By Steven Walker
Fifty years ago the World held its breath as it contemplated Nuclear Armageddon over the stationing of Soviet nuclear missiles on Cuban soil within reach of mainland America. What motivated the Communist leader Fidel Castro to allow such a situation to develop? The answer lies partly in his early childhood experiences and formative years in a strict family and educational Catholic culture. Fidel Castro's childhood is a subject that rarely sees the light of day and about which little until now has been written. This is because of his stubborn reluctance to discuss the subject of his childhood, despite heroic attempts to get him to open up about this important time in his life. Journalists and biographers who have been granted rare access to El Commandante are quickly made aware this subject is strictly off-limits.
Does this reveal an unhappy childhood, one concealing a hidden traumatic experience, ambivalent feelings towards his parents, or the overt repression of early internal conflicts that could explain his later life? Most of us understand that childhood experiences for good or bad influence the adult we become, and Castro is no different.
Catholicism was a big factor in Castro's family, first in his father, Angel's first marriage to Maria Reyes who was reportedly a firm Catholic and again in Castro's mother's life. Fidel's mother Lina Ruz Gonzalez was apparently a very strict, sombre Catholic, but there is evidence that she was also influenced by Santeria, a specific Afro-Cuban devotion to the saints who would be prayed to every day to fulfil her wishes. In Oriente province it was common-place for Afro-Cuban religions and cults to flourish with the slaves who brought with them their own spirituality, cults and voodoo ceremonies from Haiti and Africa.
Castro's self-professed influences focus strongly on his Catholic upbringing and in particular the strict Jesuit college tutors, whom he cites as the source of his own personal self-sacrifice, absolute dedication to his ambitions and relentless perseverance in the face of adversity - more so in fact than any ideological mantra of Marxist-Leninism. Most of his formative political ideology relied very little on the Communist Manifesto, but more on the writings and actions of heroic revolutionary Cuban Nationalists such as Jose Marti.
The few details Castro has shared about his early memories show a child playing happily in the fields, rivers and hills of his father's sugar cane estate. He talks of his joy at being able to run free with plantation workers' children, his friendships among Haitian immigrant labourers' children and the Cuban children descended from slaves. His love of the outdoors began very early in his life, riding horses or climbing mountains; the joy in his words as he describes those early images and memories is palpable.
An idealised childhood, growing up with privilege on his wealthy father's sugar cane estate? It's easy to see how some commentators have described him as spoilt, privately educated and the ultimate poor little rich kid who became the very opposite to his background due to guilt, or to spoil his parents' ambitions for him, or to indulge himself as a revolutionary dilettante. Castro's name is synonymous with Che Guevara and their manifesto for egalitarian, humanistic struggles for liberation in Latin America of the many from the few in power.
Was he embarrassed and feeling guilty about his wealthy, privileged background which enabled him to attend elite schools to the extent that he swore to eradicate such inequality? This is far too simple an explanation. His childhood is one that was physically and psychologically tough, both at home and school, with frequent changes and disruptions in his schooling, and long periods away from home.
His Father was a hard, tough and dominating personality, who expected others to work as he had done as a poor, Economic migrant from Spain - relentlessly, compulsively, while enduring physical and emotional hardship. His temper was notorious and he often expressed a violent almost pathological hatred towards the Americans who controlled the sugar cane industry. He raged about their monopoly power and accused them of ripping him off in trading contracts. His was not a political ideological repugnance towards the Yanquis, simply that of a businessman who felt betrayed, cheated and perhaps humiliated and powerless.
Castro was the middle child of three brothers and the eldest child was a sister, as he struggled throughhisearly years with emotionally distant parents. Sibling rivalry and the 'invisibility' of being a middle boy meant he had to work hard to be noticed. What he did was to become aggressive, argumentative, and physically combative with authority figures especially teachers. During puberty he clearly experienced a strong Oedipal conflict with his father, manifested in a threat to burn down the house and soon after lead a strike by the estate workers for better wages!
As a youngster Castro had an appendectomy and was seriously ill in hospital for 12 weeks. This would have been a significant psychological event, but masked by the medical concerns to manage the infection and subsequent fever. Medical treatment was still limited even for wealthy people and the possibility of death would have overwhelmed his fragile ego, deprived of immediate parental comfort and secure attachments. Alone, frightened and away from home- this was becoming a recurring feature in Castro's early development as he was shunted between different schools and carers in Santiago and Havana, spending long periods away from his family.
In one of his memoirs Castro recalls the death of an Aunt and the impact this had on his Mother. What he probably did not know is that his Father suffered the death of his own mother when he was a teenager, and that Angel's first child- a son, died an infant. So the Castro family narrative was strongly influenced by grief, loss and bereavement as Castro struggled to discover and make sense of his own developing personality. At school he was bullied - ironically because to the wealthy Spanish colonial elite while he was rich enough to be there, nevertheless he was from peasant stock, prone to crude language, swearing, and culturally lacking in manners and etiquette.
They would also have been aware that he was born illegitimate, a hugely stigmatising and shameful position in the Conservative social culture of high society. His parents eventually married, but too late for him to have suffered daily humiliation in his formative years. So he overcompensated for this social exclusion and feelings of inferiority by becoming a bully himself, picking fights with older, stronger boys and often losing. He threw himself into sports and was a National champion baseball player.
The picture that emerges is of a young person who had experienced a disjointed development in terms of physical location, education and socialisation. Lots of change is not the pathway to a settled, harmonious and integrated personality where Castro could feel comfortable in his own skin, relaxed and at ease with himself. Instead he was constantly on his guard, defensive and socially awkward, especially with girls. He developed a thick skin - to an ordinary outsider he seemed a hard, angry teenager with a temper and easily provoked into fist fights.
Yet underneath was a little boy, fragile, vulnerable, frightened of change and feeling that he had little control over his life. A boy with tenuous secure attachments in a large family with whom he had less and less contact as he grew up. In early adulthood he found intimate personal relationships hard to sustain, very likely due to the claustrophobic experience in the closeted Jesuit boarding schools which probably distorted his sexuality and social skills, within their autocratic, male-dominated culture and overbearing religious orthodoxy. He was clearly most comfortable in the Macho world of Sport, Politics and later on among his cadre of Guerillas who risked capture, torture and death on a daily basis in their war against the puppet Cuban dictator Batista.
The untold story of Fidel's childhood, on the 50th anniversary since the Cuban missile crisis paralysed the World with the fear of Nuclear Armageddon, will help you understand partly why this has happened, but it will reveal much more about what made the man who has been central to Cuba's story and how a fearful, lonely, anxious young man went on to become a legendary revolutionary Guerilla leader who liberated Cuba from American rule.
Steven Walker: Member, Communist Party of Britain
Author: Fidel Castro's Childhood- the untold story. Troubador Books. ISBN: 978-1780882154. http://www.troubador.co.uk/book_info.asp?bookid=1789
Ten per cent of the book's royalties will be donated to the children's orphanage: Hogar para Niños sin Amparo Filial Bayamo, Reparto Antonio Guiteras, Bayamo, Granma, Cuba.
"There should be no Russian who goes to sleep without wondering if they're going to get their throat slit in the middle of the night,” Milley said