In Cuba, Feature Articles

New Cold, Nov 27, 2016

Fidel Castro Ruz, 1926-2016

Fidel Castro Ruz, 1926-2016

Fidel Castro Ruz, historic leader of the Cuban Revolution that triumphed in January 1959, died on November 25, 2016. The 1959 Revolution opened the door to the development of the world’s most lasting and successful socialist revolution. Enclosed are two appreciations of the life of Fidel Castro Ruz, by writers Siddharth Varadarajan (India) and Richard Gott (Britain).

A celebrated documentary film of Fidel Castro’s life was premiered in 2001. Director Estela Bravo’s Fidel Castro: The Untold Story is 90 minutes long and can be viewed here on YouTube.

Fidel Castro, Cuban revolutionary who defied the U.S. and inspired millions worldwide

By Siddharth Varadarajan, published on The Wire (India), Nov 26, 2016

Looking back on the life of the Cuban communist and revolutionary and the astonishing impact he had on not just Cuba or Latin America but the whole world.

Fidel Castro, the Cuban communist and revolutionary who defeated a dictatorship, confronted an empire and inspired millions across all continents in their struggle for a better world, died in Havana on November 25 at the age of 90.

Fidel Castro (L) and Che Guevara in the early years of the Cuban Revolution of 1959

Fidel Castro (L) and Che Guevara in the early years of the Cuban Revolution of 1959

Castro was the last of the internationalist icons that dominated the world for long or short periods during the tumultuous years of the Cold War and after, when mass movements for national liberation, social dignity and economic justice erupted all over the world. Inspirational figures like the Congolese patriot Patrice Lumumba, the Chilean socialist Salvador Allende or the North American civil rights activist Martin Luther King fell victim to assassins at the height of their political influence. If Castro lived longer than these contemporaries or others like Yasser Arafat or Nelson Mandela, it was not for the lack of attempts on his life by United States intelligence operatives – a fact well documented in declassified official files.

The bare facts of Castro’s life are well-known. Born in 1926, he was a law student who saw revolution and armed struggle as the only way to oust the hated dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista – kept in power by the patronage of the U.S. and by North American Mafia and business interests, particularly in the entertainment industry. After an unsuccessful attack on the Moncada barracks in 1953, Fidel retreated to build a revolutionary movement from outside the country, returning a few years later to launch an armed struggle that eventually led to the overthrow of Batista in 1959. Fidel was only 33 at the time.

Almost immediately, Castro became the target of U.S.-inspired subversion. As a communist, he gravitated towards the Soviet Union and soon found his island nation caught in the middle of one of the Cold War’s worst moments – the Cuban missile crisis.

In looking back on Fidel Castro’s life and the astonishing impact he had on not just Cuba or Latin America but the whole world, it is useful to segment the half-century of his leadership into five phases or aspects.

I: Building socialism in Cuba

With the support of the Soviet Union, Cuba managed to overcome the isolation and sanctions imposed on it by successive U.S. administrations. The country was a part of COMECON, the economic community of erstwhile socialist states that traded with each other in a form of barter that allowed the weakest among them to overcome their own inadequate reserves of hard currency.

As in the rest of the socialist bloc, living standards were not high and shortages of one sort or the other were a regular and oppressive part of life. But what the Cuban system denied its people by way of ‘market opportunities’ was made up in ample measure by public investments in education and health. The foundations Fidel and his comrades laid in these fields delivered prompt and enduring results. The Cuban health care system is the envy of most of the world, it has an innovative pharmaceutical industry and infant mortality and maternal mortality rates that are comparable to those in the first world.

Like other socialist states, the political system was not plural; unlike them, however, the popular base of Castroism remained intact. Despite the best efforts of Cuban exiles and the United States, the Cuban system has survived.

II: Building Cuba as an internationalist power

For Fidel, however, socialism was never going to be about transforming one or just a handful of countries. He was an internationalist and a revolutionary who recognised the importance of solidarity with people fighting for their rights against oppressive regimes and with peoples and states defending their national sovereignty in the face of pressure from the big powers and foreign capital.

