Former Cuban Leader Fidel Castro Dies At Age 90


Former Cuban leader Fidel Castro has died at age 90, according to Cuban state media, confirms NPR.

Castro, who took power in the Cuban revolution in 1959, led his country for nearly 50 years.

After undergoing intestinal surgery, Castro had ceded power in July 2006, to his younger brother Raul, who announced his death late Friday on Cuban state television.

Under Fidel Castro's direction, Cuba became the one and only communist state in the Western Hemisphere.

One of the most prominent international figures in the last half of the 20th century, Castro inspired both passionate love and hate. Many who later lost faith in him can remember how they once admired the man who needed just a dozen men to launch the Cuban revolution.

"He was not a corrupt politician as in the past we used to have," says Domingo Amuchastegui, who was a diplomat in Castro's government until he fled Cuba in 1994. "He was a very promising, courageous, dedicated, intelligent kind of people — an excellent fighter, a man willing to risk his life for his ideas."

Fidel Castro talks with Ed Sullivan, television variety show host and N.Y. Daily News columnist, Jan. 6, 1959.

Harold Valentine/AP

A Young Rebel

Fidel Castro got involved in revolutionary politics while still a teenager. In his 20s, as a young lawyer, he began organizing a movement to overthrow Fulgencio Batista, Cuba's military dictator.

After leading a foolhardy effort to take over a military barracks, Castro captured the imagination of the Cuban people, and by the time Batista fled the country on Jan. 1, 1959, the charismatic 32-year-old rebel had much of the country behind him, rich and poor alike.

"Most of the upper classes in Cuba supported the revolution and right after 1959 helped it out — paid their taxes, which they never paid," and made financial contributions, says Alfredo Duran, who was a college student from a prosperous Havana family. Society women even volunteered as nurses, he says.

Even the U.S. government, long Batista's key ally, had turned against him at the end and cautiously welcomed Castro as Cuba's new leader.

Castro Goes To Washington

On a visit to Washington in April 1959, Castro presented himself as a political moderate. A highlight of his trip was a guest appearance on NBC's Meet the Press, where he reassured those who feared he might be a communist and made a promise he would never fulfill.

"Democracy is my idea," he said. "I [do] not agree with communists... What we want is to get as soon as possible the condition for free election," he said, adding that the process would not take more than four years.

If Castro wanted to make a good impression on his American hosts, however, he also wanted to show he had come to the United States on his own terms.

Castro did not get invited to the White House on that 1959 trip — and that was just fine with him, according to the late Ernesto Betancourt, who accompanied Castro to Washington as his first foreign trade director.

"A lot has been said that Fidel was hurt because [President] Eisenhower went to play golf and didn't have lunch with him ... that's nonsense," Betancourt recalled in a 2003 interview with NPR. "Fidel, even when he was told by the ambassador that the meeting was arranged with Vice President Nixon at the time, Fidel got very annoyed because he didn't want any official meetings."

In fact, that 1959 trip would be the only one Castro ever made to Washington. Like many Cuban nationalists, Castro was deeply distrustful of the United States, which had dominated Cuba ever since the country gained its independence from Spain.

In 1958, Castro had told a confidante that his rebellion against Batista would be followed by "a longer and bigger war" against the Americans. That, Castro said, will be my "true destiny."

Confronting The U.S.

In his 2003 interview with NPR, Betancourt said that Castro's view of the United States was shaped by what he saw as a child. Castro grew up on his father's farm in eastern Cuba, where most of the nearby land belonged to a U.S.-owned corporation, the United Fruit Company.

Castro saw a "second-class citizenship" within this colonial enclave, Betancourt said. For example, a club for American mill workers largely excluded Cubans who wanted to swim or play tennis.

Once Castro was established in power, he expropriated U.S.-owned property in Cuba and took an increasingly hostile attitude toward the United States. Within four months of his trip to Washington, the Eisenhower administration had drawn up a plan to overthrow Castro.

