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    Fidel Castro is dead

    Fidel Castro is dead
    BY GLENN GARVIN
    ggarvin@MiamiHerald.com

    Fidel Castro, who towered over his Caribbean island for nearly five
    decades, a shaggy-bearded figure in combat fatigues whose long shadow
    spread across Latin America and the world, is dead at age 90. His
    brother Raul announced the death late Friday night.

    Millions cheered Fidel Castro on the day he entered Havana. Millions
    more fled the communist dictator’s repressive police state, leaving
    behind their possessions, their families, the island they loved and
    often their very lives. It’s part of the paradox of Castro that many
    people belonged to both groups.

    Few national leaders have inspired such intense loyalty — or such a
    wrenching feeling of betrayal. Few fired the hearts of the world’s
    restless youth as Castro did when he was young, and few seemed so
    irrelevant as Castro when he was old — the last Communist, railing on
    the empty, decrepit street corner that Cuba became under his rule.

    He held a unique place among the world’s leaders of the past century.
    Others had greater impact or won more respect. But none combined his
    dynamic personality, his decades in power, his profound effect on his
    own country and his provocative role in international affairs.

    As he changed the face of Cuba, he remapped South Florida as well,
    transforming it from the southernmost tip of the United States to the
    northernmost point of Latin America. The suffering of the refugees he
    sent pouring into Miami eventually turned to triumph as they forged
    economic and political success.

    He was a spellbinding orator who was also a man of action. His tall and
    powerful build was matched by an outsized ego, boundless energy and
    extraordinary luck that carried him to victory as a guerrilla leader in
    1959 against nearly impossible odds, then helped him survive countless
    plots hatched by his countless enemies.

    He ended American domination of the island’s economy, swept away the old
    political system and the traditional army, nationalized large and small
    land holdings and brought reforms in education and healthcare.

    He also was a ruthless dictator, the Maximum Leader who reneged on his
    promise of free elections, executed thousands of opponents, imprisoned
    tens of thousands, installed a Communist regime and made his island a
    pawn in the Cold War. His alliance with the Soviet Union brought the
    world to the brink of nuclear war in 1962.

    The Cuban Missile Crisis was neither Castro’s first nor last
    confrontation with the United States, though it was certainly the most
    epic. No other individual has ever tormented Washington more or longer.
    At age 12, Castro wrote to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, congratulating him
    on his third inauguration as president and impudently asking for a
    dollar. By the time he was 35, two American presidents had devoted a
    considerable amount of time and effort to killing him.

    Over and over, whether by arming Latin American revolutionaries or
    sheltering fugitives from U.S. justice or unleashing great waves of
    refugees, Castro enraged his great enemy to the north — and often threw
    it into domestic disarray as well. The U.S. political controversies that
    followed the 1980 Mariel boatlift and the 2000 custody battle over Elián
    González played a large role in costing first Jimmy Carter and then Al
    Gore the presidency.

    Faced with hostility from the United States, which sponsored an invasion
    by Cuban exiles in 1961 and relentlessly (if sometimes comically)
    plotted his assassination, Castro turned the island into a fortress
    guarded by one of the region’s most powerful military machines.

    But the guns pointed inward, too. He created a repressive state that
    rigidly controlled the arts, the press, the airwaves. An efficient
    secret police force was aided by neighborhood spies and pro-government
    mobs that attacked those who dared to call for democratic change.
    Cultural enemies were vulnerable, too; well into the 1970s, Castro was
    imprisoning gays and long-haired young people in work camps.

    Castro bragged that he would free his island of economic dependence on
    the United States, and he did — but only by becoming even more dependent
    on another foreign power based nearly 6,000 miles away in Moscow. Cuba
    ran up billions of dollars in debt for weapons, oil, machinery, food and
    other supplies. And when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Cuba’s
    crippled economy imploded, bringing new hardships to a population that
    already had suffered decades under his mismanagement.

    Hundreds of thousands fled the society Castro created. The exodus began
    early with the powerful and affluent and continued with former comrades
    who found themselves in opposition to his rule. Next to go were the
    middle class and professionals and, finally, just about anyone who had
    the courage to grab a boat or cobble together a raft for the perilous
    crossing of the Florida Straits.

    Castro, although always controversial, once seemed to embody a fresh,
    youthful approach to his island’s conflicts. Few moments in Cuban
    history rival the euphoria of Jan. 8, 1959, when the black-bearded
    comandante rode a tank into Havana with his swaggering rebel fighters,
    making their way through streets filled with cheering throngs. President
    Fulgencio Batista had fled a week earlier.

    To his followers — and admirers around the world — Castro offered a
    vision of liberation, morality and enlightenment. Many believed his
    promise of a “humanistic” revolution based on nationalism — not
    communism — with agrarian reform, free elections and the restoration of
    the liberal 1940 constitution.

    For millions of Cubans, hope turned to bitter feelings of betrayal as
    Castro quickly pushed aside former comrades in arms, jailed those who
    protested, ridiculed the idea of elections and converted Cuba to a
    one-party Communist state and Soviet satellite. He then proclaimed that
    he had been a Marxist-Leninist all along.

