Dictators in history: Fidel Castro

Having learned of the death of Fidel Castro this morning, I thought it would be timely to revisit a post I did on him last year (originally a guest post on the blog of fellow Crooked Cat author Nancy Jardine), part of a series comparing Carlos, the fictional dictator of my novel Revolution Day, to various real-life dictators. Though Carlos was not based upon anyone in particular, there are some distinct echoes of Castro in his career (though also some notable differences). It will be interesting to see how history judges the man. I suspect there will always be some who regard him as a hero and others who regard him as a villain. Good or bad, he was certainly an iconic figure who will be remembered for a long time.  Anyway, here’s the post ….

Dictators in history: Fidel Castro

My novel Revolution Day follows a year in the life of Latin American dictator Carlos Almanzor. Carlos is a fictional figure and is not based upon any particular individual. Nevertheless, his life and career share many elements with those of real dictators and in some cases I consciously drew on historical events in writing the novel.  I thought it would be interesting to explore, in a series of blog posts, the lives of some real-life dictators, and to look for similarities and differences between their careers and characters and those of my own fictional dictator.  In the next of this series, I’m looking at one of the most colourful and well-known of all: Fidel Castro of Cuba.

Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz was born in 1926 in Biran, Cuba. His father, Angel, had become a wealthy sugar cane farmer, so the young Fidel was well-educated at boarding schools including the Jesuit Colegio de Belen and subsequently he studied law at the University of Havana.  Here he had his first introduction to radical politics, becoming a passionate opponent of US intervention in the Carribean and the corruption of the then Cuban government under president Ramon Grau.  Not yet a communist, he joined the Partido Ortodoxo, which advocated good government and social justice, and became increasingly active in often violent protests both in Cuba and abroad.  In 1948 he married wealthy student Mirta Diaz Balart, who gave birth to a son in 1949, and in 1950 he became a Doctor of Law.

It was the seizure of power by Fulgencio Batista in 1952 that transformed Castro into a fully-fledged revolutionary after a short legal career. He formed a group called “The Movement” and orchestrated an attack on the Moncada barracks near Santiago on 26 July 1952. This failed, leading to the arrest of most of the revolutionaries, including Castro himself, who was sent to prison for 15 years. He was released in 1955 after an amnesty, but still closely watched. He left the country, seeking support first in Mexico, where he first met Bolivian revolutionary Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, and then in the US. Now divorced, he had fathered two more children with different women (later there would be six more, and a second marriage).

Castro returned to Cuba in November 1956, with 81 revolutionaries in the 60 foot yacht Granma and established a base in the heavily forested Sierra Mestra. Here he built up his forces and began to wage a guerilla war against the Batista government.  As Batista’s position weakened, his own troops began to defect and a general sent to destroy the guerillas instead agreed an armistice with Castro. Batista fled the country on 31 December 1958. A moderate lawyer was appointed as provisional President, and on 16 February 1959 Castro became the Prime Minister of Cuba.

By now a committed Marxist, Castro did not admit this openly until 1961, in the hope of retaining the support of moderates. Nevertheless, he quickly implemented sweeping agrarian and social reforms. Much of the Cuban middle class fled the country and the economy rapidly deteriorated.  Anti-Castro groups also began guerilla attacks against his regime. In response, Castro dealt ruthlessly with counter-revolutionaries, executing many, and suppressed dissent.

Though Castro briefly courted the US after the revolution, even meeting (then vice-President) Nixon, the US-Cuban relationship quickly took on the character of enmity and mutual contempt that it retained for decades, and the regime thereafter depended heavily upon support from Soviet Russia.  Two crises soon ensued: the Bay of Pigs incident in 1961, where US-backed Cuban exiles tried unsucessfully to invade Cuba, and the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, a stand-off between the superpowers over Russian nuclear missiles based in Cuba – perhaps the incident which came closest to starting a nuclear war.

In subsequent decades Castro devoted much of his energy to supporting revolutionary movements elsewhere in Latin America and particularly in Africa; despite his close links to the Warsaw Pact he was very active in the Non-Aligned movement and later embraced environmentalism. While Castro thus played a high-profile role on the world stage, in Cuba itself, the combination of hard-line socialist policies (such as the closure of all privately-owned businesses in 1968) and the hostility of the US and other potential trade partners left the economy weak and dependent upon Soviet support. When that support was no longer on offer as the Soviet era came to an end, the Cuban economy shrank by 40% and Castro was forced to introduce some economic liberalisation and seek better relations with the west, whilst also forging relationships with emerging socialist governments in Latin America.

Ultimately, Castro was a great survivor, weathering many storms and reputedly more than 600 assassination attempts to retain power into his eighties, when he handed over the Presidency to his younger brother Raul in 2008.

Castro is a good illustration of the fact that the moral landscape in which dictators operate is often far from clear cut. Undoubtedly sincere in his political beliefs, he did many things to improve the lot of the poorer people of Cuba – for example, in raising literacy rates. Yet the rigidity of his ideology led to economic problems, and instilled in him a ruthless streak that paid little regard to democracy or human rights, leading many Cubans to flee their country.

Carlos and Castro

Like Castro, Carlos was trained in law and was a campaigning lawyer in his early career. Politically he was originally on the left, a socialist but never, unlike Castro (and several of his own close associates) a Marxist. He has none of the ideological zeal that led Castro to promote revolution in other countries. Nevertheless, like Castro he would enjoy a close relationship with the Soviet Union after his rise to power – and like Cuba his country would suffer economic collapse as a result of the over-zealous imposition of socialist reforms. Unlike Castro, however, Carlos responds to this pragmatically, re-introducing capitalism and even seeking rapprochement with the US (albeit temporarily – they are later re-installed as the arch-enemy).

In personality, Carlos differs from Fidel in many ways: though sharing some of his abilities as an orator he is a less charismatic, more inward-looking man, lacking Castro’s penchants for sport and womanising.  The pair do share one important characteristic in common, though: an unshakeable belief that they alone understand the true way forward for their countries, and therefore must exercise total control over them. As a result, from idealistic beginnings, both men come to embrace autocracy and repression.  Both are thus morally ambiguous characters: neither wholly good nor wholly bad.

Information about the book and excerpts can be found on the Revolution Day page on my website: http://www.tetaylor.co.uk/#!revday/cwpf.

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