Fidel Castro: My Early Years

BY MICHAEL SMITH

“FIDEL: My Early Years ” by Fidel Castro, with an introductory essay by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Edited by Deborah Shnookal and Pedro Alvarez Tabio. Ocean Press, Hoboken, N.J., 1998. $14.95

This book is a compilation of interviews and speeches by Fidel concerning his early childhood and youth. Although most of the selections have been published previously in other books and periodicals, they have never before been brought together in one volume.

An interview with Fidel by Colombian journalist Arturo Alape is published here in English for the first time. The book also contains excerpts from a discussion with a Brazilian priest, Frei Netto, which was previously published by Ocean Press under the title “Fidel and Religion.”

The time period explored in the book ranges from Fidel’s childhood to 1952, when Gen. Batista took over the Cuban government in a coup and Castro launched the July 26 Movement, with plans to spark a popular uprising against the dictator. Along the way, it deals with Fidel’s university years, his training in the liberation movement for the Dominican Republic, his political activities in Colombia, and his first study of Marxism.

Fidel’s father, Angel, the son of a very poor farmer from Galicia, Spain, was drafted to fight in Cuba in 1895 during its last war of independence. He then emigrated to the island at the turn of the century. Penniless, he got himself a job at a sugar mill; illiterate, he taught himself to read and write.

Later, he got a group of workers together in a small enterprise that worked for a U.S. firm to clear land in order to plant sugar cane and to fell trees to supply sugar mills with firewood. He built an all-wooden house in the Galician style, on stilts, in the north-central part of what used to be Oriente Province on the eastern end of the island.

Fidel remembers his father as “a extremely kind man” who “never said no to anyone who asked for help.” Fidel’s mother, Lina, was Angel’s cook. Her parents had come to Oriente Province by oxcart, 600 miles from the other side of Cuba. She became Angel’s second wife; he had had three children by his first wife and seven more with Lina. Fidel was the third oldest of their union.

Lina, too, was illiterate and also taught herself to read and write. She lived until three years after the 1959 revolution. Angel died in 1956 while Fidel was in Mexico organizing the expedition that traveled to Cuba on the motor yacht Granma and successfully took on the U.S.-armed Batista dictatorship.

Raised in rural poverty

The Castro family lived in the country on a farm in an area with no cars, muddy roads, and no electricity. The farm animals lived under the house-turkeys, geese, ducks, pigs, guinea fowl, chickens, and 20 or 30 cows, which were tied to the stilts.

A small slaughterhouse and a small smithy were close to the house, as was a bakery. A small public elementary school was 60 meters from the house, as was a general store, telegraph office, and a post office. This was the set-up in 1926 when Fidel Castro was born.

Fidel remembers summer vacation “when we went swimming in the rivers, running through the woods, hunting with slingshots, and riding horses. We lived in direct contact with nature and were quite free during these times. That’s what my childhood was like.”

The farm area where Fidel grew up was not exactly a town; there was no church in the small population center, and 15-20 children went to the tiny school, Fidel’s nursery school. He played indiscriminately with the children of the rural farm workers, white and Black, Cuban and Haitian, mostly poor. “They were my friends.”

Because he was smart and had a talent for learning, Fidel was sent to live with a family in Santiago de Cuba when he was 4 1/2 years old. He had yet to receive any religious training or to be baptized, a omission which caused him to be called “the Jew.”

His mother was a fervent believer who prayed every day. Fidel’s grandmother was also deeply religious, believing fervently in Our Lady of Charity, Cuba’s patron saint. His mother and grandmother also believed “in several saints who were not in the liturgy, including St. Lazarus, the Leper.”

Fidel remembers that “the world I was brought up in was quite primitive, with all kinds of beliefs and superstitions, spirits, ghosts, and animals that were harbingers of doom … for example, if a rooster crowed three times without getting an answer, that meant some tragedy might occur.”

After the triumph of the revolution in 1959, Fidel went to visit his family in Havana: “The room was full of saints and prayer cards … both my mother and grandmother made all kinds of vows on behalf of our lives and safety. The fact that we came out of the struggle alive must have greatly increased their faith. … I never argued with them about these things because I could see the strength, courage, and comfort they got from their religious feelings and beliefs.”

Fidel remembers that he was never religious. He rejected the dogmas that were imposed on him, believing instead that religion should be the product of thought and feeling.

He spent two years with the family in Santiago, “just wasting my time.” The family took the money paid to them by Fidel’s parents but little trickled down to the young student. He went hungry and “was spanked every so often.”

Fidel found his experience of hardship “useful” in the sense that he used it to “launch” his “first act of rebellion” and successfully argued with his parents to get himself sent to a boarding school, where “I began to be happy.”