Nelson Mandela and Fidel Castro in Matanzas, Cuba in July 1991. It was Mandela's first foreign visit after release from prison in 1990

Nelson Mandela and Fidel Castro in Matanzas, Cuba in July 1991. It was Mandela’s first foreign visit after release from prison in 1990

If the initial phase of Cuban internationalism took the form of Guevarism – supporting disparate insurgent movements in different Latin American countries – the Cuban state assumed a more formal internationalist role when Fidel Castro decided to deploy Cuban troops  alongside the guerrillas of the MPLA that were fighting for the liberation of Angola in the 1970s. When the Angolan government later came under attack from UNITA, the rebel group that was supported by the U.S. and apartheid South Africa, Cuba stepped up its military engagement. With Cuban help, Angola scored a major victory over the South Africans in the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale in 1988.

Cuba also extended military assistance to the FRELIMO revolutionary movement in Mozambique and helped defend it against Western-backed subversion. Some scholars believe that the South African apartheid regime’s humiliating defeat at Cuito Cuanavale put in motion a set of political and strategic dynamics that led not just to the independence of Namibia but also to the end of apartheid itself.

Cuban internationalism, was, of course, not just military. Cuban medical missions have operated all over the world whenever medical emergencies have occurred. When the deadly Ebola virus struck West Africa in 2014, Cuban doctors and nurses were among the first to arrive and provide treatment to the victims.

III: Fidel as mover of Latin American integration

An important aspect of Fidel’s revolutionary leadership was his vision of Latin American integration. This he envisaged as proceeding on two tracks. The first was the strengthening of revolutionary or patriotic trends within individual nations in the region and the second, the creation of pan-continental initiatives that would allow states in the region to work together in the field of the economy, culture and media. The U.S. had earlier managed to get Cuba out of the Organisation of American States, but the 1980s and 1990s saw Washington make renewed efforts to try and isolate Havana from the Latin American region, including by threatening sanctions on companies that traded with Cuba. Castro successfully resisted this pressure.

The rise of the Bolivarian movement in Venezuela, which Cuba strongly backed – the late Hugo Chavez had a very close relationship with Fidel – as well as the emergence of left-oriented governments in Bolivia, Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay, Ecuador, Argentina and China led to a new sense of solidarity in the region. Even though the political trend in many countries has since reversed, the momentum of integration that Cuba was instrumental in pushing during this period continues to endure.

IV: Shepherding Cuba through the difficulties of the ‘periodo especial’, political transition

The collapse of the Soviet Union presented Fidel Castro with a great political and economic challenge because of Cuba’s heavy dependence on the eastern bloc. The 1990s was a difficult period for the Cuban economy as foreign exchange dried up and imports, including fuel, were slashed. Gradually, however, the situation improved, helped in part by favourable political shifts in the Latin American region. Cuba’s crowning achievement in the present period was to compel the U.S. to end its long-standing policy of trying to isolate the proud island nation. The restoration of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba may have taken place only recently, and owed much to the pragmatism of Barack Obama as U.S. president, but the stage was set by Fidel’s ability over five decades to stare down the American blockade.

V: Fidel as philosopher, guide and conscience-keeper of the world

Unlike other revolutionary leaders, Fidel had the wisdom and foresight to step down from power and supervise an orderly succession within his lifetime. At the first signs of ailing health, Fidel stepped down as president. His brother, and fellow revolutionary from the earliest days, Raul Castro took charge, first temporarily in 2006 and then formally in 2008.

But Fidel continued to remain intellectually active, using the time he now had to write a series of “reflections” on the problems confronting the planet – from climate change, the threat posed by nuclear weapons and the West’s military interventionism in the Middle East, to the struggle for rights and justice in different parts of the world.

Earlier this year, Cuba celebrated Fidel’s 90th birthday with a massive outpouring of affection for the old revolutionary. If that event was a show of strength for the government, the system is bound to be tested again when the inevitable transition from Raul Castro begins.

