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Castro: His last battle

Castro: His last battle
21 January 2007 09:58

In 1997, two men sat down, with others, to dinner in Havana. One was
John F Kennedy Jnr, eldest son of the assassinated United States
President. The other was "El Jefe Maximo" — the Maximum Chief — Fidel
Castro. What a meeting: Castro and his guest's father were the men who,
in the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, took the planet closer than ever
before, or since, to blowing itself up.

The talk over this meal of shrimp and ice cream, recalls Inigo Thomas, a
friend of Kennedy who was present, was "all about the past", and the
discourse largely "a series of Castro speeches interspersed with
questions for John". Kennedy gave Castro a copy of The Kennedy Tapes.
Castro said he was reading books by Winston Churchill and Stefan Zweig,
and asked Kennedy what he thought of Richard Nixon. Kennedy replied
diplomatically that Nixon had been "courteous" towards his family. Near
the end of the evening, Castro explained his decision not to admit Lee
Harvey Oswald to Cuba, prior to Kennedy's assassination. At 2am the
encounter ended, Castro saying how much he admired Pope John Paul II —
about to make a visit — for rising at five, two hours after he was
accustomed to retiring. Two years later the young Kennedy died. A decade
on, the world's longest-surviving ruler nears his own end.

"Fidel is in the Sierra Maestra again, battling for his life," said his
friend, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez . "I wish he could live another
80 years. But Fidel Castro is one of those men that will never die."
Cuba has maintained intense secrecy around Castro's health, which forced
the revolutionary leader to relinquish power to his brother Raul on 31
July, but reports in last week's El Pais newspaper claimed he had
undergone three risky intestinal operations — none of which had been

Although the Cold War is frozen in the past, the era recalled by the
older man that night over dinner is not a closed chapter. More people
across the Latin American sub-continent are looking to the Cuban leader
for inspiration than ever before, as popular — and especially young —
opinion swings against the United States. But the world's most instantly
recognisable leader, who has left his iconographic mark on history, is
about to enter the Pantheon of memory.

Castro, "El Comandante", is most often known to his people as "Fidel",
even to his face. They "argue with him, they claim him", writes Gabriel
Garcia Marquez. If for some reason they don't want to speak his name,
Cubans run a finger across their chin to indicate the beard.

Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz: the man who outwitted 10 US presidents, and
outlived most of them. The man born out of wedlock who took his mother's
surname as his own, who led an impossible revolution which has survived
even more impossibly, and whose image Diego Maradona has tattooed on his
leg. But there are few places where that figure is visible to most
Cubans; the personality cult of Fidel is a singular one. It strikes one
only after some time in crumbling but effervescent Havana that his image
is nowhere to be seen, except maybe on the odd postcard or book cover in
a shop window. No statues, no Castro Boulevard, no posters — the only
face on a government building and on T-shirts for tourists is that of
Che Guevara. With its peeling grandeur and dichotomies between hedonism
and communism, sensuality and fear, Havana is on the edge of
Fin-de-Something, but Fin-de-What, exactly?

Born on a sugar plantation owned by his father, to a household servant,
Castro grew up aware of both his privileges and the things which kept
him apart from Cuban society — educated by Jesuits, he was never baptised.

By the time he was a law student in the 1940s, Castro had already cast
himself as a revolutionary (though not yet a communist), in the mould of
his idol, freedom fighter and writer Jose Marti, who, at 15, set in
motion the revolt which would expel Spanish colonialism. Castro saw
himself as completing the revolution Marti had begun. He joined the
Orthodox Party, but his willingness to participate in mainstream
electoral politics evaporated after the coup of Fulgencio Batista in
1952. After the disastrous armed attack on Moncada Barracks in Santiago
in July 1953, Castro was arrested; at his trial he gave a speech famed
for the line: "History will absolve me."

Unexpectedly released, Castro journeyed to Mexico, where he met Ernesto
"Che" Guevara and plotted the overthrow of the Batista junta. A band of
82 guerillas returned but, after trekking through mango swamps, they
were ambushed and half of them captured or killed.

