He seized power audaciously in 1959 and commanded to the last a powerful personal following inside and outside Cuba. But during more than half a century in office Fidel Castro, who has died at the age of 90, metamorphosed from a popular and charismatic guerrilla leader into a traditional caudillo, an autocratic holdover from another age.
At his life’s end, although bolstered by the emergence of a few new friends such as the late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez, he was assailed by foreign governments and human rights groups and spurned by many former supporters, including even his daughter. Yet Castro remained one of the most remarkable revolutionary figures of the 20th century.
As one of the longest serving national leaders of his time, first as prime minister and then as president, he nurtured his own legend, keeping even into old age his beard and olive-green uniform that had made him an instantly recognisable world figure. The slogan he coined and repeated in his later years, “socialism or death”, is a fitting epitaph for a stubborn and headstrong rebel turned statesman who swam with the current of history when it suited, but dared to fight it when it turned against him.
Even after President Barack Obama moved to re-establish diplomatic relations and end more than five decades of embargoes between Washington and Havana, in a deal worked out with the help of Pope Francis in December 2014, Castro continued to mistrust the US. A few days after a historic visit to Cuba by Mr Obama in 2016, Castro wrote a scornful letter railing against the president and saying Cuba needed nothing from its longtime enemy.
Driven by a certainty of his destiny to oust the corrupt dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, he accomplished an extraordinary feat of leadership. A combination of discipline, courage, an astute instinct for popular feeling, luck and sheer force of personality proved more than a match for Batista’s large army. Castro’s victory gave hope to guerrilla movements throughout Latin America and beyond.
To dismiss the hagiography surrounding that revolution cannot detract from the heroic journey Castro embarked on when, on November 24 1956, he left the coast of Mexico on the Granma, an ageing motor launch, bound for Cuba. The Granma was designed to accommodate only eight people, yet 82 comrades in arms were crammed on board. The vessel broke up when it ran aground on the coast, turning the landing into more of a shipwreck, and only 21 survived an early ambush.
Castro led a number of them into the forest-covered mountains of the Sierra Maestra, among whom were his younger brother Raúl and Ernesto “Che” Guevara, the legendary Argentine doctor turned international revolutionary.
Within two years the Batista regime crumbled, as Castro’s increasingly popular rebellion exploited internal weaknesses of the government, which was in the end abandoned, even by the US. By January 1959, a bearded Castro was riding in triumph on a tank through the streets of Havana. He was only 32. Cuba was at his feet.
That feat of arms, together with the failure of US President John Kennedy’s attempt to remove him in 1961 – via an invasion of Cuban exiles at the Bay of Pigs – fired the imagination of a generation in the developing world as well as students in Europe and the US. To many on the left, Castro’s socialist experiment promised the dawn of a new era for emergent nations.
Castro wrote from the Sierra: “When this war is over, a much wider and bigger war will commence for me: the war that I am going to wage against [the US]. I am aware this is my true destiny.”
Through the sheer force of his personality, Castro strode the world stage in the 1960s and 1970s. He was an influential member of the nonaligned movement; a self-depicted David standing up to an imperial Goliath. Gripped by fears generated by the cold war with the Soviet Union, the US saw Castro as a direct threat to its regional hegemony, and successive administrations in Washington developed such an obsession with Cuba that his real capacity for mischief was exaggerated.
Such was the US perception of the threat posed by Castro that the CIA hatched a number of alleged plots and schemes to try to assassinate or discredit him. The more bizarre of these involved poisoned cigars, exploding seashells and chemicals to make his beard fall out.
Even if Washington had been less obsessed, Castro would not have been an easy partner. His attitude towards the US was complex and ambivalent. Although passionate about baseball, at heart he always perceived the US as the aggressor nation. He never forgave the US for backing the Batista regime. This stance, coupled with his own brand of socialism, led him almost inevitably towards Moscow. The alliance was a marriage of convenience: Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev and his successors bartered extensive economic and military aid in return for using Cuba as a cat’s paw in the cold war with the US.