    If his open embrace of communism made him a pariah not only to
    Washington but to many of his own countrymen, Castro nonetheless became
    an icon to young leftists around the world disillusioned with the
    revolutionary sclerosis of the Soviet Union. Hundreds of thousands would
    give their lives in fruitless guerrilla movements he inspired in places
    like El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Colombia, Peru, Uruguay,
    Argentina, Chile, Namibia, Angola and Zaire.

    From whisper to roar
    “As you may well know,” Castro said during a 1993 speech, “my job is to
    talk.” His orations were legendary. Without a text, but with a crowd of
    supporters cheering him on in Havana’s Plaza de la Revolución, Castro
    could hold forth for hours. His record, in 1968, was a meandering
    discourse that lasted nearly 12 hours. On the day he officially stepped
    down from the Cuban presidency in 2008, a biologist in Havana told a
    Miami Herald reporter with obvious relief: “Now I can watch my Brazilian
    telenovelas without worrying that they’re going to be interrupted by a
    six-hour speech.”

    A Castro speech might start as a friendly chat, then morph into a dry
    report on sugar production statistics or a scholarly lecture on the
    benefits of hygiene. As the pace picked up, the voice would dip to a
    hoarse whisper or launch a series of ringing questions that drew shouted
    responses from the multitude.

    Warming to a theme — perhaps the supposed threat of a Yanqui invasion —
    the whisper would grow to a roar and then a rhythmic wave of shouts,
    repeating key phrases like a tent-revival evangelist reaching out to
    save souls. The words would tumble out, by turns high-flown, vulgar,
    jovial, indignant — finally winding down in raspy exhaustion with the
    benediction: Patria o muerte, venceremos! (Fatherland or death, we shall
    triumph!)

    In later years, as the former Soviet bloc nations moved toward open
    societies and capitalism, leaving him virtually alone as a hard-line
    Communist, the tag line changed to a defiant Socialismo o muerte —
    socialism or death.

    A privileged childhood
    Castro was born Aug. 13, 1926, near the village of Birán on Cuba’s
    northeastern coast.

    His father, Angel Castro, a native of Galicia, Spain, started out
    laboring in sugar fields for the U.S.-owned United Fruit Co. but worked
    his way up until he owned a 10,000-acre farm with hundreds of workers.

    One of Angel’s servants, Lina Ruz, was the mother of Fidel and his six
    siblings — including Raúl, who assumed power on July 31, 2006, after
    Fidel fell ill. Angel and Lina were married several years after Fidel
    was born, and Fidel was not legally recognized as a Castro until he was
    17. Despite the household’s rocky domestic issues, Fidel mostly enjoyed
    the privileged, outdoor childhood of a land baron’s son, climbing hills,
    swimming in rivers, hunting with a shotgun.

    When Fidel was 15, in 1941, his father sent him to Colegio Belén in
    Havana, an exclusive Jesuit prep school for rich boys.

    At Belén, Castro was remembered as an imposing figure — good-natured, a
    talented student and a star of the basketball and baseball teams. He
    maintained an interest in sports in later life, making Cuba a regional
    power in amateur athletics. But, contrary to a report widely circulated
    in the American press, he never tried out for the U.S. major leagues.

    His love for baseball would last a lifetime and was perhaps the only one
    of his interests to rival politics.

    In October 1945, Castro enrolled at Havana University’s law school. He
    immediately plunged into student politics at a time of gangsterismo —
    battles between armed rival gangs. Castro carried a pistol and was
    accused, though never convicted, of involvement in two murders and
    another attempt.

    There were Communist groups at the university, but Castro didn’t join
    them. He remained independent for a time, then in 1947 aligned himself
    with the Ortodoxos, a party led by liberal reformer Eduardo Chibás.
    Castro served as a top aide until Chibás fatally shot himself in 1951
    during a dramatic radio broadcast, attempting to awaken Cubans to what
    he called social injustice.

    As a student, Castro twice became enmeshed in violent international
    incidents that marked his developing obsession for revolutionary politics.

    In 1947, he joined a group plotting to overthrow the dictatorship of
    Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic. Cuban police crushed the
    expedition before it could leave the island; Castro escaped by swimming
    across a bay.

    In April 1948, as diplomats gathered in Bogotá to found the Organization
    of American States, Castro and other young Cubans traveled there to help
    organize a student anti-imperialist movement. He met Colombian populist
    politician Jorge Eliécer Gaitán and was on his way to see him again when
    Gaitán was assassinated on the street, a killing that set off two days
    of rioting later known as the Bogotazo.

    Castro, then 21, joined in the street fighting, seizing a rifle at a
    police station that had been stormed by a mob. His activities in Bogotá
    prompted a cable to Washington from the U.S. Embassy in Havana on April
    26, 1948, the first of what eventually would be hundreds of thousands of
    official U.S. documents pondering Castro’s intentions.

