Hasta la vista, baby
The long life and brutal times of the world's last true communist dictator
Isabel Vincent | Feb 20, 2008 | 15:55:59
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Throughout his long life, Fidel Castro has frequently found himself in harm’s way. When he was 10 years old, he nearly died of peritonitis. As a student radical in the 1940s, he participated in a violent uprising in Colombia. He nearly died in the 1953 rebel attack on the Moncada military barracks in Cuba, and was almost killed by Cuban secret agents during his self-imposed exile in Mexico. In 1956, when he returned to Cuba to take up arms in the revolution, he and two other guerrillas squatted in sugar cane fields for three days as heavily armed government troops tried to “smoke” them out by setting the fields on fire, and war planes circled overhead dropping bombs. And since he and his revolutionaries stormed into Havana in January 1959 to set up their Communist regime, the CIA has tried 638 times to kill him.
If that weren’t enough, Castro led Cuban troops to defend the island during the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961. Twenty years later, after it became known that he had decided to personally test the vigilance of the U.S. Navy by sailing to the Mexican port of Cozumel aboard a high-speed launch to attend a secret meeting with the Mexican president, Ernesto Guevara Lynch, father of Ernesto “Che” Guevara, famously commented, “Fidel must have a pact with God or the devil.”
But whether it was Faustian or celestial, over the last 19 months the bargain had been rapidly expiring. In July 2006, it was revealed that the now 81-year-old leader had been ill. That July 31, he handed the reins of power to his brother Raúl Castro after undergoing intestinal surgery—while promising to be back. But when he missed appearing publicly for his birthday in August 2006, which is a state holiday, and didn’t appear to deliver his legendarily long speeches on the important anniversaries of the revolution in December and January 2007, most people figured that he was simply too weak—or even dead.
In order to dispel rumours of his demise, the Cuban government released a handful of videos that aired on Cuban TV. They showed their leader sitting in his hospital room in a red and white Adidas track suit, conversing with high-level visitors, or reading the newspaper. There were numerous videos of Castro and his pal, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, who became an unofficial spokesman for the ailing Communist. But the images sent shock waves throughout Cuba and the world: for perhaps the first time during his remarkable rule of almost half a century, Castro, the larger-than-life revolutionary and Cold War warrior who outlasted nine U.S. presidents, seemed, well, mortal. He appeared gaunt, his once-bushy beard reduced to a scraggly mess, his hands emaciated, his face drawn and covered in liver spots. And so it was no great surprise when, on Tuesday, the man who has inspired such passionate sentiments of love and hate announced his retirement as Cuba’s president and commander-in-chief of the armed forces.
For most Cuba-watchers, the transition effectively occurred on July 31, 2006, when Raúl Castro took over from his older brother. Fidel Castro did not announce a successor on Tuesday, which has led many to believe that Raúl will stay in power. And most experts do not believe that any immediate political change is imminent, in spite of hopes expressed by some, including U.S. President George W. Bush, that the resignation will lead to a democratic opening. But analysts do believe an economic opening is more realistic, as Raúl Castro has recently encouraged a very open debate on Cuba’s biggest economic problems, such as food and housing shortages.
While Castro’s retirement may mean the end of his particular vision for revolutionary Cuba, there is no doubting his legacy. He has been, according to former New York Times reporter Tad Szulc, one of his biographers, “a fascinating phenomenon in our century’s politics—a man of panache, a romantic figure, an ever-defiant, dizzyingly imaginative and unpredictable rebel, a marvelous actor, a spectacular teacher and preacher of the many credos he says he embraces.” Among Castro’s greater accomplishments was dramatically raising the living standards of impoverished Cubans, providing free health care and education to a post-revolution generation that can boast 98 per cent literacy, and an infant mortality rate comparable to that of many wealthier Western countries.