CityPress - - Front Page - PHOTO: CHARLES TASNADI / AP

In this March 1985 file photo, Cuban leader Fidel Castro ex­hales cigar smoke dur­ing an in­ter­view at the pres­i­den­tial palace in Ha­vana. Castro has died at the age of 90. Pres­i­dent Raúl Castro said on state tele­vi­sion that his older brother died late on Fri­day night

Dur­ing a state visit to Cuba in 2002, former pres­i­dent Thabo Mbeki and his team were whisked from one im­pres­sive project to the next as re­mark­able in­no­va­tions were shown off. Dur­ing the pre­sen­ta­tions, Cuba’s then pres­i­dent, Fidel Castro, was given to in­ter­rupt­ing the speak­ers – sci­en­tists, en­gi­neers and ex­perts – so that he could ex­plain the in­no­va­tions bet­ter than they could.

Such was his grasp of minu­tiae. And he did so in much more de­tail, and in the style of po­lit­i­cal or­a­tory.

When mov­ing from one venue to the next, Castro would in­sist on jump­ing into the back seat of Mbeki’s car so that they could use all the time they had to­gether to dis­cuss rev­o­lu­tion and world af­fairs. Cuban of­fi­cials say he was taken in by the in­tel­lect and vi­sion of the younger man who, they said, re­minded him of his more youth­ful self.

Castro’s de­sire for around-the-clock in­ter­ac­tion wore Mbeki out, de­priv­ing him of a chance to re­flect and take in the sights of Ha­vana.

What par­tic­u­larly ex­cited Castro was that Mbeki was the pi­o­neer of the New Part­ner­ship for Africa’s Devel­op­ment – an ini­tia­tive spear­headed by the African Union to re­boot the con­ti­nent and re­shape its re­la­tion­ship with the world.

Ever the in­ter­na­tion­al­ist, Castro was ex­hil­er­ated about this, es­pe­cially since it had the po­ten­tial to be­gin un­shack­ling Africa from the “im­pe­ri­al­ist” West.

To him, this was an­other step in the anti-im­pe­ri­al­ist rev­o­lu­tion with which he had been in­ti­mately in­volved since tak­ing power in Cuba in 1959. Africa’s in­de­pen­dence strug­gles, and now its devel­op­ment, had al­ways been close to the heart of El Co­man­dante.

Castro – or sim­ply Fidel, as he was called by his peo­ple – so breathed rev­o­lu­tion that few could ut­ter the word with­out pic­tur­ing him, his comrade Che Gue­vara and the na­tion of Cuba. This rev­o­lu­tion­ary streak was one he de­vel­oped as a young stu­dent from the mon­eyed classes who turned his back on priv­i­lege to fight the dic­ta­tor­ship of Ful­gen­cio Batista.

The first at­tempt by Castro and his lit­tle band of stu­dent rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies was dis­as­trous.

An at­tack on an army base was solidly re­pelled. Seventy of his men were killed and oth­ers were im­pris­oned.

Sen­tenced to 15 years in jail, Castro de­liv­ered these lines, now im­mor­talised, from the dock: “Con­demn me, it does not mat­ter. His­tory will ab­solve me.”

A year later, Batista fig­ured that the rebels were a spent force and re­leased Castro and his com­rades in a pres­i­den­tial amnesty. Big mis­take.

Castro fled to Mex­ico, where he and fel­low rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies strate­gised Batista’s fall. By his side was his brother Raúl, friend Camilo Cien­fue­gos and, of course, the Ar­gen­tine guerilla leader, Gue­vara.

When they felt they were ready, they bought a large boat – the Granma – and sailed for Cuba. This, too, was nearly abortive when the ship ran aground on the coast. The sur­vivors made their way to the Sierra Maes­tra moun­tains, where they set up base. Con­stantly at­tacked by Batista’s forces along the way, fewer than 20 made it.

This lit­tle band was to form the core of the army that would wage a three-year war on the Batista regime, cul­mi­nat­ing in their seizure of power in 1959.

Once in power, Castro set about build­ing a so­cial­ist par­adise that pro­vided uni­ver­sal free ed­u­ca­tion and health.

He mi­cro­man­aged every­thing. His re­pres­sive ways, dis­avowal of democ­racy and his pre­sid­ing over a fal­ter­ing, out­dated econ­omy were com­pen­sated by the fact that Cubans en­joyed high stan­dards of health and ed­u­ca­tion.

“One of the great­est ben­e­fits of the rev­o­lu­tion is that even our pros­ti­tutes are col­lege grad­u­ates,” he once pro­claimed.

Castro’s align­ment of Cuba with the Soviet Union – the Cold War en­emy of his de­spised neigh­bour, the US – earned him the ire of Wash­ing­ton. Suc­ces­sive US pres­i­dents, Demo­crat and Repub­li­can, tried to kill him or have him over­thrown. Among the 638 plots hatched by the CIA were bizarre plans such as booby-trap­ping his cigars, con­spir­ing with the Mafia to have him bumped off, poi­son­ing his beard and smug­gling poi­soned skin cream into his room.

Batista loy­al­ists ex­iled to the US were also trained to launch in­va­sions, but these were thwarted by Castro’s men. A US trade em­bargo suf­fo­cated the econ­omy but did not re­sult in the up­ris­ing the US hoped for. In his 50 years in power, Castro sur­vived 10 US pres­i­dents.

At the apex of Castro’s con­tri­bu­tion to Africa was his back­ing of An­gola’s MPLA gov­ern­ment in its war against US and apartheid South Africa-backed Unita rebels. The thou­sands of Cuban troops who served in An­gola saw it as a na­tional duty – so much so that even to this day the he­roes of that war are idolised in Cuban so­ci­ety.

Cuba’s help, cul­mi­nat­ing in the now famous Bat­tle of Cuito Cua­navale, in­di­rectly led to the lib­er­a­tion of Namibia from South Africa and ex­pe­dited the fall of apartheid.

In his farewell speech to the Com­mu­nist Party in April, Castro spoke in­di­rectly of his own legacy, say­ing the Cuban rev­o­lu­tion proved that “if you work hard and with dig­nity, you can pro­duce the ma­te­rial and cul­tural goods hu­man be­ings need”.

“Soon I will be 90 years old. Soon I will be like all the rest. Ev­ery­body’s turn comes.”

His turn came yes­ter­day and the pro­gres­sive world united in say­ing: Farewell, el Co­man­dante.


SIG­NA­TURE CIGAR In this file photo, dated Jan­uary 7 1959, Cuba’s rebel leader, Fidel Castro, cen­tre, and his sol­diers make a road­side ap­pear­ance as they move to­wards Ha­vana, where a wel­come is ex­pected the next day. Castro and his fight­ers ousted dic­ta­tor Ful­gen­cio Batista and es­tab­lished a com­mu­nist gov­ern­ment


TALK­ING HEADS In this 1960 file photo, Cuba’s rev­o­lu­tion­ary hero, Ernesto ‘Che’ Gue­vara, cen­tre, flanked by Cuba’s then prime min­is­ter, Fidel Castro, to the left and then pres­i­dent Os­valdo Dor­ticós, at­tend a re­cep­tion in an un­known lo­ca­tion in Cuba. Castro died, aged 90, on Fri­day night

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