Fidel Castro seemed immortal. His speeches, which could last up to seven hours, were fiery orations in support of his communist revolution and denunciations of capitalism. He survived numerous assassination attempts and the red-hot enmity of the United States, Cuba’s mighty neighbor just 145 km to the north. His communist regime outlived the collapse of its patron, the Soviet Union, confirming the respect and reverence of revolutionaries around the world.
Castro was indeed mortal, however, passing away last Friday at the age of 90. His socialist revolution endures though, led by his brother, Raul Castro, president of Cuba since Fidel passed him the reins of power in 2006 after 49 years as leader. Castro’s life is another reminder — like Singapore’s founding father Lee Kwan Yew — that great historical figures do not always come from great powers. While Castro’s legacy will be debated for generations, there is no dismissing the significance of his life and its impact.
Born in 1926, Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz had a conventional upbringing: He attended Roman Catholic Marist and Jesuit schools, was passionate about baseball and was named Cuba’s “outstanding collegiate athlete” in high school, prompting some to wonder if he could have had a career in professional baseball in the U.S. — and how that would have changed history. He attended law school at the University of Havana, where he discovered revolutionary politics.
While studying, he joined a group of men seeking to invade the Dominican Republic and overthrow the dictator there. That effort was thwarted and Castro returned to law school, graduated and ran for parliament in 1952, a campaign cut short when Gen. Fulgencia Batista launched a coup and canceled the elections. A year later, Castro attempted his own coup, but that effort ended in failure. He was arrested, tried, convicted and spent two years in prison before being released in a general amnesty.
Castro went into exile in Mexico, returning in 1956 to foment revolution with a group of men that was almost completely wiped out upon landing in Cuba. The 12 survivors retreated into the mountains, rallied support against the Batista regime and drove the hated general into exile on Jan. 1, 1959.
Castro and his supporters then went about turning Cuba into a communist dictatorship, forcing capitalists out of the country, seizing land and businesses, and killing or imprisoning political opponents. Most of the dislocated capitalists fled across the water to the U.S. and many of the seized businesses were American, ensuring that the prevailing mood in the U.S. was hostility toward the government in Havana.
One of the great historical unknowns is whether that relationship was fated. Castro visited the U.S. in the months after the revolution, but President Dwight Eisenhower refused to meet him. Nationalizations followed, which prompted U.S. oil companies to place an embargo on Cuba, driving the country into the arms of the Soviet Union, which welcomed revolutionary movements around the world. Washington earned Castro’s eternal enmity with the disastrous Bay of Pigs operation, an attempted coup in April 1961 led by Cuban exiles that failed miserably. Only after that did Castro declare Cuba a communist country. Undaunted, the U.S. maintained pressure on the tiny island state and, according to Castro, made hundreds of assassination attempts; the U.S. admits to at least eight.
Cuba almost brought the world to the brink of nuclear war in 1962 when Washington discovered that the Soviet Union was putting nuclear missiles on the island that could threaten the U.S. The resulting confrontation between the two superpowers ended when Moscow backed down, removing the missiles in exchange for a U.S. pledge not to invade Cuba. The U.S. honored that promise and the revolution endured. Castro ruled for another 34 years before stepping down.
Critics look at that reign with horror. They focus on the crushing of dissidents, the human rights abuses, the suppression of religion and the grinding poverty. Once one of the most advanced countries in Latin America, Cuba today has a gross domestic product of just over $72 billion and GDP per capita of slightly more than $10,000. Those critics overlook the role that U.S. embargo played in the stunting of Cuban growth — the costs are reckoned to have exceeded $1 trillion over its lifetime — and the determination of the Havana government to create a truly equal society. Significantly, the embargo never crushed the communists, but it did give Havana an excuse for its own failings. Today, the U.S. and Cuba are enjoying a thaw in relations, but there is no guarantee that it will survive the Donald Trump presidency; Trump pledged to scrutinize the new arrangement and strike a better deal.
Regardless of how that turns out, Fidel Castro’s legacy will endure. He will be admired and hated alike for his stubborn defiance of the U.S., his commitment to ideals despite overwhelming odds, and his determination to aid fellow revolutionaries around the world. French President Francois Hollande captured the many ambiguities of his life when he noted that Castro “embodied the Cuban revolution, in the hopes it had aroused and then in the disillusions it had provoked.”
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