The island nation of Cuba is both celebrating and mourning the death of longtime leader Fidel Castro this weekend, a mixed reaction to the loss of one of the world’s most controversial figures. While Castro is viewed as both a dictator or a revolutionary, one of the hallmarks of his rise to power was his stance against racism and workplace discrimination in the island nation.
Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz was born August 13, 1926 in the Holguin Province of Cuba. His father was a wealthy sugar plantation owner who impregnated his first wife’s maid who later gave birth to Castro. After marrying his mistress, Castro’s father recognized him as his own and granted him his last name. A stellar student, Castro entered law school in the mid-40’s and began to involve himself into socialism and politics.
Castro’s became politically active in ’47 during the planned overthrow of right-wing Dominican Republic military leader Rafael Trujillo. The invasion was halted by Cuban president Ramon Grau, who Castro viewed as a corrupt leader. This inspired Castro to join the Leftist movement and he began speaking out against the economic equality in Cuba. He was also critical of the United States’ mining the island’s resources without fair trade.
Castro married into a wealthy family by taking Mirta Diaz Balart as a wife, despite her family’s opposition. After their son, Fidel was born in 1949, Castro’s activism increased after the military coup by former Cuban President Gen. Fulgenico Batista became the focus of the Cuban Revolution.
Like Argentina’s Che Guevara, Castro believed that the only way to end government corruption and the rise of dictatorships in Latin America was through bloody revolution. Several attacks on Batista’s government failed but Castro’s forces successfully overthrew Batista in 1958. Castro rose to power as the country’s prime minister in February 1959. He served in that role until 1976, then named himself president before stepping down due to failing health in 2006 with an official declaration taking place in 2008.
Under Castro, Cuba began to adopt many of the communist policies of the former Soviet Union giving Cubans across the board the same access to goods and services as others regardless of personal wealth. In 1959 at the Havana Labor Rally, Castro called out workplace discrimination against Afro-Cubans, demanding they have the same rights as white Cubans who viewed themselves as superior.
Castro also enacted a series of anti-discrimination laws and made education a top priority along with providing health care. Cuba is renowned for training doctors for free, including those from the U.S. who cannot afford medical school. Critics of Castro’s leadership say that while his aims seemed benevolent on the surface, it was a ruse to exact the government’s control over the Cuban people. Castro’s own daughter disagreed with his policies, and fled Cuba in 1993 to seek asylum in the United States.
However, Castro was seen as a hero and inspiration to world leaders such as Nelson Mandela and Bolivian President Evo Morales and to many Black revolutionaries and scholars who took inspiration from his ideology of activism, socialism and nationalism. But Castro’s totalitarian leadership also inspired a great deal of push back from human rights organizations, strained relationships with democratic countries and from Cubans suffering under the U.S. trade embargo.