Throughout his long life, Fidel Castro has frequently found himself in harm’s way. When he was 10 years old, he nearly died of peritonitis. As a student radical in the 1940s, he participated in a violent uprising in Colombia. He nearly died in the 1953 rebel attack on the Moncada military barracks in Cuba, and was almost killed by Cuban secret agents during his self-imposed exile in Mexico. In 1956, when he returned to Cuba to take up arms in the revolution, he and two other guerrillas squatted in sugar cane fields for three days as heavily armed government troops tried to “smoke” them out by setting the fields on fire, and war planes circled overhead dropping bombs. And since he and his revolutionaries stormed into Havana in January 1959 to set up their Communist regime, the CIA has tried 638 times to kill him.
If that weren’t enough, Castro led Cuban troops to defend the island during the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961. Twenty years later, after it became known that he had decided to personally test the vigilance of the U.S. Navy by sailing to the Mexican port of Cozumel aboard a high-speed launch to attend a secret meeting with the Mexican president, Ernesto Guevara Lynch, father of Ernesto “Che” Guevara, famously commented, “Fidel must have a pact with God or the devil.”
But whether it was Faustian or celestial, over the last 19 months the bargain had been rapidly expiring. In July 2006, it was revealed that the now 81-year-old leader had been ill. That July 31, he handed the reins of power to his brother Raúl Castro after undergoing intestinal surgery—while promising to be back. But when he missed appearing publicly for his birthday in August 2006, which is a state holiday, and didn’t appear to deliver his legendarily long speeches on the important anniversaries of the revolution in December and January 2007, most people figured that he was simply too weak—or even dead.
In order to dispel rumours of his demise, the Cuban government released a handful of videos that aired on Cuban TV. They showed their leader sitting in his hospital room in a red and white Adidas track suit, conversing with high-level visitors, or reading the newspaper. There were numerous videos of Castro and his pal, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, who became an unofficial spokesman for the ailing Communist. But the images sent shock waves throughout Cuba and the world: for perhaps the first time during his remarkable rule of almost half a century, Castro, the larger-than-life revolutionary and Cold War warrior who outlasted nine U.S. presidents, seemed, well, mortal. He appeared gaunt, his once-bushy beard reduced to a scraggly mess, his hands emaciated, his face drawn and covered in liver spots. And so it was no great surprise when, on Tuesday, the man who has inspired such passionate sentiments of love and hate announced his retirement as Cuba’s president and commander-in-chief of the armed forces.
For most Cuba-watchers, the transition effectively occurred on July 31, 2006, when Raúl Castro took over from his older brother. Fidel Castro did not announce a successor on Tuesday, which has led many to believe that Raúl will stay in power. And most experts do not believe that any immediate political change is imminent, in spite of hopes expressed by some, including U.S. President George W. Bush, that the resignation will lead to a democratic opening. But analysts do believe an economic opening is more realistic, as Raúl Castro has recently encouraged a very open debate on Cuba’s biggest economic problems, such as food and housing shortages.
While Castro’s retirement may mean the end of his particular vision for revolutionary Cuba, there is no doubting his legacy. He has been, according to former New York Times reporter Tad Szulc, one of his biographers, “a fascinating phenomenon in our century’s politics—a man of panache, a romantic figure, an ever-defiant, dizzyingly imaginative and unpredictable rebel, a marvelous actor, a spectacular teacher and preacher of the many credos he says he embraces.” Among Castro’s greater accomplishments was dramatically raising the living standards of impoverished Cubans, providing free health care and education to a post-revolution generation that can boast 98 per cent literacy, and an infant mortality rate comparable to that of many wealthier Western countries.
Of course, to others, Castro has been nothing more than a ruthless dictator who paid lip service to democracy, regularly jailed those who openly criticized his government, and for many years allowed his country to become a sycophantic satellite of the Soviet Union, while subjecting his people to disastrous statist economic experiments that have resulted in chronic shortages of essentials such as food and fuel, and led hundreds of thousands to flee to the United States. But love him or hate him, he is a historic giant who, through sheer force of will, personal sacrifice and charisma, forged the Western Hemisphere’s only Communist state, a mere 144 km off the coast of Florida—from where he continued to thumb his nose at the U.S.
Among revolutionary leaders, Castro occupies a special place. Vladimir Lenin sat out the early days of the Russian Revolution in Switzerland to avoid combat. Joseph Stalin was a petty thief and spent time in Siberian prisons before assuming power. Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh also spent time in prison and was not called upon to lead troops in his country’s anti-French uprisings. Mao Zedong did control vast amounts of territory and led troops in battle, while Yugoslavia’s Josip Broz Tito waged a war of resistance against the Nazis, Chetniks and Ustashe, but nothing compares to what Castro went through. As Szulc, whose 1986 Fidel: A Critical Portrait is the definitive biography of Castro, has noted: “No modern revolutionary or chief of state has undertaken such astounding personal risks and has been so directly engaged in the rigours of conspiracy, rebellion and open warfare.”
Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz was born on Aug. 13, 1926, on his father’s sugar cane plantation near Birán in southeast Cuba, in what is now known as Holguín province. His mother, Lina Ruz González, was a household servant who worked for his father, a tough, no-nonsense immigrant from northern Spain named Angel Castro y Argiz. Castro’s père had arrived in Cuba in 1891 as a teenaged conscript defending Spain’s empire in its colonial wars of independence. Although he saw little actual fighting, he was promoted through the ranks, and after a short visit to Spain resolved to stay on the island. By the time he was 50, he had acquired 11,000 hectares of land, on which he planted tobacco, beans and sugar cane.
