Fidel Castro, the bearded Cuban strongman who made the tiny island into a thorn in the side of U.S. presidents for more than 50 years, has died. He was 90.
With a shaking voice, his younger brother, Raul Castro, announced on state television that his brother died at 10:29 p.m. on Friday night, The Associated Press reported.
The United States had long been used to Latin America being filled with neighbors who were compliant, or at least manageable. Bringing a revolutionary fervor, Castro and his revolution demonstrated those countries could no longer be taken for granted — and he gave the Soviet Union a toehold in the region.
In doing so, Castro became something of a hero to many on the American left, at least until decades of stalemate and stagnation clearly demonstrated his shortcomings. And that Soviet toehold would cause a confrontation with President John F. Kennedy that nearly erupted into nuclear war in 1962’s Cuban Missile Crisis.
“He was revered as a symbol of true revolution and the fight against social injustice,” wrote Barbara Cady in Icons of the 20th Century, “and as a hero for his promise to bring democracy to Cuba. However, instead of building a democracy, he named himself president without holding an election, while jailing, exiling and executing those opposed to him.”
The outline of how Castro came to power on Jan. 1, 1959, is known to many Americans through its fictionalized telling in the 1974 movie “The Godfather Part II.” Though Castro is not featured, the depiction of the Cuban revolution, seen as a backdrop to the gamesmanship between Michael Corleone and Hyman Roth (modeled on American gangster Meyer Lansky), hits many of the story’s high points, albeit in a greatly condensed form.
For one thing, American mobsters were working in partnership with Cuban leader Fulgencio Batista, who was being paid millions of dollars in the 1950s to make “The Pearl of the Antilles” into a place where casino gambling and other vices could flourish. Lansky, a Jewish gangster known for his business acumen, had long personal ties to Batista — the Cuban strongman even attended his second wedding.
Batista also had ties to other American businesses, including those which made millions on sugar or nickel. He viewed himself as a benevolent pro-American dictator, but others knew him as a thug prone to having his opponents jailed, beaten or executed. In this regard, he was not much different from many other military strongmen in the region.
But Castro was a different kind of rebel. He was born Aug. 13, 1926, the son of an affluent farm family. While studying law at the University of Havana in the 1940s, he drifted into left-wing politics and casual violence.
“Castro had proved himself a dynamic orator and a future leader to be reckoned with,” wrote T.J. English in Havana Nocturne: How the Mob Owned Cuba … and Then Lost it to Revolution, “but he was also, according to some, overly enamored with the trappings of gangsterismo. He carried a 15-shot Browning pistol on his person at all times and was more than willing to engage rival gangs in confrontation. Despite his intellect and obvious leadership talents, he was thought to be somewhat reckless.”
Still, Castro was not yet a revolutionary, or, at least, he was not all in. In 1952, he was running for office when a military coup by Batista short-circuited the electoral process. According to Havana Nocturne, Castro circulated a mimeographed pamphlet denouncing the coup: “There is nothing as bitter in the world as the spectacle of a people that goes to bed free and wakes up in slavery.”
Direct action would follow. English wrote: “Political action was its own kind of narcotic: Fidel detested politicians and so-called activists who were all talk and no action.”
Castro and his supporters launched an attack on July 26, 1953, on the Moncada army barracks. It failed and Castro ended up in jail until Batista, perhaps feeling a little overconfident, pardoned him. There would be other military campaigns and, at one point, Batista announced Castro had been killed, a mistake that would come back to haunt Batista when the New York Times’ Herbert Matthews located him in the mountains.
As the decade went on, Batista became increasingly unpopular and Castro, assisted by his brother Raul and an Argentine revolutionary named Ernesto “Che” Guevara, gained momentum. Castro also came to the United States to raise money, though he dialed down revolutionary rhetoric when he did that.
The end for Batista came in December 1958. Sensing that defeat was near, he fled, taking millions in graft with him (though according to Havana Nocturne, he left $3 million in his office safe). Castro and the rebels arrived in Havana soon thereafter. “The people won this war,” he told the assembled throngs.
A dove landed on Castro’s shoulder as he spoke.
The U.S. government had hopes for Castro, but those soon faded. For one thing, Castro started locking up his enemies — and executing some of them. He was also hostile to Batista’s American friends; a truckload of pigs, for instance, was set loose in the lobby of the Riviera Hotel.
American gangsters — some of whom were briefly jailed and almost all of whom lost a fortune — sounded the alarm. Lansky, who lost millions of dollars, did something most uncharacteristic for him: He went directly to the FBI and told them Castro really was a Marxist. According to Robert Lacey’s Little Man: Meyer Lansky and the Gangster Life, Lansky told agent Dennis O’Shea: “The time [is] ripe for communist factions to entrench themselves.”
It soon became clear that Lansky knew of what he spoke. Early on, Castro proclaimed himself in charge. In 1960, Castro said he was indeed a Marxist-Leninist and opened diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union. In October of that year, Castro nationalized U.S. holdings in Cuba. Farms were collectivized.
To its horror, the United States realized it had a genuine communist revolutionary 90 miles away, one who clearly knew he was more valuable to Nikita Khrushchev than he could ever be to the United States. The Soviets also appreciated this bearded, cigar-smoking revolutionary in combat fatigues as something of a romantic reminder of their own past. “I felt as though I had returned to my childhood,” Soviet diplomat Anastas Mikoyan, a veteran of the 1917 Revolution, famously said after meeting Castro.
Dwight Eisenhower and then John F. Kennedy tried in vain to get Castro on board — or out of the picture.