The ensuing narrative is revolutionary legend. The peasantry was won
over, Batista fled and Castro marched triumphantly into Havana in
January 1959.

For all Guevara's convictions, Castro's revolution was not at first
communist; indeed Castro's "adventurism" was criticised by the Communist
Party and Castro travelled to New York to court US support. It was not
until after the fiasco of the attempted Bay of Pigs invasion by the CIA,
signed off by JFK, that Castro declared himself a "Marxist-Leninist",
and embraced Moscow. The missile crisis was a consequence. Khrushchev
decided that a deployment of missiles would deter a further invasion of
Cuba and enhance Soviet influence, and the construction of missile
installations was detected by US intelligence.

Khrushchev, foreseeing the calamitous consequences of a war, sidelined
Castro, offering Kennedy a withdrawal of the missiles in exchange for a
guarantee not to invade Cuba and a secret US withdrawal of missiles from
Turkey. The US imposed a total trade embargo on Cuba, punishing the
Cuban people for more than 40 years and inevitably driving Castro into
becoming the USSR's grateful client state in the Americas. Castro
consolidated his power at home — thanks to both repression of dissent
and popular resentment of Washington. Meanwhile, Cuba began exporting
revolution abroad: the 1970s saw Cuba dispatch thousands of troops to
fight in the anti-colonial war waged by Angola's MPLA and during the
years of US-backed dictatorships and coups in South and Central America,
Cuba acted as haven and training ground for armed guerrilla resistance.

The ebb and flow of Havana's relationship with Moscow ended with the
collapse of communism, after which Cuba became beholden to China, both
economically and politically. But China's whimsical attentions were no
substitute for Soviet aid. By 1994 waves of economic refugees were
making the perilous trip across the Florida straits to the US. Castro,
meanwhile, embarked on Cuba's present chapter, of life as a
revolutionary fortress in a capitalist world, compromising — needs must
— with the winds of the market and the need to import hard currency.

Cuba is, as a result, a country with a higher life expectancy than the
US. Cuba exports doctors all over the continent. The music, as everyone
knows, is sublime. But Havana is a place where one can buy an ice cream
with dollars in 30 seconds while Cubans wait for an hour to pay in
pesos. A fat Dane breakfasts with the same 14-year-old girl for the
third day running — a notorious branch of the tourist industry on which
Havana thrives, but which Castro pretends does not exist.

In this world of dichotomies Castro inhabits a strange penumbra: a man
so familiar, yet enigmatic and mercuria
l. Cubans are not even sure
whether he is really married, whether reports of a secret wedding to
Dalia Soto del Valle — mother of five of his six sons — are true.

There have been a few recent insights into the man who crossed into the
20th century and turned 80 last year. The Secret Life of Fidel Castro,
aired on Florida TV in 2002, had home movie footage, showing Castro with
his grandchildren playing around a swimming pool, and a man who lives
without luxury.

The following year came Comandante by Oliver Stone, in which he brazenly
defies Stone's over-polite challenges on human rights, calls Nikita
Khrushchev a "wily peasant" and admits to crushes on Sophia Loren and
Brigitte Bardot.

In 2004 came two biographies, one by a German, Volker Skierka, who
captures Castro's inflated, narcissistic sense of himself and his
destiny. But he points out that he is almost alone among dictators in
not having fleeced his people. No Swiss bank accounts, no personal wealth.

Castro travels in one of two identical jets — partly out of paranoia,
partly out of necessity, for the CIA has been trying to assassinate him
ever since he took power.

The inept attempts included spraying a television studio with LSD, an
exploding cigar, slipping poison powder into a pair of his boots,
poisoning a scuba-diving wetsuit proffered as a gift and dynamiting a
conch shell in one of the President's favourite waters. Even
conventional attempts by snipers and grenade-throwers were thwarted.