He aligned himself instead with Cuba's poor — who saw their rents reduced and utility bills cut, and who benefited from the construction of new schools and hospitals around the country.

"A lot of people who had been left out for many years took advantage of that to say, 'Now is our time under the sun,' " says Duran, the former college student in Havana who is now a Cuban exile.

But Duran and other middle-class Cubans, professionals and businessmen soon became alarmed by the country's new radical direction.

Castro smokes a cigar during his meeting with two U.S. senators, the first to visit Castro's Cuba, in Havana on Sept. 29, 1974.


"Unfortunately, it turned out bad," Duran says. "It turned out that this guy had such an ego ... and wanted so much power and wanted to be an international figure that he embraced the communists and the Soviet Union."

Duran was among several hundred thousand Cubans who fled to Miami. He later fought in the U.S.-supported Bay of Pigs rebellion, the first of many efforts by Cuban exiles and their U.S. government backers to remove Castro from power.

A Ruthless Autocrat

Historians debate to this day whether Castro was a communist from the time he took power, or only became one after he was spurned by the United States.

What is not disputed is that from his earliest days in politics, Castro was an autocrat who moved ruthlessly against anyone who dared oppose him. More than 400 of his political enemies were executed by firing squad in his first 90 days in power.

As Cuba's leader over the next 40-plus years, Castro answered to no one and allowed no challenge to his authority. Amuchastegui, who was with him often while serving in the Cuban foreign ministry, says Castro sought advice when making a decision but in the end did things his own way.

"Once he became convinced of any of these projects, despite whatever evidence, despite whatever arguments against that project, he stood by his convictions and he would go on and on regardless of everything and everyone," Amuchastegui says.

Some of Castro's biographers think his stubbornness came from the years he spent in strict Catholic boarding schools. He was a born rebel; unlike his brother Raul, Fidel Castro was never close to his family — not to his parents, not to his wives, not to his children.

He did not hesitate to order the arrest of former friends and associates if he suspected they were conspiring against him. He set up an immense security apparatus to keep him in power.

And yet, Castro was not interested in personal enrichment; he deployed his enormous authority on behalf of health, education and welfare programs that brought Cuba attention around the world.

Near the peak of his international popularity, in October 1979, Castro addressed the U.N. General Assembly on behalf of the 94 countries in the "nonaligned" movement. Castro told the U.N. delegates that if they were to talk about human rights, they should talk also about the rights of humanity.

Castro takes part in a public rally in honor of the Cuban nationals killed in terrorist attacks on Feb. 6, 2006. Castro resigned on February 19, 2008 as president and commander in chief of Cuba.  Adalberto Roque/AFP/Getty Images

"Why do some people have to go barefoot, so that others can drive luxury cars? Why are some people able to live only 35 years, in order that others can live 70 years? Why do some people have to be miserably poor, in order that others can be extravagantly rich? I speak for all the children in the world who don't even have a piece of bread!"

'A Complex Figure'

But interest in Castro's Cuban model declined once the flaws of his centrally planned socialist system became obvious. The collapse of the Soviet bloc ended the massive subsidies that had kept the Cuban economy afloat. The once-vaunted education and health care system fell into disrepair.

Castro's stubbornness, meanwhile, made political and economic change difficult in Cuba. As his country crumbled around him, Castro's stature diminished, abroad and at home.

"Had Fidel died in 1985, he would have seemed like a much more impressive figure with a much more substantial legacy," says Jorge Dominguez of Harvard University, who followed Castro for many years.

As it is, Dominguez gives Castro at best mixed marks. The leader who wanted to uplift the poor and educate the illiterate was also a megalomaniac, determined to hold on to power at all costs.

"He also ordered the imprisonment and abuse of hundreds of thousands of people during the course of his career," Dominguez says. "That's what makes him such a complex figure. When he did things for good, he did a great deal of good. And when he did things for bad, he did a great deal of bad."