At the time of Castro’s birth, his father was married to another woman, Maria Luisa Argota. But after her death he married Castro’s mother, with whom he fathered six other children—Fidel’s brothers Ramón and Raúl, and his four sisters Angelita, Juanita, Emma, and Agustina. Castro, the fifth of a total of nine children (he also had a half-sister and brother from his father’s first marriage), was not baptized until he was eight years old—a great source of embarrassment for a boy growing up in a strict Catholic country. He was considered illegitimate for most of his youth, and wasn’t formally recognized by his father until he turned 17, when his name was legally changed to Castro from Ruz, his mother’s name.
Castro, who excelled at academics and sports, was educated at Catholic boarding schools, and finished his secondary education in 1945 at Belén, an elite Jesuit school in Havana. At the age of 13 or 14, he first demonstrated a keen fascination with the United States—something that would mark his entire life even as he repudiated everything American—when he wrote to then president Franklin D. Roosevelt. In that letter, now part of the U.S. State Department archives and written in fractured English, Castro asks FDR to send him some money: “If you like, give me a ten dollar bill green American in the letter because never I have not seen a ten dollar bill green American.” Another part of his U.S. obsession was baseball. Castro was a star pitcher at his high school, and later at university. He even came to the attention of major league scouts, who offered him a US$5,000 bonus to sign with the New York Giants.
Castro refused that offer to focus on earning a law degree, entering law school in 1945 at the University of Havana, where he was also to receive a valuable education as a student radical. His political awakening probably began in 1947 when he joined the Partido Ortodoxo, a new party committed to social reform and exposing corruption in the government of then Cuban president Ramón Grau San Martin. Led by Eduardo Chibás, who became one of Castro’s political mentors, Ortodoxo was also fiercely nationalistic and sought, among other things, economic independence from the United States, whose interests, particularly the United Fruit Co., a powerful corporation that controlled the cultivation and export of fruit throughout Central America and the Caribbean, had dominated Cuba since the end of the wars of independence.
Castro’s student radicalism reached its most critical moment outside Cuba, during the so-called El Bogotazo, a series of violent riots in the Colombian capital of Bogotá in 1948 triggered by the assassination of Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, leader of the populist Colombia Liberal Party. Castro had travelled to Colombia to participate in a political conference of Latin American students that happened to coincide with a meeting of the Pan American Union. The students wanted to take advantage of international media attention on the conference in order to protest U.S. influence in Latin America. But when the rioting broke out across the city, they took advantage of the melee, wandering the streets of Bogotá armed with rifles and distributing pamphlets calling for an end to U.S. imperialism. Pursued by Colombian police for his role in the riots, Castro took refuge at the Cuban embassy, and was promptly flown back to Havana.
Despite this initial experience with violent insurrection, Castro by all appearances seemed to settle down to a bourgeois lifestyle. On Oct. 12, 1948, he married a beautiful green-eyed blond named Mirta Díaz-Balart, who was from an upper-class Cuban family and whose father Rafael worked as a lawyer for the United Fruit Co. and was extremely well-connected. Mirta had grown up in the United Fruit Co. town of Banes, the most Americanized place in Cuba, where Cubans lived like wealthy Americans and had more ties to Miami or New York than to Havana.
Given that, and Castro’s own deep curiousity about the United States, the young couple decided to spend their three-month honeymoon in Miami and New York—funded by US$10,000 from Castro’s new father-in-law. And, in one of those little ironies of history, family friend Fulgencio Batista, then a former president forced into exile in Daytona Beach, Fla., who would go on to be the Cuban leader that Castro would later overthrow, gave the newlyweds US$1,000 as a wedding present.
“I am not going to deny that I enjoyed some of Miami’s magnificent comforts,” Castro later told a friend. “For the first time, I knew a T-bone steak, smoked salmon, and those things that I, a youth with a big appetite, appreciated a lot.” In New York, Castro used part of the wedding money to buy himself a white Lincoln Continental. It was a far cry from what he would later tell Playboy magazine, in a lengthy 1985 interview. “Let me start by stating the things that do not motivate me,” he said. “Money does not motivate me; material goods do not motivate me. Likewise, the lust for glory, fame and prestige does not motivate me. I really think that ideas motivate me. Ideas, convictions are what spur a man to struggle in the first place.”
Back in Havana, with Mirta three months pregnant, the Castros settled into a room in an inexpensive downtown hotel, where Castro lived off a modest stipend provided by his father while he completed his final year of law studies. Constant squabbling about money and Castro’s womanizing left the couple’s marriage in disarray even before the birth of their son, Fidel “Fidelito” Castro Díaz-Balart. Castro’s increasing radicalization, culminating in a failed rebel attack on Cuba’s largest army garrison in 1953, could hardly have helped. In fact, while Castro was in jail for his role in that uprising, Mirta demanded a divorce after a clerical error from the prison censor resulted in her receiving a letter from Castro to his lover at the time, Naty Revuelta.
In July 1954, Mirta left for the United States with Fidelito, then 5. Castro flew into a rage. His prison letters from that period show a deeply developing resentment of the U.S. “I refuse even to think that my son may sleep a single night under the same roof sheltering my most repulsive enemies and receive on his innocent cheeks the kisses of those miserable Judases,” Castro wrote to his half-sister Lidia in 1954. From his prison cell, Castro then began a custody battle in the Cuban courts.
