During almost half a century in power, Fidel Castro stood up to no fewer than ten more-or-less hostile United States presidents despite the fact that his communist Caribbean island lies only 90 miles from the American mainland. Admired or despised around the world in almost equal measure, he was the world’s longest-serving political leader when he handed over the presidency to his younger brother Raúl in 2008 but remained as something of a “spiritual leader.”
When he died on Friday at 90, he was the only leader most of his countrymen had ever known, making him a paternal figure to most Cubans – benevolent in the eyes of some, dictatorial in the eyes of others. And yet, in contrast to Donald Trump, few Cubans have ever seen his wife, Dalia Soto del Valle, or most of his children and few even knew where he lived – a villa in a Havana suburb.
To those old enough to remember 13 days back in 1962 as they played out, Castro will always be the man who, backed by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, brought the world to the brink of a Third World War. Soviet nuclear missile-launching pads had been spotted on Cuba by an American spy plane, the warheads pointed towards US cities. For most of those 13 October days, the three “poker” players – Castro, Khrushchev and US President John F Kennedy – were by no means the only people in the world having sleepless nights.
In the end, Castro was forced to give up his Soviet nuclear missiles, but he won a promise from Kennedy, repeated and kept by subsequent American presidents, not to invade the Caribbean island. At that same time in 1962, Castro won vital Soviet economic support for almost three decades, as well as a reputation as a major player on the world political stage.
From the first day of his revolution, New Year’s Day 1959, until his death from intestinal problems, no other world leader brought such mixed reactions from around the world. Students decorated their bedsits with posters of him and fellow revolutionary Ernesto Ché Guevara, seeing them as catalysts for change in a Latin America riddled with corrupt military dictators such as the man they overthrew, Fulgencio Batista.
Castro’s friends ranged from Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez to Ernest Hemingway, who fished off Cuba and had a house there, and Argentinian footballer Diego Maradona, who went through cocaine addiction rehab on the island. On the other hand, Cuban exiles –mostly in Miami – despised the Cuban leader, most democratic governments opposed and isolated him, and each of that ten-man line of US presidents sought to undermine him to varying degrees. The CIA, at the height of its Cold War paranoia, is known to have organised many of the 30 confirmed attempts to assassinate him.
The most famous attempts involved an “exploding” Habana cigar which failed to go off, a strawberry milkshake spiked with a massive dose of LSD but which he thought smelt a bit off and never touched, and a doctored bottle of shampoo designed to burn off all his facial hair, the famous beard vital to his image.
Castro’s response was to live like a nomad, flitting among many secret residences on his island. He insisted his security men first taste food from his plate. On his trips abroad, two identical Soviet-built Cuban airliners flew in formation, and he chose which one to board at the last minute, halving his chances of dying if anyone tried to shoot him down.
Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz was born in Birán, a sugar plantation village near Mayari in Oriente (now Holguin) province, on 13 August 1926. His father was Angel Castro y Argiz, an immigrant from Galicia in north-western Spain, a fact which the Cuban leader once said gave him a lifelong love of bagpipes, known in Galicia as gaita.
While studying law at the University of Havana in the late 1940s, he was known as a fairly radical leftist but he joined the social democratic Orthodox Party (OP) rather than the Young Communists. He was still with the OP at the time of his 1959 revolution and many historians believe it was US antagonism towards him, first from President Dwight D Eisenhower and then from JFK, that pushed him towards communism and alignment with Moscow. It was more than two years before he declared Cuba a Marxist- Leninist state.
The revolution really began on 26 July, 1953, when Castro and more than 100 men (and two women), mostly armed only with hunting rifles, attacked Batista’s Moncada barracks near the eastern city of Santiago. Come nightfall the same day, ten of the would-be revolutionaries lay dead, while 30 more were arrested. Castro fled but was caught within a week and summarily tried. Sentenced to 15 years’ jail, he made a famous speech that would resonate around the island for the rest of his life. “Condemn me. It does not matter. History will absolve me.” The attack had established him as the undisputed leader of opposition to the dictatorship. Freed within two years, he moved to Mexico City, where, by chance, he met a young Argentinian doctor bent on making the world a better place. It was over thick black coffee cortao and huge Habana cigars in a cantina called the Latino that Castro and his new compadre, Ernesto Ché Guevara, plotted to oust Batista. With 80 other sympathisers, mostly Cubans who had fled the Batista regime and including his younger brother Raúl, they packed themselves onto a leaky 38-foot motor boat, designed to sleep only eight, whose previous American owner had named it the Granma after his grandmother. They set sail from the Mexican coast on 25 November, 1956 and landed, sick, hungry and exhausted, at Los Cayuelos in Cuba on 2 December.
Only a dozen of the original 82 survived the next two years of hit-and-run guerrilla attacks on Batista’s army, modelled on the resistance tactics of Tito’s partisans in Yugoslavia and the French maquis. But they picked up more than 1,000 sympathisers on their “Long March” from the Sierra Maestra and panicked Batista into fleeing the country on New Year’s Eve 1958-59. Riding on a jeep from the east of the island, smoking his trademark Cohiba cigar, Castro was thronged by so many people that it took him a week to get to Havana and a hero’s welcome as “our liberator”.
The revolution was widely welcomed around the world, where Batista’s Cuba had been seen as a den of prostitution and gambling controlled by mafia bosses in the US, and Castro and Ché became household names and poster boys.
