Fidel Castro’s mixed legacy

I wrote this piece for Al Jazeera (see original story).

Havana, Cuba – Fidel Castro, a titan of the Cold War who defied 10 American presidents and thrust Cuba onto the world stage, is dead at age 90.

The US government spent more than $1bn trying to kill, undermine or otherwise force Castro from power, but he endured unscathed before old age and disease finally took him.

His supporters in Havana described him as a tireless defender of the poor.

Castro was “a giant of the Third World”, said Agustin Diaz Cartaya, 85, who joined Castro in the 1953 attack in eastern Cuba that launched the revolution. “No one has done more for the Third World than Fidel Castro.”

Critics say Castro drove the country into economic ruin, denied basic freedoms to 11 million Cubans at home and forced more than a million others into exile.

“In 55 years, the Cuban government has not done anything to help the Cuban people in terms of human rights,” said Hector Maseda, 72, a former political prisoner who lives in Havana. “I don’t believe in this regime. I don’t trust it.”

Héctor Maseda

Doubtlessly, Castro leaves a legacy that will be hotly debated for years to come.

For five decades, he worked to turn the island nation into a place of equality and social justice. His government produced tens of thousands of doctors and teachers and achieved some of the lowest infant mortality and illiteracy rates in the Western hemisphere.

But Cuba never shook off its dependence on foreign dollars and the state-run economy failed to bring prosperity to most Cubans.

“The Cuban model doesn’t even work for us any more,” Castro admitted in 2010, startling a visiting US journalist.

The US had tried for years to topple the Cuban government. Cuba stumbled along even after the collapse of its chief sponsor, the former Soviet Union.

The CIA plotted to assassinate Castro using everything from exploding seashells to lethal fungus, American officials cut off almost all trade to Cuba and they financed dissidents and pro-democracy activists. But nothing worked during 11 successive administrations, from Dwight Eisenhower to Barack Obama.

On December 17, 2014, Obama announced that the US planned to renew diplomatic ties with Cuba and loosen some trade and travel restrictions.

Obama’s critics were enraged, saying he was throwing a lifeline to the socialist government and undermining the work of democracy activists who were regularly arrested and beaten.

Obama vowed to continue supporting democracy activists in Cuba, but said the US embargo hadn’t worked and lawmakers should lift it.

As part of the deal he struck with Cuba, the US agreed to send three Cuban spies back to the island in exchange for jailed American development worker Alan Gross and Rolando Sarraff Trujillo, a Cuban agent who spied for the CIA.

It was the Cuban government’s biggest political victory in decades, yet Fidel Castro was silent.

Castro had made the return of the Cuban spies an international crusade. But it was his long overshadowed younger brother who announced the news to the Cuban people.

“Now we have won the war,” Raul Castro, 83, proclaimed on December 20, 2014.

The longtime chief of Cuba’s armed forces took the helm after his older brother fell ill in 2006. Since then, Raul Castro has pushed through economic reforms, expanding the private sector and allowing Cubans to buy and sell homes and cars.

But he has not earned the same reverence as his older brother, who remains the icon of the revolution for many Cubans.

“Fidel is the father of all Cubans,” said Euxiquio Del Toro, 57, a farmer in Granma province.

His “struggle for good and equality for all” makes him “one of the great ones. Fidel is like a myth. He’s like Che,” said Del Toro, referring to the late Argentinean revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara.

Castro’s early life

Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz was born on August 13, 1926, and grew up on a sugar plantation near the town of Birán in eastern Cuba.

His father, Angel Castro y Argis, was from the Spanish province of Galicia and journeyed to Cuba as a 13-year-old orphan during the Spanish-American War. His mother, Lina Ruz Gonzalez, was a servant.

Castro went to Jesuit schools before enrolling at the University of Havana, where he was a student leader. He became a lawyer and was soon caught up in political causes aimed at toppling then-dictator Fulgencio Batista

On July 26, 1953, Castro led a disastrous attack on the Moncada Barracks in Santiago de Cuba. Half the rebels were killed and Castro was thrown in jail.

At his trial, Castro condemned the Batista regime. His speech – “History Will Absolve Me” – became the manifesto of the revolution and captivated ordinary Cubans, weary of the violent, corrupt Batista regime.

Journalist Marta Rojas covered the trial. Even then, she said, Castro was a skilled orator and strategic thinker.

“You can’t write the history of Latin America in the 20th century without Fidel Castro. Impossible!” Rojas, now 86, said from her apartment in Havana.

Marta Rojas

Castro and his brother Raul were found guilty and sentenced to 13 years in prison.

