Fidel Castro’s father, Angel Castro, was a poor peasant from Galacia, Spain, who migrated to Cuba at the beginning of the twentieth century. He began as a worker for the United Fruit Company, and later he became a contractor who organized groups of workers. The earnings enabled him to acquire property, and he became a landholder who owned significant extensions of land. His plantation in the eastern province of Oriente was dedicated primarily to the cultivation of sugar and secondarily to cattle and to the exploitation of wood. A variety of fruits and vegetables also were produced. Near the family house, there was a dairy, butchery, bakery, and store, all owned by Angel; there also was a public school, post office, and telegraph. By the 1930s, there were about 1000 people living on the plantation (Castro 1985:89-100, 2006:52-53).
Although he was the son of a landholder, Fidel was not socialized into bourgeois culture. His father had peasant roots, and his mother, Lina Ruz González, had been born into a poor Cuban peasant family. Neither parent had formal education; both had taught themselves how to read. The couple lived on the plantation, and they had no social contact with members of the bourgeois class (Castro 1985:138, 153-54; 2006:65-67).
Fidel’s first social world as a child was formed by the poor workers of his father’s plantation. They were mostly Haitian immigrants, and they lived in huts of palm leaves with dirt floors. The children of these families were Fidel’s first playmates, and they continued to be his friends and companions of Christmas and summer vacations throughout his childhood and adolescence (Castro 1985:97-104, 114, 153-54, 161; 2006:66-67, 105).
Although the workers were poor, the plantation of Angel Castro was an oasis among the US plantations in the region, which were characterized by absentee ownership and total neglect of worker’s needs during the so-called “dead time.” Angel always was generous with respect to any request for assistance, and he employed more persons than the plantation required, in response to requests for employment. Later in life, Fidel believed that the conduct of his father with respect to his workers was an important ethical example in his formation (Castro 1985:160-61).
At the age of four, Fidel began attending the primary school on his father’s plantation, a small school with fifteen or twenty children. The schoolteacher advised his parents that Fidel had an advanced aptitude, and she recommended that he be sent to school in the city of Santiago de Cuba. At first Fidel was sent to live in the house of a tutor. Subsequently, he was enrolled in the Colegio de LaSalle, of the Salesian Brothers, from the first through the fourth grades; and in the Jesuit Colegio de Dolores in Santiago de Cuba for the last two years of primary school and the first two years of high school. In his third year of high school, he transferred to the prestigious Jesuit institution, the Colegio de Belén, in Havana, from which he graduated in 1945 at the age of 18. These schools were private Catholic boarding schools for boys, whose students for the most part were the sons of the bourgeoisie (Castro 1985:108-42; 2006:66).
Fidel believes that he learned from his family at an early age an ethical sensitivity and certain ethical values, an awareness that there is difference between right and wrong and between what is just and unjust, and that that one has the duty to do what is right and just. This ethical sensitivity, he maintains, was reinforced by his education in Catholic schools, particularly the education of the Jesuits. The Jesuits preached and practiced the virtues of good character, honesty, sacrifice, and discipline. A developed ethical sensitivity, he maintains, is the foundation for political consciousness and for a commitment to social justice. The religious martyr and the revolutionary hero, he asserts, are made from the same mold (Castro 1985:154-57; 1998:56; 2006:92).
At the Colegio de Belén, Fidel’s main interests were the Explorer Scouts, including hikes of several days to the mountains, and sports. He often did not pay attention to teachers in class, and his attendance was erratic. But he was driven by a sense of pride and honor to earn good grades. So he learned on his own from books, studying intensely in the days before exams. Thus, he “developed a certain capacity to decipher the mysteries of physics, geometry, mathematics, botany, and chemistry simply with texts” (Castro 1985:143-46; 1998:54-55; 2006:93-94, 117). This approach to learning would serve him later in life.
Fortunate to have attended the finest schools for the bourgeoisie, and fortunate to not be burdened by the prejudices of bourgeois culture, Fidel Castro possessed a solid ethical and intellectual foundation when he entered the University of Havana, where he would become a revolutionary, as we will discuss in the next post.
Castro, Fidel. 1985. Fidel y La Religión: Conversaciones con Frei Betto. La Habana: Oficina de Publicaciones del Consejo de Estado. [English translation: Fidel and Religion: Conversations with Frei Betto on Marxism and Liberation Theology. Melbourne: Ocean Press].
__________. 1998. “Días de Universidad” in Fidel en la memoria del joven que es. Edited by Deborah Shnookal and Pedro Albarez Tabío. Melbourne: Ocean Press.
__________. 2006. Cien Horas con Fidel: Conversaciones con Ignacio Ramonet. La Habana: Oficina de Publicaciones del Consejo de Estado. [English translation: Ramonet, Ignacio. 2009. Fidel Castro: My Life: A Spoken Autobiography. Scribner.
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