Fifty-two years ago January 9th, Fidel Castro’s rebel army marched into Havana. As Castro addressed thousands of his countrymen outside, an act symbolic of Cuba’s fate played out.
Having suffered dictator Fulgencio Batista for seven years and revolution for six, the Cuban people were hopeful Castro represented a new beginning — one bringing democracy to the island. As he spoke, caged doves were released. The crowd became euphoric as one alit upon Castro’s left shoulder. Viewed as an act portending great things for Cuba’s future, the crowd was unable to observe a more telling sign from where it stood. A movie camera behind Castro caught the dove, after landing on his shoulder and facing the crowd, defecating upon the new leader’s back.
Castro’s true colors were soon exposed. Free elections Batista denied and Castro promised never materialized. He rationalized that competitive elections would only jeopardize the national unity his revolution had created. Continuing to tighten the reins of control over his people, he became less tolerant of those disagreeing with him — including many who had fought by his side against Batista.
As a rebel leader in the mountains, Castro attracted followers from among the poor by redistributing land. As Cuba’s leader in 1959, he continued the process, redistributing wealth to those who fought with him or supported his rule. He gained popular support by quickly reducing rents by half for low-wage earners and nationalizing the telephone company, reducing their rates by 50%.
By May 1961, Castro declared Cuba a socialist state. But socialism was not paying the bills. As the US stopped buying Cuba’s principal commodity — sugar — Havana found itself in an economic tailspin. Castro needed a deep pocket to prop up his government. The USSR became a willing source — until its 1989 collapse. The Cuban government’s failure to continue on its own was underscored last year by its firing of 500,000 government employees.
Castro’s wealth redistribution program was quite effective. By 2006, Forbes magazine ranked him as the seventh richest among world rulers, with an estimated wealth of $900 million. Not bad for a man with no business experience! While the Cuban government asserts Castro’s net worth is zero, former Cuban officials living in the US report that for years he has skimmed profits off various businesses.
As Castro sought support from the masses in his early years of power, he emphasized the need for education. In 1959, half the rural population was illiterate. To his credit, he encouraged the educated to go into the countryside to teach the illiterate, drastically dropping the illiteracy rate. However, Castro came to realize an informed population also endangered his control. This was evident in 2006 when the US Interests Section in Havana erected a giant electronic ticker tape that scrolled the latest world news and messages to the Cuban people. Castro was furious, demanding it be taken down — even personally leading demonstrations outside the US mission. When the US refused, he had a barrier of flags erected to hide it from view. Later, the US did remove it.
Another area where the Cuban leader made headway in his early years, only to back-peddle later, was healthcare.
Prior to the revolution, most doctors resided in Havana. When Castro ordered a more equitable distribution of medical representation outside the city, most doctors left the country. New medical schools were established to replace them. The redistribution reduced infant mortality and introduced free healthcare. But what started as a tremendous system “for the people” eventually evolved into one only “for the privileged few.” The myth of a system “for the people” was promoted by Michael Moore’s film “Sicko,” in which he contrasted an allegedly excellent Cuban healthcare system with an inferior US one. As negative films about the US receive wide distribution in Cuba, one wonders why distribution of Moore’s film was limited only to “the privileged few.” WikiLeaks cables indicate it was due to Castro’s concern that mass distribution might generate a backlash by a general population well aware that an excellent healthcare system “for the people” did not exist.
Moore is not the only Hollywood personality to promote the Castro myth. Jack Nicholson, Oliver Stone and Steven Spielberg were full of praise after meeting him — never once voicing concern for the victims of his harsh rule. Nicholson called Castro a “genius,” claiming “We spoke about everything.” It’s unlikely that they discussed why Castro’s own daughter defected, leaving her country of birth for the US (as have the offspring of communist leaders Josef Stalin and Nikita Khrushchev), calling her father a “tyrant” from the safety of US soil.
As Cubans go through the motions of celebrating the 52nd anniversary of Castro’s coming, they should watch the film of his 1959 speech. They will now better appreciate that what the dove did to Castro then he has done to them since.
Lieutenant Colonel James Zumwalt is a retired Marine infantry officer who served in the Vietnam war, the 1989 intervention into Panama and Desert Storm. An author, speaker and business executive, he also currently heads a security consulting firm named after his father—Admiral Zumwalt & Consultants, Inc.