Mirta spent two years in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., with her son before marrying Emilio Núñez Blanco, the son of the man that Batista, who returned to power in 1952 in a violent coup d’état, had named ambassador to the UN. The family went to live in New York. In 1956, by which time Castro’s radical activities had forced him into exile in Mexico, he called Mirta and arranged for a 15-day visit with his son. In the end, he refused to return Fidelito to his mother, and installed him with wealthy Mexican friends.
“I am making this decision because I do not want, in my absence, to see my son Fidelito fall into the hands of my most ferocious enemies and detractors, who in an extreme act of villainy... disgraced my home and sacrificed it to the blood tyranny they serve,” said Castro in a Nov. 24 letter, written a day before he left Mexico for Cuba aboard the Granma, the rickety cabin cruiser that has been mythologized in Cuban lore.
A hysterical Mirta tried for years to have Fidelito returned to her. Seeing TV footage of Castro and her son on top of a Sherman tank when the ultimately victorious rebels marched into Havana in 1959, she told a friend, “If he’s as good a leader as he was a father, then poor Cuba!” Today, Fidelito is a nuclear physicist who once headed Cuba’s atomic energy commission. Castro would go on to have five more sons (Alexis, Alexander, Alejandro, Antonio, Angel) with his second wife, Dalia Soto del Valle. His dalliance with Revuelta resulted in a daughter, Alina, whom Revuelta raised on her own. She would flee the island in 1993, disguised as a tourist, to become one of her father’s most vocal and vicious critics in the U.S.
Despite the turmoil in his personal life, Castro excelled at his legal studies, and was planning a career in law when he graduated with a Doctor of Laws degree in 1950. He went into practice in Havana representing mainly impoverished clients, becoming increasingly concerned not only with what he saw as undue U.S. influence in Cuba but also the poverty in a city that had become little more than a seedy playground for America’s rich and gangster classes.
Havana was then known as “the whorehouse of the Caribbean.” Cuba’s reputation as the capital of American vice probably had its origins in the years after the beginning of Prohibition in 1920, when the island began to be used as a giant warehouse for liquor smuggled into the U.S. Batista, who first rose to power backed by the American mafia in 1933 (the year Prohibition ended), allowed mobsters such as Charles “Lucky” Luciano, Meyer Lansky and Giuseppe Bonanno free rein in Havana. The biggest mobsters would regularly meet in Lansky’s suite at the Hotel Nacional to divide up profits from prostitution and the myriad casinos they had installed in Havana. One of the more famous meetings took place between Dec. 22 and 26, 1946. The star attraction, flown in for an exclusive Mafia party, was a young Italian-American singer named Frank Sinatra.
It was against this backdrop that Castro began to pursue a career in politics. He was, in fact, campaigning for a seat in the Cuban parliament when Batista returned from Florida to lead his coup d’etat, overthrowing then president Carlos Prío Socarrás and cancelling national elections. Castro subsequently began a revolutionary campaign in earnest, rounding up followers in Havana and gathering funds for his cause. He formed an underground movement and began to plot for the overthrow of Batista. On July 26, 1953, he and his brother Raúl led the disastrous strike on the Moncada army barracks on the outskirts of Santiago de Cuba. More than 60 of the 160 or so rebels were killed in the attack. Although Castro and Raúl managed to escape to the Sierra Maestra, a steep mountain range in southern Cuba, they were eventually arrested and tried for their roles.
At his trial, Castro insisted upon defending himself. In a speech that would become one of his most famous, he defined his goals and expressed his absolute faith in himself and his struggle: “I warn you, I am just beginning,” he said. “Condemn me. It does not matter. History will absolve me.” It was a sign of the iron will he would forge as a revolutionary and soon-to-be leader of an island nation facing down an immensely more powerful opponent. As biographer Szulc would later write: “He learned the very hard way—in urban insurrection, Sierra war, creating from those siege conditions a siege mentality for this hostility-surrounded island where at least one half of the population is trained and organized today for defensive combat. He also learned that to survive, he must be absolutely and undeviatingly uncompromising.”
Castro spent his nearly two years in jail plotting Batista’s overthrow. After he was freed in a general amnesty (thanks in part to his powerful in-laws the Díaz-Balarts), he made his way to Mexico in 1955 to gather and train the forces of his 26th of July Movement, named after his failed attack on the Moncada garrison, and to plan his return to Cuba. It was there that Castro formed the intensely loyal group of followers who would help him overthrow Batista—among them Raúl’s friend Che Guevara, a young, restless physician from Argentina and Castro’s intellectual equal, who would go on to become an international icon of socialist revolution.
During their sojourn in Mexico, the rebels trained under Alberto Bayo, a Cuban-born veteran of the Spanish Civil War. They also made at least one foray into the U.S. to gather weapons and funding from Cuban exiles. Then, on Nov. 25, 1956, Castro and his 81-member force set off from Mexico aboard the Granma, a vessel made to carry about a dozen people, to overthrow Batista.
It was not an auspicious return. On Dec. 2, with the rebels exhausted from their week-long journey, their boat washed up on the Cuban coast, and Castro lost most of his men in an ambush by Batista’s forces. Only 20 survived and separately went into hiding in smaller groups, a ragtag army short of weapons and food that included Guevara, Raúl Castro and Camilo Cienfuegos (all would go on to become heroes of the revolution).
Castro was later forced to admit that, at the time, “there was a moment when I was commander-in-chief of myself and two others.” They were Universo Sánchez Alvarez, his bodyguard in Mexico, and Faustino Pérez Hernández, a Havana physician. To elude Batista’s troops, the three guerrillas hid in a cane field at Alegrío de Pío, where they slithered on their bellies for three days and nights, relieving themselves where they lay, and chewing nutrient-rich pieces of cane in order to survive. Every night, Castro went to sleep by fitting the barrel of his rifle against his throat and lodging the butt against his feet. He released the safety catch, and slept with his fingers around the trigger. When his comrades protested that an animal could accidentally make the weapon fire, he would not be swayed, saying he would rather shoot himself than be taken prisoner.