The climate of world opinion began turning when Castro introduced the death penalty, many of Batista’s soldiers or sympathisers were put to the firing squad and Catholic priests were either imprisoned or exiled. The new leader then began nationalising properties and businesses, many of them belonging to US citizens, publicly received Soviet bloc weapons and spoke of the fire of revolution spreading throughout Latin America.
And so began an exodus of those Cubans who could afford to leave. Most settled in the Miami area, transforming the city from a sleepy, English-speaking one with a large, elderly Jewish community to the throbbing bi-lingual, bi-cultural city it is today. The Cuban exiles became the focus of attempts to “free Cuba” and restore democracy, and emerged as a powerful lobby group influencing successive US presidents. It was largely their pressure that pushed Washington into imposing trade sanctions on the island, which continue today.
In early April 1961, with JFK having taken over from Eisenhower in the White House, rapprochement with the revolutionary Cuban leader still seemed possible. But all that ended on 17 April with the attempted invasion of Cuba by a band of 1,400 exiled Cubans trained and armed by the CIA. The so-called Bay of Pigs invasion, named after the beach where the exiles landed, quickly turned into a fiasco. The plan had been hatched by Eisenhower, while Kennedy had gone along with it without great enthusiasm. As a result, he not only forbade US forces from taking part but withheld the promised, vital air support.
Castro had “eyes and ears” among the Florida exiles and had got wind of the plot to overthrow him. Personally leading 20,000 men, he routed the invaders, killing 100, executing several others and jailing the rest. It was a huge embarrassment for the US and a massive propaganda coup, boosting Castro’s domestic popularity and driving him into the willing arms of Moscow. It was only a few months later that he announced, for the first time, that Cuba was a Marxist-Leninist state.
Castro’s refusal to bow to his big, powerful neighbour inspired “anti-imperialist” movements throughout Latin America, where guerrilla groups sprang up from Colombia to Argentina, from Peru to Brazil. Nicaragua’s Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), headed by Daniel Ortega, relied on Cuban weapons and advisers to oust dictator Anastasio Somoza in 1979.
Right until his death, Castro boasted of Cuba’s highly-advanced, free health service, of a literacy rate almost unparalleled in the western hemisphere, of a relatively-low infant mortality rate, of state support for sports from an early age and the success of its sportsmen and women at top level, as well as of the fact that there was no desperate poverty on the island, in sharp contrast to regional countries such as Haiti, little more than 60 miles away. And whereas in the 1960s he tried to export his revolution throughout Central and South America and to Africa by force of arms, in later years Castro sent doctors, paid for by the Cuban state, to save many lives in many countries.
What Castro considered a revolutionary utopia, however, was gradually punctured by the democratic openings within his old ally, the Soviet Union. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev had enough on his plate with his dramatic domestic perestroika and glasnost – economic restructuring and a new openness to the outside world. The Soviet leader began setting Cuba largely adrift, gradually cutting the subsidies that had kept the island afloat.
Gorbachev had little choice but to ask Castro for hard currency, not sugar, in return for oil. That forced the Cuban leader to introduce what he called the Special Period – the equivalent of a wartime economy. Petrol and heating fuel became scarce and were rationed which, in turn, increased domestic dissidence. For the first time, anti-Castro graffiti popped up on walls around Havana.
As the economy collapsed, tens of thousands of Cubans tried to flee. Behind high walls around the country, they clandestinely built makeshift rafts from anything they could find, including old car bodies, and set sail across the treacherous Florida Straits to seek out the American Dream. Castro decided, in 1994, that he was better off without the “ingrates”. He ordered his police to ignore the rafters and they began leaving openly from beaches across the island. The vast majority, including women and children, never survived the wild and windy Straits of Florida.
In his later years, the Cuban leader looked more and more frail, but remained an imposing presence. He was forced to cut down on his famous speeches, which used to run up to seven hours without a break, with Castro remaining on his feet throughout. Castro was always at pains to keep his private life secret. He would often sleep in a different house every night, to remain a moving target to his enemies. His most usual home, where his family lived, was a villa in Havana codenamed Punto Cero (Point Zero). It wasn’t fancy, even though Forbes magazine once claimed he was worth at least US $550 million, mainly from the export of Cuban pharmaceuticals and other state-run businesses.
Out of the blue, on 19 February 2008, the Cuban state media quoted Castro as saying he was stepping down as President and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces because of an intestinal problem and surgery.
He was very much a night person. Foreign correspondents in Havana would often get a call saying he would meet them in the wee hours of the morning. And you could criticise his régime fairly openly. If you criticised him personally, you never feared, as a foreigner, disappearing or being locked up the way you might well be under other dictatorial regimes. But you could expect a knock on your hotel door in the middle of the night, to be given five minutes to pack and to be taken to Havana airport by his security men.
Castro was still a law student when he first married Mirta Díaz-Balart in 1948, and their son, Fidel Castro Díaz-Balart, widely known in Cuba as Fidelito (Little Fidel), was born the following year and is now 67. The couple were divorced in 1955 and Mirta later moved to Spain. Since the 1970s he was believed to have lived with Dalia Soto del Valle in a common law marriage, having five sons, all given Christian names beginning with “A” – Alex, Alexis, Antonio, Alejandro and Angel. He also had a daughter, Alina, reportedly with one of his old revolutionary comrades, Naty Revuelta. Alina fled the island in 1993 and became an outspoken opponent of her father within the Cuban-American community in Florida. Castro was also believed to have fathered at least two more children by other women.