A revolutionary icon: Fidel Castro dies aged 90

By Richard Gott, published in The Guardian, Nov 26, 2016

Fidel Castro, who has died at the age of 90, was one of the more extraordinary political figures of the 20th century. After leading a successful revolution on a Caribbean island in 1959, he became a player on the global stage, dealing on equal terms with successive leaders of the two nuclear superpowers during the cold war. A charismatic figure from the developing world, his influence was felt far beyond the shores of Cuba. Known as Fidel to friends and enemies alike, his life story is inevitably that of his people and their revolution. Even in old age, he still exercised a magnetic attraction wherever he went, his audience as fascinated by the dinosaur from history as they had once been by the revolutionary firebrand of earlier times.

The Russians were beguiled by him (Nikita Khrushchev and Anastas Mikoyan in particular), European intellectuals took him to their hearts (notably Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir), African revolutionaries welcomed his assistance and advice, and the leaders of Latin American peasant movements were inspired by his revolution. In the 21st century, he acquired fresh relevance as the mentor of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela and Evo Morales in Bolivia, the leaders of two unusual revolutions that threatened the hegemony of the U.S. Only the U.S. itself, which viewed Castro as public enemy No 1 (until they found an “axis of evil” further afield), and the Chinese in the Mao era, who found his political behaviour essentially irresponsible, refused to fall for his charm. It took until Barack Obama’s presidency for U.S. restrictions to be eased – but by then intestinal illness had compelled Castro’s resignation as president in favour of his brother Raúl, who saw in the historic normalising of relations between the two countries. Nonetheless, Fidel maintained his antagonism until the end, declaring in a letter on his 90th birthday this year that “we don’t need the empire to give us anything”.

Castro’s rule thus spanned nearly five decades, and during the cold war hardly a year went by without his mark being made on international politics. On several occasions the world held its breath as events in and around Cuba threatened to spill beyond the Caribbean. In 1961 an invasion at the Bay of Pigs by Cuban exiles, encouraged and financed by the U.S. government, sought to bring down Castro’s revolution. It was swiftly defeated. In 1962 Khrushchev’s government installed nuclear missiles in Cuba in an attempt to provide the infant revolution with “protection” of the only kind the U.S. seemed prepared to respect. And in November 1975 a massive and wholly unexpected airlift of Cuban troops to Africa turned the tide of a South African invasion of newly independent Angola, inevitably heating up cold war quarrels.

Castro was a hero in the mould of Garibaldi, a national leader whose ideals and rhetoric were to change the history of countries far from his own. Latin America, ruled for the most part in the 1950s by oligarchies inherited from the colonial era, of landowners, soldiers and Catholic priests, was suddenly brought into the global limelight, its governments challenged by the revolutionary gauntlet thrown down by the island republic. Whether in favour or against, an entire Latin American generation was influenced by Castro.

Cuba under Fidel was a country where indigenous nationalism was at least as significant as imported socialism, and where the legend of José Martí, the patriot poet and organiser of the 19th-century struggle against Spain, was always more influential than the philosophy of Karl Marx. Castro’s skill, and one key to his political longevity, lay in keeping the twin themes of socialism and nationalism endlessly in play. He gave the Cuban people back their history, the name of their island stamped firmly on the story of the 20th century. This was no mean achievement, though by the early 1990s, when the collapse of the Soviet Union brought the Cuban economy down with a bump, the old rhetoric had begun to wear thin.

Fidel was the son of Lina Ruz, a Cuban woman from Pinar del Río, and Angel Castro, an immigrant from Spanish Galicia who became a successful landowner in central Cuba. Educated by the Jesuits, and subsequently as a lawyer at Havana University, he was clearly marked for politics from early youth. A brilliant student orator and a successful athlete, he was the outstanding figure of his generation of students.

The return to power by coup d’etat in 1952 of the old dictator, Fulgencio Batista, seemed to rule out the traditional road to political power for the young lawyer, and an impatient Castro embraced the cause of insurrection, common in those years in the unstable countries that bordered the Caribbean. On 26 July 1953, he led a group of revolutionaries who sought to overthrow the dictator by seizing the second largest military base in the country, the Moncada barracks in Santiago de Cuba.