Ultimately, it was the path of chewed-up sugar-cane stalks that gave them away to Batista’s forces. In fact, on Dec. 5 Batista’s government told the world that Castro had been killed in battle along with Raúl, news that was reported by United Press International—an error for which Castro would never forgive the news agency. Instead, Castro refused to give up. Lying face down in the cane fields and speaking in a muffled whisper as Batista’s troops patrolled nearby, Castro sought to inspire the other two rebels. The speeches went on for hours, before the men eventually escaped.
Biographer Szulc considers the experience in the cane field—an episode about which Castro has always refused to speak—the defining moment of his revolution, and of his revolutionary character. “The notion of surrendering to the soldiers of the dictatorship of President Fulgencio Batista that he and the 81 rebels had arrived to overthrow never occurred to Castro,” Szulc wrote. “On the contrary, he had the inner certainty and triumph that only visionaries feel when the odds are impossibly and virtually mathematically arrayed against them.”
But in those early days, almost no one apart from Castro and his compatriots believed in the possibility of a Cuban revolution. Just how did this band of ill-trained rebels topple the Batista government—which had 50,000 troops at its disposal, a brutal secret police, and complete U.S. backing—and gain the support of ordinary Cubans? Most analysts would agree that it was a combination of extreme discipline, force of will, and earning the complete trust and support of the local population, a village at a time.
One early but decisive victory occurred less than six weeks after the disastrous landing, when Castro and his small band of revolutionaries attacked a Batista army detachment at La Plata on Jan. 17, 1957. The bearded rebels, or “barbudos” as they came to be known, stole all of the weapons, and retreated to their mountain base. It was an important success—and Batista suddenly realized he had a real armed insurrection on his hands.
From their base in the Sierra Maestra, the rebel band—which would grow to 9,000 members by the time they victoriously marched into Havana in 1959—united around Castro in an almost quasi-religious order. The Fidelistas, as they came to be known, won the peasants’ support by providing medical aid, setting up schools in isolated hamlets, and organizing baseball games. Castro imposed a strict policy of never stealing from the peasants, and the guerrillas had to pay for every chicken or vegetable they took. Moreover, one of their followers, a priest named Father Guillermo Sardiñas, spent much of his time christening peasant children, a service greatly appreciated in the remote and impoverished region. In this way, Castro, who would later espouse only the “religion” of Marxism-Leninism, became godfather to thousands of Cuban children.
The rebels’ idealism also transcended borders as people from around the world rallied to their cause. Canadian Andy McNaughton, son of the famed Gen. A.G.L. McNaughton, was a case in point. McNaughton’s fils worked for Castro as a double agent during the guerrilla war, in which he was code-named Esquimal, or “man from the north.” Officially employed as an arms buyer for Batista, he purchased weapons for the rebels with the Cuban regime’s money, as Canadian historian Robert Wright relates in his 2007 book Three Nights in Havana: Pierre Trudeau, Fidel Castro and the Cold War World. McNaughton, named an honorary citizen of Cuba after the revolution, told the Canadian press in 1959 that “I got to know [Cubans’] problems. You can’t close your eyes to some things. You have to make your decision and I made mine—to help the cause of freedom in Cuba.”
Also important was the rebels’ policy of helping the government soldiers they captured. Batista’s forces were well-treated and provided with immediate medical attention—an important gesture many of them never forgot, and that ultimately influenced many to change sides. “Castro doesn’t kick your pants off or jeer at you when he has you over a barrel,” said Edward Cannon, an engineer from Cornwall, Ont., employed by the U.S. firm Moa Bay Mining, who along with others was kidnapped by the rebels in the spring of 1958 to protest the fact that Cuban fighter jets were allowed to refuel at the U.S. base at Guantánamo. Upon his release and return to Canada in July 1958, Cannon held a press conference to defend Castro’s actions. “He is pretty reasonable if he believes you are in a mood to listen to what he has to say,” he said. “Kind treatment under those conditions is something you will remember for the rest of your life. I know I will.”
When Batista’s much-vaunted “summer offensive” failed to rout the rebels in 1958, hundreds of government troops rallied to Castro’s side. By mid-November, the rebel army, much of it under the command of Raúl Castro, controlled rail and bus transport in all of the southern Oriente province, and was making inroads throughout the island. Then, on Jan. 1, 1959, the unimaginable happened as Batista fled the country with his family, a day after forces under Che Guevara had taken over the strategic city of Santa Clara in the centre of the island. Other cities across the island soon fell, and the rebels began a long victory march to the capital.
Castro entered Havana on Jan. 8, first assuming the post of commander-in-chief of the Cuban armed forces, then prime minister, and later president when the prime ministerial post was abolished in 1976. Leftists from around the world were invited to the country to celebrate the rebel victory. In 1960, the newspaper Revolucion flew in intellectuals and artists to draw world attention to Cuba, among them Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso, and the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca. (During his rule Castro made it a point of surrounding himself with not only celebrated intellectuals but also sports heroes, becoming good friends with the Colombian writer and Nobel laureate Gabriel García Marquez, and befriending Argentine soccer star Diego Maradona, who has flown to Havana several times to attend rehabilitation centres for drug addiction.)