Plots were hatched to assassinate Castro. In April 1961, the newly inaugurated Kennedy launched a CIA-planned invasion of Cuba that failed completely. It was known as the Bay of Pigs and came to symbolize everything that go wrong in a military operation. A subsequent investigation led by Gen. Maxwell Taylor indicated, among other things, “that the Soviet Union had somehow learned the exact date of the amphibious landing in advance,” according to a Washington Post article in 2000.
“If nothing else, this deed should be enough to demonstrate how miserable are the actions of imperialism,” Castro told the Cuban people after the invasion.
As the Kennedys launched new covert schemes via Operation Mongoose to topple Castro, the Cuban leader drew closer to the Soviets. For Castro’s protection, the Soviets began to install nuclear weapons. “What if we were to throw a hedgehog down the pants of Uncle Sam?” Khrushchev asked the Soviet defense minister at one point.
“Fidel had been preparing for a climactic confrontation with the United States for years,” Michael Dobbs wrote in One Minute to Midnight: Kennedy, Khrushchev and Castro on the Brink of Nuclear War, citing Castro’s own words that he saw it as his “true destiny.”
In October 1962, the United States detected the presence of those missiles. According to Dobbs, it later turned out that the Soviet installation was further along than U.S. intelligence perceived — there were more missiles than thought at the time, some of them were fully deployed and there were thousands of Soviet troops on the island. But the Kennedy administration was horrified enough by what it did know.
After contemplating an immediate preemptive attack on Cuba, Kennedy opted to go public with its knowledge and blockade the island. For 13 days, the world teetered on the edge of nuclear obliteration.
Castro was willing to sacrifice his whole population for the cause. According to Dobbs, Castro made it clear to Khrushchev that he would have no problem if the Soviets launched their missiles. “If they carry out an attack on Cuba, a barbaric, illegal and immoral act,” Castro wrote of the United States, “then that would be the time to think about liquidating such a danger forever.”
Ultimately, Kennedy and Khrushchev stepped back from the brink and resolved the matter. Castro watched powerlessly on the sideline as the Soviets agreed to remove their weapons. “Castro was, in the end, humiliated as Premier Nikita Khrushchev and President Kennedy came to terms without him, and the missiles were removed,” Cady wrote.
A little more than a year later, Kennedy was assassinated. His accused assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, was known to be distributing pro-Castro leaflets in New Orleans in the months before the assassination. Any other role Castro or his friends or his enemies might have played in the assassination remains pure speculation, which hasn’t stopped many from speculating. The Fidel Castro entry in Michael Benson’s Who’s Who in the JFK Assassination notes: “Castro once said that, if CIA attempts on his life did not cease, U.S. leaders should expect payback in kind.”
As the 1960s wore on, a stalemate developed. The United States was left to use an economic boycott to try to bring Castro down. Guevara was killed in 1967 trying to export revolution to Bolivia, but Castro seemed able to survive anything. (Later there would be reports of clumsy U.S. plots that included putting poison in his beard and/or cigars.)
In the meantime, Castro became a romantic figure to some on the American left.
“Here, apparently was the model of a revolution led by students,” wrote Todd Gitlin in The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage, noting that in the early days of the Castro regime, American activists would visit Cuban students and “identified with their esprit and their defiance of the Colossus of the North.” Even David Dellinger, a noted pacifist, would visit and write in praise of Castro’s revolution.
Later, there would be a spate of American hijackings to Cuba, by people who assumed Castro would appreciate their revolutionary fervor. (He didn’t.)
At the same time, Cuban exiles in the United States fought long and hard against him, occasionally at the expense of their own lives. Over decades, the exile community would generate a number of notable political figures, including Ted Cruz and such Florida figures as Marco Rubio, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Mario Diaz-Balart, and Lincoln Diaz-Balart. According to the New York Times in 2006, Castro once called the Diaz-Balarts his “most repulsive enemies.”
Propped up by the Soviets, Castro could cite successes when it came to health care, literacy and international sports, among other things. But Cuba also increasingly became a police state, and great numbers of Cubans tried to flee by sea, most notably in the massive Mariel boatlift of 1980.
And Castro diverted vital resources to exporting his revolution to other Third World countries. By the mid 1970s, Cuban troops would be fighting in Africa, most notably in a prolonged war in Angola. Friendly movements would prevail at times in Latin America — in Nicaragua in the 1980s and Venezuela two decades later — but without Castro’s durability. The United States invaded Grenada in 1983 to ensure it would not become another Cuba.
When the Soviet Union was dissolved, Castro found himself without a benefactor to counterbalance the effects of the U.S. boycott.
“Cuba’s standard of living plummeted,” Cady wrote, “but Castro — despite the economic crisis — refused internal reform and instead imposed severe austerity measures.” Ultimately it became clear to all but Castro’s most ardent defenders that his revolution had fizzled.
In later years, there would be some liberalization of economic policies, as well as something of a détente with the Catholic church. Tourists were once again welcomed, sometimes in what had been gangster-run hotels decades earlier. And Castro somehow remained in control.
“In his own mind,” Dobbs wrote in 2008, “Castro won a great victory over the yanquienemy merely by remaining in power for so long. In reality he transformed the most prosperous island in the Caribbean into a defeated, impoverished country.”
Castro turned the reins over to his younger brother, Raul, in 2006. From time to time, he would still show up in the public eye. In April 2016, the 89-year-old gave an address that was perceived as a farewell: “The time will come for all of us, but the ideas of the Cuban communists will remain as proof on this planet that if they are worked at with fervor and dignity, they can produce the material and cultural goods that human beings need.”
It was noted at the time that Castro’s revolution had not only outlasted Eisenhower and Kennedy, but also the administrations of seven other U.S. presidents — and was deep in the eighth year of President Barack Obama’s, who had recently visited the island.