The attack was a dismal failure, and many of the erstwhile rebels were captured and killed. Castro himself survived, to make a notable speech from the dock – ‘History Will Absolve Me’– outlining his political programme. It became the classic text of the 26th of July Movement that he was later to organise, using the failed Moncada attack as a rallying cry to unite the anti-Batista opposition into a single political force.

Granted an amnesty two years later, Castro was exiled to Mexico. With his brother Raúl, he prepared a group of armed fighters to assist the civilian resistance movement. Soon he had met and enrolled in his band an Argentinian doctor, Che Guevara, whose name was to be irrevocably linked to the revolution. Castro’s tiny force sailed from Mexico to Cuba in December 1956 in the Granma, a small and leaky motor vessel. Landing in the east of the island after a rough crossing, the rebel band was attacked and almost annihilated by Batista’s forces. A few members of Castro’s troop survived to struggle up the impenetrable mountains of the Sierra Maestra. There they tended their wounds, regained their strength, made contact with the local peasants, and established links with the opposition in the city of Santiago.

Throughout 1957 and 1958, Castro’s guerrilla band grew in strength and daring. They had no blueprint. Their first aim had been to survive. Only later did revolutionary theorists develop the notion that the very existence of an armed struggle in rural areas might help to define the course of civilian politics, putting the dictatorship on to the defensive, and forcing squabbling opposition groups to unite behind the guerrilla banner. Yet that is what took place in Cuba. Civilian parties and opposition movements were forced to accept orders from the guerrillas in the hills, and even the conservative and unadventurous Communist party of Cuba eventually came to bow the knee to Castro in the summer of 1958. By December that year, Guevara had captured the central city of Santa Clara, and on New Year’s Eve, Batista fled the country. In January 1959, Castro, aged 30, arrived in triumph in Havana. The Cuban revolution had begun.

His early programme was one of radical reform, comparable to that espoused by populist governments in Latin America over the previous 30 years. The expropriation of large estates, the nationalisation of foreign enterprises and the establishment of schools and clinics throughout the island were the initial demands of his movement.

Like most Latin American leftwingers at that time, Castro was influenced by Marxism – whatever that might mean in the Latin American context, about which Marx himself had little to say. In practice it meant a warm feeling for the (far away) Russian revolution, and a strong dislike of (nearby) Yankee “imperialism”. Radicals were familiar with the historical tendency of the U.S. to interfere in Latin America in general and Cuba in particular – economically all the time and militarily at all too frequent intervals. This leftist inclination did not usually involve much enthusiasm for the local Communist party which, in Cuba as elsewhere in Latin America (except in Chile), had always been small and lacking influence. Castro himself was not a communist, though his brother had strong sympathies, as did Guevara.

Castro’s anti-American rhetoric and nationalisation of U.S. companies soon aroused American anger. The bungled Bay of Pigs invasion, in the early months of John F Kennedy’s presidency, postponed any possible improvement in relations. U.S. dislike of Castro was reinforced by the presence of an immense diaspora of the Cuban middle class, based chiefly in Miami, who had left in a hurry and expected at any moment to return in triumph. It was not to be.

The missile crisis of October 1962 sealed the hostility. Khrushchev’s move into Cuba – introducing nuclear weapons (other than U.S. ones) into an area of the world where the Monroe doctrine was held to prevail – was widely regarded as destabilising, although the Soviet Union itself had U.S. nuclear missiles on its borders, notably in Turkey. Khrushchev was forced to withdraw his missiles after days of global tension, although not before he had received a tacit promise from the Americans that there would be no further attempts to invade Cuba.

Castro’s performance during the crisis was less than heroic. The fate of his revolution was decided elsewhere. The compromise on the missiles reached between Washington and Moscow enabled his regime to survive, but the ignominious manner of its happening was to fuel Castro’s fierce sense of independence. His only success in the affair was his absolute refusal to permit U.S. inspection of the evacuated missile sites.

