When Fidel Castro and his comrade in arms Che Guevara organized their ragtag revolutionary army, Cuba was under the thumb of organized crime. I mean that literally.
The Fulgencio Batista regime was an extension of the Mafia. The island-economy lived off the casinos of Havana, patronized mainly by American gangsters. A small cabal of sugar plantation owners accounted for the rest of the economy. For the rich, “anything goes.” For the many living in misery, “nothing comes.”
Against that backdrop, the charismatic Castro was seen as a liberator. He threw out a corrupt and tyrannical regime and replaced it with a social democracy that put people’s needs first. His ragtag troops marched from the far end of the island and entered Havana a triumphant army cheered by the people.
Washington did not take lightly the easy overthrow of a loyal client regime. They launched an invasion spearheaded by Cuban exiles. That invasion died on the beach, at the Bay of Pigs as the Cuban people rallied behind their new revolutionary leader.
Twice humiliated, Washington threw a crippling economic embargo around Cuba. Subsequently, the CIA launched a total of 600 assassination attempts against Castro. The revolutionary regime survived the embargo, but not without great sacrifice. Castro survived all the assassination attempts and courageously stood up to the United States for five decades, defying America’s self-proclaimed hegemony over that hemisphere.
The Cuban liberation inspired other movements of national liberation that emerged in the decades that followed. Castro had an ardent following not only among Latin American revolutionaries but among their Asian and African colleagues as well. Cuban volunteers directly and openly assisted liberation movements elsewhere. Castro was never shy about exporting his revolution. His comrade, Guevara, was killed in Bolivia shortly after the triumph in Havana, fighting alongside local revolutionaries.
Castro sent troops and materiel to support the revolutions in Namibia and Angola, sometimes personally plotting the conduct of revolutionary war from way across the Atlantic. Cuba staunchly supported the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, earning the friendship and admiration of one Nelson Mandela.
Although Cuba remained a poor country, its primary healthcare and educational systems became the envy of even the most developed countries of the world. Cuba produced the most healthcare professionals per capita, allowing the country to send out medical expeditions abroad. Most recently, a large Cuban medical contingent was sent to eastern Africa to help fight the Ebola outbreak. The well-developed healthcare system was supported by excellent laboratories that produced inexpensive medicines supplying many countries.
When Washington threw an economic cordon around Cuba after the 1959 revolution, the country was caught with a bountiful sugar crop on the eve of the hurricane season. The Soviet Union came to the rescue, sending a fleet to take out the sugar. In exchange for that gesture, for which Castro was always grateful, the Soviet Union brought Cuba firmly into its circuit, setting up missile facilities on the island aimed at the United States. These facilities, in turn, provoked the “missile crisis” that nearly led to a nuclear war between the two superpowers.
Castro’s government survived the demise of the Soviet Union as well as 10 US presidencies. That is a testament to the extent to which his people supported his revolution. Cuba was poor, but among its population no one was poorer than the others.
Castro’s regime was, to be sure, regularly denounced for being repressive. Even when the Obama administration, at the instance of Pope Francis, began the process of thawing US-Cuban relations, this was strongly resisted by American conservatives. In the United States, opinion on the validity of Castro’s revolution continues to be intensely divided.