- Historic Sites
The U.S. And Castro, 1959–1962
Was the Cuban leader always a Marxist or did the United States impel him in that direction? A distinguished historian of Cuban affairs examines the critical years when the Castro revolution became a communist dictatorship.
October/November 1978 | Volume 29, Issue 6
Some would say that this question presents no real problems. Earl Smith, Arthur Gardner, and some others thought that Castro had been a communist for years. William Pawley claimed to have heard Castro, during riots in Bogotá in 1948, proclaim on the Colombian radio: “This is Fidel Castro from Cuba. This is a communist revolution.…” This interpretation of Castro’s early loyalties has had corroboration from Castro himself. In a speech in Havana in December, 1961, he said that he had been an apprentice Marxist-Leninist for many years: “I absolutely believe in Marxism! Did I believe on 1 January ? I believed on 1 January.…” More recently in a taped interview in Cuba with American television reporter Barbara Walters, in mid-1977, Castro said (though the section was excised from what was shown the U.S. viewing audience): “I became a communist before reading a single book by Marx, Engels, Lenin, or anyone. I became a communist by studying capitalist political economy.…When I was a law student in the third year at the University of Havana.…I became what could be called a Utopian communist. Then I was introduced to Marxist literature.…” In another U.S. television interview, shown by CBS on June 10, 1977, he recalled his meeting with Vice President Nixon in April, 1959, and said that at the time, “I was a communist. I personally was a communist.” In 1961, moreover, he had explained that if he had admitted in the Sierra Maestra how extreme his opinions really were, he would have been killed then and there.
Castro, therefore, had lent the support of his own authority to what may be described as a “conspiracy theory” in explanation of the Cuban revolution. Some other points can be added. For example, Fidel Castro’s brother and intimate adviser, Raúl, had been an overt member of the Cuban Communist Youth Movement since 1953. Fidel Castro had influential communist friends at Havana University between 1945 and 1948, most of whom did well in the communist regime after 1961 (for instance, Lionel Soto, in 1976 Ambassador to London and an adviser on Cuba’s African policy; Flavio Bravo, Deputy Prime Minister in 1977; and Alfredo Guevara, for years head of the Cuban Film Institute). Though perhaps not actually a member of the Communist party, much less a Soviet agent (as some members of the FBI suggested), Castro—so the conspiracy theory runs—must always have been in touch with the party.
When the communist leaders in Cuba realized that Castro was likely to win the war against Batista, they began to help him and accordingly were welcomed into the large alliance over which he presided, and which they attempted to take over from the moment that he and they arrived in Havana. Naturally (again, according to the conspiracy theory), Castro welcomed communist support, and this was why, save for making a few liberal gestures in early 1959, he failed to create an organized movement, with membership and branches, or to name a day for elections, or even to clarify the attitude of his revolution toward the democratic Constitution of 1940.
Such a conspiracy theory, however, does not really explain Castro satisfactorily. In 1961 he had good reason to want to assure the communists that he had been a Marxist for many years, since at that time he was being challenged by old-time Cuban communists like Anibal Escalante. In 1977 he may have found it convenient to tell the world, and particularly the Third World, that he was a “utopian communist” in his university days, but at the same time, it is probable that he is not now averse to obscuring memories of exactly what he was doing at the university. Marxist or not, he was mixed up in the political gangsterism that stained the University of Havana at the time, and on a number of occasions between 1947 and 1949 he was implicated in murder charges. The Cuban Communist party in the 1940’s and 1950’s, moreover, was not an organization very attractive to a young man interested in power, and Castro was obviously that. Castro always believed in direct action, and the party’s leaders were something of an early version of the sober, cautious Eurocommunists of the 1970’s. In the mid1950’s, the public arguments between the Castroists and the communists over the desirability of an “armed struggle” did not sound like shadowboxing. The Communist party, it has been noted, did not play much of a part in the fight against Batista. Its leaders, indeed, were friendly with Batista’s ministers, some of them having collaborated with Batista during World War II, even serving as ministers in his government. The head of the Cuban party dedicated a book to Batista’s Minister of the Interior as late as 1956. The CIA thought that the Communist party numbered about seventeen thousand in 1958, which would have made it the largest organized party in Cuba, but its electoral showing always had been dismal.
On the whole, it seems likely that Castro—whose speeches even today do not read as if they were being delivered by one who thinks much of Marx (there is scarcely a word of Marxist jargon in them)—wanted to found a radical, nationalist, populist movement which would embark on action, rather than join the passive and ineffective Communist party. Thus, the 26 July Movement (which was named for Castro’s first blow against Batista, a raid on the Moncada barracks at Santiago de Cuba on July 26, 1958) grew quickly from its original few dozen, attracting idealists, fighters and opportunists, ex-political gangsters, as well as philanthropists. It no doubt always had the sympathy of some communists, but not of the party’s leadership until 1958.