- 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
By the time Castro reached Havana, the 26 July Movement had grown to tens of thousands. No one will ever know how many there actually were in the movement, since no membership cards were ever issued: anyone could grow a beard and call himself a fidelista in early 1959. There was no congress of the movement, few officers, and no agreement on policy. Castro must have kept his eyes open toward the communists from the start, since Russia, the headquarters of the communist world, would be an alternative to the United States as a buyer of sugar and a supplier of arms. No doubt Raúl Castro, as a real communist, and Che Guevara, a long-time communist sympathizer, had been quick to point this out to Fidel. Even so, the thrust of the movement that Castro headed was in the beginning primarily nationalist and not communist, nor even particularly socialist. Castro told Rómulo Betancourt, the democratic President of Venezuela, in early 1959 that he was determined above all to have a row with the United States in order to purge Cuba of many past humiliations at the hands of the “monster of the north,” as the United States had been termed by José Marti, the Cuban nationalist hero of the 1890’s who was one of the chief inspirational figures of Castro’s revolution.
In slightly different circumstances, in a different generation, with a different international posture by the world communist movement, Castro perhaps could have lurched as easily toward the Right, as toward the Left—say, toward Peronism or fascism. Fascist techniques were used so much during the early days of the Cuban revolution in 1959 and 1960 that, indeed, that useful term “fascist left” might have been coined to apply to it. Castro’s cult of heroic leadership, of endless struggle, of exalted nationalism had characterized all fascist movements in Europe. The emotional oratory, the carefully staged mass meetings, the deliberate exacerbation of tension before the “leader” spoke, the banners, and the mob intimidation—all these Castroist techniques recalled the days of Nazism. Castro’s movement gained its initial support less from the organized workers than from the same rootless petty bourgeois classes that supported fascism in Europe in the 1920’s. As in Hitler’s Germany, the workers joined the movement late, only after they saw that it was beginning to be successful and would be in power for a long time.
The temptation, however, for Castro to turn the movement toward communism must have been strong in 1959, since he knew that would be the course which would most infuriate the United States. It was risky to be sure, but he was, above all, the man for risks. As for the old communists, they had in their ranks, as Castro later put it to the New York Times ’s Herbert Matthews, “men who were truly revolutionary, loyal, honest and trained. I needed them.” Castro, no doubt, was surprised by the ease with which the old institutions collapsed before him. They did so because they had been compromised by their support of, or association with, the discredited Batista. Castro could not have known how feeble the liberal response would be, since his own movement had been built partly on liberal enthusiasm. But he did know that if he lost the liberals, he would require a disciplined bureaucracy in their place—“I need them.” That was a true comment on Castro’s association with the communists in 1959.
There is also another simple, but essential point to make: everything in Castro’s past life suggested that if he were faced with having to choose between fidelismo (which would, in the end, imply adopting the rule of law and a risk of losing an election) and communism (which could give him an opportunity to remain in power for a long time), he would choose the latter. The brutality of communist regimes in practice never seemed to trouble him. In February, 1959, he made it perfectly clear that air force officers who had fought for Batista had to be found guilty of war crimes; a verdict of innocence, first returned, was rejected. Whatever hesitation Castro did display in 1959 was caused, surely, by anxiety lest an alliance with the communists might give power to them and their secretary-general, and not to himself. He needed to make certain that he could ride the tiger personally before he let it out of its cage. In this, he was showing himself primarily not the communist, but the Latin American caudillo that he really always has been.
Castro began to make use of the communists in the armed forces from the moment he arrived in Havana. Guevara made sure that the files of the BRAC, Batista’s anticommunist police section, were seized immediately after victory. The BRAC’s director was shot without a trial as soon as Castro’s men reached the capital. A prominent communist, Armando Acosta, was made commander of the old fortress of La Punta in Havana as early as January 5,1959—before Castro himself was in the city. Communist “instructors” moved into the army at once. Other communists were utilized from the start in the Institute of Agrarian Reform, which was established in May, 1959. By the end of that year, communists also were being appointed to ministries that were being abandoned by regular civil servants and fidelistas .