Cuban dictator Fidel Castro was well-known throughout the world. He led his country for 52 years, making him the longest-serving head of state in modern times. Of course, he was also known for a numerous other interesting, important, and very crazy things.
Castro was friends and comrades with the famous Argentine revolutionary Che Guevara, as the two men led the revolution that brought Castro to power in 1959.
The Cuban dictator is also remembered for being the centerpiece of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis and for earning the ire of American President John F. Kennedy and the United States. That opposition to the US earned him at least a couple of assassination attempts and cut his country off from the superpower that is only about 90 miles away.
Castro’s seemingly successful opposition to the US earned him the respect of leaders throughout the developing world, who loved seeing the “Yankees” get taken down a notch, but make no mistake about it, Castro was a brutal despot.
As with many of communist dictators, Castro’s utopian ideals quickly descended into violence and brutality. He was known for mass executions by firing squads, which he called “el paredon” or “the wall,” and for extreme censorship and repression that turned the beautiful Caribbean island into a prison.
Castro truly did some repressive and crazy things, but emptying Cuba’s prisons may have been one of the craziest things he did.
From 1976 to 1980, Jimmy Carter was the President of the United States. The liberal Democrat Carter signaled to Cuba that he was open to normalizing relations between the two countries.
Travel restrictions were lifted and everything appeared to be going well, but then thousands of Cubans began rushing various embassies for asylum. Then on April 21, 1980, Castro said that any Cuban who wanted to leave the country could do so at their own cost through the port of Mariel.
The announcement caused a rush of emigration that became known as the “Mariel Boatlift.”
Castro used the Mariel Boatlift to get rid of many of his political enemies and to empty the prisons, but in the end, it proved to hurt him more than it helped. Americans weren’t too thrilled about having to care for nearly 125,000 refugees, up to 20,000 of which were criminals.
The Mariel Boatlift is seen as one of the many reasons why Jimmy Carter lost the 1980 presidential election to Ronald Reagan, which was bad news for Castro. Once the conservative, anti-communist Republican came into office, he ended the normalization process, went back to the old travel restrictions, and generally isolated Cuba once again.
Castro would have to wait until the end of the Cold War before his country opened to the rest of the world, and to top things off, many of the Cuban Boatlift criminals were deported from the US and ended up back in Cuba.
Baseball and Communism
Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz was born in 1926 to a wealthy sugar plantation family in rural Cuba. Castro’s not-so-humble origins may seem a bit ironic since he later became such an avowed Marxist, although often times the leaders of Marxist and communist movements were more or less privileged individuals who were able to attend good schools and universities.
And that was the case with Fidel.
Young Fidel was introduced to Marxist philosophy while studying at the University of Havana in the 1940s, and before too long, he was active in a variety of organizations that were all about sticking it to the “Yankees” and their colonial lackeys in the Caribbean and Latin America.
Besides Marxism-communism, Castro’s other love was baseball!
He may have hated the Yankee imperialists, but he sure loved their national sport. As he became active in leftwing student groups at the University of Havana, Castro played baseball for the school’s team and was said to be quite a pitcher. The future dictator even had dreams of playing in the big leagues, or at least professionally in the Cuban league.
But when Castro went up against top competition, he soon learned that he wouldn’t make his mark on the world in baseball, so he went to law school where he made even more connections in leftist circles.
Castro eventually decided that violent revolution was the only way to remove rightwing dictator Fulgencio Batista from power.
The 1950s could’ve ended up any number of ways for Castro—he could’ve been killed during the revolution or drifted into obscurity—but thanks to some luck and the foresight to choose the guerilla tactician Guevara as his right-hand man, he came out on top in 1959.
After that, Castro ruled Cuba through several different positions—Prime Minister, President, and head of the Communist Party—until he retired in 2011.
And during those decades in power, he did plenty of brutal and crazy things.
The Mariel Boatlift
Like Mugabe, when Castro first came to power, most people around the world wanted to see him succeed. Batista was known to be corrupt and brutal and Cuba was viewed as a place with great potential.
It didn’t take long for Castro to change all that.
The firing squads began almost immediately and continued around the clock until 1961. Although Castro tried to hide the knowledge of the firing squads, the world eventually found out.
The nearly constant firing squads were written about in the press and were even featured in a 1961 Twilight Zone episode titled “The Mirror,” where Robert Falk plays a paranoid dictator who resembled Castro down to the goatee and military fatigues.
To stay true to his Marxist-communist beliefs, Castro severely restricted the Catholic Church in Cuba and imprisoned any known Jehovah’s Witnesses. He also limited movement within the country, controlled the press and imprisoned or assassinated any political opposition.
Now all of that is truly bad and makes Castro one of the worst dictators on any list. He is estimated to be responsible for up to 100,000 deaths, which in a country of only about 11 million people, is quite a high number.
But the Mariel Boatlift was perhaps the craziest decision Castro made because it set American public opinion, and ultimately the US government, against him. The American people were gripped with fear that a wave of Cuban criminals would flow across the US, although it’s estimated that only about 2,700 hardened criminals entered the country as part of the Boatlift. The rest of the 20,000 “criminals” were usually in prison for minor offenses or they were political opponents of the Castro regime.
In the end, the Mariel Boatlift became a political football that Castro, Carter, and Reagan all tried to pass and punt among themselves.
Castro thought that, by letting the prisoners go, he’d alleviate many of his problems and keep improving relations with the Americans, but in the end, it proved to be just another crazy decision that backfired.
Did You Know?
- Fidel’s brother, Raul, took over control of Cuba after he resigned in 2011. Raul is still in office, while Fidel died in 2016 at the age of 90.
- The term “Marielito” is used to refer to those who came over on the Muriel Boatlift.
- President Reagan probably gained the most politically from the Muriel Boatlift. The images of the boatlift helped solidify his rightwing support in many parts of the US, but by giving public messages of support for the Marielitos, he was able to consolidate his support with the more conservative Republican Miami-Cuban community.
- Refugee camps were established throughout southern Florida, which included the Orange Bowl.
- Tony Montana is perhaps the most famous Marielito. In case you somehow don’t know who Tony Montana is, he is the fictional crime lord played by Al Pacino in the 1983 film Scarface.