Whether Castro was pushed into the Soviet camp by U.S. mishandling in the early years, or whether that was where he planned to be all along, is a matter of historical debate. There is evidence on both sides, and Castro allowed different interpretations to flourish. Guevara and Raúl Castro were certainly persuaded of the need to make an alliance with the Cuban communists, the only party that had troubled to enrol the country’s black people, and they had great hopes of economic (and later military) support from the Soviet Union. Yet for the first 10 years of Castro’s regime – until 1968 when he supported the invasion of Czechoslovakia by Leonid Brezhnev – he fought hard to maintain Cuba’s separate identity as a developing country struggling to take its own particular road to socialism. Even when he had taken the Soviet shilling, he tried ceaselessly to build bridges elsewhere – in Latin America (to Peru, Panama and Chile); in Africa (to Algeria, Angola and Ethiopia); and in Asia (to Vietnam – Vietnam Heróico as the Cubans liked to call it – and North Korea).

Although Kennedy had given a tacit promise to Khrushchev that invasion would never be repeated, the Americans continued to permit CIA-sponsored attacks on the island and refused to lift their economic blockade, pressurising the countries of Latin America to join in. Castro was effectively deprived of all contact with the U.S. mainland, and later with most of Latin America. At first it was just fresh vegetables that Cubans could no longer obtain from Miami. Soon they were forced to abandon hope of receiving machinery and technology from the capitalist world. The oil blockade was particularly damaging. While the Soviet Union came to the rescue when oil could no longer be obtained from Venezuela or the Gulf of Mexico, the long journey from the Black Sea was hardly ideal. Their ships could carry no returning trade.

For a Caribbean island, rooted historically and geographically in the sea between the U.S. and Venezuela, it was a cruel blow to lose the taproot of its commerce. Cuba had had previous experience of a monopolistic trade relationship, with Spain, its far-off madre patria, but the Soviet Union was even further away, and had little in common with Cuba except political rhetoric. The close Soviet link was to have a serious disadvantage in that it gave Cuba little opportunity to experiment economically. Guevara had hoped in the early days that the island might escape from the tyranny of sugar production and diversify its economy, but Castro perceived this to be an empty dream. Sugar was the only significant product Cuba could exchange for Soviet oil.

Perhaps Castro should never have made the effort to go it alone. Some thought the price was too high. The U.S. was, and is, immensely powerful – and very close. The Dominican Republic of Juan Bosch was unable to escape U.S. pressure in 1965, nor could Salvador Allende’s Chile in 1973. The baleful experience of Nicaragua, 30 years after the Cuban revolution, showed that the passage of time had not made the task of securing sovereignty any easier for a small Latin American state. Yet Castro’s largely successful attempt to escape from the geographic fatalism that had affected Latin America for so long should not go uncelebrated.

Isolated from Latin America in the 1960s by the U.S. blockade, Castro made efforts to assist revolutionaries who sought to turn the Andes into a new Sierra Maestra. The impact was considerable, yet brought Cuba little political reward. No revolutionary group was able to repeat the example of Cuba in the early years, and even when Guevara himself joined the fray in Bolivia in 1966, his expedition was to end in disaster a year later.

After ten years in power, safely basking in Soviet approval, Castro’s policy towards Latin America became more circumspect. When Allende, a friendly socialist, won the presidential elections in Chile in 1970, Castro counselled caution. The victorious Sandinistas of Nicaragua received the same message in 1979. Castro knew from experience that building socialism in one small, developing country was not an easy option. Guevara had once called for the creation of “one, two, three, many Vietnams”, but who was going to fund and sustain them? The large Soviet economic support for Cuba was never going to be matched in Chile or Nicaragua.

Castro’s Cuba was an early member of the Non-Aligned Movement, the first attempt to mobilise the emerging developing countries for a political purpose. Soon, leaders of African revolutionary movements were honoured guests in Havana – notably Ben Bella and Houari Boumédiènne from Algeria, and Agostinho Neto from Angola, in full rebellion against the Portuguese. Guevara, by touring Africa in the early 1960s and then going to fight with guerrillas organised in the eastern Congo by Laurent Kabila, later president of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, also helped to bring Africa into focus in Havana.

