The death of Fidel Castro, the retired leader of Cuba, gives Americans an occasion to ponder why he is so famous. If we were challenged to name one Latin American leader, Castro likely would be the first person who comes to mind.
And yet, he presided over one of the smaller countries of the Western Hemisphere. When Castro made the revolution in 1959, the Caribbean island had just 6 million inhabitants.
Americans already knew Cuba for its sugar and also as the gambling mecca and winter home of the Mafia. Castro became newsworthy practically overnight as a guerrilla leader who defeated the 40,000-man army of the dictator Fulgencio Batista with just 3,000 fighters.
No sooner did Castro consolidate power than he confiscated all the properties of American businessmen in the country. He established the first (and only) socialist republic in the Americas and forged an economic and military alliance with the Soviet Union, the chief rival of the U.S. in the Cold War.
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Moreover, he got away with all these transformations in defiance of Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy. Together, they prepared a CIA-directed invasion force of some 1,500 Cuban political exiles. In April 1961, Castro’s peasant and worker militias needed just three days to defeat these invaders at the Bay of Pigs.
Then, to prevent an all-out attack by the U.S., Nikita Khrushchev persuaded Castro to accept Russian nuclear missiles in Cuba. The Missile Crisis of October 1962 resulted. It constituted the closest that the world has ever come to mutually destructive nuclear war. For these reasons alone, we might think of Fidel Castro. But there’s more. Castro inspired his loyalists to “make the revolution” at home and abroad.
They socialized agriculture, urban properties, education and health care. Everyone worked for the government, and the armed forces pitched in with hurricane relief and sugar harvests. Castro invited thousands of Latin Americans to come to Havana for ideological and guerrilla-training courses.
Leftist youths took up arms in many countries, hoping to emulate Castro’s success. The ideologue of the revolution and Castro’s close friend, Ernesto “Che” Guevara, died in 1967 attempting to make revolution in Bolivia. Thereafter, Fidel Castro became leader of the nonaligned movement despite sending thousands of Cuban troops, with Soviet support, to fight for national liberation movements in Africa.
His revolution has relocated more than 1 million Cuban refugees to Miami and elsewhere in the U.S. since 1959. The first wave of exiles consisted of political opponents; more recently, the economic migrants have predominated. The U.S. assisted in the relocation with its policies favoring Cubans over all other immigrant groups.
Washington’s contributions ironically assisted Castro. He tightened his control at home as the U.S. encouraged his domestic opponents to leave the country.
Until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Moscow generously subsidized Cuba’s decrepit socialist economy. Yet Castro did not fall from power when the USSR collapsed and its subsidies disappeared. Instead, he declared an austerity program during the Special Period in Time of Peace.
Castro rallied his countrymen and women to maintain the island’s independence from the meddling of the Cuban exile community and from the tightening U.S. economic boycott.
Castro had a saying: “Inside the revolution, everything. Outside the revolution, nothing.” It meant that supporters received a minimum of food, education and health but forfeited the right to criticize decisions of the revolutionary state. Capitalism’s chief detractor endured for more than a half-century despite residing next door to the world’s most powerful country.
For this alone, Castro became notorious.
Jonathan C. Brown is a professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin and the author of “Cuba’s Revolutionary Press,” to be published in the spring. He wrote this for the Dallas Morning News.