    Observed an embassy staffer in Havana: “It must be concluded that, while
    no proof has been offered of his being a Communist, there is ample proof
    that he is a thoroughly undesirable character and a potential gangster.”

    Mysterious personal life
    On Oct. 12, 1948, while still in law school, Castro married Mirta
    Díaz-Balart, a philosophy student. The couple honeymooned in the United
    States, and a son, Fidelito, was born the next year. But owing to
    Castro’s frenetic political activity and his voracious appetite for
    women, the marriage was doomed. They were divorced in 1955. Mirta
    Díaz-Balart remarried and moved to Spain. The estrangement, both social
    and political, extended to the rest of the Díaz-Balart family — most of
    which moved to Miami, where several Castro nephews eventually would
    become powerful politicians and journalists.

    Castro always maintained a careful reserve about his private life. “In
    this sense, I have reserved for myself a total freedom,” he said in a
    1999 interview. It was only then that it was publicly acknowledged in
    Cuba that he had been living since the 1960s with a schoolteacher named
    Dalia Soto del Valle, from the city of Trinidad on the south side of the
    island. They have five sons, all born since the mid-’60s.

    In all, Castro is known to have fathered as many as 11 children by four
    different women. There were rumors of others by his many mistresses.

    His relations with his children were distant and sometimes strained. His
    only daughter, Alina Fernández, aligned herself with Cuba’s dissident
    movement and tried for years to leave the island before she escaped in
    1993 with a false passport.

    Now living in Miami, Fernández is a harsh critic of her father. “When
    people tell me he’s a dictator, I tell them that’s not the right word,”
    she said. “Strictly speaking, Fidel is a tyrant. I have looked up the
    two words in the dictionary. A dictator is ‘a person who is granted
    absolute powers to face a national emergency on a temporary basis.’ A
    tyrant is an ‘absolute ruler unrestrained by law, who usurps people’s
    rights.’ ”

    Perhaps the closest relationship Castro ever had with a woman was with
    Celia Sánchez, a thin, prim doctor’s daughter who joined Castro at his
    guerrilla hide-out in the Sierra Maestra in 1957.

    Eight years older than Castro, she became his personal secretary, never
    far from his side. Some believe she was also his lover. Though Castro
    never talked about his feelings for her, it was clear that she was the
    one who brought order to his chaotic life. He declared a national day of
    mourning when Sánchez died in 1980.

    A failed attack
    After Castro graduated from law school in 1950, he became a
    lawyer-politician, representing poor clients and investigating
    government corruption. In 1951, he launched a vigorous campaign for a
    seat in Cuba’s congress.

    But his dreams of traditional politics ended abruptly in 1952, when
    Batista — a one-time populist reformer who had grown fond of power —
    seized the government in a coup and canceled the election.

    While older politicians pondered how to respond, Castro, 25, declared
    personal war on the new dictatorship. Over the next 16 months, he built
    a clandestine, armed revolutionary organization, recruiting from the
    ranks of the Ortodoxo Party.

    He opened his war July 26, 1953, leading a dawn attack by 111 poorly
    armed young rebels on Cuba’s second-largest army base, the 400-man
    Moncada Barracks in Santiago de Cuba on the eastern end of the island.
    The idea was to seize weapons, take control of a strategic portion of
    Cuba and call for a nationwide uprising.

    But everything went wrong from the beginning. Shooting started
    prematurely, only three rebels actually fought their way into the base
    and Castro’s fighters made a disorderly retreat.

    Sixty-nine rebels were killed — most of them tortured to death or
    executed after capture. The army and police lost 19 men. Castro escaped,
    only to be captured a few days later.

    The Moncada attack was a military disaster, but it made Castro the top
    anti-Batista leader overnight. He turned his trial in Santiago into an
    indictment of the dictatorship. In his final courtroom speech, he
    reportedly concluded with the phrase: “Condemn me, it does not matter!
    History will absolve me!” (It would be years before scholars would note
    the ringing phrase was lifted from another dramatic courtroom oration —
    by Adolf Hitler, on trial in Germany for an attempted 1923 coup.)

    In prison, Castro wrote furiously, converting his trial speech into a
    formal document smuggled out for publication. It became his platform
    during the struggle against Batista.

    Batista released Castro on May 15, 1955, as part of a general amnesty,
    18 months into his sentence.

    Fundraising in Miami
    Castro traveled briefly the same year to Miami, where he spoke at the
    old Flagler movie theater downtown, asking supporters for funds. “I
    swear to you,” he promised the cheering crowd, “in Cuba, it’ll be us or
    them.” Then he went to Mexico, where he rebuilt his tiny revolutionary
    band and organized an invasion.

    There Castro met and recruited Ernesto “Che” Guevara, a 27-year-old
    Argentine physician with Marxist ideas who had been expelled from
    Guatemala after a CIA-backed coup there the previous year.

