Cuban revolutionary and leader Fidel Castro died late Friday, Nov. 25, 2016, at the age of 90, and his cremation is to be held Saturday. The man who held his own against the United States for five decades lived a remarkable life.
Four months after leading the Cuban Revolution to victory against the military dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959, Fidel Castro, black-bearded and sporting military fatigues, came to the U.S., shook hands with Vice President Richard Nixon and declared that he was not a Communist.
“I know the world thinks of us, we are Communists, and of course I have said very clear that we are not Communists," Castro said at a press conference in Washington, D.C., hoping to garner American support for his new government, and more importantly, capital investments.
The Cold War was quickly escalating, and the U.S. was not concerned that the Communists would gain power in Cuba given the leftist leanings of prominent revolutionaries Ernesto “Che” Guevara and Castro’s brother Raul.
President Dwight Eisenhower refused to meet with the newly christened Cuban leader during his 11-day visit, delegating the responsibility to his vice president.
Nixon met with Castro briefly at his Washington office in a three-hour conference during which the two discussed the Cuban leader’s policies for his country, including his plans for agrarian reform, his belief that the Cuban people “did not want elections,” and his neutral stance on America’s rivalry with the Soviet Union.
In a secret memo (now de-classified) to President Eisenhower, Nixon expressed his concern that Castro was “either incredibly naive about Communism or under Communist discipline.”
“My guess is the former,” Nixon added.
Nevertheless, Nixon concluded that Castro had “those indefinable qualities which make him a leader of men.”
“Whatever we may think of him he is going to be a great factor in the development of Cuba and very possibly in Latin American affairs generally,” he wrote.
Nixon was right on both counts.
Birth of a Revolutionary
Castro was born Aug. 13, 1926, near the town of Biran in the eastern portion of Cuba. His father Angel Castro y Argiz was a wealthy sugar plantation owner that had been born into a poor peasant family in Spain. His mother Lina Ruz Gonzalez was a maid in the elder Castro’s household who gave birth to him out of wedlock.
It was not until Castro reached age 15 that he was recognized as a legitimate son, when his father dissolved his marriage to his first wife and married Ruz.
Castro grew up in a privileged setting, attending private boarding schools and later college. While studying law at the University of Havana in the mid-1940s, Castro developed an interest in politics and became heavily involved in the student movements protesting government corruption and social inequalities.
While still in school, he traveled to the Dominican Republic in the summer of 1947 to participate in the overthrow the military dictator Rafael Trujillo, planting the seed of his inclination toward armed rebellion, though the coup was ultimately aborted before it began.
After receiving his doctorate in law in 1950, Castro began pursuing politics as a member of the Cuban People’s Party, officially known as the Ortodoxo Party, a staunchly anti-communist political group focused on ending government corruption through constitutional reform.
Castro planned to run for congress in 1952, but his political ambitions were dashed when presidential candidate Batista, who had previously served as president from 1940 to 1944, took power in a military coup after it became clear that the Ortodoxo candidate was expected to win the presidency.
Batista strengthened the military, built up ties with the country’s economic elite as well as the Italian mafia, and received the backing of the U.S.
Acknowledging the futility of the political process in Cuba under Batista, Castro opted for armed rebellion.
On July 26, 1953, Castro, his brother Raul, and around 150 other rebels -- mostly laborers and farm workers -- led an attack on the Moncada military barracks in Santiago, though the assault failed and Castro and Raul were captured and later sentenced to 15 years in prison.
The date of the failed coup would later be adopted as the name of the revolutionary movement, Movimeiento 26 Julio (“July 26 Movement”), or M-26, that would eventually topple Batista.
Castro and Raul were later released in 1955 under an amnesty deal after Batista was officially elected president in rigged elections the previous year.
The brothers departed for Mexico with other members of the M-26 to begin planning another attempt to overthrow Batista. It was there, Castro met Che Guevara, and gathered 81 men to return to Cuba by boat in December of 1956.