Whether Castro knew what form his new government would take in those heady early days is a matter of historical conjecture. But he had no doubts about the island’s new foreign policy stance. While still in the Sierra Maestra in 1958, he wrote to his closest comrade and rumoured lover, Celia Sánchez, that when the rebel war was over, he would have to fight “a much wider and bigger war” against the Americans. “I realize this is going to be my true destiny,” he said to the woman who would be his most important political companion until her death from cancer in 1980.
But Castro didn’t declare himself a Communist or engage in much anti-American rhetoric in the weeks and months after the rebel victory. “There is not communism or Marxism, but representative democracy and social justice in a well-planned country,” he told reporters. The Cuban revolution was all about “humanism, not communism,” he said in an interview during a trip to Montreal in April 1959, part of an official 10-day tour of North America. He also said he would not expropriate foreign holdings: “We will not interfere with legitimate business, but every arrangement made with Batista will be investigated.” At that time Castro still maintained good trade relations with the U.S., and claimed he was not under the control of Moscow.
Despite Castro’s early assurances of honouring foreign investment in Cuba and maintaining good ties with his neighbours, president Dwight D. Eisenhower refused to meet with him when he arrived in Washington. Eisenhower was said to be “sick to his stomach” by TV coverage of firing squads executing Batista loyalists on Castro’s orders. However, vice-president Richard Nixon did agree to meet with him for what was to be a 15-minute session. That meeting dragged on for 2½ hours, after which Nixon made some prescient remarks to his boss. “Whatever we may think of him, he is going to be a great factor in the development of Cuba and very possibly Latin American affairs,” said Nixon. “He seems to be sincere; he is either incredibly naive about Communism or under Communist discipline—my guess is the former and I have already implied that his ideas as to how to run a government or an economy are less developed than those of almost any world figure I have seen.”
Still, Castro was wildly popular after the revolution. On his North American tour, the bearded revolutionary in rumpled olive-green army fatigues travelled with a 100-person entourage. In Montreal, throngs shouted “Viva Castro!” and young women tried to get close to him, writes Wright. In New York, he spoke in front of a crowd of 30,000 people in Central Park, with New York police on high alert because of rumours that mobster Lansky’s men were intent on his assassination.
Castro’s message to North Americans was that Batista had left only US$70 million from pre-revolutionary bank reserves of nearly US$400 million. Cuba desperately needed the help of the West if it was going to survive. Shortly after, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where he addressed an Organization of American States meeting, he stunned everyone by demanding that Washington give Cuba US$30 billion to solve the problems of underdevelopment in Latin America.
There was little response from the United States. And so, following that North American tour, and with Moscow now courting him, the backroom deals with the Soviets began in earnest. More than 100 Spanish-speaking economic and military advisers began to arrive in Havana. Castro began an aggressive statist economic program that would effectively end any kind of relationship with the U.S. The first step was an agrarian reform law that sharply limited foreign ownership of Cuban land. In February 1960, Cuba signed an agreement to buy oil from the U.S.S.R. When Cuba’s U.S.-owned refineries refused to process the crude, Castro expropriated them—a loss of up to US$1 billion for the American firms. In retaliation, the U.S. government imposed trade sanctions; the Cubans retaliated by nationalizing all U.S. firms. A short time later, the American ambassador to Cuba was recalled, even as, following the expropriations of their businesses and lands, thousands of disgruntled Cubans left to settle in south Florida.
By Jan. 3, 1961, Eisenhower had had enough, and he formally broke diplomatic ties with Cuba as U.S. intelligence began actively to plot the removal of Castro from office. On April 17, with president John F. Kennedy newly installed in office, a group of 1,400 CIA-trained Cuban exiles landed at the Bay of Pigs in order to wage a counter-revolution. Recently released documents from the National Security Archive in the U.S. show that the CIA expected Cubans to welcome a U.S.-sponsored attack. Instead, the invasion was a total failure as Castro himself led thousands of soldiers against the intruders. It took only 48 hours for Cuban forces to kill more than 100 of the U.S.-trained combatants, and capture 1,000.
There are various theories about why the Bay of Pigs invasion was such a catastrophe. In what many historians described as the worst blunder of the Kennedy administration, U.S. intelligence clearly underestimated the support for the revolution in Cuba, and relied for most of their information on angry, exiled Cubans. Moreover, Cuban exiles in the U.S. blamed the CIA for not coordinating their efforts with the Cuban underground on the island. Others say that it was Kennedy’s last-minute decision not to deploy aerial bombardment that was to blame.
What is certain is that Castro’s victory at the Bay of Pigs further entrenched the Cuban revolution, and strengthened his resolve against the Americans. By December 1961, he finally proclaimed a Marxist-Leninist program for the island—turning Cuba into the epicentre of the Cold War conflict in the Western Hemisphere. “The revolution has no time for elections,” said Castro following the Bay of Pigs. “There is no more democratic government in Latin America than the revolutionary government. If Mr. Kennedy does not like socialism, we do not like imperialism. We do not like capitalism.” Two months later, the U.S. imposed a harsh, full-scale economic embargo against Cuba that is still in effect.
For his part, Kennedy, who was loath to admit to U.S. government involvement in the CIA-engineered attack, was publicly defiant. “Let the record show that our restraint is not exhaustible,” he said. “It is clear that this nation, in concert with all the free nations of this hemisphere, must take an ever closer and more realistic look at the menace of external Communist intervention and domination in Cuba.”