    On Dec. 2, 1956, Castro, Guevara and 80 followers reached the shore of
    Cuba’s Oriente province in a battered American cabin cruiser, the
    Granma, wretchedly seasick after a seven-day voyage. The men leaped into
    hip-deep mud and struggled through a mangrove swamp to reach land. Most
    were killed or captured in the first hours.

    Only 16 made it safely to the 4,500-foot ridges of the Sierra Maestra.
    There they began a guerrilla campaign to oust Batista, who was backed by
    a 40,000-strong security force equipped with tanks, artillery and
    U.S.-supplied warplanes.

    Castro’s force, however, slowly began to grow. He recruited peasants as
    guerrilla fighters and organized intellectuals and middle-class
    followers into an urban underground railroad of funds and supplies.

    His recruiting was aided immeasurably by his skills at propaganda and
    psychological warfare. Castro’s greatest ploy was luring a New York
    Times correspondent named Herbert Matthews to his mountain camp. Though
    the rebels had barely 20 bedraggled men, Castro marched the same group
    past Matthews several times and also staged the arrival of “messengers”
    reporting the movement of other (nonexistent) units.

    Matthews, convinced Castro controlled a huge army, wrote: “From the look
    of things, General Batista cannot possibly hope to suppress the Castro
    revolt.” A wave of favorable coverage followed in the foreign press, and
    with it, international support.

    ‘The Americans will pay’
    During the war, Castro’s already profound anti-U.S. feelings deepened
    when he saw American-supplied bombers used against his positions.

    “The Americans will pay dearly,” he wrote to Celia Sánchez at the time.
    “When this war is over, a much longer and bigger war will begin for me:
    the war I will make against them. I realize that this will be my true
    destiny.”

    After Batista’s ouster, Castro installed a government with a democratic
    cast under President Manuel Urrutia, a former judge, and Prime Minister
    José Miró Cardona, a leading lawyer. Within weeks, however, Castro had
    taken Miró Cardona’s place as prime minister. On July 17, Urrutia
    resigned, accusing Castro of leading Cuba toward communism.

    In the first months, Castro cut rents, lowered telephone rates, reformed
    the income tax system and passed a land reform law that nationalized
    estates larger than 1,000 acres, benefiting thousands of peasants. In
    1961, the government launched a campaign aimed at ending illiteracy,
    though critics said it had more to do with political indoctrination than
    reading and writing.

    Even more disturbing was the March 1959 trial of 44 pilots, bombardiers
    and mechanics from Batista’s air force. A revolutionary tribunal
    acquitted them of crimes against Castro’s guerrillas. An enraged Castro
    instantly created a right of appeal for prosecutors. Told Cuban law did
    not permit it, he replied: “Revolutionary justice is not based on legal
    precepts but on moral conviction.” A second tribunal sent the men to
    prison for 30 years.

    At that, the airmen were lucky. Though Cuban law did not allow capital
    punishment, the revolutionary tribunals were sending a steady stream of
    men to the firing squad, often after trials televised from sports
    stadiums where handpicked mobs of Castro supporters howled in unison,
    paredón! — to the wall!

    A steady stream of Cubans began leaving the island for Miami. Those who
    couldn’t leave sent their children. From Dec. 26, 1960, to Oct. 22,
    1962, more than 14,000 children between the ages of 6 and 18 were flown
    to the United States in Operation Pedro Pan, a Catholic Church-backed
    initiative that turned into the largest exodus of unaccompanied children
    in the history of the Western Hemisphere. By the end of the century, an
    estimated three million of its citizens, more than a fifth of the
    population, would be living outside Cuba.

    Confronting Washington
    Castro’s radical domestic policies appeared likely to sour Cuba’s
    relations with the United States, but he didn’t wait to find out. He
    moved almost immediately to confront Washington, while courting
    surprised Soviet leaders.

    He brushed aside U.S. offers of economic aid, and he refused to discuss
    compensation for U.S.-owned estates confiscated under the agrarian
    reform. Meanwhile, in February 1960, Castro signed a trade pact with the
    Soviet Union and, three months later, established full diplomatic relations.

    As Castro’s leftward march continued, President Dwight Eisenhower
    secretly ordered the CIA to begin training Cuban exiles in Guatemala for
    an invasion and to explore the possibility of assassinating him.

    Between August and October 1960, Castro’s government ordered the
    expropriation of the Texaco, Esso and Shell oil refineries, plus more
    than 150 other U.S. firms, including Sears Roebuck and Coca-Cola, and
    all privately owned sugar mills, banks, large industries and commercial
    real estate.

    Eisenhower responded by slapping an embargo on all U.S. exports to Cuba
    and slashing Cuba’s sugar quota to zero. Before leaving office in
    January 1961, Eisenhower broke diplomatic relations.

    In April 1961, just three months into John F. Kennedy’s presidency,
    about 1,400 CIA-trained exiles invaded Cuba at the Bay of Pigs on the
    southern coast. Castro turned the greatest threat to his political
    career into his greatest success. He marshaled his army to defeat the
    outgunned, outmanned invasion force in three days.

