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Ann Louise Bardach: Portrait of the Maximum Leader as a Young Man

FIDEL CASTRO appears to have cheated death (yet again) and will celebrate his 80th birthday today. Although he has decreed that his birthday celebration will take place on Dec. 2 (the 50th anniversary of his return to Cuba from exile), he in fact came into the world, weighing 12 pounds, on Aug. 13, 1926, at 2 a.m. at his family’s estate at Birán.

In 1952, when Fulgencio Batista seized power through a military coup, Fidel Castro declined an invitation to join the regime from Rafael Díaz-Balart, a brother of his wife, Mirta, and a minister in the new government. He had far grander ambitions.

On July 26, 1953, Mr. Castro and his younger brother Raúl declared war against Batista with an audacious assault on the Moncada military garrison in Santiago de Cuba. The attack was a disaster, with more than 60 men killed, but it made Fidel Castro a household name. He reveled in his ensuing trial — declaring famously that “history will absolve me” — and was sentenced to 15 years at the Isle of Pines prison. (He served less than two.)

Castro was productive and prolific in prison, reading ceaselessly and writing hundreds of letters. Twenty-one of those letters were published in Cuba in 1959 in a volume edited by his friend and frequent correspondent, Luis Conte Agüero. (Mr. Conte Agüero broke with Castro soon after and fled to Miami in 1960.)

The book will be published in the United States in English next year for the first time as “The Prison Letters of Fidel Castro.” The excerpts below, translated by Mr. Conte Agüero’s son Efraim Conte, are striking in that they reveal both the idealistic young revolutionary of 1953 and the pitiless dictator he would become over the following half-century.


The Propagandist

Even behind bars, Fidel Castro never lost faith in his cause or in his ability to exact revenge on his enemies. In this letter to Melba Hernandez, one of two women who took part in the Moncada raid, he depicts himself as the heir to the great Cuban nationalist José Martí.

April 17, 1954

To Melba Hernandez:

First, we cannot for a minute abandon propaganda, for it is the soul of our struggle. Ours must have its own style and match our circumstances. …

Second, we must coordinate the work between our people here and those abroad. To this end, arrange a trip to Mexico as soon as possible. . . . We have to consider with extreme care any project of cooperation with others, lest they simply try to use our name. “To know how to wait,” Martí said, “is the great secret of success.”

Third, maintain a deceptively soft touch and smile with everyone. Follow the same strategy that we followed during the trial; defend our points of view without raising resentments. There will be enough time later to squash all the cockroaches together. Do not lose heart over anything or anyone; after all, we did not do so during the most difficult moments.

One last counsel: beware of envy. When someone has glory and prestige as you do, the mediocre easily find motives or pretexts to be suspicious. Accept help from anyone, but remember, trust no one.
Read entire article at NYT