Kennedy soon got his chance—in 1962, when the Soviets decided to increase their strategic missile capability as a deterrent to a NATO threat against them in Europe. That July, following consultations with Raúl Castro, the Cuban defence minister, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev agreed to the deployment of Soviet missiles on Cuban soil. U.S. reconnaissance aircraft discovered missile sites under construction in mid-October, and policy makers instantly recognized that such a deployment so close to Florida could only be viewed as a major threat to U.S. security.
On Oct. 22, U.S. ships implemented a blockade around Cuba to search and intercept any vessels making their way to the island. For a week, tensions were high. At one point, Castro urged his Soviet counterpart to launch a nuclear first strike against the U.S. if Cuba were invaded. Years later, it was revealed that had the final decision been up to the Cuban government, Castro and Guevara would have launched several nuclear strikes against the U.S. But Khrushchev refused, secretly agreeing to remove the weapons from Cuba following Kennedy’s assurances that the island would not be invaded and that the U.S. would remove its own missiles, targeting the Soviet Union, from Turkey. The swap was not made public at the time, because Kennedy demanded secrecy in order to preserve his NATO relations.
In Canada, as the situation between Cuba and the U.S. deteriorated, prime minister John Diefenbaker eventually weighed in on the “serious menace” presented by Soviet nuclear weapons on Cuban soil. Although Ottawa had not joined Washington in upholding the Cuban embargo, the Canadian PM was no fan of the Cuban leader. “Castroism,” said Diefenbaker, “was at worst a symptom and the most radical manifestation of the social and economic tensions existing in Latin America. One treats an illness by getting rid of its causes, not by erasing its symptoms.”
Still, Canadians did not toe the U.S. line, as Ottawa policy-makers argued at the time that a hardline stand against the Castro regime would simply push the Cubans even closer to the Soviets. But recently declassified Canadian government records suggest that Canada colluded with the U.S. more than was previously thought. According to Wright, “the U.S. secretly urged Diefenbaker to maintain normal relations because it was thought that Canada would be well-positioned to gather intelligence on the island. In short, Prime Minister Diefenbaker was confident about Canada’s Cuba policy not because he had stubbornly crossed the Americans but precisely because he had earned their confidence.”
Diefenbaker’s stand, or lack of one, on Cuba would become the cornerstone for Canadian-Cuban relations in the years to come, paving the way for Canadian investment and an official visit by a Canadian prime minister at the height of the Cold War.
It was Fabian Escalante, the former head of Cuban intelligence, who in 2006 came up with the figure 638 to enumerate all the times that U.S. intelligence services and anti-Castro émigrés have tried to kill Fidel Castro. In the early 1960s, Kennedy and his brother, U.S. attorney general Robert Kennedy, were obsessed with getting rid of the Cuban leader. Part of Operation Mongoose, a covert program hatched in 1961 to overthrow Cuba’s new government, involved the CIA plotting Castro’s death. “If surviving assassination attempts were an Olympic event, I would win the gold medal,” Castro once told an interviewer in the 1980s.
The plots, which involved everything from the contamination of the sugar crop to hotel bombings, exploding cigars and poisoned ballpoint pens and milkshakes, were worthy of a James Bond script. In fact, at one point Kennedy even asked Ian Fleming, the creator of the fictional spy, for his advice on how to get rid of the Cuban leader.
The plotters also consulted Tad Szulc. According to recently declassified documents, Castro’s future biographer, who would later enjoy a close relationship with the Cuban leader, consulted with Robert Kennedy, to whom he first suggested the outlines of Operation Mongoose. The revelations of Szulc’s involvement with the CIA were made by New Yorker journalist Seymour Hersh while he was researching The Dark Side of Camelot, his 1997 book about the Kennedy regime. Castro apparently had no idea of Szulc’s CIA past when he agreed to be interviewed for the biography in the mid-1980s.
Desperate for new ideas on how to assassinate Castro, CIA agents also consulted the Italian Mafia in the U.S. In one of the more famous assassination plots, the CIA sent Marita Lorenz, a German ex-lover of Fidel’s, to kill him by smuggling poison pills to his room in a jar of face cream. When Castro figured out the plan, he reportedly gave Lorenz his gun and told her to shoot him on the spot. She lost her nerve.
But by far the most willing of Castro’s would-be assassins were south Florida’s Cuban exiles. Of the 1.5 million Cubans who live in the U.S., fully two-thirds reside in south Florida, and most arrived as a result of the Cuban revolution. In a recent British documentary (638 Ways to Kill Castro) on the subject of Castro assassination attempts, U.S. congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, born in Cuba, appeared to support political assassination when she said, “I welcome the opportunity of having anyone assassinate Fidel Castro and any leader who is oppressing the people.”
While Ros-Lehtinen, whose constituency is in Miami-Dade County, later said her remarks had been taken out of context, they were greeted with a great deal of enthusiasm by her fellow Cuban exiles in Miami. They make up one of the most vocal and well-organized lobby groups in the U.S., and have been particularly bitter about Castro’s longevity—even as many are still fighting against their own family members left on the island. “The Cuban revolution has ravaged the Cuban family, much as the Civil War in the United States ravaged American families,” wrote Ann Louise Bardach, a U.S. journalist who has documented the nasty family politics on both sides of the Florida Straits.
The Díaz-Balart family, Castro’s former in-laws who fled to Miami after the revolution, have been fanatically opposed to his regime. Raphael Díaz-Balart, Castro’s former brother- in-law, became a leading figure in anti-Castro circles, and two of his sons, Lincoln and Mario, are today serving as U.S. congressmen representing south Florida. And Castro’s own immediate family was also ravaged by the revolution.
