Night had fallen. Armed with slingshots they had fashioned out of a forked guava tree branch and some strips of rubber, a young Fidel (presumably five or six) and his brother Ramon approached their school building in Santiago de Cuba. They constructed a makeshift parapet with firewood from a nearby bakery and took careful aim at the roof of the building—made of "those wavy sheets of galvanised zinc". Rocks were launched into the air and bombardment ensued—by Castro's estimates, lasting at least half an hour. "You couldn't even hear the yells and screams the teacher was making for the noise of the rocks hitting the roof.....Oh, we were vengeful little devils," he wrote in his biography My Life, the most comprehensive account of his life, where Castro speaks with journalist and academic Ignacio Ramonet. The incident marked the first act of rebellion in the life of Fidel Castro. Or as he prefers to put it, his maiden act of vengeance.
From a young age, Castro, by his own admission, had felt a need to rebel against "a certain Spanish authoritarianism" and the "home which represented authority". He was born into a well-to-do family in Biran, in 1926, with six siblings. His father, Angel Castro, was a Galician immigrant,stationed in Cuba for the 1895 war of independence. “When the war was over, he, like many other Galicians, came back and settled in Cuba,” says Castro. At a time when American plantations were spreading throughout the country, replacing hardwood forests, Angel Castro worked for the prominent United Fruits Company—slowly climbing up the economic ladder until he controlled "no less than 11,000 hectares of land". His mother, Lina, was "practically illiterate, but strong, brave and self sacrificing".
Those were politically turbulent times. Countries across Latin America were under the thumb of ruthless dictators: Fulgencio Batista in Cuba, Perez Jimenez in Venezuela, Trujillo in Dominican Republic, Duvalier in Haiti and so on. When Castro was 10 (in the year 1936), civil war erupted in Spain—between the Republicans and Nationalists, the latter backed by fascist powers of Italy and Germany. Fidel, who already knew how to read and write, followed the developments closely. He had returned to his hometown, that summer when the civil war started, from his live-in student quarters at Santiago de Cuba. Back in Biran, he would read the newspaper out loud and give the news to Manuel Garcia, the family cook and a "fire-breathing Republican". The Nationalist victory disillusioned him, and he claimed time and time again that it helped lead to the second world war. "What sort of non-intervention was it that the so-called Western democracies engaged in, in the face of Hitler and Mussolini's intervention from the very beginning of the war?" he wrote in his biography. Three years later (in 1939), came the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact (non-aggression pact signed between Soviet Russia and Hitler's Germany) and the invasion of Poland which finally led to the second world war.
Growing up, young Castro was largely insulated from the abject poverty that marked the life of his fellow countrymen thanks to his family settings and financial stability. But the all-encompassing destitution that he witnessed in his home town turned out to be one of the biggest influences in his life. "I lived with people of the most humble origins. I remember the illiterate, unemployed men who would stand in line near the cane fields, with nobody to bring them a drop of water, or breakfast, or lunch, or give them shelter. All the children I played with in Biran were very, very, very poor." It was a period of Machado dictatorship in Cuba (he would be ousted in the aftermath of a popular strike only in 1933, when Fidel was seven years old), an era of hunger aggravated by US interventions like tariffs on sugar, the country's main export. (The Platt Amendment in the Army Appropriations Bill between US and Cuba allowed the former to interfere in the country's affairs). A young Castro got his first taste of hunger while he was at the Santiago de Cuba boarding school, along with his sister Angela and brother Ramos. There, unbeknownst to their parents, the "rich kids" were exploited with starvation and abuse—while their teacher embarked on trips to the US and Niagara falls at their expense. (It was a long series of such maltreatments that finally led to the stone pelting rebellion orchestrated by Fidel and Ramos.)
His childhood experiences in the countryside, education in Jesuit institutions like Colegio de Belen (1942) helped shape his thought process. In September 1945, he entered one of the most important phase of his life—political awakening at the University of Havana.
In the mid 1900s, Cuba was a mare's nest of political instability. After the strike toppled dictator Gerardo Machado of 1933, Ramon San Grau Martin of the 'Authentic Cuban Revolutionary Party' assumed presidency in September. The government enforced a plethora of revolutionary measures, like laws enforcing syndicates, trade unions and an eight-hour work day. Barely three months after, however, in January 1934, Head of army general staff Fulgencio Batista overthrew the government and captured power—later installing "puppet presidents like Barnet, Gomez and Bru". In October 1944, barely a year before Castro reached the University of Havana, Batista organised a second coup and would remain in power until he was ousted by Castro in the 1956 Cuban revolutionary war.
It was there, in his first year at the University of Havana, that Castro first came upon Eduardo Chibas, the leader of Cuban People's Party (Orthodox party). An earlier member of Autentico Partido (Grau San Martin's Authentic Cuban Revolutionary Party), he had started the new Orthodox party denouncing the "moral and political weaknesses" of Grau San Martin administration. "His prestige stemmed from a weekly radio programme broadcast from 8 pm to 8:30. He was known for his principled, upright opposition to Batista. He had a huge audience." Chibas, who was undoubtedly an influence on Castro, committed suicide in the midst of a radio programme in 1951.
While in college, Castro was deeply influenced by the works of Marx (Communist Manifesto, The Eighteenth Brumaire) and Lenin (The State and Revolution, Imperialism)—cementing his belief in the concept of an armed revolution. (Later on, he would actively participate in the1947 Cayo Confites expedition against Dominican Republic dictator Trujillo and the 1948 Bogota uprising). He also kickstarted his maiden political tryst, elected as a representative of his class in the University (181 in favour, 33 against). In the run up to the University Student's Federation, he had a run in with the ruling mafia at the institutions—who, "irritated by insubordination, forbade Castro from entering the University".
"I went off to a beach to meditate, and at the ripe old age of twenty, I lay face down on the sand and cried—tears welled up in my eyes. The problem was extremely complex. They were armed, with no scruples about killing and had support of all police agencies and Grau's corrupt administration," he says in his biography. He later entered the University, with a Browning fifteen shot pistol, "determined to go down fighting". "Five young men who spontaneously volunteered to go with me. That action paralysed those who forbade me from entering the University," says Castro. The incident marked his first ever armed struggle against the establishment.
(Sources: Narratives from MY LIFE written by Fidel Castro and Ignacio Ramonet, World history publications).