Fidel Castro (1926-2016) was unquestionably the central figure in Cuba’s independent history of 118 years. Before him, the country was either under US occupation or was, in effect, a protectorate of the United States. The Cuban economy from the 1930s was dominated by the American Mafia. It seemed Cuba’s fate, like much of the Caribbean and Central America, to be always subject to US domination.
After a relatively short insurgency in the Sierra Madre Oriental, Castro’s guerrillas overcame the rotten dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, taking advantage of a passing spasm of irresolution in the United States over whether to keep supporting the failing dictator. On January 1, 1959, they marched into Havana.
Fidel Castro faced a dilemma upon assuming power. Cuba was a small island only a short boat ride from the United States, which had been coveted by the US since the early 19th century. While the US had not chosen to annex Cuba (unlike Puerto Rico) after the Spanish-American War, it still assumed the right to call the shots. Castro could stay in power and preside over such modest reforms as the US would support, or he could risk being overthrown by insisting on a more sweeping revolutionary agenda. As became evident over the next couple of years, he chose the revolutionary course. He accepted the necessary corollary to that choice: to survive in the face of US hostility, he would need an outside protector, and in the middle of the Cold War, that had to be the Soviet Union.
Cuba was truly transformed by the Revolution. What had been a grotesquely unequal society is now among the world’s most egalitarian.
Fidel had little in common with the Soviet leaders, but being dependent on the Soviets was far better than dependence on the US, because the Soviets actually favored the revolutionary transformations Castro wanted to bring about. It was a stable partnership that provided security for the revolutionary regime, right up to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. But it was not in the interests of the Soviets for Cuba to break its dependence on sugar, so the island remained close to a monoculture for purposes of international trade. Its economic viability, like its military security, depended on Soviet support.
Cuba was truly transformed by the Revolution. What had been a grotesquely unequal society is now among the world’s most egalitarian. Health care is free and on a par with the most developed countries. Education is far more widespread. The Mafia was gone, along with a large contingent of irreconcilable exiles who mostly fled to Miami. The US Embassy closed, and the US was reduced (after the failed Bay of Pigs CIA invasion in 1961) to covert actions and an economic embargo as means to bring about regime change. Neither worked.
Like Mao and Lenin, Fidel was a revolutionary tyrant who had a vision of the society they intended to build. Stalin was a tyrant with no vision save the paranoid need to keep power and destroy his rivals. Post-Stalin apparatchiks such as Khrushchev, Brezhnev or Gorbachev were just party men trying to keep the ship afloat.
With the Soviet collapse, Castro had to start adapting Cuba to the global capitalist economy, while maintaining its independence of US domination, even without the Soviet nuclear umbrella. With a decaying sugar sector and a small mining sector, Cuba has had to build up tourism as its economic mainstay, relying mostly on Europeans, Canadians and Latin Americans. This year, under Fidel’s younger brother, Raúl, and US President Barqack Obama, normal diplomatic relations with the United States were restored, while ever more openings for contact and trade with the US were allowed.
Cuba was a satellite of the US from 1898 until 1959. Fidel Castro endeavored mightily to achieve escape velocity in order to consolidate the new revolutionary order. But without Soviet support, a return to the US orbit became inevitable. The gravitational force is just too great. The final reabsorption probably won’t happen until after Raúl passes, but it will happen. How much of revolutionary Cuba will survive remains to be seen.