49 years ago today, Fidel Castro resigned for the first time. Then it was the premiership that he occupied, not the presidency. His so-called resignation was a ruse intended to force his handpicked president, Manuel Urrutia, from office. Urrutia, the judge who had cast the dissenting vote to acquit Castro for the attack on the Moncada Barracks in 1953 but had signed thousands of execution orders as Cuba's puppet president, in violation of the Constitution of 1940 which abolished the death penalty and the oath he had taken to uphold it, had the annoying habit (at least it annoyed Castro) of repeating over and over again that "his government" was not Communist. In the beginning Castro had also denied it, but by July 1959 he had taken umbrage with the constant demands that he disavow Communism and had gone so far as to say that he was not an anti-Communist ("We will not attack Communists so that others will refrain from calling us Communists. That is not what honorable men do").
The more ambiguous Castro became about his political ideology the more adamant Urrutia sounded in denouncing Communist "influences" in Cuba. The chief "influence," of course, was Castro himself; but since Urrutia owed both his national reputation and his office to Castro he was long in realizing that he was not merely a puppet (common enough in Republican politics) but the stooge of Communists. When Comandante Pedro Díaz Lanz, chief of the Revolutionary Air Force, became the first defector to expose Castro as a Communist, Urrutia refused to believe him and demanded Díaz Lanz's extradition from the U.S. so that he could stand trial for treason.
This might have seemed to some an elaborate ruse to win time: Castro erecting the foundations of Communism while Urrutia assured everybody no such thing was happening or could happen. But if was not a ruse. Urrutia believed, as did most Cubans at the time, that this blood-drenched regime which had murdered more Cubans in 6 months than had ever perished from political violence in the previous 56 years of Republican rule, was not the sum of its acts but the sum of its (unfulfilled) promises. He could sanction virtually anything and did so long as he was allowed to believe that it was in pursuit of some nebulous greater good and brighter future. Man's capacity for self-deception is limitless and it is ironic that a label frightened Urrutia more than the reign of terror he had helped to inaugurate and sustain. The label he opposed while the thing itself he ignored. If that label had been any other than "Communist" and the crimes identical, his conscience would have been malleable enough to dismiss all objections to the new order.
Not even when Castro stopped consulting or even apprising Urrutia of his plans did the puppet president lose faith in his ability to counter these Communist "influences" which now engulfed and isolated him. It was then that Urrutia did something unprecedented in the political history of Cuba or any other country: The president went on strike, absenting himself from meetings of the Council of Ministers and refusing to sign the latest decrees dictated by Castro. How long he proposed to maintain this "passive resistance" to the government over which he nominally presided is anybody's guess. Perhaps until he got Castro's assurances again that he was not a Communist.
In the showdown between the dictator and the puppet, is was the dictator that blinked. His "blink," however, had the force of a hurricane: Fidel Castro abruptly announced his decision to resign as Prime Minister. When asked the reason for his resignation, Castro averred that: "I am an enemy of cheap theatrics and histrionics in public life." Thus spake one of its most accomplished masters in the supreme moment of contrived high drama in his dictatorial career.
That very day signs went up everywhere in Cuba pleading with Castro to reconsider his decision:
"¡Con Fidel hasta el fin!"
["With you, Fidel, to the end!"]
"¿Renuncia, para qué?"
[Resignation? What for?]
"¡Fidel, Cuba te necesita!"
["Fidel, Cuba needs you!"]
"Malanga de pie antes que pollo de rodillas."
["Better to eat malanga on our feet than chicken on our knees."]
"Fidel, limpia el gobierno de vacilantes."
["Fidel, clean the government of vacillators."]
"Fidel o muerte."
["Fidel or death"].
Castro himself led the first acto de repudio in Cuban history at the studios of CMQ Television against the titular president of the Republic. He accused Urrutia of fomenting the myth of Communist infiltration in order to facilitate foreign intervention. Representatives from unions and civic organization, now completely co-opted by Castroites, appeared on the program to demand Urrutia's resignation and convince Castro to reconsider his own. With the whole nation seemingly turned against him and protesters gathering outside the Presidential Palace, Urrutia submitted his own resignation to the Council of Ministers and the news was announced to the jubilant audience before the conclusion of the broadcast.
Castro, of course, had renounced nothing but a title (and one which he had bestowed on himself). His power, which was already absolute, he had not relinquished for a minute. Urrutia's replacement was a Communist lawyer named Osvaldo Dorticós, unknown to most Cubans and a puppet who was never tempted to pull his own strings.
Castro withdrew his own resignation as premier at the first July 26th rally in Santiago de Cuba.