Fidel Castro: Not a Communist Revolutionary, just a Common Thug

In the aftermath of his death, there appear to be rather a lot of people labouring under the assumption that Cuban dictator Fidel Castro was a communist revolutionary.  In fact he was nothing of the kind, as John Lewis Gaddis explains in his book We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History (pages 179-181).  Following his overthrow of the Batista regime in 1959, Castro visited the US in order to drum up support for his new rule, even going so far as to give nervous assurances that he had no communists in his government on NBC’s Meet the Press.  As Gaddis writes:

Castro began his career as a revolutionary with no ideology at all: he was a student politician turned street fighter turned guerrilla, a voracious reader, an interminable speaker, and a pretty good baseball player.  The only ideas that appear to have driven him were a lust for power, a willingness to use violent means to get it, and an unwillingness to share it once he had it.  If he followed any example, it was that of Napolean, not Marx.

[It] seems more likely that Marxism-Leninism appealed to Castro for domestic and personal reasons.  As an authoritarian and historically determined ideology, it provided the best possible excuse for not holding elections, which might allow future rivals to emerge.  And if taking this path should attract support from the Soviet Union, then so much the better.

Having failed to win the support of the Eisenhower administration, who knew exactly what sort of man they were dealing with, Castro adopted communism purely for opportunistic and practical reasons.  He was about as much a socialist revolutionary as he was a democrat.  Naturally, the Soviets fell over themselves to shower any third-world thug who paid lip-service to communism with money, weapons, and other support and they did just that with Castro – even though his adoption of their ideology came to them as a complete surprise.

Many people think the USA is responsible for Castro’s rise and continuation in power, but most of the blame lies squarely on Moscow’s doorstep: without their cynical support in those early stages, Castro’s brutal dictatorship would likely have been over much more quickly.

Share

16 thoughts on “Fidel Castro: Not a Communist Revolutionary, just a Common Thug

  1. One should not exult over the death of a fellow human being, but I am having a hard time maintaining that principle with Castro. From what I can gather, the man held on to power by the power of a gun, and the gun was aimed at he people he ruled. There was little admirable about what he did.

    The whole Lefty media thing about Castro ‘surviving numerous US presidents’ is interpreted by the numptys as a measure of his supposed popularity, rather than the fact he would not hold a fair election to prove just how popular he was away from armed force.

    I despise the murderer Guevara — the sickening poster boy of the loony left — but Castro isn’t far behind.

  2. Pingback: Samizdata quote of the day « Samizdata

  3. Guess who said this of Castro in 1959: no googling, now!

    “He seems to be sincere. He is either incredibly naive about communism or under communist discipline – my guess is the former … his ideas as to how to run a government or an economy are less developed than those of almost any figure I have met in 50 countries.”

  4. Thug or not, he was not at all common. Extraordinary, more like. In December 1956, Castro was hiding in the Sierra-Maestra with a dozen rebels. In December 1958, Batista was packing his bags. Eisenhower’s team underestimated Castro’s popular support, his smarts and his charm. Even Nixon didn’t quite get it right. It proved a rather costly mistake.

  5. @ dearieme,

    That quote is included in Gaddis’ book.

    @ Alex,

    Fair point: I was referring more to his time once in power, when he became a petty tyrant like all the others.

  6. Yeah, but- he looks good on a Tshirt, and he’s a bit lefty, therefore he gets an uncritical write up in the Beeb and Guardian (by an ex KGBer!), whereas Thatcher gets her grave danced upon by luvvies in Londonistan.

    Cos Right-wing equals “literallyhitlerdontchaknow?”.

    Just ignore the pile of dead on the left, ok?

  7. Tim, I think that Eisenhower made a fatal mistake when he turned down the opportunity to meet Castro in 1959. Castro was not merely an adventurer from “Cabbages and Kings.” He rode a mighty wave of anti-American nationalism. Considering Cuba’s history as a client state of the US, it was to be expected. Eisenhower responded by preparing what would become the Bay of Pigs invasion. Not the wisest move, in retrospect.

  8. Alex,

    I disagree: the folly of America’s policy of embracing thugs as “our son of a bitch” was in hindsight counterproductive, and I don’t see why Eisenhower should have cooperated with Castro just because the Soviets were prepared to. Other than the Cuban missile crisis and the Bay of Pigs – both JFK blunders – Cuba has hardly been a problem for the USA. American policy might have been inconsistent, but I don’t see why they ought to have given Castro the time of day except for reasons of realpolitik which would probably have worked out as well as their support for the Contras in Nicaragua.

  9. Exactly: “embracing thugs as ‘our son of a bitch’ was in hindsight counterproductive” but Castro was, originally, not an SOB but a popular nationalist leader (his victory bore witness to his popularity) with an anti-corruption agenda (which had to be at least superficially anti-American). Was there a good reason for Eisenhower to avoid meeting Castro in 1959? Three years earlier, he’d had no qualms about meeting with Batista in Panama.