    Enraged at their humiliation on the world stage, President Kennedy and
    his brother Robert, the attorney general, redoubled their efforts
    against Castro. CIA officials would complain later that from 1961 to
    1963, they were under almost constant pressure to come up with new ways
    to destabilize Castro — or kill him.

    Virtually everything, from poisoned scuba-diving suits to exploding
    seashells, was considered, and eventually the CIA even turned to the
    Mafia to get the job done; all to no avail.

    Some historians and intelligence officials believe, however, that the
    assassination plots did claim a victim: President Kennedy himself. On
    Sept. 7, 1963, Castro made an unusual appearance at a routine diplomatic
    reception held at the Brazilian Embassy in Havana. There he approached
    an American reporter for the Associated Press.

    “If U.S. leaders are aiding terrorist plans to eliminate Cuban leaders,
    they themselves will not be safe,” Castro pointedly said. “Let Kennedy
    and his brother Robert take care of themselves since they too can be a
    victim of an attempt that can cause their deaths.”

    Ten weeks later, President Kennedy was killed in Dallas by a sniper’s
    bullet fired by a young American admirer of Castro named Lee Harvey
    Oswald, who had recently visited the Cuban Embassy in Mexico City
    seeking a visa. Over the years, several assassination investigators have
    suggested that Oswald’s action was either inspired — or, more
    sinisterly, ordered — by Castro.

    Communism takes hold
    On Dec. 2, 1961, in a dramatic late-night speech, Castro announced to
    the nation: “Do I believe in Marxism? I believe absolutely in Marxism!
    Did I believe on Jan. 1 [1959]? I believed on Jan. 1! Did I believe on
    July 26 [1953]? I believed on July 26!”

    But had Castro really been a Communist all along? In his past, there was
    no clear evidence to suggest it, although his brother Raúl and Che
    Guevara were both Marxists. That question intrigued scholars throughout
    his life. Some, noting that in his student years Castro was fascinated
    by European fascists, even argued that political thought was irrelevant
    to Castro, that his only real interest was in wielding power.

    Castro himself always said there were no clues to his Marxism because he
    carefully concealed it, especially during the war against Batista.
    Cubans were not ready for Marxism, he said.

    “Our people could not understand a larger plan,” Castro recalled. “We
    supported at that time a program that was within the reach of the
    people… My own ideas were more advanced, but I certainly could not be
    preaching them publicly to everybody… because that would not have had
    a practical result.”

    In the end there was no doubt about Castro’s embrace of Marxism. In
    1961, he fused his July 26 Movement with Cuba’s old Communist Party
    (known as the Popular Socialist Party) and in 1965 formally established
    the Cuban Communist Party with himself as first secretary.

    His impact on Communist ideology extended far outside Cuba. Before
    Castro, the world’s Communist parties were fairly conservative, arguing
    that revolutions first required years of political organizing.

    But Castro, backed by the force of his own victory over Batista, argued
    that armed struggle itself was the best way to create the proper
    conditions for revolution. “The duty of a revolutionary is to make the
    revolution,” he proclaimed in 1962 in the so-called Second Declaration
    of Havana, a clarion call for Communist insurrections throughout the
    developing world.

    That call was answered by nascent guerrilla movements everywhere from
    Argentina to Zaire. The front lines of the confrontation between
    communism and the West shifted from Europe to the jungles of the Third
    World. The Cold War, which began with tanks facing off in the streets of
    Berlin, would turn into peasant skirmishes in villages in Nicaragua and
    Angola.

    The missile crisis
    Between July and September 1962, the Soviet Union began to ship
    medium-range and tactical missiles, IL-28 bombers capable of carrying
    nuclear bombs and MiG-21 jet fighters to Cuba. Soviet troop strength in
    Cuba grew to about 40,000.

    In October, Kennedy cited intelligence detailing the presence of the
    weapons in Cuba, demanded their removal and ordered U.S. ships to
    blockade the island. (Secretly, he extended some carrots with the
    sticks, offering to remove U.S. missiles from Turkey as well as a
    promise not to invade Cuba again.)

    Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev blinked. Without consulting Castro, he
    worked out an agreement with Kennedy to withdraw the missiles. The deal
    barred the Soviets from establishing a naval base in Cuba and included a
    U.S. commitment not to invade the island.

    Castro — who, years later, admitted he had urged Khrushchev to fire the
    missiles in the event of an American invasion of Cuba — was furious
    about being left out of the decision-making. Nonetheless, his dependence
    on the Soviets steadily grew. Moscow poured tens of billions of dollars
    in direct aid into the island and countless more through a tangled web
    of subsidized commercial transactions. For instance, not only could
    Castro purchase below-cost Soviet oil and resell it at a profit to other
    Latin American countries, but Moscow bought Cuban sugar at premium prices.