When Castro's brother Raul finally took over, he maintained the system that his older brother had built, but he did institute changes. Raul Castro opened up the economy a bit, allowing Cubans to own small private businesses. And in his most dramatic move, Raul Castro and President Obama announced in December 2014 that the two countries would move to normalize relations, including opening embassies in both countries.

In the end, Fidel Castro outlasted U.S. presidents determined to overthrow him, survived the collapse of the communist bloc that sustained him and outlived many of those who wanted to replace him. For those reasons, he will go down as one of the world's most skilled politicians, even if his achievements largely die with him.

Castro's Speeches

Listen to selected quotes from the Cuban leader through the years.

In the United States, we are fed by propaganda that says Fidel Castro was the incarnate of Satan himself, when the opposite may be true.  But being human myself, I say there is a reason for every human act.  Stephen Kinzer in The Brothers: John “Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles, and Their Secret World War (2013) helps with understanding the who of—what of—why of US-Cuban relations.

Kinzer posits that Cuba holds a unique place in the American imagination.  It lies so close to the United States and offers such rich resources and strategic advantage that it long seemed a natural candidate for annexation to the United States.  Presidents since Thomas Jefferson have coveted it.  For much of the twentieth century Cuba remained a quasi-colony of the of the United States.  During the 1950s, the last of its pliant dictators, Fulgencio Batista, struck lucrative deals with American gangsters, who built lavish hotels and casinos, fill them with American tourists, and turned Havana into the most garishly sinful city in the hemisphere.

American businesses dominated the country.  They owned most of its sugar plantations—two of the largest belonged to United Fruit—and were heavily invested in oil, railroads, utilities, mining, and cattle ranching.  Eighty percent of Cuban imports came from the United States.  When International Telephone & Telegraph asked Batista to approve a steep rate hike in 1957, John Foster Dulles sent a message advising him that the increase would serve “the interests of Cuba.”  Batista approved it.  In a vivid display of gratitude—the scene became a centerpiece of the film The Godfather, Part II—executives from ITT presented him with a golden telephone.

Although most Americans could not or would not see it, Cuba’s corrupt tyranny was increasingly unpopular.  During 1958 Castro’s guerrillas won a series of victories.  On the last day of the year, Batista resigned.  Before dawn on January 1, 1959, he fled to the Dominican Republic, taking several hundred million dollars with him.  A week later, after a jubilant trip across the island, Castro arrived in Havana and began a political career that would shape world history.

Three months later Castro made his tumultuous trip to the United States.  The nascent counterculture embraced him.  Allen Ginsberg and Malcolm X came to his hotel in Harlem.  Supporters cheered outside.  One carried a sign reading: MAN, LIKE US CATS DIG FIDEL THE MOST—HE KNOWS WHAT’S HIP AND WHAT BUGS THE SQUARES.

After returning home, Castro gave a speech scorning Vice President Nixon, the highest-ranking American he met, as “an impenitent disciple of gloomy and obstinate Forster Dulles.”  Soon afterward he confiscated hundreds of millions of dollars in American investments, grievously wounding the investment bank of Sullivan & Cromwell clients as well as gangsters like Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky.  He imprisoned thousands of suspected counter-revolutionaries, including some with close ties to the United States, and executed several hundred.

On January 15 Allen Dulles as the Special Group (CIA)—the secret body that reviewed covert operations—for authorization to begin plotting against Castro.  President Eisenhower said he would favor any plot to “throw Castro out” because he was a “madman.”  By mid-January, the CIA had eighteen officers in Washington and another twenty-two in Cuba designing “proposed Cuba operations.”

Eisenhower launched the anti-Castro operation with determination and focused enthusiasm.  He gave his order directly to Allen and CIA operative Richard Bissell.  “There was informal but understood short cut in the chain of command,” an internal CIA history later concluded.  “Basic decisions were made at the Presidential level.”

