a thirteen-year term.

A year later, Batista granted a countrywide amnesty, in response to political pressures, which released the Castro brothers. His revolutionary zeal undampened, Castro went to Mexico to reform his army in order to lead a rebellion he called “26th of July” in honor of the failed attack against Moncada. Castro, in command of an “army” of eighty-one revolutionaries, including his brother and Argentine doctor Che Guevara, landed on the southern coast of his home province of Oriente on December 2, 1956. Again, Castro faced disaster as Batista’s troops captured all but a dozen of the rebels within days of their landing.

Fidel, Raul, Che, and a few other survivors fled into the Sierra Maestra Mountains to continue guerrilla operations and conduct a propaganda campaign to win support for their cause from the peasants and the middle class. The 26th of July movement gained followers and momentum as much from the excesses and cruelty of Batista as from Castro’s activities. Adapting the guerrilla doctrine of Sun Tzu, Mao Zedong, and Vo Nguyen Giap, Castro gained power by merely existing and maintaining a presence as he recruited those unhappy with the current government.

During Castro’s two years in the mountains, his movement gained sufficient strength, primarily from those abandoning the current government, to force Batista to flee Cuba on January 1, 1959. Castro moved into Havana and became the self-appointed premier of Cuba. Although he would continue to wear his trademark battle fatigues as a symbol of his military past, Castro reverted back to a politician and dedicated most of his time to running his country.

Throughout the revolution, Castro promised to form an honest government, guarantee freedom of the press, and respect the rights of individuals and private property, as outlined in the 1940 Cuban Constitution. Instead, he executed more than a thousand of Batista’s followers and other adversaries and began to socialize the island’s economy. He confiscated American assets, worth more than $1 billion, and spoke against “Yankee imperialism.” On January 31, 1961, the United States broke off diplomatic relations with Cuba. Later that year, Castro, admitting that he had always been a Marxist, began accepting assistance, including military aid, from both the Soviet Union and Communist China.

Castro solidified his control of Cuba by his embarrassing defeat of the U.S.-supported, poorly prepared and led Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961 that attempted to depose him. He suffered a setback the following year when the United States forced the Soviet Union to remove its missiles from the island, but Castro remained the leading Communist in the Western Hemisphere.

During the late 1960s, Castro attempted to export his political ideas. His first effort, in Bolivia, failed with Guevara’s death in 1967, but throughout the 1970s, Cuban soldiers, supplied and armed by the Soviets, supported Marxist uprising throughout Central and South America and Africa. Castro explained these ventures as necessary to support Marxism, but, more importantly, to keep the Cubans united and energetic against a clearly defined enemy.

Castro’s Cuba failed to flourish, however, and when the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s, economic aid stopped. The island’s economy has continued to diminish, and only Castro’s iron-handed rule has sustained his power. As one of the last surviving Communist regimes in the world, Cuba faces almost insurmountable odds.

Without the existence of his military force, Castro would never have been able to take over the Cuban government. However, regardless of its importance, the military aspect of Castro’s revolution takes a distant second place to his abilities to politicize and propagandize. While Castro successfully exported his military influence during the 1970-80s, his power today has dwindled to Cuba itself and that is fading with the island’s weakened economy.

Castro joins this list of influential commanders as much for the location of his triumph over Batista just ninety miles off the American coast, as for any long-lasting impact on the balance of power or the future of Marxism. It is likely that, more than most described in this list, his power and influence will decline with passage of time.