Through a campaign of guerilla warfare, Castro and the M-26 slowly expanded its control across Cuba, and in January of 1959, Batista fled the country.
The Path To Socialism
Nixon’s assessment of Castro as a long-term preeminent figure in Cuba was correct and perhaps a bit obvious in hindsight.
What he observed in Castro was a desire to lead through a tight grip on power, and he understood that that control could take many forms, not least of socialism.
Castro enacted his agrarian reform a month after his U.S. visit, expropriating property from wealthy landowners and redistributing to peasant farmers, though it remained under state control.
More irksome to the U.S., Castro banned any foreign private land holdings. American companies were compensated based on the undervalued property assessments that they had encouraged during the Batista regime to pay lower tax rates.
Castro continued to appoint Marxists to senior government posts, including Che Guevara as head of Cuba’s central bank and Minister of Industries despite his lack of economic experience.
Relations with the U.S. quickly turned south when Castro established trade relations with the Soviet Union.
The U.S. government pressured American refineries in Cuba to refuse to take in oil shipped in from the Soviets, so Castro kicked the Americans out nationalized the refineries. In response, the U.S. scrapped its trade agreement on maintaining a quota for sugar imports from Cuba. Relations only continued to deteriorate.
In March of 1960, President Eisenhower secretly authorized the CIA to begin planning an invasion of Cuba, though the plan would be carried out by the administration of President John F. Kennedy.
Before Eisenhower left office, he broke off diplomatic relations with Cuba in January of 1961 and three months later, on April 16, Castro formally declared Cuba a socialist state.
The following day, around 1,500 Cuban exiles trained and armed by the CIA attempted to invade Cuba by landing at the Bay of Pigs, which ended in disaster and further solidified Castro’s hold on power, his popularity among the Cuban people, and his ties with the Soviets.
In an attempt to deter another invasion, Castro agreed to allow the Soviets place nuclear missiles on the island, which almost brought the world in to the brink of nuclear war in what became known as the “Cuban Missile Crisis” when U.S. discovered the installation of missile silos in October of 1962.
President Kennedy and the Soviet Premier Nikita Kruschev struck a backdoor deal, leaving Castro out of negotiations, in which they agreed to withdraw missiles from Turkey and Cuba, respectively and that the U.S. would not attempt another invasion of Cuba.
Castro at the Top
In the decades following the missile crisis, Castro expanded his socialist policies in Cuba with continued support from the Soviet Union, while remaining economically isolated by the U.S.
Castro expanded education and healthcare to most of the Cuban people, while further eroding democratic freedoms and eliminating any political opposition through iron-fisted tactics, including executions, imprisonment, and exile.
Cuba did not develop as rapidly as Castro had envisioned, and suffered numerous economic setbacks over the years, particularly with the collapse of the Soviet Union toward the end of the ‘80s.
Prior to that, Castro had strengthened ties with other leftist government in Latin America and around the world, supporting socialist movements with military and economic aid.
Castro remained the target of repeated assassination attempts by both the CIA and Cuban dissidents, his persistent survival adding to the aura of his perceived invulnerability.
It wasn’t until the new millennium that old age and declining health would begin to do the job that U.S. had in the past put so many resources into achieving.
After nearly half a century in power, Castro stepped down as president of Cuba in 2008 at age 81, handing over the reins of government to his brother Raul who was 76 at the time.
Castro continued to be a symbolic figurehead of the revolution in the following years, receiving foreign guests and publishing a regular column in the state-run newspaper, until it seemed that his writings were no longer comprehensible amid his fading health and cognizance.
In his final entry for his “Reflections” column posted in June 20, 2012, in the Granma newspaper -- or at least the last one it was willing to publish -- the Commandante imparted some cryptic wisdom about the universe and humankind’s place in it.
“I respect all religions, although I do not share them. Human beings seek explanations for their existence, from the most ignorant to the wisest,” he wrote.
“Science is constantly seeking to explain the laws which govern the universe. At this very moment, they see it during a period of expansion which began some 13.7 billion years ago.”