Allen presented “A Program of Covert Action Against the Castro Regime,” written by Bissell, to a combined meeting of the Special Group and the National Security council on March 17, 1960.  It proposed a multistage operation “to bring about the replacement of the Castro regime with one more devoted to the interests of the Cuban people and more acceptable to the US, in such a manner as to avoid any appearance of US intervention.”  The CIA would build a covert network inside Cuba, saturate the island with anti-Castro propaganda, infiltrate small terms of guerrilla fighters, use them to set off a domestic uprising, and provide a “responsible, appealing and unified” new regime.

Eisenhower asked several questions, then said he could imagine “no better plan” and approved.  He insisted on one condition: American involvement must be kept strictly secret.

“The great problem is leakage and breach of security,” he said.  “Everyone must be prepared to swear he has not heard of it.”  With that, Eisenhower made the overthrow of Castro an official though secret U>S> policy goal.  Something else, almost as momentous, emerged from the meeting.  Allen spoke first, but when there were questions, he deferred to Bissell.  It was an early sign that Allen would not supervise this operation as he had one in Iran in 1953.


Bissell had overseen development of the U-2 spy plane, but his more relevant experience was running the theatrical “rebel air force” that had helped push Jacobo Arbenz from power in Guatemala in 1954.  Most of the officers he assembled for his anti-Castro operation were also veterans of the Guatemala campaign.  Jacob Esterline had directed the Washington end of Guatemala coup and afterward became CIA station chief in Guatemala.  However, all had enough experience to recognize the considerable differences between Guatemala an 1954 and Cuba in 1960.


One of Castro’s closest comrades, Che Guevara, had been in Guatemala in 1954 and witnessed the coup against Arbenz.  Later he told Castro why it succeeded.  He said Arbenz had foolishly tolerated an open society, which the CIA penetrated and subverted, and also preserved the existing army, which the CIA turned into its instrument.  Castro agreed that a revolutionary regime in Cuba must avoid those mistakes.  Upon taking power, he cracked down on dissent and purged the army.  Many Cubans supported his regime and were ready to defend it.  All of this made a prospect of deposing him daunting indeed.

Quietly, but watched closely by Castro’s spies, CIA officers fanned out through the Cuban sections of Miami, where anti-Castro fervor ran hot.  They recruited a handful of exiles to serve as the political front for a counterrevolutionary movement, and dozens more who wanted to fight.  The would-be guerrillas were brought to camps in Florida, Puerto Rico, Guatemala, and the Panama Canal Zone and trained in tactics ranging from air assault to underwater demolition.

Tensions between Havana and Washington rose steadily.  Cuba recognized the People’s Republic of China and signed a trade agreement with the Soviet Union.  Tankers carrying Soviet petroleum arrived in Cuba.  American oil companies refused to refine it.  Castro nationalized the recalcitrant companies.  The United States stooped buying most Cuban sugar.  Cuba began selling sugar to the Soviets.


No, Fidel Castro Wasn't Nearly A New York Yankee


Cuban revolutionary leader Fidel Castro playing baseball. Keystone/Getty Images

The late Cuban dictator Fidel Castro loved baseball. And you may have heard that he was such a good player that years before the Cuban revolution, he tried out for the New York Yankees in Havana.

Or not. This myth has persisted for years, and though it might be fun to contemplate the historical consequences of this "What if?" scenario, Adrian Burgos Jr., University of Illinois history professor and author of Playing America's Game: Baseball, Latinos and the Color Line, says it simply didn't happen.

"He didn't try out for the Yankees," Burgos tells NPR's David Greene.

It's possible Castro went to an open tryout held by the Washington Senators in Havana, Burgos says, but he was not "at the level of a talented Cuban ballplayer where the scouts went looking for him."

Interview Highlights

On teams that were active – and weren't – in Cuba before the revolution, which began in 1953

The Yankees weren't active in Cuba to scout any talent. They weren't active in Latin America until the 1960s. So it wasn't the Yankees. It was the Washington Senators and the New York Giants, right across the river from the Yankees, that were the most active teams in Cuba.

