How An Old Ri­val Re­assessed Cas­tro

The Star (St. Lucia) - - INTERNATIONAL - By Theodore Sorensen Re­print: thedai­ly­beast.com

The death of Cuba’s Fidel Cas­tro re­moves from the world stage a col­or­ful, charis­matic, con­tro­ver­sial fig­ure with whom I had three fas­ci­nat­ing en­coun­ters over a pe­riod of 25 years. In 1977, as an in­ter­na­tional lawyer in New York City, I was able to wan­gle an in­vi­ta­tion to Ha­vana dur­ing a tem­po­rary re­lax­ation of the em­bargo dur­ing the Carter ad­min­is­tra­tion. On be­half of sev­eral clients who hoped to cap­i­tal­ize on pos­si­ble trade deals (which were never struck), I had two meet­ings with Cas­tro, both late at night. (I have never un­der­stood why dic­ta­tors pre­fer to meet in their of­fices or homes well after mid­night.)

Eight years later, in New York City to at­tend a spe­cial United Na­tions Gen­eral As­sem­bly com­mem­o­rat­ing the 40th an­niver­sary of the UN found­ing, Cas­tro ad­dressed the Coun­cil on For­eign Re­la­tions, and we re­newed our pre­vi­ous con­tacts in the re­ceiv­ing line of that dis­tin­guished or­ga­ni­za­tion, on whose board I served.

In Oc­to­ber 2002, when Amer­i­can, Rus­sian, and Cuban par­tic­i­pants in 1962’s Cuban mis­sile cri­sis or­ga­nized an­other re­union in Ha­vana un­der the aus­pices of Har­vard and Brown uni­ver­si­ties (earlier “re­unions” had been held in the U.S., Moscow, and Ha­vana), Cas­tro not only hosted the ses­sion in Ha­vana—com­plete with a tour of the ac­tual mis­sile site—but hosted as well a luncheon for the prin­ci­pal mem­bers of the Amer­i­can del­e­ga­tion and a grand din­ner dance for all at­ten­dees at which my wife, Gil­lian, and I were seated at his ta­ble.

At each of th­ese oc­ca­sions, I had an op­por­tu­nity for (not sur­pris­ingly) lengthy ex­changes with Cas­tro, good-na­tured on both sides even when dis­agree­ing on our per­spec­tives and pol­icy views. I found him full of hu­mor as well as bom­bast, with a con­sis­tently good un­der­stand­ing of English and a keen in­ter­est in all things to do with Amer­ica and John F. Kennedy, whom I had served as an aide.

Dur­ing the sec­ond of my 1977 vis­its, I was hav­ing a luncheon dis­cus­sion with the di­rec­tor of the Cuban Sports Au­thor­ity about the pos­si­bil­ity of a heavy­weight match at Madi­son Square Gar­den (my client) be­tween a lead­ing Amer­i­can heavy­weight and the Olympic cham­pion from Cuba, when Cas­tro sud­denly walked in, seated him­self at our ta­ble, and be­gan amus­ing ban­ter with the sports di­rec­tor re­gard­ing the ri­valry in the in­tragov­ern­men­tal bas­ket­ball league com­pe­ti­tion be­tween their re­spec­tive of­fices. The di­rec­tor gen­tly chided El Pres­i­dente for us­ing, not al­ways sub­tly, both his im­pos­ing height and his awe­some ti­tle to in­tim­i­date the ref­eree.

What­ever the dif­fer­ences in our views on politics and hu­man rights, I found him to be an en­gag­ing, im­pres­sive, and in­tel­li­gent fig­ure in all of th­ese en­coun­ters—even as, in both the 1977 and 2002 con­ver­sa­tions, we of­fered starkly dif­fer­ent views of how the mis­sile cri­sis had un­folded and what it meant. When, in our first 1977 meet­ing, I pre­sented him with a copy of my first book, Kennedy, at the end of his open­ing mono­logue, he ge­nially said, “I want to read this! Why didn’t you say so be­fore?” I replied, “Be­cause I could not get a word in.” In my toast at his 2002 luncheon, when I teased him for his bit­ter ref­er­ence to Amer­i­cans in the ur­gent Oct. 27, 1962, mes­sage he had sent to Soviet Chair­man Nikita Khrushchev through the Soviet am­bas­sador in Ha­vana, urg­ing Khrushchev to use the mis­siles to erad­i­cate Amer­i­cans, his com­mand of English was suf­fi­cient to in­ter­rupt my toast: “This was only if you at­tacked!”

In hind­sight, I told him, I was pleased he had sent that mes­sage, be­cause it had alien­ated Khrushchev. Hav­ing been pre­ceded by the shoot-down of an Amer­i­can U-2 re­con­nais­sance air­craft over­fly­ing Cuba (a shoot-down Khrushchev had not au­tho­rized), Khrushchev saw the note as the “last straw” in per­suad­ing him that his en­tire “reck­less gam­ble” in Cuba had failed and in­duc­ing him to with­draw the mis­siles on that fi­nal 13th day of the cri­sis. At that 2002 din­ner dance, Cas­tro was as jovial as he had been 25 years earlier, but ap­peared a bit less en­er­getic; the ever-present Cuban cigar was no longer in his hand or mouth, and his speeches were shorter.

