El Comandante en Jefe has been in power since 1959. After hundreds of attempts on his life, and at 81 years old, he says, OK guys, my brother’s got this; I’m in the study when you need me. Amazing.
I was born in the early ‘80s, and if I learned anything about Cuba in school, it was a distillation of more than 20 years of thwarted invasion, nuclear showdown, and endless anti-communist propaganda. Right, and cigars. Public school education ignored it; in college, I learned people will put Che’s face anywhere, on anything. On Feb. 19, when Fidel announced he would no longer hold office, I thought, here’s another historical icon I know nothing about. A vague feeling of dislike and a plan to see that movie about the Cuban poet with Johnny Depp in a dressthese things are neither knowledge nor understanding.
Hours of research later, I’ve cobbled together a highlights reel of Fidel in action. To begin, a modern mini-retrospective for refreshment.
Forty-nine years ago, you might have seen the news of Fidel and Raúl’s successful march on Havana, which I’m sure you know was the culmination of five years of guerilla tactics against Batista, who was bff with Meyer Lansky and who ran for senate in 1948 from his home in Daytona Beach. Four years later, dear Fulgencio seized the presidency through a military coup, and overall things were rotten on the isle of Cuba until the brothers Castro arrived in Havana.
President Eisenhower officially recognized the new government on January 7, 1959, with Fidel as the head of the military. The following month, however, the new prime minister abruptly resigned, and Fidel assumed the title he has owned ever since. The U.S. almost immediately began hating him; the man wanted the Cuban people to profit from their own natural resources? That is not the way the free market worksdidn’t he know about economic liberalism, for god’s sake? Well, the embargo enacted in 1962 would fix his wagon. Nobody messes with United Fruit.
Every head of state needs a break from leading the country now and then. Doesn’t our sitting president regularly jet off to clear brush? Seems Fidel enjoyed a day off too, hanging out with some guys on a boat. Note: this clip is silent; my theory is that the iconic power radiating from Fidel and his buddies struck the camera dumb.
So, how ‘bout that Cuban Missile Crisis? If anyone remembers what a viable nuclear threat felt like, I’d love to talk to you. Che, Fidel’s right-hand man for nearly a decade, had been pretty eager to use those Soviet nukes against the U.S.; Khrushchev’s refusal and subsequent removal of the missiles was a big contributor to Che’s leaving Fidel and Cuba to fight in other wars. He also disapproved of the Soviet’s anti-Chinese-communism position, and how closely it seemed Fidel had aligned Cuba with the U.S.S.R. When Che was executed in Bolivia by C.I.A.-led forces in 1967, it really broke Fidel’s heart. Not that the History Channel here would deign to mention anything so womanly as feelings.
I included the following clip for very specific reasons. It’s a fine example of Castro’s legendary magnetism and powerful oratory skills; not to mention he’s at the United Nations, which shocked meI had no idea he’d ever been to the U.S., let alone had multiple speaking engagements. Lastly, Fidel’s speech, given in 1979, still resonates 30 years later (and yes I teared up). Despite being a student of French and German, with a little help from the internet, I’ve translated it for you non-Spanish-speakers, and I trust my translation is adequately rough and inaccurate:
Enough with the illusion that the problems of the world can be solved with nuclear arms; bombs may kill the hungry, the sick, the illiterate, but they cannot kill hunger, diseases, illiteracy; they cannot kill the just rebellions of the people.Then again, not much is mentioned in the way of Castro’s taste for tyranny, dictatorship, a closed society, a repressive government, jailing journalists, forbidding freedom of speechperhaps those came up later.
Something Fox News and I have in common: not knowing that as of 2006, 638 attempts have been made on Fidel Castro’s life.
Ten years after Che tried and failed to help Lumumba in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Fidel and a large number of Cuban troops went to Africa, to help out the burgeoning socialist governments of countries finally throwing off the yoke of colonialism. Castro helped the Angolans battle apartheid South Africa’s troops; as in Cuba, the ruling Portuguese and the South Africans couldn’t give up all of Angola’s delicious natural resources without a fight.
Fidel first came to New York City in 1960, and met Malcolm X because the only hotel that would room that Cuban dictator was the Hotel Theresa in Harlem. In 1995, Castro returned to Harlem to great fanfare, giving a speech at the Abyssinian Baptist Church. Why is he so beloved? The introduction he’s given, which makes up most of this clip, does a good job of explaining.
Isn’t it darling how much Hugo Chávez worships Fidel Castro? It’s like Chávez is the devoted son Castro doesn’t appear to have. It’s tough work, nationalizing a country’s natural resources and still finding time to embarrass the White House by heating buildings in the Bronx; I’m sure Fidel is proud of you, Hugo.
Part of what I find so admirable in Fidel’s story is how his band of citizens fought a corrupt government until the people rose up and took back their island. It makes me think of the American Revolution, when it’s first told to us as small children and we feel proud of these dead strangers. Journalists and historians will reveal Castro’s every sin soon enough; now let’s remember that Fidel first acted for his country, and with the people.