Fidel Castro: The Observer Profile
The word Youth, with a capital letter, has a slightly sinister, significance in Europe - the Hitler Youth is an example. It conjures up ideas either of uniforms and uniformity or of indifference and irresponsibility.
In Latin America it has a very different significance. It means rebellion,
private enthusiasm, and political precocity. Older Latin Americans equate
it with students who
embarrass Mexico City bus drivers by organising unasked riots on their behalf. To these older people the sometimes fanatical enthusiasm of the young educated class
represents nothing more than growing pains.
They tend to forget that it was such young people who were largely responsible for freeing their countries from Spain over a century ago, that, while their elders cowered and prevaricated, it was the university students of Argentina who first acted against Peron, at the risk of their futures and sometimes of their lives: that in Latin America, the young people of this generation, whatever their class or background, are almost inevitably better educated than their parents, less cynical, and more energetic.
Fidel Castro, who now, if he wanted, could be the master of Cuba, is a member of this younger generation - he is still thirty-one - and at the same time, of the ever growing middle class that is changing the face of Latin American society.
He was born in rural Cuba on August 13th, 1927. His father had starting his working life as a labourer for the United Fruit Company of Boston but by the time Fidel was born had become the prosperous proprietor of a sugar estate. His Mother belonged from birth to Cuba's old-established landed gentry.
Fidel himself was brought up on the farm. He grew up in a difficult period of Cuba's history. Unlike the mainland Latin American countries Cuba had remained a colony of Spain until 1898, in the lifetime of Castro's parents, when it was freed by the Spanish-American war.
But the freedom was relative it came to Cuba during the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt in the United States. The days of Manifest Destiny and the big stick, when the United Sates was an unacknowledged imperialist power and United States involvement in Cuba was largely the responsibility of a capitalist newspaper propreitor call William Randolph Hearst.
The Cubans, like the Filipino's, were to Teddy Roosevelt "little brown
brothers." Having never been allowed by the Spaniards to run their own
affairs since Columbus
discovered their country in 1492, they understandably made a mess of it, and let opportunists take over the government. The United States occupied the newly freed
country almost immediately, on the grounds that it couldn't look after itself, and remained in virtual charge until 1923.
Young Fidel therefore grew up in an atmosphere of anti-United States feeling, in a country whose whole economy-based on sugar depended on the United States market. He also grew up during a dictatorship that of General Gerardo Machaido Morales, who had been in power for two years when Castro was born.
When Castro was a child, therefore, imperialism (Spanish or North American)
was hated, professional politicians were despised and dictatorship was
respectable middle classes tell it in a contemporary word: "Bolshie".
Castro, instead of being sent to an inadequate state school, went to Jesuit colleges in Santiago de Cuba and the capital Havana. Santiago is the capital of Oriente Province, from which the rebellion against Spain was launched. Havana was even then a centre of political and social corruption. The contrast and the lesson must have their impact on the growing boy.
Like the majority of his class and generation in Latin America, Castro became an idealist early at the University of Havana where he collected the equivalent of an M.A and an LL.B, he was already involved in politics more seriously than English undergraduates ever were, even during the Spanish civil war. He was in fact arrested for joining a group who intended to mount an expedition against Trujillo, the dictator of the Dominican Republic.
Machado had been overthrown in 1933 and replaced by a new government under Colonel Carlos Mendieta. But the power behind the throne was Fulgencio Batista, a former army sergeant-clerk who had realised that an army is run, in the last instance, by its NCO's and seeing the way the wind was blowing, had organised a sergeants revolt in aid of the 1933 revolution, and in 1940 (by then self-promoted to Colonel) got himself elected President.
After that Batista occasionally allowed professional politicians to replace him, but took over, by military coup, whenever it suited him, on the grounds that they were corrupt, which they were. In 1952 he removed Dr Carlos Prio Socarras, who was busily bringing charges of corruption against his predecessor of the same Autentioa party, while allegedly feathering his own nest. Batista having made himself President immediately showed himself more corrupt than either of them.
Fidel Castro was by this time a post-graduate student at the University of Havana. He was sickened by what was happening to his country. The vast majority of the people, white, negro, mulatto, mestizo, were sugar workers or urban poor and had never known the democracy, freedom or equality that all political parties - and Batista himself - claimed to stand for. The middle class and the intelligentsia were browbeaten and muzzled, the only people who were doing nicely were pampered army officers, high-class prostitutes, business men who paid graft to he regime and big-time gamblers who had left the United States for their own good.
On July 26, 1953, the tall brown-eyed, ascetic-looking young man, whose
name means Faithful, led an angry, crazy revolt against the Batista barracks
in Santiago de
Cuba, which failed, as it was bound to do so. So complete was the failure that Batista treated the whole thing as a childish joke and refrained from torturing or executing Castro: he merely imprisoned him. But despite Batista's contempt and his own failure, Castro's abortive revolution became a symbol to Cubans who believed in freedom and deplored dictatorship and corruption.
In 1955, Castro was released under a general amnesty and went into exile, first in the United States and the in Mexico. In both places he met plotters against the regime, comfortable exiles living in such places as Miami, forming shadow governments, and having emigre squabbles amongst themselves. He realised that these were not the types to fire the inspiration of a people and set up a new Cuba. The only way to do that was to fight and to show by one's own example that dedication could pay off against cynical odds.
On December 26 1956, he landed from a yacht on the coast of the Oriente with eighty-odd like-minded young men. The weather was against them; their arrival was delayed for two days and they landed in a swamp. The word had been passed to Batista and his trained professional troops moved in and wiped out all but twelve of the would-be revolutionaries. But the remainder, amazingly, were not disheartened. They took to the mountains and gradually gathered a core of guerrilla fighters around them, of all classes and both sexes.
They trained them on the lines of the Yugoslav partisans and the French maquis. The men disappeared by day and attacked by night. They ran rings round Batista's heavily armoured troops - who had United States-supplied weapons and later the promise of British ones.
They built up their force from twelve to 500, to 1000, to an eventual estimated 3000 with countless quiet local supporters and fifth columnists in Havana and elsewhere. To embarrass Batista they burned sugar estates (starting with Castro's own), blew up power stations, cut railway lines and carried out hazardous stunts such as the polite kidnapping of Juan Fangio, the motor-racing world champion from Argentina.
Their sympathisers all over Latin America smuggled them arms and whipped
up support. In Venezuela, which overthrew its own dictatorship a year ago,
Venezualuan of the 26 de Julio movement took space in newspapers to advertise for Cuban and Venezuelan volunteers and got them. Now all this has paid off and Batista's troops have capitulated to what Batista once described as "a small bunch of 'amateurs."
Castro's political ideas are still to some extent obscure. A socialist - though nowadays a more moderate one than in his student days - he believes in democracy and he plans to give Cuba just that for the first time in its history.
More important, he knows he stands for something much bigger: a new Latin America: democratic, Catholic and stable. He is part of a movement that has in the last few years overthrown dictatorships in Brazil, Colombo and Venezuela and maintained democracy elsewhere.
There are only three dictatorships left in Latin America to-day, and
the new democracy elsewhere owes its existence largely to the courage of
young idealists. But few have had their courage and idealism put to the
test as Castro's has been. His bearded, youthful figure has become a symbol
of the continent's rejection of brutality and lying and shoddiness. Castro
knows it and every sign is that he will reject personal rule and give his
country the opportunity to show by its own example that it can run its
own affairs as seriously as any other nation.