Fidel Castro’s career as a revolutionary leader began, as it would later end, as a spectacular failure that would only increase his mythical legacy.
The Cuban Revolution is often dated to July 26, 1953, with Castro’s strategically imbecilic assault on the Moncada Barracks. At the time the barracks were the second largest military garrison in Cuba, housing twice as many men as Castro would bring to attack it. As biographer Robert E. Quirk would later write, Castro was “naively ignorant of even the most basic military matters. Success would require a miracle of heroic proportions.” But the young socialist lawyer justified the assault by saying that even if it failed it would have “symbolic and heroic value.”
He was mostly right. Outnumbered and outgunned, Castro’s band of rebels were quickly killed or captured (including Fidel’s brother, Raul). Some were later tortured and executed. Castro himself managed to escape to the mountains, but turned himself over to the government a week later after a Catholic archbishop guaranteed his life and safety.
Acting as his own lawyer, Castro defended himself at the sentencing phase of his trial by giving a four-hour speech which ended with the words, “La historia me absolverá”—history will absolve me. Those four words would not only become the title of his speech—which served as a manifesto for his movement—but also become the unstated justification for his later crimes against humanity.
Had Castro been executed while in prison, history may indeed have absolved him for his role in attempting to overthrow the Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista. Instead, Castro would live to become an even more brutal and ruthless despot than the one he replaced.
Despite the nostalgia for communism that remains in some leftist circles, the judgment of history has already begun to condemn Castro. But what would he himself, as a younger man, have said about his later legacy? Let’s compare some statements from his own “History Will Absolve Me” speech with his own actions as the long-ruling dictator of Cuba. (Sections in italics are taken directly from the speech.)
I have been brought to be tried in secret, so that I may not be heard and my voice may be stifled, and so that no one may learn of the things I am going to say.
Castro’s outrage over such rights violations didn’t last long. Even before the Cuban Revolution had ended, he began trying people in secret and executing those he deemed guilty. The Cuba Archive estimates that about 3,118 Cubans died in front of firing squads, and another 2,036 in extrajudicial killings.
One supposes that a lawyer has a right to speak with his defendant in private, and this right is respected throughout the world, except in the case of a Cuban prisoner of war in the hands of an implacable tyranny that abides by no code of law, be it legal or humane.
Castro complained of being denied rights that are common to prisoners, yet he himself severely restricted the rights of Cubans who were arrested and prosecuted for merely criticizing the government. As Human Rights Watch notes, such prisoners do not benefit from due process guarantees, such as “the right to fair and public hearings by a competent and impartial tribunal.”
Remember that this was during a period in which individual rights were suspended and the Public Order Act as well as censorship of radio and press were in full force. What unbelievable crimes this regime must have committed to so fear the voice of one accused man!
Castro may have condemned it during his trial, but he would soon recognize how censorship of radio and the press could be effective in covering up his own regime’s “unbelievable crimes.”
For decades Cuba has allowed free speech and freedom of the press—as long as the speech and press are controlled by the state and are serving the interest of Castro’s regime. According to the Article 53 of the Cuban Constitution:
Citizens are granted freedom of speech and press according to the aims of socialist society. The material conditions for its exercise are given by the fact that the press, radio, television, cinema and other mass media are state-owned or socially owned and can not be subject, in any case, to private property, Which ensures their use at the exclusive service of working people and the interest of society.
Even cell phones were banned throughout the country until 2008 when Fidel handed power over to his brother Raul. Use of the Internet, however, still requires a special permit, and all email is strictly monitored by the state.
As Castro himself asked in his speech, “Why such interest in silencing me?… Are they that afraid of the truth?”
Perhaps it would be fitting to allow Castro himself get the last word on how history has considered his reign. How would young Castro judge the dictator he became? Although he was talking about Batista, the words could have been said by any Cuban who has ever sought freedom (What [Cuban] heart is not set aflame by the promise of freedom?) while living under Fidel’s despotic rule:
I know that the regime will try to suppress the truth by all possible means; I know that there will be a conspiracy to bury me in oblivion. But my voice will not be stifled—it will rise from my breast even when I feel most alone, and my heart will give it all the fire that callous cowards deny it.
Joe Carter is an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College, an editor for several organizations, and the author of the NIV Lifehacks Bible.
Photo Credit: Fidel Castro speaking in Havana in 1978, via Wikimedia Commons.