Maria Antonia Figueroa remembers catching a glimpse of Fidel Castro after his arrest. She had heard that authorities were going to escort him along Enramadas Street in Santiago de Cuba.

“I went over there and sure enough, I saw him go by, and I said, ‘Oh! A nice-looking young man. A tall man with light hair, fair skin.'”

Figueroa, now 96, and other supporters pushed for amnesty, and the Castro brothers were freed on May 16, 1955, less than two years after the Moncada assault.

Maria Antonia Figueroa

The Castro brothers then journeyed to Mexico to reorganise. Figueroa said Fidel Castro asked her to help raise money and named her treasurer. She quoted him as saying: “Look, I don’t want the millions from the politicians, any rich guy or millionaire whose money is tainted. I prefer cents from the poorest of the vendors of newspapers, vegetables or fruits in Santiago, because that unites them.

“They say, ‘I gave to the Revolution.’ Even if it’s 10 cents, they deprive themselves of food for themselves and their children to help the Revolution. That, to me, has more merit than anything.”

A yacht called Granma

“Che” Guevara soon joined the cause and the rebels set out for Cuba aboard a yacht called Granma on November 25, 1955.

Arsenio Garcia was one of the 82 expeditionaries. He said they brought along little food other than 3,000 oranges. But many rebels were so seasick during the first days that they couldn’t eat.

As they neared the Cuban coast, one of the men, Roberto Roque Nuñez, grabbed an antenna to steady himself, but it bent and he fell into the dark waters below.

Risking capture and running short of time, Fidel Castro ordered the boat to turn around to pick up the man. No one could be left behind, he said.

Garcia said the incident showed how much Castro cared about his followers.

“Really, Fidel always was a dreamer. I think history will remember him as a man who gave his life for the well-being and the benefit of others.”

Castro and the 81 other expeditionaries reached Cuba on December 2. Batista’s soldiers killed 61 of them.

If Castro made any mistakes, Garcia said, “they were made with good intentions. Fidel never sought personal benefit. Fidel is an extremely honest man”.

Arsenio Garcia

Castro and two other fighters fled into a sugarcane field. They had just two rifles and didn’t know if any other rebels were still alive.

Despite their impossible straits, Castro whispered, “We are winning. Victory will be ours.” The Cuban leader had so much courage, “it borders on the insane”, the late Castro biographer Tad Szulc wrote.

The surviving rebels headed for an eastern mountain range, the Sierra Maestra, and waged a quixotic war against Batista’s US-supplied army of more than 10,000 soldiers.

On May 20, 1958, Batista launched Operation FF – Fin de Fidel or End of Fidel. It was a 76-day campaign to kill the guerrilla leader.

Secret command post

By then, Fidel Castro had set up a secret mountain command post called La Plata. He and nearly three dozen followers took refuge there.

In June 1958, US-supplied aircraft bombed the Cuban rebels. Castro wrote to his then-confidant, the late Celia Sanchez: “I have sworn that the Americans will pay very dearly for what they are doing. When this war has ended, a much bigger and greater war will start for me, a war I shall launch against them. I realise that this will be my true destiny.”

Batista’s forces never found La Plata. The revolutionaries prevailed, Batista fled Cuba and Castro declared victory on January 1, 1959.

Certainly many Cubans who fought with Castro remain loyal. “I think Fidel planted the seed and the roots are there to continue,” said Osmani Dias Peña, 43, a guide at La Plata, which is now open to tourists.

“The hope of the Revolution is in our hands and I hope other Cubans think like I do so that the Revolution can be saved. Fidel is the hope of the Americas, the hope of the poor.”

“In every inch of Cuba is the work of Fidel Castro,” said Figueroa, the rebel movement’s ex-treasurer. “Agrarian reform, he did. Educational reform, he did – everything that he promised. The years have passed and Fidel continues being our great love, our father.”

Castro has admirers in the US, too.

Anti-embargo activist Bob Schwartz described him as “a giant”.

“His literacy campaign and his commitment to public health are what will be remembered for in generations to come,” said Schwartz, director of New York-based Disarm Education Fund, which has delivered more than $120m in medical supplies to Cuba.

‘Smart psychopath’

Many Cuban Americans don’t remember Castro quite so fondly.

“Biggest liar, biggest ego, biggest bank account of any Cuban politician. He was a very smart psychopath and history will not absolve him,” said Humberto Capiro, 54, a residential building designer.

Havana film-maker Rebeca Chavez defends Castro.

