A hero in the eyes of many, dictator Fidel Castro’s revolutionary fire for decades lit up global politics.
One New Year’s Day, 1959, the world would learn that, with a guerrilla army, he had wiped away the old face of Cuba. He overthrew the regime of General Fulgencio Batista, and introduced a new Cuba, in socialist uniform.
With Argentinean comrade ‘Che’ Guevara, the son of a wealthy landowner Castro founded the first communist state in the western hemisphere.
Cold War super power the United States, the greatest foe of communism, swiftly set out to expel the Soviet-encouraged Castro. Launching a mission that was to fail miserably, the CIA trained and armed 1,500 Cuban exiles to invade the Bay of Pigs. The communist David successfully repelled the capitalist Goliath.
America’s worst enemy became Cuba’s best friend. The one-party island in the Caribbean was an ally of immense strategic importance for the Soviet Union, and Nikita Khruschev would plot secretly with Castro to put nuclear ballistic missiles in Cuba. But the vigilant Americans presented photographic evidence to the world.
President John F. Kennedy clamped a naval blockade around the island to prevent any further Soviet missile deliveries. This brought the world to the brink of atomic war, from which Moscow and Washington stepped back only at the last minute.
For the next three decades, Cuba suckled at the teat of the USSR, and built an army in the Americas second only to that of the US. Castro’s island was a Moscow satellite. His vision received major military, economic and political backing.
Castro sent troops to reinforce left-wing governments in Ethiopia, Namibia and Angola. US presidents would come and go – Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan… Castro remained.
Lucrative trade deals with the Soviets, by the end of the 1980s had brought economic prosperity to Cuba, after hardship in the 60s and 70s. But that world was waning. President Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of more market-oriented economics ended Moscow’s favouritism towards Havana.
Castro refused to accept the communist model was dead, and Cuba became more and more isolated. Its economy slipped into sharp decline; Cubans began to flee, as tempted by the promise of the American dream as ever. In 1994, some 30,000 of them stole away in makeshift rafts, bound for Florida.
Towards the end of that dark decade for Cuba came a historic visit. 300,000 people turned out in Havana to greet Pope Jean Paul II, who condemned Washington’s embargo on the island. But he also urged Castro to release political prisoners and give Cubans freedom.
In 2001 serious speculation over Castro’s health began. During one of his trademark marathon speeches, in front of the television cameras, he faltered, unable to go on.
He would name his brother Raul as his successor to guarantee a continuation of his regime. Raul took up the reins of the island, eventually as president in his own right. Fidel’s public appearances grew increasingly rare. They became occasional, special, such as with his acolyte the Bolivarian strongman of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez.
The Cuban icon of revolution preached the same vision to the end – of resilience and socialist virtue in the face of daunting odds.
In one of his last speeches, in 2013 he said: “I never thought my life would be so long, and that the enemy would be so frivolous in its hateful drive to eliminate determined adversaries. In this unfair fight, our people have shown their astounding ability to resist and overcome.”