On what the myth says about baseball in Cuba

It says a lot about baseball in both Cuba and in the United States. One of the fascinating dimensions of this is that Castro very much loved baseball, he used baseball in a Cuban tradition of politics — that Los Barbudos [the Bearded Ones, Castro's own baseball team made up of revolutionaries] played before exhibition game[s] in Cuba during professional seasons.

He wanted to share with the Cuban people that he, too, was a fellow Cuban, he loved baseball. Baseball is such an ingrained part of Cuban identity that he and the other military leaders and even someone like [Cuban revolutionary] Che Guevara had to learn how to play baseball.

On what Castro did to dispel the myth

Fidel Castro enjoyed the myth of him having been a real Major League Baseball prospect and he would not have knocked that down in the least.

Kinzer writes that not everyone agreed with Eisenhower and the Dulles brothers.  “The thing we should never do in dealing with revolutionary countries, in which the world abounds, is to push them behind an iron curtain raised by ourselves,” Walter Lippmann warned in a column after the withdrawal of the Sugar Kings.  “On the contrary, even when they have been seduced and subverted and are drawn across the line, the right thing to do is to keep the way open for their return.”


George Friedman in The Next 100 Years: Where We’ve Been…And Where We’re Going (2011) reports that the key to American policy in Latin America has always been that that for the United States to become concerned, two elements would have to coverage: a strategically significant area (of which there are few in the region) would have to be in the hands of a power able to use it to pose a threat.  The Monroe Doctrine was proclaimed in order to make it clear that just such an eventuality was the single unacceptable geopolitical development as far as the United States was concerned.

Early in the nineteenth century, American prosperity was founded on the river system that enabled farmers in Louisiana and Ohio territories to ship their agricultural output to the East Coast and Europe.  Because a naval force in Cuba could control the sea-lanes in and out of the Gulf of Mexico and thereby could control New Orleans, the United States has always been obsessed with the island. 

Andrew Jackson contemplated invading it, and in 1898 the United States intervened to drive out the Spaniards.  A half century later, when a pro-Soviet government emerged there under Fidel Castro, Cuba became a centerpiece of U.S. strategy.  An anti-American Cuba with Soviet missiles was a mortal threat.

Friedman predicts that toward the decade ahead, Cuba has no great power patron, so the president can craft his Cuban policy in response to American political opinion.  But he must bear in mind that if the United States faces a global competitor, Cuba will be the geographic point at which that competitor can put the greatest pressure on the United States.  This makes Cuba the prize it will aim for.

In the long run, bringing Cuba back under American influence is a rational, preemptive policy, and it is highly desirable to do so before a global competitor emerges to raise the stakes and the price.  Fidel and Raul Castro will die or retire during the decade we’re considering, and the political and intelligence elites who control the island are both younger and more cynical than the founding generation of the Castro regime.

Rather than gambling on whether they can survive the deaths of the founders, they will be open to accommodation, amenable to deals that allow them to retain their position while granting America increasing power over their foreign policy.  The transition will be the moment for the United States to try to deal.  Before the Castros leave power they might be open to a deal that preserves their legacy while conceding to American influence.

If that fails, the insecurity of the transition might be the moment to approach their heirs.  The American interest is simple and has nothing to do with human rights or regime change.  It is to have guarantees that regardless of future challenges, Cuba will not become a base for foreign powers.  Having achieved that, the United States will have achieved much.

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Comment by mary gravitt on December 1, 2016 at 2:06pm

Fidel Castro did more for the Cuban people than any pretense from the United States.  The death of Fidel may mean the end of 50 years of freedom from the monster to the North of Cuba.  Even at his death he did more that any Latin American country can claim: He held off the most powerful army in the world without firing a shot and as one Cuban said, "In spite of all the assassination plots coming from the US, died when he wanted to die."

Only your body had died, Brother.  Your spirit of Revolution, in spite of Capitalist lies, lives on.

Comment by Jonathan Wolfman on December 1, 2016 at 7:54pm

Complex man, complex history. Thank you for sharing these pieces of it.


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