Ill­ness was be­gin­ning to take its toll. Yet all th­ese years, Fidel Cas­tro has been the very epit­ome of a sur­vivor. In his youth, the bearded guer­rilla leader sur­vived at­tempts by the Batista dic­ta­tor­ship to crush his rev­o­lu­tion in the Sierra Madre moun­tains. Soon after as­sum­ing the pres­i­dency, he sur­vived the at­tempt by a CIA-or­ga­nized, trained, and equipped army of Cuban ex­iles to in­vade at the Bay of Pigs and (they fool­ishly be­lieved) spark an up­ris­ing by any anti-Cas­tro Cubans who were not by then al­ready in prison or Mi­ami.

Kennedy rued the day he per­mit­ted him­self to be taken in by the false premises on which the CIA sold him that plan, and he grew over time to have a grudg­ing ad­mi­ra­tion for Cas­tro’s lead­er­ship skills (if not al­ways his or­a­tory). JFK and I were both present when a for­eign­pol­icy ex­pert pre­dicted with con­fi­dence that the “giants” of global diplo­macy at that time— French Pres­i­dent Charles de Gaulle, West Ger­man Chan­cel­lor Kon­rad Ade­nauer, Prime Min­is­ter of the United King­dom Harold Macmil­lan, pos­si­bly even Chair­man Mao, and Kennedy— would all be stand­ing long after this Cuban up­start was gone. All of those giants were long gone be­fore Cas­tro’s death.

Cas­tro sur­vived the tank­ing Com­mu­nist econ­omy in Cuba, which he blamed on the U.S. eco­nomic em­bargo; he sur­vived a va­ri­ety of CIA plots to elim­i­nate him as well as sab­o­tage the is­land; he sur­vived the dis­so­lu­tion of the Soviet Union, along with the trade and de­vel­op­ment as­sis­tance by which it sus­tained its cher­ished com­mu­nist out­post in the West­ern Hemi­sphere; and he sur­vived the Cuban mis­sile cri­sis of 1962. Cas­tro had lit­tle to do with the place­ment of the mis­siles on his is­land (and did not like that Khrushchev had done it secretly), and he had no say in their sud­den with­drawal. Cas­tro had wanted to con­di­tion their with­drawal on a se­ries of Amer­i­can com­pro­mises that we would prob­a­bly still be ne­go­ti­at­ing to­day if Khrushchev had agreed.

Not all rev­o­lu­tion­ary lead­ers suc­cess­fully take on the bur­dens of the pres­i­dency (as Yasir Arafat demon­strated). But Cas­tro sur­vived a va­ri­ety of do­mes­tic, po­lit­i­cal, and eco­nomic pres­sures and changes, con­tin­u­ing in­de­fati­ga­bly on and on. (It almost seemed his motto was “Sem­per Fidel!”) He was never a gen­uine threat to the na­tional se­cu­rity of the United States, de­spite his fail­ings on hu­man rights and his early in­ter­ven­tions in other Latin Amer­i­can and African coun­tries. For years, the Amer­i­can eco­nomic em­bargo has had lit­tle reason or ef­fect, ex­cept as a po­lit­i­cal sop to the older gen­er­a­tion of Cuban- Amer­i­cans in Mi­ami who still hoped to re­turn and take over the coun­try. But it pe­nal­ized Amer­i­can ex­porters, farm­ers, and tourists whose place was taken by our eco­nomic com­peti­tors from other coun­tries in both hemi­spheres and by for­eign trav­el­ers who en­joyed the splen­dor of Cuban beaches.

To­day, with more thought­ful and flex­i­ble for­eign-pol­icy lead­er­ship in Wash­ing­ton— and a more re­al­is­tic younger gen­er­a­tion of Cuban-Amer­i­cans in Mi­ami—it will be in­ter­est­ing to see who and what emerge in Ha­vana to re­place Fidel Cas­tro and his poli­cies. The only cer­tainty is that it would be ab­surd and coun­ter­pro­duc­tive for the United States to dic­tate who should lead Cuba in the post-Cas­tro era. In my 2002 visit, I had an op­por­tu­nity to meet mod­er­ates and mod­ernists in the Cas­tro regime, which gave me hope that a new day will dawn in which diplo­matic and eco­nomic ties will fi­nally be nor­mal­ized.

Cas­tro’s dis­torted view of lib­erty mat­ters very lit­tle now. The king­dom of heaven is by def­i­ni­tion no democ­racy (as­sum­ing that is where he is). But he will feel right at home in con­tin­u­ing his way of mak­ing speeches that seem to his au­di­ence like they will last an eter­nity. Ed­i­tor’s note: At about the time Fidel Cas­tro re­lin­quished the Cuban pres­i­dency to his brother Raúl in 2008, the late Ted Sorensen—ad­vi­sor to Pres­i­dent John F. Kennedy and the au­thor of some of his most fa­mous speeches—wrote this rem­i­nis­cence about Fidel to be held un­til the dic­ta­tor’s pass­ing. On Fri­day night, Cuban state tele­vi­sion an­nounced that the old rev­o­lu­tion­ary had died at the age of 90. Sorensen him­self died in 2010, be­fore the nor­mal­iza­tion of re­la­tions with Cuba had be­gun.

Cuba’s leg­endary po­lit­i­cal leader Fidel Cas­tro has died at age 90. His fu­neral is set to take place to­mor­row (Sun­day).

Thou­sands of Cuban res­i­dents flooded the streets of Ha­vana to pay trib­ute to the late Fidel Cas­tro on Tues­day.

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