Fidel and Malcolm in Harlem in 1960. Fidel Castro on a visit to the U.S. refused to stay in a fancy hotel in NYC but chose to stay in Harlem.
So its December 1953 and a young aimless radical, Che Guevara, arrives in Guatemala City. He has yet to find his path in life and he wants to see for himself whether or not the liberal reforms of Jacobo Arbenz, the democratically elected President of Guatemala will work for the benefit of the Latin American peasant. . Arbenz was a major figure in the ten-year Guatemalan Revolution, which represented some of the few years of representative democracy in Guatemalan history. The landmark program of agrarian reform Árbenz enacted as president was enormously influential across Latin America.
President Arbenz now proposed expropriating the uncultivated land held by the company United Fruit, and compensating the firm by paying it the full amount it had claimed the land was worth in its latest tax filings.
United Fruit, an American company, owned vast tracts of land in Guatemala and throughout Central America; it was the reason for the coined phrase “banana republic.”
Árbenz contested the presidential elections that were held in 1950 and without significant opposition defeated Miguel Ydígoras Fuentes, his nearest challenger, by a margin of over 50%. He took office on March 15, 1951, and continued the social reform policies of his predecessor. These reforms included an expanded right to vote, the ability of workers to organize, legitimizing political parties, and allowing public debate. The centerpiece of his policy was an agrarian reform law under which uncultivated portions of large land-holdings were expropriated in return for compensation and redistributed to poverty-stricken agricultural laborers. Approximately 500,000 people benefited from the decree. The majority of them were indigenous people, whose forebears had been dispossessed after the Spanish invasion.
Unfortunately for Arbenz, then-Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and his brother, Allen Dulles, the head of the CIA, were both effectively paid agents of United Fruit, which was represented by their law firm, Sullivan and Cromwell. They were also zealous Cold Warriors, and believed deeply that Arbenz was a communist, regardless of whether he admitted it.
The Eisenhower-approved coup left a lasting impression on the young man, Guevara, who happened to be in the capital as the coup was carried out. Che Guevara watched as the U.S.-backed military dictatorship that took over killed tens of thousands and crushed dissent.
“Later he told Castro why it succeeded. He said Arbenz had foolishly tolerated an open society, which the CIA penetrated and subverted, and also preserved the existing army, which the CIA turned into its instrument. Castro agreed that a revolutionary regime in Cuba must avoid those mistakes. Upon taking power, he cracked down on dissent and purged the army.”
None of this means the U.S. is directly responsible for the decisions Castro made, or for the path he took Cuba down. None of it justifies or excuses human rights abuses or the subjugation of an entire people. What Castro did is his own.
But the conditions he operated under matter, and Arbenz was an example for Guevara and Fidel Castro of what not to do.
The debate over Castro’s legacy is being waged on familiar grounds, with his opponents condemning him as an irredeemable tyrant and his defenders arguing that the good he did around the world and for the Cuban people outweighs the black mark of his human rights record and his leveling of Cuban civil society.
The conversation in the U.S. often goes on, however, as if Castro were operating in a vacuum. It may well be that Castro’s own personality, or pressure from the Soviet Union, would have pushed him regardless toward the hard-line communism that came to dominate Cuba. But when Castro took over, observers in Cuba, the U.S. and around the world felt there was a chance Castro would be a nationalist reformer rather than an orthodox communist.
Looking back at the experience of Arbenz, Castro and Guevara had good reason to believe the U.S. would do whatever was in its power to overthrow the new government, whether the regime was in the camp of liberal reform or hard-line communism. Arbenz, after all, had been elected and his term in office was nearly up when the U.S. came for him. The CIA had done the same the year before to the democratically elected Mohammad Mosaddegh in Iran, who was by no means a communist’
And, in 1961, the same planners of the Guatemalan coup organized a new one against Cuba, this one ending in the debacle known as the Bay of Pigs. It came just a few months after a U.S.-backed plot had brutally assassinated the elected leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Patrice Lumumba, another nationalist, the Dulles brothers believed was a secret communist.
If the United States had been serious about wanting to spread democracy around the world, perhaps it should have shown more respect for and to democracies.
Fidel came out of the mountains and took power in 1959. I was 17 and remember it well. He was portrayed then as the bearded romantic hero freeing his people. The news reels were in all of the theaters.
Fulgencio Batista, the corpulent corrupt dictator of Cuba had fled the country, He had turned it into a mafia stronghold filled with casinos and whores. It was the best place to go to gamble and get laid in the Caribbean. Only us old folk remember what Cuba was like before Fidel. I am only old enough to remember its reputation. None of the upper Cuban 10% gave a rat’s ass about Cuba’s poor.
Today 99.9% of Cubans are literate. The life expectancy of a Cuban is equal to my own; and the infant mortality rate is less than half of what it is in the United States. Cuba is one of the primary sources of doctors throughout Latin America. It’s doctors were on the scene in West Africa treating Ebola while we were still trying to ban any flights to the U.S.
Cuba supported Nelson Mandela and the struggle against apartheid while Ronald Reagan supported the white South African government. Cuban fighters fought South African forces in Angola and Namibia as that country try to annex these areas after the departure of the Portuguese.
These accomplishments were in the face of an unrelenting U.S embargo which still exists today.
Arbenz died a broken man in Mexico City. Castro lived to be 90, through 11 American Presidents and died peacefully in his own bed.