The missile crisis of 1962, during which the world came to the verge of nuclear war, brought home the dangers of this policy. The confrontation was over Russia’s construction of sites in Cuba to house intermediate-range nuclear missiles to threaten the US. Castro himself was a marginal player during the showdown and it was from the Associated Press news agency that he first learnt of Moscow’s decision to withdraw its missiles.
Under the Soviet umbrella, though not always in agreement with Moscow, Castro continued his internationalist ambitions, dispatching aid and military advisers to Africa, the Middle East, Latin America and the Caribbean in support of governments and guerrilla movements. Perhaps he felt constrained within the confines of a small island of only 11m inhabitants; he had to export his revolution in order to make it safe at home.
His most audacious and effective move was to send troops to Angola in 1976 to bolster the new Soviet-backed leftwing government there. By the mid-1980s, these were built up to a more than 50,000 strong force that was finally withdrawn under a US-brokered Angola ceasefire and an independence settlement in neighbouring Namibia.
The alliance with Moscow solved Cuba’s desperate fuel needs and found a market for its sugar crop, previously bought by the US. Soft credits and high support prices for sugar allowed the country to make spectacular progress in health, housing and literacy, Castro’s proudest achievement. And yet the arrangement masked serious inefficiencies. It locked Cuba into a single-crop economy and linked the island to distant trading partners with which it had little affinity.
This flaw was exposed when the cold war came to an end. Cuba was set adrift by the collapse of the Soviet bloc, which had channelled some $65bn in financial support over three decades. The economy shrank by half in the four years from 1989, plunging the island into a deep recession.
Initially, Castro refused to countenance change in the centrally controlled economy – but as time passed his government appeared increasingly at the mercy of economic and social forces rather than in control of them. Eventually, as economic conditions worsened, he bowed to circumstance. In doing so, he overturned some of the fundamental tenets of his first 30 years in power.
He began to woo foreign investment, permitted the use of the US dollar, legalised private sector activities, including limited reforms in agriculture, and implicitly tolerated unemployment by allowing the closure of lossmaking state enterprises. However, he was never more than a reluctant reformer and later reversed some of these changes.
Social advances were undermined by the recession of the early 1990s. Prostitution, banished from Havana for three decades, returned with a vengeance. His economic legacy was less ambiguous: for all its social inequities, the economy he inherited had a thriving middle class and boasted one of the best infrastructures in Latin America. But his policies brought hardship, even food rationing, and drove 1.5m into exile, many of them settling only a few miles across the Florida straits in Miami.
Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz was born in August 1926 in Oriente province – or so the official Cuban biographies say. But investigative biographers have demonstrated that his date of birth was put back a year so that he could enrol in La Salle school in Oriente. His father Angel, a tough emigrant from Galicia, was a prosperous farmer in Oriente. He had two children by his first wife. Fidel’s mother was originally hired as a maid; she had Fidel, along with his sister Angela and brother Raúl, out of wedlock before she married Angel and bore four more children.
Fidel’s childhood home was rich, but culture was evidently lacking – a visitor once described the atmosphere as “barbaric beyond belief”. Perhaps it was there that he first imbibed the anti-Americanism that was so important to his life. He grew up under the shadow of big US-owned sugar plantations. His father had fought the Americans as a sergeant in the 1898 Spanish-American war. Spain’s defeat had left Cuba dominated by the US, which engendered resentment by supporting a succession of unpopular dictators.
Cubans were told little of Fidel’s personal life. In 1949 he married Mirta Díaz-Balart, who bore him one son, known as Fidelito, before their divorce five years later. His later companion Dalia Soto del Valle, a former schoolteacher, bore him five more sons. Fidel fathered other children including Alina Fernandez-Revuelta, who was born out of a romance with Naty Revuelta, a society figure.
