By Michael Weissenstein & Paul Haven / The Associated Press
HAVANA—Fidel Castro’s revolution was slowly dying—or so it seemed.
Communism had collapsed in Europe, and Cuba’s Soviet lifeline was severed. Food was in short supply. Power outages silenced TV sets normally tuned to a nighttime soap opera. Factories rusted in the tropical heat.
The title of an American book seemed just right: Castro’s Final Hour. That was in 1992.
Castro’s “final hour” became weeks, then months, then years. Even as China and Vietnam embraced free markets, Castro clung to his socialist beliefs and Communism’s supposed dinosaur went on to rule for another decade-and-a-half. Along the way he became godfather to a resurgent Latin American left, mentoring a new generation of leaders: Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, Evo Morales of Bolivia, Rafael Correa of Ecuador.
No other Third World leader prompted so much US hostility for so long. Castro brought the planet to the brink of nuclear war in 1962, sent tens of thousands of troops to aid leftist governments in Africa and nurtured guerrilla movements that fought US-backed governments across Latin America. He endured a crippling US embargo and outlasted 10 US presidents—all of them preaching regime change in Cuba—finally resigning 11 months before Barack Obama moved into the White House, not from US pressure but because of serious illness.
After Castro transferred power to his brother Raul, first temporarily in 2006 and then permanently on February 19, 2008, he survived another eight years in quiet retirement before finally dying on Friday. By hanging on in the shadows, he helped his followers avoid political unrest and ease the island into a communist future without the only leader most Cubans had ever known.
To the end, Castro remained a polarizing figure. For many he was a champion of the poor who, along with Ernesto “Che” Guevara, made violent revolution a romanticized ideal, a symbol of liberation who overthrew a dictator and brought free education and health care to the masses. To exiles who longed for Castro’s demise, he personified a repressive regime that locked up political opponents, suppressed civil liberties and destroyed the island’s economy.
Hundreds of thousands of Cubans began fleeing north almost immediately after Castro’s 1959 revolution as he started turning exuberantly capitalist Cuba into a socialist state, dismaying reformists who thought he meant only to topple thuggish strongman Batista and restore democracy.
The exodus transformed not only Cuba but also parts of the United States, most notably South Florida, which became the center of virulent anti-Castro sentiment. As Cuban exiles gained political strength, they became a bulwark against softening America’s trade embargo against the island. To those whose families were uprooted and saw their properties seized, Castro was nothing less than a tyrant.
But love him or hate him, there was no denying that Castro played an outsize role on the world stage for much of the 20th century, all from his perch on an island smaller than Pennsylvania that had once been better known as a place for gambling and sunbathing.
Castro’s barbudos, as the bearded rebels were known, marched triumphantly into Havana days after Batista fled on January 1, 1959. The US was among the first countries to recognize the new government. But the rebels’ image quickly darkened as impromptu courts sent officials of the old regime to the firing-squad wall.
Castro was outraged at the resulting US criticism, calling it “the vilest, most criminal and most unjust that has been launched against any people.” It was a tone of righteous indignation Castro would return to time and again over the decades, convinced to the end of the justice of his revolution.
The man who would become a global symbol of communism was the son of a rugged, self-made capitalist. Angel Castro had come from Spain’s impoverished Galicia province to fight against Cuban independence, and settled in the new nation in 1902 as a landless laborer. Barely literate, he organized contract labor for the US-based United Fruit Co. and bought land, eventually building a 32,100-acre farm in a lawless, backward part of eastern Cuba.
Decades later, the farm would become the first property officially confiscated by his son’s government under a land-reform program.
Fidel Castro was born on August 13, 1926, to Angel’s maid, lover and eventual second wife, Lina, who also had roots in Galicia. He grew up in a rambling two-story wood house, attended a one-room plantation school and learned to hunt. Younger brother Raul once tended bar at the family’s roadside saloon.
Castro later said that life among the barefoot sons of poor farm laborers helped form his social conscience. By some accounts, he squabbled with his father over their treatment.
Castro attended Roman Catholic Church schools in the eastern city of Santiago and then in the capital, Havana, where he was named the country’s best schoolboy athlete as a basketball player. He also loved baseball, though the legend he was scouted by Major League Baseball is untrue.
While studying law at the University of Havana, Castro plunged into the chaotic political scene of the day, joining violent student “action groups.” He was arrested, though never charged, in the 1948 slaying of another group’s leader.
He joined abortive efforts to topple Rafael Trujillo’s dictatorship in the nearby Dominican Republic and took part in riotous protests in Colombia following the assassination of a presidential candidate there.
Castro then became an activist lawyer with ambitions of a seat in Cuba’s Congress until Batista organized a coup d’etat on March 10, 1952, short-circuiting scheduled elections.
Fidel and Raul Castro responded by organizing a near-suicidal attack on the sprawling Moncada military barracks in Santiago on July 26, 1953. More than 60 of the 119 who joined the brothers were killed, most by torture after they were captured. Castro survived only because the soldier who nabbed him took him to a police station rather than the barracks where others were being slain.
“Many great things in history started out as crazy acts,” said Pedro Trigo Lopez, another survivor.
Castro was imprisoned but won sympathy because of Batista’s bloody response to the attack.
Freed in an amnesty, he and Raul fled to Mexico and began recruiting a tiny rebel army. Fidel also went to New York City to raise money for his cause. Among those who joined up in Mexico City was “Che” Guevara, an Argentine physician who had witnessed the crudely disguised CIA overthrow of Guatemala’s elected president.
In 1956, Castro loaded the “Granma,” a creaky yacht meant for a dozen, with 82 fighters and set off for Cuba. Batista’s forces were tipped off and spotted the wallowing boat before it could land, and all but 12 of the rebels were killed or arrested before they could flee to the nearby Sierra Maestra mountains.
Yet the guerrilla war against the Batista regime gradually became unstoppable, culminating in Castro’s January 8, 1959, entry into Havana before throngs of jubilant Cubans. To generations of youths who witnessed the moment, he became a larger-than-life figure known simply as Fidel, and for decades the left in Latin America considered him nearly infallible.
Hundreds of thousands turned out for Castro’s speeches, hearing his high-pitched voice soar for hour after hour. He would walk listeners through world history, dip into provincial cane-cutting statistics, chuckle maliciously about his foes and then thunder about capitalist injustice. His 269-minute address to the UN General Assembly in 1960 set the world body’s record for length, a mark that is unlikely to be broken.
Soon after the revolution, Castro set his eye outside the island.
“How much America and the peoples of our hemisphere need a revolution like the one that has taken place in Cuba!” he said days after his triumph.
“How much it needs for the millionaires who have become rich by stealing the people’s money to lose everything they have stolen!” he added. “How much America needs for the war criminals in the countries of our hemisphere all to be shot!”
Image credits: AP