Fidel Castro, who died Friday evening aged 90, was consigned to the “already dead” box in most people’s heads about a decade ago, when he withdrew from the limelight after a stroke and handed the country over to his brother.
As ever, he had the last laugh. Castro outlived six US presidents. He went on to live another half-century after JFK’s assassination. There were 638 attempts to kill him, by some accounts – seems a lot, but over 50 years it’s basically only one a month. The exploding cigar plot – real. The “make his beard fall out to humiliate him” plot – also real.
Yet for a life of an ultimate 20th-century tumult, those who saw him in retirement painted an idyllic picture. He lived in a modest two-storey house on a former golf course: watching TV, entertaining his grandkids, occasionally writing newspaper articles for a Communist mouthpiece newspaper, doing two hours’ exercise a day, and getting his staff to translate books unavailable in Spanish.
One journalist checked in to find he was reading Obama’s Dreams Of My Father. What follows isn’t meant to be comprehensive or complete reading of him – for a start it barely touches on his loathsome human rights record. Rather, it’s a harvesting of facets that caught our eye, humanising touches that put some flesh back on a guy who has only really loomed out at us from old news reels – the ghostly fourth Marx Brother of International Socialism.
HE WAS A BALLER
The eight-hour speeches came later, but Castro’s sense of destiny was apparent even in the 1940s. He was an exceptionally talented baseball player who turned out for big Cuban teams – in 1944, he’d won a prize as “Cuba’s best all-round school athlete“. Real head prefect material, basically.
HE WAS AN ANNOYINGLY PRECOCIOUS CHILD
The roots of this megalomania didn’t start there – in fact they seem to go all the way back to birth. Aged 14 – not 12, as he’d claimed – young Fidel wrote a letter to FDR, congratulating him on his re-election, and signing-off “Your Friend”. In his head, Castro was already the equal of kings and courtiers. This is all exactly the sort of stuff biographers love.
HE WAS A LAWYER
That was his actual job. He got into politics as a congressional candidate for the Orthodox Party. There, he found he had skill as a speaker and rose rapidly. But then he hit the glass ceiling: Fulgencio Batista annulled an election that the Orthodox Party were favourites to win, and Fidel realised he wasn’t going to get anywhere in politics without throwing a few grenades.
ALL REVOLUTIONS CONTAIN AN ELEMENT OF HIGH FARCE
Castro’s probably had more than most. First there was the disastrous opening salvo he fired in what was to become the Cuban revolution. In 1953, he and more than 100 fellow revolutionaries attempted to storm the Moncada military barracks. This, they hoped, would be the kick-off for a full-blown Cuban uprising. But they were obliterated. Eight were killed in the fighting. Another 80 or so were murdered by the army afterwards.
Castro was only spared because the guard in charge ignored his orders and sent him to a civilian jail instead. Once inside, Fidel was inducted into what was to become a long and proud tradition of Pink Panther-esque failed attempts to assassinate him, followed by huge strokes of luck on Castro’s own part. An army captain was given instructions to poison his food. He refused, and instead told the world. At which point, General Batista decided he was too weak to risk inflaming public opinion any further by trying again. He’d made a huge mistake. Castro exiled himself off to Mexico, got engaged, claimed he once swam the Rio Grande to meet the exiled Cuban President in a US motel room, then came back and overthrew Batista by the time he was 32.
BUT ALL GREAT DEFEATS CAN EASILY BE REASSIGNED AS STUNNING VICTORIES
The Cuban government’s mouthpiece is a paper called Granma. It is named after the yacht which Fidel tried to return from exile on, with a small invasion force. The would-be guerrillas onboard were blown off-course. They ran out of provisions. They were shipwrecked miles from nowhere. They were then spotted by the Cuban airforce, Castro once claimed, and gunned down in an ambush until the entire force consisted of seven armed men.
HE WAS PALS WITH A T-SHIRT SALESMAN
Che Guevara, the Argentinian poster-boy of poster boys, made his name in Cuba. Che fought his way up the island with Castro. He was also president of the national bank and minister for industry, who was instrumental in hooking Cuba up with the Soviets. Increasingly, though, he fell out with the other Cuban leaders, until in 1965 it was suddenly announced he’d left the country. Two years later, he’d be in Bolivia and dead.