No one who meets Castro — let alone struggled alongside him — is
unaffected by the experience. Few were closer to him than Huber Matos,
who joined Castro's 26 July movement in the Sierra Maestra and swiftly
became "Comandante" of the Oriente front. Matos resigned from the
revolutionary government, was accused of treason and imprisoned for 20
years in October 1959. He now lives in Miami. "Once I achieved the rank
of commander, we fought even harder. But since the day I met him, I had
my reservations. Castro is a pretender of magisterial dimensions. He was
always looking to convince me that everything he was doing he was doing
humbly, for the people. But Castro turned out a man who used lies and
dirty tricks."

Another hero and "Comandante" was Eloy Gutierrez Menoyo, who went on to
join the "Alpha 66" revolt against Castro. "I remember Castro talking to
us about a revolution that was 'as Cuban as the palm trees'," he
recalls. "A democratic revolution, not the dictatorship of the
proletariat or anyone else. And I feel more pain at the betrayal than
from all those years in jail, trying to kill time before it killed me.
The hardest thing in life is to break with something in which you put
your faith. But Castro is like a fox — no, more a wolf. Both the hunter
and the hunted. And the more the hunter went after him, the cleverer he

Dissident Oswaldo Paya calls Castro "a dangerous man". "Dangerous to the
region, Cuba and the Cubans. But in the end the Cuban people, and
democracy, are more dangerous to him than he is to them."

The Cuba that Castro will leave behind is in part his creation, in part
that of the calculated punishment of the US embargo. Ideological Marxism
has not been the calamitous disaster it might have been. There have been
terrible failures of collectivised sugar production, but coffee, tobacco
and other Caribbean products are exported. A day in the resolve and
order of a Havana school would leave most British parents with a sense
of wilful longing. The hospitals are famously effective by many
standards: Cuba caters for the health needs of its own people like no
other Caribbean country.

But there is a terrible poverty trap in Cuba and those who live —
crowded with their extended families — in the crumbling colonial houses
eke out a living with their ration books and little else.

The perilous flotillas of desperation which cross the Florida straits
are indicators in themselves. In Cuba, blacks tend to be poorer than
Hispanics, but that is the same across Latin America.

The breezy sensuality of the Cuban island and its people masks grotesque
human rights abuses. Castro says openly and repeatedly he will not
tolerate what he calls "enemies of the revolution". Cuba executes by
firing squad; homosexuality is forced underground, continually harassed.
Religion — often an entwinement between Catholicism and Santeria voodoo
— is tolerated in theory, but priests are persecuted in practice.

Carlos Salinas de Gortari, President of Mexico from 1988 to 1994,
masterminded talks between Castro and President Bill Clinton. "Castro's
life has to be framed inside the context of Cuban independence after 400
years of being a Spanish colony and then passing into US hands. Most of
all, it has to be understood within the context of the most dramatic
Cold War confrontation, the Cuban missile crisis.

"Subjected to an interminable blockade imposed by the US, and its
constant harassment, [Castro achieved] something unique in today's
world. His legacy remains in the remarkable advance in healthcare and
education of the Cuba people, and on his defence of Cuba's sovereignty."

Not every reaction to Castro is political, and not many photographers
have been able to take close-up portraits. But Amelia Troubridge is one
of them, and her recollections of a 1997 encounter illuminate an
additional impact Castro can have, even on a 22-year-old.

"It was at a big dinner", she recalls, "I was three tables away, but the
German ambassador, at Castro's table, fancied me and asked if I wanted
to meet the Cuban leader. There's no doubt what was going on — I was a
sexy, tanned, blonde chick and Castro is a flirt. And I tell you, when
you have the attention of Fidel Castro, when he decides he wants to talk
to you, there is nothing else in the world, the whole room goes silent.
He started speaking, and I just felt buried in his beard. They were the
best and longest five minutes of my life."

Castro is a night owl. One former British diplomat says that he would
arrive at an ambassador's residence, unannounced with a bottle of
whisky, and invite Her Majesty's envoy to join him in drinking most of
it. Among those who have been summoned for late dinner or drinks was
Ernest Hemingway. But more recently paying homage to Castro has become
fashionable. Steven Spielberg described his visit as "the eight most
important hours of my life". There was an audience with Kate Moss and
Naomi Campbell, who likened Castro to Nelson Mandela. The then
71-year-old found meeting the brace of supermodels a "spiritual" experience.