The food improved and he got out on Thursdays and Sundays for breaks. But some of the teachers sometimes hit the students. A monitor in charge “hit me with a fair amount of violence. He slapped both sides of my face. It was a degrading and abusive thing.” This was in the third grade.

In the fifth grade, a teacher hit Fidel in the head twice. “A violent confrontation” ensued. Fidel decided not to go back to that school and instead convinced his parents to let him go to Dolores College, a Jesuit school, as a day student.

He reflected that while he was not against discipline, “children have a sense of personal dignity” and hitting them “is monstrous and unacceptable.”

Fidel was then tutored by a Black woman, who was the first person to ever encourage him. She set goals for him and got him interested in studying.

He was 10 years old and credits her as the person in his life who came closest to being his mentor. He began to get excellent grades.

Training with the Jesuits

The Jesuits were Spaniards, politically reactionary supporters of the dictator Franco. “I think that the traditions of the Jesuits and their military spirit and organization go with the Spanish personality. They were rigorous, demanding people, who were interested in their students, their character and behavior,” Fidel remembers.

Although he rejected the Jesuits’ religious teaching, he said that “later on I formed a belief and faith in the political arena.”

Fidel developed into an outstanding athlete, particularly in basketball, soccer, and baseball. The Jesuits encouraged hikes and mountain climbing, risky and difficult activities, which they thought developed an enterprising, tenacious spirit. They never dreamed they were training a guerrilla.

The school was an upper-class institution, attended by children of professionals as well as those of the very rich bourgeoisie, who had an aristocratic spirit. Fidel’s family, who lived in the country amongst poor people and who worked every day, gave him a lesser social status.

Fidel thinks that this prevented “the misfortune of acquiring that class culture, mentality, and consciousness” that would have made it difficult for a person to have “escaped bourgeois ideology. ”

“Humans,” Fidel concluded, “are the product of struggles and difficulties. … Problems gradually mold a person in the same way that a lathe shapes a piece of material-in this case, the matter and spirit of a human being.”

Castro developed a sense of justice-what is fair and unfair-and as sense of personal dignity. The Jesuits, he said, “valued character, rectitude , honesty, courage, and the ability to make sacrifices.”

First readings about socialism

Castro went to Belen College, the most prestigious high school in Cuba. He studied capitalist political economy and drew socialist conclusions, “imagining a economy that would operate more nationally.”

He was a supporter of Jose Marti’s ideas in high school and “always wholeheartedly identified with our people’s heroic struggle for independence in the past century.”

Then, in his junior year, he read “The Communist Manifesto.” It “had a particularly significant impact on me” because of the “simplicity, clarity, and direct manner in which our world and society are explained.”

After all, Fidel noted, “you don’t need a microscope or a telescope to see class divisions that mean that the poor go hungry while others have more than they need.”

“Who could know this better than I, who had experienced both realities and who had even been, in part, a victim of the two? How could I fail to understand my experiences, the situation of the landowner and of the landless, barefoot farmer?”

Fidel became a popular student leader both in college and in law school, where he was elected student body president. In law school he read Lenin’s “Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism” and “State and Revolution,” and “had a full revolutionary outlook, not just in terms of ideas, but in terms of how to implement them.”

His main contribution to Cuba, he believes, was figuring out how to combine Marx and Marti.

Before he organized the failed attack on the Moncada barracks in 1953, Fidel had participated in two other actions. He joined an expeditionary force in Cuba that was to sail to the Dominican Republic to mount an offensive against the dictatorship there. The plan failed but Castro was the only soldier not captured. He opted to get away by undergoing a long ocean swim.

Next, at age 22, in 1948, he organized on the international scene. He traveled to Panama, Venezuela, and finally to Colombia, the site of the founding conference of the Association of American States, in order to expose the OAS as an instrument of American domination.

While he was in Colombia, the popular leader and probable next president, Gaitan, was assassinated. Fidel managed to get arms and to join the popular upsurge.

The masses were defeated, being leaderless and without political education. He says that 11 years later, in Cuba, things happened differently.

The U.S. government opposed Castro even before the revolution. From the beginning and to date, they have tried to assassinate him, physically and morally. According to common wisdom, he is a cruel dictator, even worse than Qadaffi, or the current demon, Saddam Hussein.

Others believe Fidel Castro to be a great leader of humanity and a great humanitarian-an extraordinary person, the likes of whom is rarely seen over the centuries.

It is thus of interest to read about Fidel’s early years, for surely, as the poet Milton understood, “Childhood shows the man as morning shows the day.”