Obituary: Fidel Castro

‘Some saw him as a ruthless despot who trampled rights and freedoms; many others hailed him as the crowds did that first night, as a revolutionary hero for the ages’

 

Fidel Castro, the fiery apostle of revolution who brought the Cold War to the Western Hemisphere in 1959 and then defied the United States for nearly half a century as Cuba’s maximum leader, bedeviling 11 US presidents and briefly pushing the world to the brink of nuclear war, had been in declining health for several years before he died, aged 90.

Castro had orchestrated what he hoped would be the continuation of his communist revolution, stepping aside in 2006 when a serious illness felled him. He provisionally ceded much of his power to his younger brother Raúl, now 85, and two years later formally resigned as president. Raúl Castro, who had fought alongside Fidel Castro from the earliest days of the insurrection and remained minister of defence and his brother’s closest confidant, has ruled Cuba since then, although he has told the Cuban people he intends to resign in 2018.

Fidel Castro had held onto power longer than any other living national leader except Queen Elizabeth II. He became a towering international figure whose importance in the 20th century far exceeded what might have been expected from the head of state of a Caribbean island nation of 11 million people.

He dominated his country with strength and symbolism from the moment he triumphantly entered Havana on January 8th, 1959, and completed his overthrow of Fulgencio Batista by delivering his first major speech in the capital before tens of thousands of admirers at the vanquished dictator’s military headquarters.

Castro wielded power like a tyrant, controlling every aspect of the island’s existence. He was Cuba’s “Máximo Lider”. From atop a Cuban army tank, he directed his country’s defence at the Bay of Pigs. Countless details fell to him, from selecting the colour of uniforms Cuban soldiers wore in Angola to overseeing a programme to produce a superbreed of milk cows. He personally set the goals for sugar harvests. He personally sent countless men to prison.

But it was more than repression and fear that kept him and his totalitarian government in power for so long. He had both admirers and detractors in Cuba and around the world. Some saw him as a ruthless despot who trampled rights and freedoms; many others hailed him as the crowds did that first night, as a revolutionary hero for the ages.

Even when he fell ill and was hospitalised with diverticulitis in summer 2006, giving up most of his powers for the first time, Castro tried to dictate the details of his own medical care and orchestrate the continuation of his communist revolution, engaging a plan as old as the revolution itself.

By handing power to his brother, Castro once more raised the ire of his enemies in Washington. US officials condemned the transition, saying it prolonged a dictatorship and again denied the long-suffering Cuban people a chance to control their own lives.

But in December 2014, President Barack Obama used his executive powers to dial down the decades of antagonism between Washington and Havana by moving to exchange prisoners and normalise diplomatic relations between the two countries, a deal worked out with the help of Pope Francis and after 18 months of secret talks between representatives of both governments.

Although increasingly frail and rarely seen in public, Castro even then made clear his enduring mistrust of the United States. A few days after Obama’s highly publicised visit to Cuba in 2016 – the first by a sitting US president in 88 years – Castro penned a cranky response denigrating Obama’s overtures of peace and insisting that Cuba did not need anything the United States was offering.

Castro’s legacy in Cuba and elsewhere has been a mixed record of social progress and abject poverty, of racial equality and political persecution, of medical advances and a degree of misery comparable to the conditions that existed in Cuba when he entered Havana as a victorious guerrilla commander in 1959.

That image made him a symbol of revolution throughout the world and an inspiration to many imitators. Hugo Chávez of Venezuela considered Castro his ideological godfather. Even Castro’s spotty performance as an ageing autocrat in charge of a foundering economy could not undermine his image.

But beyond anything else, it was Castro’s obsession with the United States, and the US’s obsession with him, that shaped his rule. After he embraced communism, Washington portrayed him as a devil and a tyrant and repeatedly tried to remove him from power through an ill-fated invasion at the Bay of Pigs in 1961, an economic embargo that has lasted decades, assassination plots and even bizarre plans to undercut his prestige by making his beard fall out.

Castro’s defiance of US power made him a beacon of resistance in Latin America and elsewhere, and his bushy beard, long Cuban cigar and green fatigues became universal symbols of rebellion.

His understanding of the power of images, especially on television, helped him retain the loyalty of many Cubans even during the harshest periods of deprivation and isolation when he routinely blamed America and its embargo for many of Cuba’s ills. And his mastery of words in thousands of speeches, often lasting hours, imbued many Cubans with his own hatred of the United States by keeping them on constant watch for an invasion – military, economic or ideological – from the north.

Over many years Castro gave hundreds of interviews and retained the ability to twist the most compromising question to his favour. In a 1985 interview in Playboy magazine, he was asked how he would respond to President Ronald Reagan’s description of him as a ruthless dictator. “Let’s think about your question,” Castro said, toying with his interviewer. “If being a dictator means governing by decree, then you might use that argument to accuse the pope of being a dictator.”

He turned the question back on Reagan: “If his power includes something as monstrously undemocratic as the ability to order a thermonuclear war, I ask you, who then is more of a dictator, the president of the United States or I?”

After leading his guerrillas against a repressive Cuban dictator, Castro, in his early 30s, aligned Cuba with the Soviet Union and used Cuban troops to support revolution in Africa and throughout Latin America.

His willingness to allow the Soviets to build missile-launching sites in Cuba led to a harrowing diplomatic standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union in the autumn of 1962, one that could have escalated into a nuclear exchange. The world remained tense until the confrontation was defused 13 days after it began, and the launchpads were dismantled.

With the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Castro faced one of his biggest challenges: surviving without huge communist subsidies. He defied predictions of his political demise. When threatened, he fanned antagonism toward the United States. And when the Cuban economy neared collapse, he legalised the US dollar, which he had railed against since the 1950s, only to ban dollars again a few years later when the economy stabilised.

Castro continued to taunt US presidents for a half-century, frustrating all of Washington’s attempts to contain him. After nearly five decades as a pariah of the West, even when his once booming voice had withered to an old man’s whisper and his beard had turned gray, he remained defiant.

He often told interviewers that he identified with Don Quixote, and like Quixote he struggled against threats both real and imagined, preparing for decades, for example, for another invasion that never came. As the leaders of every other nation of the hemisphere gathered in Quebec city in April 2001 for the third Summit of the Americas, an uninvited Castro, then 74, fumed in Havana, presiding over ceremonies commemorating the embarrassing defeat of CIA-backed exiles at the Bay of Pigs in 1961. True to character, he portrayed his exclusion as a sign of strength, declaring that Cuba “is the only country in the world that does not need to trade with the United States.” – New York Times syndication