As a child Fidel spent 11 years in boarding schools, seven of those with the Jesuits, who provided him with a strong intellectual discipline. His student ability was that of an outstanding all-rounder; his final school report recognised that he was cut out for great things: “He will make a brilliant name for himself.”
At university in Havana, studying law, he relished the challenge and violence of campus politics. But he also had a reputation as a playboy. Indeed, when he married Mirta, a philosophy student, he could have opted for a life of wealth and privilege. His father was then worth more than $500,000.
He set up a law practice but the law could not sustain his great ambition. He moved into politics, deciding that he could not work within the system after Batista engineered a coup in 1952. In that year, he asked his father for $3,000 to finance an insurrection (he received $140). He and a small group then went ahead with a suicidal venture to attack the Moncada barracks in Santiago de Cuba, in the hope of provoking an uprising. The 1953 attack failed disastrously. Castro was lucky to be captured alive.
His political career, however, was enhanced by his own defence at his trial, when he turned the tables and put the regime in the dock. His speech culminated in the memorable words: “Condemn me, it does not matter. History will absolve me.” It was clandestinely edited and published while Castro was in prison. He emerged in 1955 after two years, a dedicated revolutionary.
His ideology was a homegrown mix of nationalism, communism and opportunism. Arguably he gave most importance to the ideas of the man he sought to equal: José Martí, the 19th-century national hero. Castro exploited the Cuban Communist party to attain power, then proceeded to oust its leadership and expropriate its language.
Progress, he claimed, was possible only in a command economy with a tightly controlled state apparatus under a loyal one-party system. Such a view became increasingly discredited as Cubans suffered the collapse of their economy once the Soviet subsidies disappeared, yet the system enabled him to run Cuba as his fiefdom.
Castro ruled with a mixture of caprice, obsession and hard-headed pragmatism, which generated many ironies and contradictions. He railed in public against the evils of capitalism but hosted private dinners for leading capitalists of the world, including from the US, who visited to check out business opportunities.
In the early years of the revolution, he fanned anti-Catholic sentiment to dislodge a conservative church hierarchy that had largely sided with the Batista regime. Thirty years later, shrewdly perceiving the rejuvenated Cuban Catholic church as a possible threat to his internal power base, he increased official tolerance for religion and engineered a historic meeting with Pope John Paul II at the Vatican in 1996. The meeting agreed on a papal trip.
Ever mistrustful, he delegated only to his brother Raúl, his longtime armed forces minister who succeeded him as president in 2008, and three years later as party leader. His greatest personal confidante was Celia Sanchez, who had helped to organise his life from the earliest days of his campaign in the Sierra. Her death in 1980, from cancer, brought on Castro a deep melancholy from which he never fully recovered.
From that time he seemed increasingly out of touch, and he was badly tainted by a scandal arising from the supposed discovery of top generals’ involvement in drugs trafficking with the Colombian mafia in 1989. He had the main culprits executed by firing squad, the popularity among the troops of one of them suggesting he was seen by the Castro brothers as a rival.
His behaviour – his lengthy paternalistic discourses, his chiding of officials, his public admission of errors – endeared him to Cubans when it did not irk or bore them. It also betrayed a gigantic ego. Castro never believed in democracy, once describing multi-party politics as “multi-rubbish”. He regarded free speech in a developing country as a luxury and he spurned the idea of elections, thereby alienating many who had initially supported the revolution.
His refusal to countenance significant political change and his continued persecution of internal opponents earned him sharp criticism from foreign governments and human rights groups, and slowed Cuba’s integration into a US-dominated international community after the collapse of the Soviet bloc. His domestic popularity also waned. Defections multiplied and included the flight to the US of his daughter Alina.
Castro used the hostility of the US, and the continuing American embargo, to justify maintaining one-party socialism and the persecution of opponents. The embargo became one of his strongest propaganda weapons in his quixotic struggle to prove he would never bow to Uncle Sam. It was an enduring effort but one that left him and his country an anachronism in a changed world.
Rather than absolving him, history seemed to have passed him by.
Robert Graham and Stephen Fidler