There was a further dimension. For Castro, Cuba was not just a Caribbean country with Hispanic connections. He was the first white Cuban leader to recognise the country’s large black, former slave population and, after initial hesitation, to make efforts to bring them into the mainstream of national life. Sergeant Batista, his predecessor, banned from Havana’s top clubs because of his mixed race, had secured considerable support from black people in the Cuban army, and Castro took up their cause. His championing of them came at the same time as the civil rights movement was growing in the U.S., and this may have contributed to the nervousness of the U.S. government over his regime. On an early visit to the UN in New York, Castro stayed at the Hotel Theresa in Harlem, a symbolic but significant gesture.

Recovering Cuba’s black roots, both in the African slave trade and in the independence struggle of the 19th century, was a natural prelude to taking an interest in an Africa still in the throes of decolonisation. Cuban troops played a historic role in 1975 in rescuing Neto’s embryonic MPLA government in Angola from the South African army. Castro displayed a personal interest in the Angolan expedition, as he did two years later in Ethiopia, when Cuban soldiers were sent to assist the regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam. The Cubans helped the Ethiopians to push back the Somalis from the Ogaden. Castro’s boldness in flinging men and resources into foreign wars when Cuba itself was under permanent threat of attack was typical of his style.

The policies of glasnost and perestroika espoused by Mikhail Gorbachev in the 1980s brought a dramatic unravelling of the Cuban revolution. Castro was always an opportunist communist rather than a true believer such as Erich Honecker, the East German leader, yet the two men shared a distrust of Gorbachev’s reforms. The stability and survival of their states depended on Russian support, although Cuba, the fruit of a popular revolution, had greater staying power than East Germany. Unlike some in the Cuban political elite who appeared willing to embrace changes in the Soviet system, Castro recognised that they would lead to disaster. For Cuba, the writing was on the wall even before the collapse of the Soviet Union after the failed coup against Gorbachev in August 1991. Castro knew that the U.S. had made clear to the Russians, in 1990, that future economic assistance to the Soviet Union would depend on an end to Soviet aid to Cuba.

Castro declared a state of emergency, of the kind that would have been imposed had there been a military invasion. His political genius was for improvisation and compromise, coupled with a verbal felicity that proved capable of persuading people that he was doing one thing when actually doing another. He now projected Cuba as the world’s first truly “green” society, with industry powered by windmills, and the people riding bicycles. It was guerrilla war all over again, with Castro invoking the spirit of the Sierra Maestra.

Then, before any significant change could be made to the Cuban system, the Soviet Union imploded, and with it went the extensive economic network that it had maintained. A form of perestroika had now to be forced on the Cubans whether they wanted it or not, for Castro’s ally had simply melted away. Boris Yeltsin, the new Russian leader, was no friend. He had even visited Jorge Mas Canosa, the principal organiser of the Cuban exiles in Miami, and he soon removed Russian soldiers from the island and abandoned most of the preferential economic agreements that had kept the Cuban economy afloat for so long. Hopes in the U.S. that Cuba would go the way of the countries of eastern Europe were encouraged by legislation in Congress that sought to tighten the economic embargo.

Almost miraculously, Castro survived this period, throwing open the country to foreign tourists and permitting a dual economy in which the U.S. dollar reigned supreme. In January 1998, his efforts to secure fresh international recognition were crowned by a visit from Pope John Paul II, seen by some as the author of the overthrow of communism in eastern Europe. Castro’s communism had always been tempered by respect for the Catholic church, and he had long taken an interest in liberation theology and in the convergence on the ground in Latin America – notably in the period of military dictatorships in the 1970s – between Catholic priests and leftwing human rights activists. Yet the pope was an outspoken opponent of that trend in his church, and his visit thus seemed all the more unusual and surprising. If John Paul had hoped that his visit would help to undermine Castro’s regime, he was to be disappointed.

Early in this century, Castro’s star was once again in the ascendant, with a marked improvement in the economic situation and the presence in Latin America of a powerful and wealthy new acolyte. Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, first elected in December 1998, was soon to identify himself as Castro’s favourite son. Enjoying huge oil royalties, Chávez was able to finance mutual aid that brought thousands of Cuban doctors to work in the shanty towns of Venezuela, and hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil to the thirsty refineries of Cuba. The impact on the economy was immediate.

