Originally Published: September, 18th, 2019
Fidel Castro is undoubtedly one of the most important and influential leaders of the 20th Century. Born in a country known for its continual struggle for independence from foreign powers, Castro grew up with a constant yearning for revolution and an end to the injustices his fellow Cubans were enduring. A polarizing figure; on one side Castro is viewed as the embodiment of rebellion and independence from imperialism, being heavily admired in most if not all Latin American and third world countries. While on the other, he is described as a vile opportunist frequently depicted as a dictator who claimed control of his country and would ruthlessly suppress his fellow Cuban’s right of expression, forcing tens of thousands of his compatriots to flee and seek refuge in the United States. Today, three years after his passing there continues to be ardent debate surrounding his legacy. Nevertheless, it is important to step back and analyze how this figure came to be, and the political situation in Cuba at the time, and how Fidel Castro developed the ideas that would shape Cuba in the latter half of the 20th Century and into the present day, and how said ideas would change over time.
First, it is important to state that Cuba up to Castro’s claim to power had been a country which had already fought three revolutionary wars for independence from the Spanish Empire, before being occupied by the United States. For decades the concept of independence from foreign powers was a goal which many working class Cubans desperately aimed for. Revolutionary leaders such as Jose Marti were revered by the people of Cuba; Marti being a major influence for Fidel Castro during his entire lifetime (Castro, 19) The U.S backed coup of 1952 led by Fulgencio Batista, greatly infuriated the people of Cuba, who since 1940 had gained a constitution that gifted the Cuban people multiple liberties they previously did not possess, such as the right to elect their own leaders and the ability to voice their concerns, as well as establishing Legislative, Executive and Judicial branches of government. While this government was not perfect, the coup of 1952 effectively canceled that year’s upcoming presidential election and nullified said branches of government, with Batista reestablishing himself as sole leader of Cuba (Castro, 21). The anger caused by the coup led young attorney Fidel Castro to plan an attack on the Moncada Barracks which ended in failure and landed Castro in prison. Castro planned to defend his actions and convince the people of Cuba to retaliate against the brutish Batista regime. Castro’s trial defense speech is today known as History Will Absolve Me. This speech which was documented and later distributed across all of Cuba; highlights many of the goals that Fidel Castro believed would improve the lives of his fellow countrymen, who under Batista’s U.S backed regime were being economically and socially oppressed. In this speech, Fidel Castro proclaimed five revolutionary laws that he believed would improve the lives of his people, and hopefully ensure the toppling the Batista regime.
Castro’s first revolutionary law aimed to reinstate the aforementioned 1940 constitution as the “supreme law of the land” from which people would have the right to modify it/ change it, while also punishing those who break said law”. The second revolutionary law would grant property to “tenant and subtenant farmers, lessees, share croppers and squatters who hold parcels of five caballerías of land or less, and the State would indemnify the former owners through a ten year period” (Castro, 36). The third revolutionary war would ensure workers “the right to share thirty percent of the profits of all the large industrial, mercantile and mining enterprises, including the sugar mills”. The Fourth Revolutionary law allowed farmers to receive 55% of gains made from the sugar industry. Finally, the fifth revolutionary law was the most ambitious, it gave the state the power to confiscate “all holdings and ill-gotten gains of those who had committed frauds during previous regimes.”, special courts would be implemented to investigate the matter with “half of the property recovered to be used to subsidize retirement funds for workers and the other half would be used for hospitals, asylums and charitable organizations” (Castro, 36).
Looking back, one can notice that these five revolutionary laws are quite admirable because they aim to improve the lives of the farm workers and low income citizens who for decades struggled to make a living, while U.S interest groups prospered from the exploitation of their resources and hard work. As Castro explained in his defense, many of the farmers who worked in the farming industry for decades would “work for lifetime in a land that would never be theirs”. The second revolutionary law would benefit these people because they would finally be able to own land in which they had worked in for years. The third revolutionary law is similar but is of broader approach, including people who have worked in the industrial, mercantile, and mining industries the ability to receive 30% of profits made. The fourth revolutionary law focuses on the sugar industry which is the largest in the island, sugar workers were to be guaranteed 55% of profits made. The fifth revolutionary law aimed to benefit workers entering retirement, and the building of hospitals, asylums and charitable organizations with the money earned from illegally purchased land (Castro, 52). This revolutionary law also aimed to improve the education system for students and better pay for teacher.
While these revolutionary laws can be labeled as “socialist”, said laws would have aided in lessening the heavy burden that the Cuban people had to contend with on a daily basis while under the rule of Batista. When analyzing History Will Absolve Me it is important to look beyond the concept of socialism in order to fully understand the difficult social and political situation affecting the island nation after the 1952 coup. History Will Absolve Me is much more than just a socialist manifesto, it is also the defense of a man on trial for trying to start an uprising against a tyrannical government, and his description of what happen during the attack on the barracks, his motivations for planning such an attack, and his attempt to persuade people into a nationwide uprising. Castro begins his defense by stating the many irregularities regarding the case against him; which include the regime stating that Castro was ill and could not face trial, Castro not being able to speak to his attorney in private, the inability of Castro receiving any literary sources to build his defense, and rumors that there was an attempt to break him out of the prison (Castro, 16–18).
Castro mentions the constitution of 1940 several times in order to discredit the Batista regime. He begins by stating that the current government oppressing the nation was an unconstitutional state, which “took advantage of the Army’s discontent and used it to climb to power on the backs of the soldiers” (Castro, 30). Thus the criminal charges against him which included imprisonment from five to twenty five years, was invalid. He defends his point by stating that the events that occurred on July 26th did not adhere to the penalty of armed uprising against the constitutional powers of the state because said government was illegitimate. Castro states that the July 26th movement was not an uprising against a “single power”, but an “illegal power” (Castro,21). He furthers this by stating how the regime had lied to the nation by hiding the facts about the attack itself, erroneously stating that the attack was carried out by men who had infiltrated the army and were under the command of generals, when in reality the attack was carried out by college students with zero military experience (Castro, 22). Castro declared that had the planned attack succeeded there was no doubt that the people of Santiago de Cuba and Bayamo would have rallied behind their cause, citing the cries of both Yara and Baire as prior examples (Castro, 33). During his defense Castro was extremely critical of the “inhumanity” of the army after the attack failed and the rebels had surrendered, with most of his men being executed. According to Castro, of the 165 men involved in the attack, 95% were executed (Castro, 25). Castro uses all these arguments in order to put pressure on the government, while at the same time rallying thousands of people to his cause. This would culminate with Castro receiving a lighter sentence, his release in 1956 and the eventual successes of the July 26th Movement.
In closing, History Will Absolve Me is a fascinating document, because it showcases Fidel Castro’s motivation for a revolutionary cause and the reasoning behind it. History Will Absolve Me also exhibits the many socialist ideas the young Fidel Castro believed would help alleviate the lives of his fellow Cubans and bring prosperity to the impoverished majority. Although Fidel Castro remains a controversial figure today, with many denouncing his authoritarian rule and deep sharp turn towards communism, with many people pointing out the very valid argument that one tyrannical government was simply replaced with another. Others argue that the success of the Revolutionary movement showcased to other third world nations that they too could revolt against Imperialistic powers. When analyzing the life of Fidel Castro it is important to look back at how his vision for Cuba began and how it would evolve towards a more authoritarian style, throughout his 47 years in power.
Castro, Fidel. History Will Absolve Me: Fidel’s Courtroom Speech in His Own Defense, October 16, 1953. Center for Cuban Studies, 1980.