“You can believe or think of Fidel what you want, but what nobody can deny is that he is the most important figure of 20th century Cuba and a very, very important figure in Latin America,” she said.

Some Cubans are so “full of bitterness” that they can’t “see the brilliance of this man, a man who is not perfect. Thank God, he’s not perfect and made many mistakes.”

But he guided Cuba through the collapse of the former Soviet Union, Chavez said. He stressed the importance of culture and education.

He gave Cubans “a sense of dignity and belonging – and that helped us to resist”, she said.

Some Cubans thrived under Castro. Others didn’t. But that’s the nature of a revolution, she said.Chavez said Castro influenced not only her work, but her life “and the lives of all Cubans”.

“Cuba has never been a bed of roses.”

Roberto Alvarez, 52, a teacher in Havana, said Castro is irreplaceable. “He’s the historic leader of Cuba, I’d say, of all of Latin America.”

“Cuba has problems like any other country,” added Alvarez, who sat on a bench along Fifth Avenue in Havana’s posh Miramar neighbourhood. But “you don’t see anyone living on the street. Everyone has a house”.

Angel Mario Gonzalez, 51, who sat nearby, recalled running into Castro while working at the Palace of Conventions in Havana.

“Up close, he’s a very friendly person. Wherever he went, he said hello, he touched you. He asked you how you were feeling, whether there were any problems.”

Longest speech at UN

Castro tried to win over Cubans in speeches that sometimes lasted more than seven hours.

A four-hour and 29-minute spiel in 1960 earned him the Guinness Book of Records title for the longest speech ever delivered at the UN.

“I was fighting for them to let me go,” Castro said later. In June 2001, Castro fainted two hours into a speech under the sweltering sun. He recovered, took his own pulse and decided to go back on stage. But his bodyguards had pushed him into an emergency vehicle.

“I had to exercise a little bit of my authority. I said, ‘I’ll cooperate with you, but you cooperate with me.'”

After that episode, Castro began sprinkling speeches with light-hearted remarks about his eventual demise.

Cuban authorities kept details of his health secret, calling it a national security matter.

In October 2004, Castro tripped and fell after a speech, breaking his right arm and shattering his kneecap. But he quickly recovered, walking in public just two months after his fall.

On July 31, 2006, the Cuban government announced that Castro’s duties as president had been transferred to Raul Castro while he underwent surgery to address “an acute intestinal crisis, with sustained bleeding”.

Dangers of nuclear war

Castro never returned to politics. He wrote columns for state-run media and occasionally received guests at his home on the edge of what used to be the Havana Biltmore golf course.

In his speech, he warned of the dangers of nuclear war and climate change and he urged young people to fight for world peace.

On September 3, 2010, Castro gave his last speech. He spoke at the University of Havana, telling students he never imagined he’d return 65 years after he studied there.

On January 8, 2013, Castro visited the Havana art studio of his friend, Alexis Leiva Machado, nicknamed Kcho.

It would be the Cuban leader’s last public appearance.

“There were people there who never thought they were going to see him in their lifetimes,” Kcho said. “Suddenly, Fidel showed up in a car. It parked at the door of the house. The neighbour looked at him like she couldn’t believe it. She said, ‘How is it possible? I thought that in my life I’d never see Fidel Castro.’

“His presence said a lot.”

Kcho considers Castro a “maker of dreams” and said he probably wouldn’t have become a successful artist if the government hadn’t opened an art school on the Isle of Youth where he grew up.

Years later, Castro recognised Kcho’s work.

“When I shook his hand, the man squeezed my hand really hard, with strength, with energy. He looked me in the eye and he told me, ‘Congratulations. Good job.’ It was something special. I still have photos of that moment,” Kcho said.

“Fidel is a person who has influenced many people. I’d say millions of people. I am one of those influenced by Fidel.”

Cubans will miss Castro, the artist said.

Cuban blogger Harold Cardenas is not sure all Cubans are ready to decipher Castro’s legacy.”He had the ability to face – together with his people – the most powerful enemy on earth. And I think [his] ideas will live on forever.”

Many young people have a stereotyped or cartoonish image of Castro, Cardenas said. Some think “all he’s done is make mistakes”.

Harold Cardenas

Others say he’s the “perfect leader”. That’s dangerous, Cardenas said, because when they learn that he’s made mistakes, they’ll think they were lied to in school and soon they’ll believe that everything about the revolution is a lie.

What’s needed, he said, is an honest debate about Castro’s legacy. But for now, Cardenas said, “We don’t have the maturity to speak objectively about Fidel.”