HE DIDN’T START OUT VERY COMMUNIST
Castro soon got tagged as the ultimate red, second only to Kim Il Sung in the ardour of his ideology. This was convenient, but untrue. He was no great Marxist theoretician. No great theoretician at all. He left that bullcrap to Che and his brother. He spent a lot of time avoiding being daubed too overtly with the Communist brush, arguing to the press that he would do “whatever works”, declaring in 1959: “I have said in a clear and definitive fashion that we are not communists.” Accordingly, his first government was pragmatic: they nationalised, tried import substitution, confiscated US property, and rolled out universal healthcare, but the project was as much nationalist as communist. It was only when they hit the skids that they were forced to pay greater attention to ideology. An increasing economic crisis forced the government to seek support, which duly came from the USSR. The Russians bought up all the nation’s sugar, and in return sent finished goods, precious foreign currency and a tonne of special advisers. In return, Castro was hidebound to follow Moscow’s doctrine.
THOUGH HE MANAGED TO GET IN ON SOME COLD WAR ACTION
In the 70s and 80s, Castro committed troops to battlefields in Angola and Mozambique where, with the Portuguese colonists finally withdrawn, civil war had taken hold. In both cases, they played to bloody and unsatisfactory stalemates against anti-communist guerrillas being armed and aided by highly organised South African Defence Force units.
HE KNEW NOT TO LET OPPORTUNITY GO BEGGING
In 1980, Castro briefly opened up the Port of Mariel, to allow Cuban exiles living in America to “claim their relatives. In all, more than 120,000 people were sucked off the island in a window of a few months. Unknown to most at the time, Castro had also made sure to load the boats with prison inmates, mental patients, and a host of others classed as “undesirables”, in what must rate as one of history’s greatest acts of illegal dumping.
HE HURT ONE OF HIS COUNTRY’S PRIME EXPORTS
Cigar Afficionado‘s Man Of The Year since the dawn of time, Fidel finally gave up his stogies in 1985. “The best thing you could do with a box of cigars is give them to your enemy,” he said at the time. And a hundred old women hand-rolling Havanas were retrenched…
HE PUT ALL HIS EGGS IN ONE ROTTEN BASKET
The USSR saved Castro from his own economic follies year-in and year-out. So when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1990, Cuba nose-dived along with it. Cuba’s GDP declined by 33 percent between 1990 and 1993. So it went on. The results were catastrophic. A major fuel shortage brought the economy grinding to a halt. After 30 years of good harvests, even food became scarce: malnutrition finally returned to the island. This time was euphemistically referred to as the “special period”. For doctors looking to study the effects of rapid population weight loss on lifestyle diseases like diabetes, it was one of history’s golden moments. For everyone else, it was a bleak and bitter period where the little hope they had sank from view.
HE ENJOYED LISTENING TO THE MANIC STREET PREACHERS
At one point during their 2001 concert at Havana’s Karl Marx Theatre, he stood and applauded during their song about Elian Gonzalez.
THE SEQUEL TO THE REVOLUTION IS POSTPONED UNTIL 2017
That’s when the geriocracy will finally have to make way for some new blood: the self-declared end of Raul Castro’s nightwatchman stint, and, if all goes to plan, the moment Miguel Diaz-Canel Bermúdez steps onto the world stage (while hopefully also shortening his own name). Diaz-Canel Bermúdez is the anointed heir of the Castros, and seems quite likeable. He’s a cyclist. Which is always nice. He’s an ex-university professor. And they tend to be mild-mannered folk who don’t garotte too many dissidents. He was the youngest ever member of the Politburo. And that suggests he’s a bit charismatic and go-get’em.
And he is, on Cuban terms, a liberaliser: bringing things back into private ownership, and supporting a range of recent market reforms. This will mark the first moment when real detente can happen between the US and this ageing yet unshakeable regime.