His daughter Alina regularly denounces her father on her popular Miami radio program. Like his first wife Mirta, his sister Juanita left the island, incensed that in 1963 her brother expropriated his own family’s sugar plantation as an example of economic warfare against the rich. “I cannot remain indifferent to what is happening in my country,” she said in a press conference after fleeing Cuba. “My brothers Fidel and Raúl have made it an enormous prison surrounded by water.” Ramon, the Castro brother who had worked hard maintaining that family farm while Raúl and Fidel were off waging guerrilla warfare in the mountains, also raged against his brothers in a 1964 interview with Time. “Raúl is a dirty little Communist,” he said. “Someday, I am going to kill him.”
Family members were not the only ones to break with the revolutionary leader, as Castro also ended relations with some of his closest comrades from his days in the Sierra Maestra. The most important of these was Che Guevara, who after the revolution became minister of industry and also director of the country’s central bank—bureaucratic positions for which the restless and fanatical revolutionary was extremely ill-suited. In the mid-1960s, Guevara left Cuba and embarked on disastrous efforts to help spread the revolutionary struggle in Congo and then in Bolivia, where he was caught and executed by the Bolivian army in October 1967.
There are several theories about the Guevara-Castro break. Some say that the revolutionary purist was not pleased with the direction in which Castro was taking the revolution—namely, allying Cuba so closely with the Soviet Union, which Guevara despised. According to Szulc, Guevara “was the last totally independent mind and spirit in the increasingly rigid power structure built by and around Castro. He had vanished from Cuba in the early part of 1965, for reasons never adequately explained, and therefore did not participate in the final stages of formalizing the establishment of Communist rule in Cuba through the creation of the new party under Castro.”
Part of formalizing Communist rule in Cuba was continuing to try to export the revolution to the Third World. Nearly a decade after the death of Guevara, Castro once again tried to aid the international revolutionary cause. In the fall of 1975, he provided troops and military aid to the Marxist Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (known by its Portuguese-language acronym MPLA), trying to take over that southwestern African country when its Portuguese colonial masters formally left in November. With Castro later taking pains to stress that it had been a Cuban initiative, and not at Moscow’s behest, thousands of Cuban troops helped MPLA soldiers gain control of the capital, and the government. They stayed on for more than a decade to help the Marxist government fight rebel forces backed by South Africa and the United States. The Angolan conflict raged for years, turning the country into a major flashpoint in the Cold War.
Castro took the occasion of Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s official visit to Cuba in January 1976 to announce to the Cuban people for the first time that Cuban troops were serving in Angola. As Wright notes in his book, perhaps the Cuban leader felt that Trudeau himself would have been obliged to mention the intervention in his address on the island. “We don’t think intervention by outside countries in conflict is a good thing,” said Trudeau in an interview with Maclean’s during his 76-hour visit to Cuba, in which he did condemn the Angolan intervention. But the condemnation didn’t seem quite strong enough, and it was punctuated with enthusiastic shouts of “Viva Cuba y el pueblo cubano! Viva el Primer Ministro Comandante Fidel Castro!” at the end of the prime minister’s speech.
Trudeau’s official visit marked the beginnings of an important personal and political bond between the two leaders. The Canadian PM, who had previously visited Cuba twice, in 1949 and 1964, had also relied on Castro’s help during the 1970 October Crisis in Quebec. In December, as part of secret negotiations with the separatist terrorists, they were flown to Cuba aboard a Canadian military jet after Castro agreed to take them in.
Trudeau’s enthusiasm on that 1976 visit was not appreciated by some in Canada, where his opposition critics, among others, accused him of cuddling up to Castro and not being critical enough of the Angolan intervention. But Trudeau seemed smitten with the Cuban leader. Indeed, he and Castro had much in common, as Wright notes in his book. Both were Jesuit-trained “men of formidable intellect whose political idealism had inspired millions of their compatriots, infuriated millions of others and changed the course of their nations’ history.” Trudeau would return to Cuba for private visits with Castro after he retired from politics. When Trudeau died in 2000, Castro flew to Montreal to be an honorary pallbearer at his funeral.
In the wake of the revolution, Cuba remained a poor nation. But its economic fortunes began to take a greater turn for the worse in the years after the Trudeau visit. Maintaining thousands of troops in Angola, and later in Ethiopia, was putting too much strain on the economy. Although the Soviets continued to pour in billions worth of aid, and were ready buyers for the country’s sugar crop, the lustre of the revolution was beginning to wear off for ordinary Cubans. Food was rationed; medicines began to disappear off pharmacy shelves.
The chronic downturn in the Cuban economy, coupled with increasing repression, led to the Mariel boat lift in 1980, after a crowd of some 10,000 Cubans swarmed the Peruvian embassy in Havana, demanding asylum. At first Castro threatened force against the would-be immigrants. Then, in an effort to embarrass the Americans, he allowed more than 120,000 people to leave between April 15 and Oct. 31. But he also emptied several jails in the process, and the massive influx of asylum-seekers, among them some of the worst criminal offenders on the island, overwhelmed the U.S. Coast Guard and had negative repercussions for the Carter administration.
As the eighties dragged on, Castro seemed to be having an increasingly difficult time holding his revolution together. During his official visit in 1989, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev addressed the Cuban parliament, speaking at length about the political and economic reforms sweeping the Soviet Union. Castro appeared dejected, recognizing the changes in the U.S.S.R. as the first steps in the erosion of the Cuban-Soviet partnership. “We are witnessing sad things in other socialist countries, very sad things,” he said.
