Growing Up Castro

1. The Man in the Mirror

Most Americans assume that Fidel Castro burst fully formed onto the historical stage in January 1959 with the triumph of the Cuban Revolution: communist at conception, anti-American in utero, bilious at birth. The truth is more ambiguous and more revealing. History is full of misfits (Hitler comes to mind) and criminals (Stalin) who became tyrants. The young Castro was neither. Amiable, athletic, and intellectually gifted, Castro grew up in a wealthy and doting family during a period of great political unrest, a product of personal gifts and foibles, surely, but of local, national, and global forces besides. It is grandiose to say that the United States made Castro. But there is no denying that U.S. policies helped propel him toward the Soviet Union at a critical moment in the Revolution, making one wonder how things might have been different, and what his story holds for U.S. foreign policy today.

In March 1961, President John F. Kennedy introduced his Alliance for Progress, a Marshall Plan for Latin America. Designed to undercut support for Communist Cuba, the Alliance for Progress promised economic assistance to nations willing to undertake significant social and political reform. Criticized by some for its idealism and overreach, the program won the praise of many, stoking Kennedy's reputation as a visionary while auguring a new chapter in hemispheric relations.

Largely missed in all the fuss was the fact that Castro himself had anticipated the Alliance for Progress by two years. In May 1959, with his new Revolutionary government in desperate need of economic assistance, Castro flew to Buenos Aires to address a conference of the Organization of American States. Widespread underemployment and a lack of private property deprived Cubans and Latin Americans in general of the power to participate in the marketplace, Castro explained. With no markets there could be no profit making, no surplus, no investment--in short, no economic development. The solution was to stimulate purchasing power by redistributing land, diversifying agriculture, and establishing new industries. All of which took commitment, to be sure, but above all money--something the countries of Latin America simply did not have.

Castro estimated the cost of ushering Latin America into the modern age at "thirty billion dollars" over a period of ten years. There was only one country in the world that could conceivably come up with that kind of money in 1959: the United States. Turning to the U.S. delegation, Castro emphasized that Latin America wasn't looking for a handout ("We don't ask for donations of capital, we don't want gifts of money"). What the region needed were loans, which he promised to repay "with interest." The United States had as much to gain from such a program as its southern neighbors, Castro observed. Greater purchasing power throughout Latin America would mean a larger market for U.S. goods, along with new opportunities for investment. By creating "internal markets in each country, we can create a common market among all." But markets and economic development were only the means to a higher end: fulfillment of the "democratic aspiration and the most cherished dreams and hopes of this Hemisphere."

Castro's plea for help went unanswered, compelling him to turn to the Soviet Union for economic assistance, and leaving Kennedy to take up the plan two years later, only this time at the exclusion of Cuba.

Evidence from early 1959 of Castro's common dream for the Americas has been largely ignored by writers determined to pinpoint the precise moment of the Cuban Revolution's (and Castro's) unraveling, to prove or deny that Castro was always a communist in sheep's clothing, and/or to catalogue his many crimes. At best, this literature is inconclusive, convincing to those already convinced; at worst, it is distorting, leaving us with a caricature of a man who, however unsympathetic, defies easy characterization.

In the first year or so of the Revolution, Castro reached out for aid to both the United States and the Soviet Union, the only plausible sources of foreign capital at that time. In a polarized world he faced polarizing choices, but there is no reason to reduce his young life and developing worldview to such extremes. In his late 20s a maturing Castro tied Cuba's unrequited struggle for sovereignty and independence to a liberal tradition that encompassed the English Civil War and the American, French, and Latin American Revolutions, at the same time that he insisted that Cuba had a unique contribution to make to social and political science. Citing both Montesquieu and Bolívar, he imagined Cuba charting a third way, at once "democratic" and "socialistic."

In depicting Castro's young life, biographers have tended to act like prosecutors, scouring his past to find evidence to convict the person they don't like. This makes for dubious history and disappointing biography. Castro did not grow up wondering when he would become a communist or when to reveal his authoritarianism. These are our questions, not his. If we want to know how and why Castro became the person he became, we need to put ourselves in his place, to recreate, as humanly possible, his life going forward, as he actually lived it.

What was it like to grow up Fidel Castro?

In early January 1959, the popular American television host Ed Sullivan traveled to Cuba to interview the victorious rebel leader. Mainstream U.S. newspapers and periodicals had depicted Castro and his followers as a band of communist thugs. Sullivan wanted to see for himself. "Freedom is everybody's business," he told his New York studio audience. Sullivan finally caught up with Castro in the town of Matanzas at 2 o'clock on the morning of January 11, three days after Castro led his triumphant procession into Havana.

Nestled in a thicket of gun-toting soldiers, the dapper talk-show host put five questions to a soft-spoken, deferential, and clearly exhausted Castro: Are you Catholic? Weren't you once a baseball player? How many people did Batista torture? How do you plan to put a permanent end to dictatorship in Cuba? Finally, what do you think of Americans? Castro, speaking very passable English, answered dutifully: yes, yes, many thousands, institutional reform, and I have "great sympathy" for the people of the United States, who through "hard work" built a nation, which, comprised of "all the people of the world," "belongs to all the people of the world," serving as a refuge "to those who could not live in their own country." Gratifying answers all.

In truth, Sullivan seemed less concerned with what Castro had to say than in putting his own spin on developments in Cuba. Castro's army was not a band of "communeests," Sullivan told the folks at home, but a "wonderful group of revolutionary youngsters who wanted to make corrections"--and who even "carry bibles." He sought to assure Castro that, notwithstanding the negative press coverage, "the people of the United States have great admiration for you and your men"; after all, "you are in the real American tradition of a George Washington, of any man who started off with a small body, and fought against a great nation and won." Americans "like you," Sullivan insisted, "and we want you to like us."

The interview faded with Castro insisting that the feelings were mutual and promising to work on his English. Sullivan's studio audience was delighted. Amid thunderous applause, Sullivan signed off by observing that Castro was "a fine young man, and a very smart young man. With the help of God and our prayers, and with the help of the American government, he will come up with the sort of democracy down there that America should have."

In hindsight, early admirers of Castro and the Revolution--Sullivan, Edward R. Murrow, New York Times journalist Herbert Matthews, to name a few--have been pilloried for being naïve, complicitous in Castro's rise, or worse. Conversely, those like U.S. ambassador Earl Smith, who "knew all along that Castro was a Communist," are credited (not least by themselves) for being shrewd, unsentimental, realistic. In fact, it may have been the inability of American officials like Smith to accept the possibility that Castro was not Communist that ultimately foreclosed U.S. support for the Cuban Revolution, compelling Castro to ally with the Soviets. As late as spring 1959 well-informed journalists and a large slice of the American public expressed significant fellow feeling for Castro, which he reciprocated. The rapid erosion of that sentiment --and the common dream it represented--does not prove it insincere or misguided.