More penetrating was novelist Marquez, who wrote a characteristically
elegant and penetrating profile of The Fidel I Think I Know as part of
the 80th birthday celebrations. "His devotion is to the word," wrote
Marquez. "His power is of seduction … He has a language for each
occasion and a distinct means of persuasion according to his
interlocutors … He is capable of discovering the most minimal
contradictions in a casual phrase."

Castro the law student was such a talented baseball player that, the
legend goes, in 1949 he was offered a $5 000 bonus to join the New York
Giants team. His refusal is lore among fans of the national sport, stars
of which are divided between those who follow Castro's example, and
those who go. The greatest, Lazaro Vargas, is among the former, having
snubbed $6-million to
join the Atlanta Braves. He explains how "Castro
is my leader and my model. He taught me it is a sweet feeling to walk
down the street knowing that no one can buy you."

That Castro has the hearts of many of his people is undeniable; his
funeral will be a national wake. A reporter covering the trial at which
Castro insisted that "history will absolve me" was Marta Rojas, now 73,
still close to El Jefe Maximo, of whom she says: "The first time I saw
him, a few steps ahead of me, I was still a journalism student. It was
September 21 1953, the day the Moncada trials started. It is the same
image I have of him today: converting himself from the accused into the
accuser. That day, with his hands cuffed, he raised his arms and banged
them yelling, 'you cannot try a man, any man, cuffed like this'. It was
then when he turned from being the defendant to the accuser. And I still
have that image of him."

In 2003 Castro unleashed his latest, maybe last, overt sweep against
dissent, seizing and jailing 75 opposition activists, only 15 of whom
have been released. In its typically, comically fumbling way, the CIA
updated its psychological profiling of Castro, looking for signs of
senility, noting that chairman Mao launched the Cultural Revolution and
Leonid Brezhnev invaded Afghanistan in their twilight years. But in the
event, remarkably, it is not Castro who is creating his legacy any more
— it is history itself.

Marquez wrote that Castro's "vision of Latin America in the future is…
an integrated and autonomous community, capable of moving the destiny of
the world". For decades, such a vision seemed a pipedream, with Latin
America either subjugated by pro-American dictatorships or economically
and politically beholden to the US.

But over the past five years alone, a gyre has turned across Latin
America, not necessarily behind Castro, but certainly in his slipstream.
It is hard to think of another leader of whom one can say that, as they
die, a momentum swells behind their vision, inspired by it and by him —
a second wave propelled by another, younger generation.

The 21st century has seen governments elected to power harbouring
varying degrees of antipathy towards US hegemony in Latin America — or
at least some robust sense of 'an integrated and autonomous community'
— in Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, Venezuela, Nicaragua and even,
almost, Mexico. The spirit of Fidel Castro runs like a rip-tide beneath
that wave, whether he intended it or not, and whether consciously or
not. History may, after all and against all the odds, absolve him, and
will certainly never forget him.

Many people think like Adolfo Perez Esquivel, the Argentinian Nobel
Peace Laureate, who deems him "one of those who show commitment and
coherence between what they say and do. He has left a gesture of
solidarity to all the peoples of Latin America; a legacy of resistance,
autonomy and sovereignty".

William Jose Benitez is a student of social work in Venezuela, and a
member of the National Institute of Youth: "For me," he says, "Fidel is
one of the greatest leaders and thinkers of the past 100 years. He has
done what almost no one has ever done. For Latin American students like
me, he is still the paradigm, the reference point. He has left his seed
in today's Latin America, and what we are living today is its
manifestation — the awakening of the people of Latin America thanks to
revolution led by Fidel."

Then you have the crowd on the concrete steps of Havana's stadium as
Lazaro Vargas drives a curveball past second base. "Fidel! Fidel!"
shouted a man called Manuel, holding his palms aloft, as though to hail
El Jefe Maximo, but then, with a puckish grin full of mischief, whipping
the left palm behind him and making as though to wipe his backside with
it. – Guardian Unlimited © Guardian News and Media Limited 2006


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