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