Friday, August 04, 2006

Castro out, Castro in

On July 31, Cuban state television issued a letter read by Fidel Castro’s secretary. It said sustained intestinal bleeding required him to undergo what was described as a complicated surgical procedure, and requires several weeks of rest. The Cuban leader said the health crisis was provoked by severe stress because of a heavy work schedule during recent trips to Argentina and eastern Cuba. Castro named his 75-year-old brother and Vice President Raúl Castro as temporary leader of the Cuban government, military and Communist Party. Raul has served as defence minister, and is second in command of the Communist Party and Council of State, Cuba's Supreme governing body.

Raúl Castro has similar views to his brother and recognises the Party as the only source of power in Cuba. But he has also promoted free-enterprise farmers' markets and suggested the communist system could be reformed. Fidel Castro, who turns 80 on August 13, has been in power in Cuba for 48 years and his illness has unsurprisingly evoked mixed reaction. Castro was born in 1926 in the Eastern province of Holguin. Christopher Columbus landed there in 1492 and declared that Holguin was "the most beautiful country human eyes had ever seen".

Fidel comes from a family of six children. As well as Raúl, there is the eldest brother Ramón. Although not active in the military like his brothers, Ramón Castro aided in the ongoing revolution as the quartermaster for the troops of Fidel and Raúl. After the revolution he studied agriculture, and is chiefly responsible for many of Cuba's agricultural initiatives. There are also three sisters Angela, Juanita and Emma. Juanita Castro Ruz is estranged from her brother and now lives in Miami. She said on Thursday she has been told the long-time dictator is recovering from surgery and "doing well." She is a pharmacy owner who fled Cuba four decades ago, would not reveal how she learned of her brother's condition, but said: "The surgery was a major surgery. He's doing OK. He's out of intensive care, and he's in his own room." Castro's daughterAlina Fernandez is also estranged from her father. CNN said Thursday it had hired her as a network contributor. She was 3 years old when Castro took power and left Cuba disguised as a Spanish tourist in 1993.

Fidel was educated in Catholic boarding schools before attending the law school at Havana University in 1945. He became immediately fascinated by the politics on campus. Gangs controlled much of what went on in the political sphere, in some cases sanctioning murder to achieve the desired outcome. Castro took part in often violent demonstrations. At the time the island's government had become totally corrupt. Despite being nominally independent since 1898, no Cuban president could come into power unless backed by the US. Fidel joined the newly formed Ortodoxos party in 1947. Founded by Eduardo Chibás, Castro remained a party member for eight years. The party wanted revolutionary change by working within the system. Chibás lost the 1948 election and Castro left Cuba to attend a Pan-American conference in Bogatá, Columbia to escape political and police pressure. The heavy-handed police response to riots he saw there changed forever his view on how to bring about political change.

Chibás committed suicide after another disastrous electoral defeat in 1952. Castro was now the leading figure in the party. That same year Fulgencio Batista overthrew the Cuban government and established himself as dictator. The US immediately recognised his regime. Castro took failed legal action against him saying Batista had broken the constitution. But the case raised his profile as the most prominent member of the Opposition. The rebellion commenced in 1953 with an attack on the Moncada Barracks. It was led by the brothers Fidel and Raúl. The attack failed and one third of the attackers were killed. Castro was captured shortly afterwards. He defended himself at his subsequent trial. He was sentenced to death but Batista had recently removed the death penalty. He was sentenced to 15 years which was commuted to two after an amnesty in 1955. Castro then went to Mexico where he met Ernesto “Che” Guevara. Guevara joined Castro’s rebel group and organised the basics of guerrilla warfare. A group of 60 rebels landed in Cuba in 1956 but were mostly killed. The few survivors escaped to the mountains. They called themselves the July 26th movement after the day of the Moncada attack.

Resistance groups started to organise in the cities. Castro got international coverage when he was tracked down by a New York Times reported and a TV crew. In May of 1958 Batista launched Operation Verano aiming to crush Castro and other anti-government groups. But Batista’s poorly trained conscripts suffered mass desertions and the operation failed. In December the rebels won a decisive victory at the Battle of Yaguajay. This caused the provincial capital of Santa Clara to fall. News of the loss of Santa Clara and other losses elsewhere panicked Batista and he fled the country the next day. At the age of 32, Castro was now in command of Cuba. In 1959, he became Prime Minister. He immediately caused friction with the US as the new government began expropriating property owned by American corporations. He also quickly moved to expropriate farmlands and forbade foreign land ownership. An oil agreement with the USSR caused the US to break off relations in 1960. The 1960s was marked by US-Cuban crises such as the Bay of Pigs and the Missile Crisis.

Castro was supported by the USSR until it broke up in 1991. Cuba was left bankrupt thanks to the US embargo. However that same embargo has served to unite the country behind him. Raul Castro is credited with persuading his older brother to implement agricultural market reforms in the early 1990s which increased the food supply after the Soviet subsidies stopped. In the late 1990s, Castro has pushed for more developed relationships with fellow Latin American countries. The Bolivarian Hugo Chavez of Venezuela is a huge admirer of Castro as is the Bolivian president Eva Morales. As his health started to fail in the last few years, Cuba watchers have look for word on the succession.

Raul was anointed and this was confirmed with the adulatory coverage of the Comrade Raul's 75th birthday last month in the state media. Behind the scenes, his grip was strengthened by the appointment of several "Raulistas" to the party's newly re-formed secretariat. The new Castro era is about to start.

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