Fidel Castro: From Jesuit School Troublemaker to Cuban Communist Superstar!
And You Thought You Knew The Man...
In 2015, U.S. President Barack Obama normalized relations between the United States and its neighbor Cuba.
Until 2006, when he stepped down and turned the government over to his brother Raul, Fidel Castro was the third longest-serving head of state at the time. Only the King of Thailand and Queen Elizabeth of Great Britain have ruled longer.
During that time span, Castro stayed in power longer than nine U.S. presidents, starting with Eisenhower in 1959, and ending with Barack Obama when Castro left office during Obama's second year in office. The venerable and beloved leader will pass away in 2016.
Here are some fascinating and little-known facts about this 20th century Cuban revolutionary.
Illegitimate Child of a Servant Girl
Fidel Castro was born as the result of an affair his father had with one of the family's servant girls.
Born on August 13, 1926, Fidel's father -- Angel Castro y Argiz -- had immigrated to Cuba from his native Spain. He ran a profitable sugar cane farm called Las Manacas and prospered financially.
However, Angel's first marriage collapsed and he found solace in the arms of his servant girl, Lina Ruz Gonzales. The rich farmer and his mistress would have seven children, including Fidel, and Lina will eventually become his second wife.
Catholic Castro Attended Jesuit School
When he was just six, young Fidel left his father's residence to attend school in nearby Santiago. He lived with his teacher, and when he turned eight he was baptized into the Roman Catholic Church.
His baptism allowed him to attend Santiago's La Salle boarding school. But even at this young age, Fidel Castro had a rebellious streak, and after misbehaving repeatedly, his supervisors chose to send him to a third school, and this one had much stricter rules and regulations: it was the Dolores School (the word "dolores" in Spanish means "pain"), and it was run by no-nonsense Jesuit priests.
When he turned 19, having survived his Jesuit school experience, Fidel entered a second Jesuit-run school, El Colegio de Belen in Havana. He studied many subjects, including debate, geography, history and law, but soon found himself spending less time in the classroom and more time playing sports, particularly baseball.
Ran For Student Body President… and Lost!
In 1945 while studying law at the University of Havana, Fidel became involved in student political activism. His dislike of the imperialistic influence of the United States was now growing stronger with every passing year.
He decided to run for student body president of the "Federation of University Students" on a platform promising the students "honesty, decency and justice." He planned to use the position to share his increasingly revolutionary ideas with like-minded students.
Castro was becoming more alarmed at the corruption in the presidency of Cuba's president, Ramon Grau, and gave a public speech in November 1946 where he blasted Grau's administration. The speech made the front page of a number of respected Cuban newspapers, and although he would go on to lose his race for student body president, Fidel Castro was well on his way to take his message not just to a few thousand university students, but to the entire nation of Cuba.
Castro the Lawyer
In 1945 while studying law at the University of Havana, he began to develop his anti-imperialistic thinking and began an active participation in student activism.
His activities became more public and his objections more vocal, and after upsetting both the current government and fellow student activists with his speeches, he left the university for a short while, going into hiding in the United States and also the Cuban countryside.
After things quieted down, Castro returned to Havana and kept a low profile. He went back to school and graduated from the University of Havana with a Doctor of Law degree in the Fall of 1950.
However, the young man's heart was not in the courtroom, but with his revolutionary friends. In March 1952, Army General Fulgencio Batista led a military coup and seized power in Cuba. The general declared he'd won the leadership post by "disciplined democracy," but Castro believed Batista was nothing but a dictator and puppet of the United States government.
Fidel Castro, the lawyer, was now transforming into Fidel Castro the revolutionary.
Gun Thief & New York City Honeymooner
In early 1948, student Fidel Castro visited Bogota, Colombia with a student group. The trip was sponsored by Argentine dictator Juan Peron, but ironically, while Castro's group was in Colombia, its leader, Jorge Eliecer Galtan Ayala was assassinated. Fighting broke out in the country between conservatives and liberals.
Fidel, as was his nature, joined the liberalists in their struggle. He helped his comrades by stealing guns for a police armory, but later was exonerated of any killings.
So he was allowed to return to Cuba, where later that year he will marry Mirta Diaz Balart, daughter of a wealthy Cuban family. Neither family approved of the relationship, but finally caving in, Mirta's father gave them tens-of-thousands of dollars to pay for a three-month honeymoon in New York City.
Though a son, "Fidelito" was born in September 1949, the couple's marriage only lasted six years, and they divorced in 1955. Mirta soon moved to Spain where she stayed for most of her life. Fidelito, however, grew up and was educated in Cuba, eventually becoming the temporary head of Cuba's atomic energy commission.
Revolution 101: Practice Makes Perfect
In 1952 Fidel began recruiting young men to join his anti-Batista group called "The Movement." Most of the recruits came from the poor sections of Havana, and within a year he had over 1,000 members in his secret organization.
On July 26, 1953 he and over 150 revolutionaries attacked a military fort just outside the city of Santiago. He hoped to take weapons from the armory and ignite an uprising with the poor sugar cane cutters in the area joining his rag-tag army. But the resistance was much more fierce than anticipated and the attackers soon suffered six fatalities and 15 wounded. Castro ordered a retreat and fled into the vast Sierra Maestra mountain range where he and nineteen survivors would hide out. Over time, the scattered rebels were tracked down and dozens were executed without a trial. Castro was lucky, and sent to a prison near Santiago where he was put on trial in the city's Palace of Justice and given a 15-year prison sentence.
On May 15, 1955, he was given an early release. That time behind prison bars gave him the opportunity to refocus, readjust and learn from the mistakes his first overthrow attempt had made. He quietly left Cuba and settled in Mexico for a year with his brother Raul, and trusted comrade Che Guevarro where they regrouped and reorganized their movement.
They called their new group the "26th of July Movement," and slipped back into Cuba for a second try... and this time, he would succeed. On February 16, 1959 he became the leader of his nation.
Led First Communist Nation in the Americas
When Castro first began thinking about overthrowing the corrupt Batista regime that controlled Cuba, he was more of a socialist than a communist. Brother Raul had already embraced communism and had a lot of influence on his older brother.
Once Fidel Castro was in power, he effectively made Cuba in a socialist state with one party, and under the rule of the Communist Party.
It was the first communist nation in the Americas, and this did not sit well with America's politicians and military leaders.
He's in The Guinness Book of Records--TWICE!
Seems Fidel had a lot to say: he holds the Guinness Book of Records crown for delivering the longest speech ever given at the United Nations. In 1960 he spoke to the General Assembly for four and one-half hours, a record that still stands.
He did even better in 1986 at a Communist Party Congress held in Havana when he spoke for over seven hours.
His second entry into the Guinness archives is the fact that a pet project of his was increasing a cow's milk production, and a cow called Ubre Blanca produced set a record by producing 29 gallons of milk in a single day.
He Quit Smoking Cigars!
Other than perhaps Winston Churchill, Fidel Castro was probably the most photographed cigar smoker in the world. Some of his more famous photographs show him with a cigar in hand.
However, in 1985 the one-time cigar-chomping guerilla fighter gave up his fine Cuban cigars. He we later tell friends, "the best thing you can do with this box of cigars is to give them to your enemy."
He would go on to live another 31 years.
© 2017 Tim Anderson