Castro was a legend long before his death. The early years of revolutionary government, with dashing young men in guerrilla fatigues sporting the then unfashionable beards grown in the revolutionary war, were romantic, chaotic and exhausting. Castro worked at all hours of day and night (mostly night), made long and didactic speeches, and was rarely out of his 4×4, ceaselessly travelling from one end of the country to another.

Over the years, he calmed down, became more measured, spoke as often but not for so long. His government became less of a one-man band, and power was sufficiently decentralised to allow him to travel abroad for months at a time. The Americans could never forgive him, but he became a welcome visitor all over the developing world, and notably, in the 1980s and 1990s, in Latin America. Although too long-winded for European tastes, the best of his full-scale speeches were models of wit and clarity, well-prepared and delivered with the panache of a trained orator.

A handful of women found space in Castro’s life, but he always claimed he was married to the revolution. He had married a fellow student, Mirta Díaz-Balart, in 1948, and they had a son, Fidelito, but she divorced him a few years later and went to live in the U.S. An early lover was Naty Revuelta, with whom he had a daughter, Alina, and he was always close to Célia Sánchez, the compañera he met in the mountains in 1956. She died in 1980. In that year, he took a new wife, Dalia Soto del Valle, a teacher from the town of Trinidad, who was rarely seen in public. They had five boys – Angel, Antonio, Alejandro, Alexis and Alex – named allegedly after his various noms de guerre in the Sierra Maestra. Outside these relationships he had a son, Jorge Angel, and a daughter, Francisca.

Castro’s revolution was a remarkably peaceful process, apart from a number of Batista’s henchmen shot in the first weeks. Some revolutionary enthusiasts of the first generation could not stomach the government’s leftward drift, and swaths of the professional middle class left for Miami, but the revolution did not “eat its children”. Much of the inner group around Castro survived into old age.

Tensions arose occasionally with the old communists and the island’s intellectuals (who suffered as much from blockade-induced isolation as from outright censorship), and in 1989 a couple of senior generals were executed for drug-running. Critics liked to argue that “General” Castro was no different in essence from any other Latin America dictator, yet such criticism was hard to sustain. He more closely resembled the Spanish colonial governor-generals, many of whom were benign autocrats, than the sanguinary military leaders of the 20th century. Even when his regime was under attack, he retained immense popular support. His huge personal charm and charisma, and his political genius, kept him on top throughout: the only force that could defeat him was the infirmity of old age.

Fidel Castro will be buried at the Santa Ifigenia cemetery in southern Cuba (Jonathan Watts, The Guardian)

Fidel Castro will be buried at the Santa Ifigenia cemetery in southern Cuba (Jonathan Watts, The Guardian)

The first premonition of his mortality came in October 2004, when he stumbled badly after a speech made in Santa Clara. He fractured an arm and broke a knee, and was for a while confined to a wheelchair. Yet he kept up a heavy schedule of television appearances, announcing in March 2005 an end to the “special period” of austerity that had begun at the time of the Soviet collapse. In July 2006, he suffered a more serious setback, and formally handed over power on a temporary basis to his brother Raúl after emergency intestinal surgery. He never fully recovered and was rarely seen in public again. In February 2008, he announced his resignation as president of the Council of State. The tasks of government, he said, “required mobility and the total commitment that I am no longer in a physical condition to offer”. Raúl Castro, five years younger and Fidel’s alter ego since the attack on the Moncada barracks in 1953, became the new president of Cuba.

Castro is survived by his children, his brother, Raúl, and sister, Juanita.

Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz, revolutionary leader, born 13 August 1926, died 25 November 2016.

Richard Gott is a writer and historian. His published books include In The Shadow Of The Liberator: Hugo Chávez And The Transformation Of Venezuela (2000); Cuba: A New History (2004); and Hugo Chávez And The Bolivarian Revolution (2005). In 2013, he published a short essay ‘Hugo Chávez’s Bolívarian revolution will soldier on without him‘.


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