    For all the Soviet largess, though, the Cuban economy rolled steadily
    downhill. Castro’s attempts to bend the laws of economics to his
    personal will generally ended in disaster. To fulfill his decree that
    the 1970 sugar cane crop would be 10 million tons, twice that of the
    year before, the Cuban government diverted nearly all its resources into
    the harvest, doubled the cutting season, and sent the army, college
    students, government bureaucrats and anyone who had applied for an exit
    visa into the fields.

    Vast sectors of the Cuban economy were paralyzed by the herculean
    effort, and the harvest still fell short by 1.5 million tons. But the
    distortions Castro induced into the economy reverberated for years.
    Future harvests never got anywhere near 10 million tons.

    The pent-up desperation on the island was never more apparent than in
    April 1980, when six Cubans broke into the grounds of the Peruvian
    Embassy and promptly were granted political asylum. Enraged, Castro
    ordered all guards removed from the embassy, only to see nearly 11,000
    asylum-seekers crowd into the compound in 28 hours.

    Whether in embarrassment or crafty calculation — it was never clear
    which — Castro then announced that anyone who wanted to leave Cuba could
    go. That launched the astonishing Mariel boatlift, a flotilla of yachts
    and fishing boats shuttling back and forth between Key West and the port
    of Mariel. When Castro closed it down five months later, more than
    120,000 Cubans had fled.

    The direct face-off between Castro and Washington eased after the
    Kennedy administration. Though the CIA continued to support sporadic
    raids and sabotage inside Cuba until 1965, the battle was increasingly
    conducted through proxies. In El Salvador and Guatemala, Castro
    supported Marxist guerrilla movements against U.S.-backed governments;
    in Angola and Nicaragua, things were reversed, with Castro backing the
    governments and the United States siding with the guerrillas.

    Only once in Castro’s 47-year rule did Cuban and American troops face
    one another on a battlefield — when the United States invaded the
    Caribbean island of Grenada in 1983, after a Castro-backed government
    there dissolved into murderous anarchy. The result: Castro’s soldiers
    retreated so ignominiously that Cubans joked that a running shoe should
    be named after their commanding officer.

    Military tensions eased further after the collapse of the Soviet Union
    in 1991 eliminated the financial backing for any further Castro
    adventures overseas. But if the temperature dropped a couple of degrees
    between Washington and Havana, it blew out the end of the thermometer
    between Miami and Castro.

    Cuban exiles, taking up where the CIA had left off 30 years earlier,
    launched several botched attempts to assassinate Castro. Castro, for his
    part, sent a detachment of spies to South Florida with instructions not
    only to infiltrate U.S. military installations but to worm their way
    inside exile politics.

    Thousands of pages of decoded communications between Havana and the
    agents — introduced at a 2001 spy trial that resulted in convictions of
    five of the men — showed that they were tasked with spreading
    disinformation about exile leaders, fomenting dissent within their
    groups, ruining Cuban-American politicians and sabotaging the airplanes
    of the group Brothers to the Rescue, which patrolled the waters between
    Florida and Cuba, looking for rafters fleeing the island.

    One spy also was convicted of a murder conspiracy charge after the jury
    decided he had helped lure two Brothers to the Rescue planes into a 1996
    ambush by Cuban MiGs that ended with the death of four Brothers pilots.
    That incident led to one of the most memorable exchanges between
    Washington and Havana during Castro’s rule.

    Madeleine Albright, then the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations,
    released a declassified intelligence transcript of cockpit chatter among
    the MiG pilots immediately after the small, unarmed Brothers planes were
    shot down, congratulating one another on their “cojones,” or testicles.
    “This is not cojones,” snarled Albright. “This is cowardice.”

    Elián González
    Nothing, however, demonstrated the extent to which Castro and the Miami
    exile community had become blood enemies like the saga of Elián
    González, the little boy who washed up in South Florida in November 1999
    after his mother and 10 others died while bolting Cuba on a raft.

    The custody battle over the boy — whether he should stay with relatives
    in Miami, or be returned to his father in Cuba — immediately turned into
    a political death struggle between some exiles and Castro. Exiles said
    returning Elián to Cuba would be like sending a runaway slave back to
    the plantation; Castro referred to the exiles as “the Miami mafiosi” and
    accused them of “kidnapping” the boy.

    Like a general at war, Castro deployed every resource at his command. He
    closed factories and schools so that millions of Cubans (some of them
    transported hundreds of miles by bus) could join demonstrations
    demanding Elián’s return. State radio and TV stations devoted at least
    four hours a day to the case. Castro spent, by his own admission, $2
    million on T-shirts, posters and billboards to promote the protest, and
    even built an amphitheater — Cubans called it the “protest-o-drome” — in
    front of the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana.

    His moves paid off. Outside Miami, American public opinion swung in
    favor of returning the child to Cuba, and the Clinton administration did
    just that.

    If the Elián affair was a victory for Castro, it was one of the few
    after the Soviet bloc began to crumble in 1989. The loss of $4 billion a
    year in aid from Moscow touched off an economic holocaust in Cuba; by
    1993, the economy had shrunk nearly 40 percent.

