On the day that Fidel Castro – wearing military fatigues and sporting a bushy black beard – entered the Congress building in Havana as Cuba’s new ruler, the White House was occupied by President Eisenhower and the Kremlin was ruled by Nikita Khrushchev. The prime minister in Jerusalem was David Ben-Gurion. The year was 1959.
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More than 50 years have passed since then and the political map has changed. The Soviet bloc crumbled, the Cold War ended and globalization is advancing worldwide, yet the Communist base established by the then 33-year-old revolutionary opposite the coast of Florida is still standing. Now though, Fidel Castro, who sometimes seemed to be living forever, is no more.
One need only say the word Fidel and most people will know who is being referred to. No other modern political leader has left such a deep imprint for such a lengthy period, becoming a recognized brand. All of this was achieved with a power base consisting of an impoverished and undeveloped island with a population of 11 million. Along the way he embarrassed the CIA by dunking it in the Bay of Pigs. Also, he was at the center of the 1962 missile crisis that could have led to World War III, and sent his military to intervene in international conflicts as if Cuba were a world power.
The economy he led survived the downfall of the Soviet Union, and at the outset of the 21st century he managed to organize bases of power, influence and support in countries such as Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua.
The $10 note
Castro’s unconventional life began in 1926, when he was born in the town of Birán in southeastern Cuba. He was sent to a school run by Jesuit priests, but quickly turned out to be more interested in sport, showing skill and imagination. While attending first grade at school, he sent a personal letter to U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, telling him how happy he was to hear of his election and requesting the president send him a $10 note, since he had never seen one before.
In 1945, Castro started studying law at the University of Havana, which was where he discovered the world of politics and revolution. His choice was simple: the most popular groups were the ones who opposed American imperialism, so Castro joined the Committee for the Liberation of Puerto Rico.
From here it was but a short step to engaging in protests against Dr. Ramón Grau, Cuba’s then-president. In 1947, he participated in the first revolutionary adventure of his life: A group of 1,200 volunteers secretly sailed from Cuba to the Dominican Republic, aiming to stage a military coup and overthrow the tyrant Rafael Trujillo. However, Dominican military forces – aided by soldiers from the United States, which supported Trujillo – were waiting for them and drove them away. As their boat approached the shores of Cuba, the volunteers discovered that Grau’s soldiers were waiting to arrest them upon landing. Castro jumped into the water and swam to shore, evading capture.
After several trips to Venezuela, Panama and Colombia, Castro returned to Cuba, becoming a prominent figure in the socialist antigovernment protest movement. His speeches brought him many supporters and his name cropped up repeatedly in the press.
However, his ideology did not stand in the way when he fell in love with a bourgeois woman, Mirta Diaz-Balart. She came from a wealthy family and her father financed their three-month honeymoon in New York, in 1948. They were married for seven years.
As his confidence grew, along with his status as a leader of the left, Castro decided to run for Cuba’s Congress, in elections scheduled for 1952. However, during his campaign preparations a different turn of events took place, when Gen. Fulgencio Batista successfully staged a military coup, aided by the United States and Cuba’s middle class elites.
Batista established a dictatorial state which broke off relations with the Soviet Union while suppressing labor and leftist groups. Castro and his friends concluded that the only resort left was armed struggle. They attacked a military checkpoint and were captured. Castro was sentenced to 15 years in jail but pardoned after two. In 1955 he went into exile in Mexico, where he met Che Guevara, the revolutionary icon who was to become his comrade-in-arms.
They called themselves the 26th of July Movement, named for the date of their failed first action. They collected funds and supporters, mostly from U.S. leftists, trained in guerilla warfare and, in November 1956, embarked on their historic return to Cuba, sailing on an 18-meter-long yacht called Granma.
They were quickly joined by hundreds of volunteers. One of them was Dr. Ricardo Wolf, to whom Castro was greatly indebted. Wolf was a Jew born in Hanover, Germany. He was a Communist student who escaped to Cuba early in the century, fearing arrest in Germany. He became very rich after devising an invention that made the mining of iron more efficient.
After meeting Castro, he became one of his most ardent supporters, playing a key role in financing the revolution. After the revolution, Castro offered Wolf a cabinet post but Wolf declined, asking instead to become Cuba’s ambassador to Israel. He died of old age at his home in Herzliya in 1981 and his estate provides the funds for the international Wolf Prize, awarded annually in Israel to distinguished scientists and artists.
Castro’s small but determined forces started winning battles against Batista’s forces, leading to waves of defecting soldiers joining the revolution. On January 1, 1959, the tyrant fled Cuba and Castro’s forces occupied Havana.
The Bay of Pigs fiasco
Ironically, Castro’s first overture to a major political power was directed at the United States. He arrived in Washington, D.C. in April 1959, but President Eisenhower preferred to keep a prior golfing engagement (which may have only been an excuse), and sent Vice President Richard Nixon to meet the new Cuban ruler.
The deterioration in U.S.-Cuban relations gathered momentum when Castro nationalized the large U.S. companies that dominated Cuba’s economy. In retaliation, American oil refineries on the island refused to supply oil to the Cuban economy, leading Castro to sign agreements for oil supplies with the Soviet Union. However, only after the failed coup attempt by the CIA in April 1961, by landing well-trained and armed Cuban exiles at the Bay of Pigs, did Castro declare Cuba to be a Communist state. During the 1960s, the United States repeatedly attempted to assassinate Castro, but all attempts failed.
Toward the end of 1962, the world faced the risk of another world war when Castro agreed to a request by Soviet leader Khrushchev to place midrange nuclear missiles in Cuba. American intelligence uncovered the affair, partly with the help of diplomat-spy Nir Baruch from the Israeli Embassy in Havana, as well as through photographs taken by spy planes.
President John F. Kennedy set up a naval blockade of the island. Castro appealed to the Soviet leader, asking him to launch nuclear strikes at the United States if it attacked Cuba, and the world held its breath. Ultimately, Khrushchev blinked first in this political poker game and the missiles were removed from Cuba in exchange for a U.S. promise not invade and occupy Cuba in the future.
The crisis left bad blood between the United States and Cuba that only started to thaw at the end of 2014.
Castro’s roosting in the Soviet camp and his role as one of the top leaders of the Third World led to a break in Cuba’s diplomatic ties with Israel after the Yom Kippur War in 1973. He vigorously supported the positions of the Palestine Liberation Organization, as well as backing the leaders of Libya and Syria.
He sharply and continuously criticized Israel’s policies. He allowed Israeli tourists to visit from the mid-1990s and the small Jewish community in Cuba was highly regarded by Castro.
No Holocaust denial
In 2010, he gave an interview to Jeff Goldberg, published in The Atlantic magazine, in which he stated, “There is no doubt that the Jewish people is the one which suffered most throughout history, and what maintained it during the long terrible years of exile was its culture and religion. Nothing can compare to the Holocaust.” He condemned the denial of the Holocaust by Iran and its then-president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Castro fell ill in 2006 while undergoing an operation to remove a tumor. For a long time it seemed that he would not recover. He temporarily transferred the reins of power to his brother Raúl, who was five years younger, and in 2008 made Raúl president. In 2011, he officially retired from politics and until his death occupied himself with reading and writing a column for the Granma newspaper.
He continued appearing at public events from time to time and, behind the scenes, continued to exert his influence on every subject. Despite Castro’s apparent retirement in recent years, Cuba will now be a different country. Only time will tell how this plays out.