Posted by: Richard Frost | 17 Apr 2020

History feature: Cuba under Castro

Logo for UK news website In The NewsOriginal publication date: May 2007
Outlet: In The News
Photos taken: November 2016 (© Richard Frost)

Castro’s communist state prepares for change

Cuban president Fidel Castro’s recent no-show at the International Workers’ Day festivities, one of the highlights of the socialist calendar, has again sparked furious debate about the island’s future. Precious little has been seen of the larger-than-life figurehead since July 2006, when he temporarily ceded power to brother Raul Castro for “several weeks” after undergoing surgery for intestinal bleeding.

Richard Frost reviews the colourful presidency of Castro and the history of antagonism between the US and the west’s first communist state.

National Capital Building, aka El Capitolio, in Havana

El Capitolio in Havana

Castro’s rise to power
Castro took control of the island at the end of the ’50s following a lengthy militia campaign. After being released from prison for his role in a 1953 rebel attack, Castro promptly formed a new band of insurgents in Mexico – including the likes of Che Guevara, Camilo Cienfuegos and his brother Raul – and returned to the Caribbean island in 1956 to fight the military dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. Batista’s cruel repression fuelled Cuban resentment, gradually swelling the ranks of Castro’s rebels, and a steady stream of victories throughout 1958 prompted Batista to flee to Portugal on 1 January 1959, leaving the path clear for Castro to take over.

Fidel Castro, leader of Los Bardudos, at a Cuban liberation rally in 1959

Painting of a Cuban liberation rally in 1959

A thorn in the side
Despite supporting Castro by imposing a Cuban arms embargo in 1958, the US soon grew to distrust its neighbour. A wide-ranging set of political reforms implemented by the new government included the nationalisation of Cuban assets, meaning the US lost millions of dollars’ worth of investments almost overnight. The ejection of US-based Mafiosi and the violent suppression of political dissenters further soured relationships, while an aid agreement struck in 1960 between the Soviet Union and Cuba terrified the US as the Cold War loomed large.

El Malecon in Havana leading up to Hotel Nacional de Cuba

El Malecon and Hotel Nacional de Cuba in Havana

The Bay of Pigs Invasion
Responding to the perceived threat, the CIA began secretly training up Cuban exiles in Florida to help them overthrow Castro. However, the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion was a disaster – US president John F Kennedy denied the exiles aerial support in a bid to appear impartial, and Cuba quickly repelled the attack. This prompted the US to adopt a more covert method of regime change. In 1999, the then head of the Cuban secret services estimated there had been 638 plots to assassinate Castro down the years, with the CIA believed to have tried explosives-laden conch shells, poisoned diving suits and even exploding cigars.

Che Guevara Mausoleum complex in the Cuban city of Santa Clara

Che Guevara Mausoleum in Santa Clara

The Cuban Missile Crisis
The neighbourly dispute between Cuba and the US assumed global significance at the height of the Cold War in 1962. Soviet leaders, keen to gain a strategic foothold on their rival’s doorstep, struck a deal with Castro to install nuclear weapons on the island. The resulting Cuban Missile Crisis was the closest the world has come to nuclear war.

The crisis started when the Soviets launched a convoy of ships across the Atlantic to deliver nuclear missiles to Cuba. However, the US learnt of the plans and immediately surrounded Castro’s island, threatening to destroy any ship found running the blockade. As the convoy neared, both superpowers prepared their respective nuclear arsenals for launch. However, a war was narrowly averted when the Soviet ships belatedly withdrew, and the world breathed a collective sigh of relief.

Map of Soviet military units in Cuba during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis

Map of Soviet units during the Cuban Missile Crisis

An enigma
Modern-day Cuba is a puzzle. On the one hand, the island has a legendary healthcare system and an education-for-all programme that is almost as famous. On the other hand, hundreds of thousands of Cubans have fled to Florida and beyond following Castro’s crackdowns against free speech, freedom of association and anything “contrary to the decision of the Cuban people to build socialism and communism”.

Last year, as Castro handed over the reins to his brother, US secretary of state Condoleeza Rice called upon the Cuban population to rise up in support of creating a full and open democracy. The methods may have changed somewhat, but almost half a century later, it appears the US is still preoccupied with its diminutive communist neighbour.

Typical street scene in the picturesque Cuban town of Trinidad

Trinidad in central Cuba


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