    Castro warned Cubans that they were entering a harsh new “special
    period,” with even more stringent rationing. Severe shortages cropped up
    in virtually every sector of the economy.

    By 1994, Castro’s government was in its most perilous state since the
    days of the Bay of Pigs. Several small riots erupted, and thousands of
    Cubans hurled themselves lemming-like into the sea on flimsy rafts of
    plywood and inner tubes, praying to catch a lucky current to Miami.

    When Cuban government ships spotted a tugboat full of refugees headed
    for Florida on July 13, 1994, they blasted it to pieces with
    high-pressure fire hoses. “Our tugboat started taking on water,”
    recounted one of the survivors, María Victoria García. “We shouted to
    the crewmen on the boat, ‘Look at the children! You’re going to kill
    them!’ And they said, ‘Let them die! Let them die!’ ” Forty-one of the
    refugees did.

    Cornered, Castro loosened some of the strings on the economy. For the
    first time, he tried to develop a tourist industry, opening several
    luxury hotels in joint ventures with foreign partners. Small businesses
    like mom-and-pop restaurants were permitted, and possession of U.S.
    dollars was legalized.

    In a mark of just how close to the brink the Cuban economy really was,
    Castro even welcomed the large-scale return of prostitution, which he
    had called a “social illness” in the early days of the revolution. But
    in a 1992 speech to the National Assembly, he bragged that the army of
    freelance hookers who swarmed through Havana’s streets every night in
    search of tourists were the most cultured in the world.

    “There are no women forced to sell themselves to a man, to a foreigner,
    to a tourist,” Castro said of the women, known as jineteras in local
    slang. “Those who do so do it on their own, voluntarily, and without any
    need for it. We can say that they are highly educated and quite healthy.”

    The fledgling tourist industry (and a steady flow of subsidized oil from
    Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, the latest in a series of Latin American
    admirers), succeeded in lessening some of the pressure on Castro’s
    government. But by the turn of the millennium, it was apparent that it
    also had brought the revolution full circle.

    The dream of a Marxist society without social or economic distinctions
    was gone. In its place was a rigid class system: those with dollars and
    those without. Doctors, lawyers and even nuclear engineers were
    abandoning their professions in droves to drive taxis or work as tour
    guides, anything to get their hands on dollars instead of nearly
    worthless Cuban pesos.

    Tenants in Havana’s low-cost colonial tenements watched fearfully as
    their neighbors were evicted and their buildings torn down to make room
    for quaint new tourist hotels and restaurants. And the Internet bristled
    with endorsements of Havana as one of the world’s top sex-tourism spots,
    with thousands of pretty women available for the price of a cheap dinner.

    If Castro could accept all of that, though, there was still one thing he
    couldn’t swallow: political liberalization.

    “Do you desire the ruin of Cuba?” he scolded a Canadian journalist who
    asked in 2000 if some of the political changes in Russia might not be
    good for Cuba, too. “What was the result of Gorbachev’s politics? …
    They destroyed the history of the country, demoralized and disarmed the
    country, and didn’t do what they should have, and what without a doubt
    wanted to do: improve socialism.”

    Roundups of dissidents continued regularly through the final years of
    Castro’s rule. He might ease the pressure occasionally for
    public-relations purposes — several hundred prisoners were released in
    advance of Pope John Paul II’s visit to the island in January 1998 — but
    inevitably resume when the spotlight moved elsewhere.

    “Cuba remains a Latin American anomaly: an undemocratic government that
    represses nearly all forms of political dissent,” the independent group
    Human Rights Watch observed in 2008. “Cubans are systematically denied
    basic rights to free expression, association, assembly, privacy,
    movement, and due process of law.”

    The beleaguered Cuban population’s response was a retreat into sullen
    despair. By the 1990s, the island’s suicide rate had trippled from
    pre-revolutionary levels, and one of every three pregnancies ended in
    abortion. The birth rate dropped so low that Cubans weren’t even
    replacing themselves: Women average fewer than two children apiece.

    By the time Castro left the Cuban presidency in early 2008, the
    country’s rapidly aging population was the second-oldest in Latin
    America. A fifth of the country had hit retirement age, and the
    percentage was steadily rising. The workers weren’t the only thing
    geriatric about the Cuban economy: Its industrial underpinning of
    ancient Soviet factories and machinery was crumbling. In 2007,
    production of 14 of Cuba’s 20 key products was lower than in 1989. One,
    the sugar crop, was the smallest in a hundred years.

    If any of this concerned Castro, it was not apparent. Though he churned
    out a copius stream of essays and op-ed pieces for the Cuban press in
    his final years, they were markedly devoid of regrets or even
    introspection. “I distrust the seemingly easy path of apologetics or its
    antithesis of self-flagellation,” he wrote in the letter announcing his
    2008 retirement.

    That letter marked a formal end to a process that began in August 2006
    when Castro said an abdominal illness would require surgery and he was
    placing the reins of government in the hands of his brother Raúl. The
    illness was never precisely identified, though it was widely speculated
    to be some form of gastrointestinal cancer.