    But that’s not as important as the strategic implications of Castro’s ascent to power. In the Cold War game, when a player lost a piece, it went to the opponent rather than off the table altogether. Eisenhower realized that Cuba, an American protectorate of 60 years, was about to flip and turn into a Soviet protectorate. In response, he took the usual route and ordered preparations for an invasion. The exact date when he made that decision is debatable but the CIA’s camps in Guatemala opened in November 1960 so the CIA must have been recruiting in Miami for months by then (which all but guaranteed that word of the invasion would spread in the Cuban emigre community and eventually reach Moscow).

    Eisenhower’s team probably underestimated Castro’s popularity and preparedness. Via Che or otherwise, he had learned the lessons of the 1954 Guatemala coup the CIA orchestrated with Truman’s and Eisenhower’s approval. But, once again, that was not Eisenhower’s greatest miscalculation. He failed to answer the big question, “what happens if we fail?” What happened was Castro inspired generations of left-wing nationalists in Latin America and elsewhere feeding on resentment (often justified or at least justifiable) of American domination and arrogance.

    Later on, Castro also won the sympathies of millions of black Africans with his troops fighting South African proxies in Angola. Chances are, most Africans will remember him as a fighter against apartheid rather than a dictator. He didn’t quite achieve his presumed goal of leading Latin America but he understood strategic PR.

  10. but Castro was, originally, not an SOB but a popular nationalist leader

    I can’t remember the source, but I read somewhere that Eisenhower thought Castro was a thug who was interested only in attaining and holding onto power using any means necessary and as such didn’t want to cooperate with him.

    his victory bore witness to his popularity

    His credentials as a popular leader would be better demonstrated through an election rather than cheering crowds as he drove into Havana. History is littered with despots who took power with crowds cheering them on, only to fall silent (or be forced to remain silent) a short time later.

    Was there a good reason for Eisenhower to avoid meeting Castro in 1959?

    Yes: the above.

    Three years earlier, he’d had no qualms about meeting with Batista in Panama.

    I can accept the Eisenhower administration was not consistent, but I don’t see why the US erred in refusing to meet a violent, albeit temporarily popular thug simply because they’d met with other thugs previously.

    I accept that what followed could have been avoided, but let’s make one thing clear: the responsibility for Castro’s escapades in South America and Africa – which were usually disastrous for all concerned – lies with Castro and the Soviet Union, not Eisenhower for not indulging him enough. And this affected other people far more than it affected America.

    Eisenhower’s team probably underestimated Castro’s popularity and preparedness.

    Undoubtedly, but other than the Cuban Missile Crisis – which was partly triggered by America’s placing missiles in Turkey – what were the implications of Cuba falling under Soviet influence? America won the Cold War, remember: if they’d lost then this discussion would carry more weight, but they won and the Soviet Union lost. It is they who ought to be reflecting on their Cuban policy, not the Americans.

    What happened was Castro inspired generations of left-wing nationalists in Latin America and elsewhere feeding on resentment (often justified or at least justifiable) of American domination and arrogance.

    I agree, but what has been the effect of this? America has become very rich and Latin America has remained, by and large, a collection of corrupt basket-case economies which crash once per generation. I don’t know why any of this is evidence that the US were wrong to reject Castro in 1959. The mistake they made in hindsight was caring two hoots that the Soviets adopted him.

    Chances are, most Africans will remember him as a fighter against apartheid rather than a dictator.

    Yes, and look at the state of Africa as a result. Why is this America’s problem?

    I see Eisenhower’s rejection of Castro to be one of the few occasions when they did the right thing, even though it cost them politically (albeit they didn’t realise this at the time). I only wish the Americans – and the Soviets – had shunned more thugs who found themselves in charge of entire countries. And what would have happened if they had supported him? He’d have been another Pinochet or Ngo Dinh Diem, and America had enough of them on their books.

  11. I’m not sure “it ended well” translates into “he did everything right.” Generally speaking, any self-respecting empire should either crush a gifted demagogue like Castro or turn him into a friend and a client. But since history cannot be repeated, no explanation of its driving forces can be scientifically valid.

    Anyway, winning the Cold War was the easy part.

  12. Generally speaking, any self-respecting empire should either crush a gifted demagogue like Castro or turn him into a friend and a client.

    Yes, that is true. Although I’ve never been convinced America fitted the description of an Empire. They seemed awfully poor at conquering territory and placing their flag over it.

  13. Central America and the Caribbean were a special case starting from the Spanish-American war of 1898 or earlier until after WWII. Judging by the number and frequency of US military interventions, those banana republics were kept on a short leash.

Comments are closed.