The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 ended Moscow’s US$4-billion subsidy to Cuba, and ushered in the so-called Special Period when fuel and food were severely rationed. Castro exhorted Cubans to work even harder, to do without beef and dairy products, and ride their bicycles to work. He also legalized the U.S. dollar, encouraged remittances from Miami Cubans to their relatives, allowed the establishment of small private enterprises, and began to focus heavily on the tourism industry to stem losses.
But hand in hand with an economic opening of sorts came even greater repression, as the government cracked down on everyone from poets and journalists to homosexuals. Yet Castro maintained he was a democrat at heart. “No one is arrested here for speaking out,” he once said, speaking to a small group of U.S. academics and journalists in the mid-1980s. “If they were, everyone would be arrested. Things are not the way you imagine. Besides, people do not want another party. This country has had political education, a revolutionary education. People can speak their mind, but not if they start conspiring or organizing terrorist plans.
But despite Castro’s claims, Cuba is hardly a liberal democracy. It is a crime for many to use the Internet or own a satellite dish. The Orwellian “Committees for the Defence of the Revolution”—organizations of neighbours effectively spying on neighbours—make sure no one gets out of line. In Cuba, killing a cow is considered a treasonous act and carries a lengthy jail sentence, as does writing articles that criticize the regime. In 2003, Cuban authorities arrested 75 writers and dissidents, handing some of them jail terms ranging up to 28 years, for allegedly writing articles that were critical of Castro, and accepting money from the United States. So much for “speaking out.”
In many ways, it was a siege mentality. Adding to it was the fact that the U.S. embargo was codified into law in 1992 and strengthened in 1995. A year later, Congress passed the so-called Helms-Burton Act, which further restricted U.S. citizens doing business in or with Cuba. European and Canadian corporations who have a great deal of economic interests in Cuba were particularly incensed by the legislation, as it penalized them.
But while the embargo has been roundly criticized by the international community (former U.S. president Jimmy Carter called for its end in a speech in Cuba in 2002), Castro was at times able to use it to his political advantage. From a stage constructed directly outside the U.S. Interests Section, the seven-story building on the Malecon seafront in Havana that is the de facto American embassy, Castro regularly railed against Washington. He ordered the construction of the stage—known as the Anti-Imperialist Tribunal—as a venue for permanent protest against the U.S. during the 2000 uproar over Elián González, the young Cuban boy whose mother died in their attempt to escape Cuba, and who became the object of a fierce custody battle between his father in Cuba and his Florida relatives.
The banner that hangs from the stage features burning houses and crying children, with the words “You did this.” “You” is the United States, and “this” is the results of its embargo, on which Castro has blamed all of his country’s ills. Of course, the embargo has had serious consequences on the Cuban economy. But following a devastating hurricane in 2001, there was a slight opening in the legislation, allowing Cuba to buy humanitarian supplies on a cash basis. Castro took full advantage of this opening, striking deals directly with agricultural producers in the U.S. and paying cash for processed foods and drink mixes that ended up at the country’s seaside resorts. Analysts say he was hoping that by dealing directly with big U.S. agricultural interests, they would pressure Washington to drop the trade restrictions on Cuba.
In further measures to alleviate the country’s economic woes, Castro sought some creative solutions, such as using his extremely close relationship with Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chávez to give the Cuban economy a huge boost. Chávez, an ardent admirer of Castro’s, has more than US$30 billion of annual oil revenues at his disposal, some of which he has used to spread his Marxist politics throughout the Americas. In one initiative, Cuba sent physicians to Venezuela in exchange for oil. Now Chávez’s financial backing might just give Cuba’s Communist power structure some breathing space in the wake of Castro’s resignation.
It was the French feminist intellectual Simone de Beauvoir who first asked the question now on every Cuba watcher’s mind: “What will become of Cuba when he leaves power?”
De Beauvoir, part of the contingent of international intellectuals and artists invited in 1960 to see the revolution up close, asked that question then, recognizing that it was Castro’s charisma and sheer force of will that had been the driving force of change in Cuba. Perhaps many also felt that, once in office, Castro’s rule would be short-lived, that it would be impossible to sustain the revolutionary spirit under layers of government bureaucracy.
But nearly a half-century later, after Castro endured so long, the question is, what will happen to the system he created now that he has stepped down. Raúl Castro, the first vice-president of the Cuban Council of State, is currently acting president. Since the guerrilla war in the Sierra Maestra there was never any doubt that he would one day take over for his older brother, which is expected to occur when Cuba’s National Assembly meets this Sunday. But Raúl Castro will turn 76 in June, and may not be fit to rule for much longer. Still, anyone who succeeds Fidel Castro is not likely to govern alone. A consultative decision-making process that was adopted in the Sierra Maestra for all important issues will probably carry over, and Raúl will likely govern in a collective arrangement with other loyal Fidelistas: Foreign Minister Felipe Pérez Roque, National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcón, and economics czar Carlos Lage—with probable input from Fidel himself.
There was a time when they all would have been expected to uphold the revolution’s main principles. Perhaps they will. Certainly Fidel Castro has hardly gone out with a whimper. In his letter of resignation, he makes it obvious that while he may no longer be the ruler of Cuba, he will continue to wage the revolution from behind his desk. “I do not bid you farewell,” he wrote. “My only wish is to fight on as a soldier of ideas.” To this end, he has promised to continue his regular column “Reflections of Comrade Fidel” in the newspaper Granma. “It will be another weapon in the arsenal on which you will be able to count. Perhaps my voice will be heard.” It certainly has been.
Story by Isabel Vincent. Photo of Fidel Castro by Zoran Milich ©