    Whatever it was, it took an abrupt and catastrophic toll. Castro was
    rarely seen again in public for the rest of his life, though he
    occasionally appeared in photos or videos released by the government — a
    slow and shaky man, dozens of pounds wasted from his once imposing
    frame, but still capable of needling his enemies to the north. In a
    video released shortly after news stories circulated that the George W.
    Bush administration believed he had terminal cancer, Castro snorted:
    ‘Now they’ll have to resuscitate me, huh?”

    Nevertheless, his decline continued. He occasionally met or spoke by
    phone with the new generation of leftist leaders popping up around Latin
    America like Ecuador’s Evo Morales, Panama’s Martin Torrijos and
    especially Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, who used his oil money to prop up
    Cuba’s economy with billions of dollars of aid. But the chats with
    Chávez, the new icon of the Latin American left, only served as a
    reminder that Castro had, without anyone noticing, slipped from the
    headlines into history.

    Even the rambling columns Castro published after his official retirement
    dwindled to disjointed notes of a couple paragraphs each, cryptic haikus
    about ancient communist feuds, miraculous health foods and the mystic
    powers of yoga. By mid-2012, they had vanished altogether.

    The most conclusive evidence that age or illness had reduced Castro to
    irrelevance came in December 2014, when President Obama and Raúl Castro
    jointly announced that the two nations had agreed to not only swap
    captured spies (including the Cuban intelligence officer convicted of
    conspiracy to murder in the shootdown of the Brothers to the Rescue
    planes) but resume full diplomatic relations.

    Obam, in his speech, called the developments the “most significant
    changes” in America’s Cuba policy in more than 50 years and said they
    were negotiated in a series of secret meetings that lasted 18 months and
    ended with an hour-long phone call between the president and Raúl
    Castro. He didn’t speak the name Fidel Castro once. And in Havana, at
    the various ceremonies hailing the new agreement, Fidel was neither seen
    nor heard of.

    Achievements tarnished
    Will history absolve Fidel Castro, as he allegedly told the court in
    Santiago in 1953?

    His revolution made undeniable gains in education and health care,
    raising literacy and slashing infant mortality. But his critics note
    that other Latin American nations like Costa Rica made improvements,
    too, without sacrificing their economies or their civil liberties.

    Even Cuba scholars who think that Castro made significant achievements
    in the early years of the revolution believe that his insistence on
    clinging to power seriously damaged the country.

    “By hanging onto power even into the early twenty-first century, all he
    did was to tarnish his past accomplishments. It is almost as if he had a
    self-destructive streak for his last twenty years in office,” said
    Harvard political scientist Jorge Domínguez.

    “History cannot absolve Fidel Castro by the standards he set over 60
    years ago,” he added, “but history will surely record him as the most
    significant political leader who reshaped Cuban history and as one of
    the world’s leading political figures of the second half of the 20th
    century.”

    Others are less charitable. “To think that he had in his hands the
    possibility of making a country great and he made it tiny and poor,”
    said Ana Rodríguez, a Miami medical technician who spent 19 years in
    prison under Castro, the regime’s longest-held female political
    prisoner. “It is sad.”

    Castro could be stunningly acute when it came to politics. Not long
    before Chilean President Salvador Allende was toppled in a 1973 military
    coup, Castro warned him that his government was in danger. When
    Nicaragua’s Communist Sandinista government signed a regional accord
    calling for political liberalization in 1987, Castro accurately
    predicted that the Sandinistas had opened a Pandora’s box that would
    destroy them. In a 1989 speech, he forecast the demise of the Soviet Union.

    But his perceptions seemed to fail him when it came to Cuba. “Now that
    the capitalists and imperialists think that the ideas of socialism,
    communism and Marxism-Leninism are collapsing, we are more confident
    than ever in the ideas of Marxism-Leninism,” Castro said in a speech
    Nov. 7, 1989, just two days before the Berlin Wall fell, committing his
    country to go it alone.

    In his final years, Castro seemed curiously unconcerned with his image,
    at times lurching dangerously close to self-parody. Miami Herald
    columnist Andres Oppenheimer, in his book Castro’s Final Hour, described
    a three-hour speech on Che Guevara’s application of dialectics that
    Castro delivered in 1991 — to an audience of 6-year-olds.

    Soon after, Castro allowed his photo be used in advertisements for the
    Benetton shops. The ember-eyed young man who vowed to destroy bourgeois
    decadence and the conspicuous consumption of capitalism had become one
    of its throw-away poster boys.

    Perhaps it was the only way the world’s last, lonely Communist could get
    anyone’s attention.

    Miami Herald staff writers Mimi Whitefield and Sue Mullin contributed to
    this story, which also used reporting by former Herald staffers Jane
    Bussey, Elaine De Valle, Martin McReynolds and Elisabeth Donovan.

    Source: Former Cuban President Fidel Castro dead at age 90 | Miami
    Herald –
    www.miamiherald.com/news/nation-world/world/americas/fidel-castro-en/article117186483.html

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