As a teenager, he once wrote to a US President congratulating him on his re-election and requesting a $10 bill because he “had never seen one and would like to have one of them”, but within a few decades, turned to be the nearest but most long-lasting bugbear for a whole series of American Presidents, who tried their best to dislodge or eliminate him. But the Commandante saw all of them fall flat.
When Fidel Castro took power in Cuba, Eisenhower was US President, Khruschev ran the Soviet Union, Jawaharlal Nehru was India’s Prime Minister and the Berlin Wall was yet to be built. He would go on to outlast all of them, and many others too, while building a Left-leaning system that has stood the test of time while others of the ilk collapsed, but also went on to inspire the whole Latin American region – though the ‘Pink Tide’ is currently on wane.
In his almost half-century rule, Castro dealt with ten US presidents (down to George W. Bush – whom he termed the worst of all, while living through Barack Obama’s tenure and Donald Trump’s shock victory). He had personal and friendly relations with Nehru, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Josef Tito, Willy Brandt, Yasser Arafat, Indira Gandhi (his “dear sister”, whom he once surprised with a bear hug), Salvador Allende, Mikhail Gorbachev, Pope John Paul II, King Juan Carlos of Spain, Nelson Mandela, Pierre Trudeau and more, as well as the likes of Jean-Paul Sartre, Ernest Hemingway, Graham Greene, Pablo Neruda, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Robert Redford, Jack Nicholson, Steven Spielberg, Oliver Stone and Diego Maradonna.
Stepping down from power “temporarily” in 2006 and fully in 2008, he was well among the most influential revolutionary-statesmen of the 20th century as well the last of a generation of mythical insurgents that included the likes of Ho Chi Minh, Nelson Mandela, Patrice Lumumba, and others, among the most recognisable – due to his burly, bearded, uniformed appearance – and certainly one of the most polarising.
His critics blame him for nearly leading the world into a nuclear war (the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962), repression, and destabilising not only the Caribbean and the Latin American region but a faraway continent by exporting revolution (and soldiers) to Angola, Mozambique and Ethiopia. On the other hand, there are those who praise him for his social and health reforms on his impoverished and exploited homeland, for steadfastly opposing imperialism and inequitable globalisation (which he called to oppose by all means save violence, strengthening the Non-Alignment movement, and credit him (Mandela among them) with expediting demise of the South African apartheid regime, through its defeat of its elite army in the Angolan Civil War, where Cuban troops were actively playing their part.
But even some of his fiercest critics do acknowledge than he never used his position to enrich himself or his family, ever encouraged a cult of personality – like the one that grew around his friend and associate ‘Che’ Guevara, save his habit of long, impromptu speeches (made without notes and displaying an astonishing grasp of current happenings and drawing from various disciplines). Marquez, who knew him well, described his addresses, “as inspiration, an irresistible, blinding state of grace, which is only denied by those who have not had the glorious experience of living through it”.
Despite all the assassination and coup attempts inspired by the Americans – and not getting the $10 dollar note though he did receive a reply, which he was proud of, Castro never displayed any rancour against his powerful neighbours (one biographer notes he had a bust of Abraham Lincoln in his office), meeting various members of the Kennedy family, and inviting former President Jimmy Carter to visit Cuba and speak his mind. (Carter did take up the invitation and both also opened a baseball game together).
The Commandante was a undoubtedly contradictory character – hailing from a relatively well-to-do family but while driving a tractor on his father’s plantation, attempting to rally the other field hands in order to demand better working conditions, and studying in religious schools for the wealthy elite, but going to become an atheist and uncompromising revolutionary.
In a lengthy series of interviews to French academician and author Ignacio Ramonet in the early 2000s that became nearest to an autobiography he would write, he admitted with his background, he could have well become conservative in outlook but made himself into a revolutionary, starting as a rebel when six or seven, not against his father but “authority”. He, however, had all respect for his parents, praising his father’s achievements and generosity, while also crediting his mother who ensured he and his siblings had all they wanted, but never spoiling them.
What could be his legacy? Ramonet cites maintaining Cuba’s sovereignty while ensuring housing and education, abolishing racism, emancipating women, eradicating illiteracy, drastically reducing infant mortality, and higher level of general knowledge.