June 26, 2001

Castro: The great survivor

BBC News Online. Thursday, 19 October, 2000. UK.

Jean-Paul Sartre once wrote: "Castro is at the same time the island, the men, the cattle and the earth. He is the whole island."

Fidel Castro doesn't encourage this cult of personality. But then, he doesn't have to. In Cuba, he is the head of his party, the government and the state. He is known as el Jeffe, el Maximum, el Commandante or just Fidel. Just 90 miles away in the United States, he is evil, a dictator, the last communist.

It is no wonder why his reputation precedes him. Shrewd, charming and ruthless, Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz is above all a survivor. He has outlasted eight US presidents (soon to be nine, when Bill Clinton steps down), the fall of the Soviet Union and dozens of assassination attempts from armed assassins to an exploding cigar.

"If surviving assassination were an Olympic attempt, I would win the gold medal," he once told an interviewer.

Assassination proof

Castro has been a survivor from the moment that he burst onto the international scene in January 1959.

Then Cuba was a hedonist paradise, a haven for the playboy rich. Filled with prostitutes and gambling halls, Havana was a byword for corruption, decadence and inequality.

With just 81 rebels - including the now-legendary Che Guevara - Fidel Castro masterminded a classic guerrilla campaign from the Sierra Maestra mountains. On 1 January, his army defeated the American-backed Batista government and rolled victoriously into Havana.

But Castro was not internationally welcomed. Soon after the coup, he went to America where he was refused a meeting with President Eisenhower. Snubbed, he soon joined forces with the Soviet leader, Nikita Khruschev.

By 1961 the Americans had a full-on campaign to remove Castro from power. In April 1961, they launched the infamous Bay of Pigs - an attempt to topple Castro by recruiting a private army of Cuban exiles to invade the island.

But Castro repulsed the invaders, killing many, capturing a thousand and bloodying the nose of a superpower in the process.

In the years that followed the US intelligence forces spent a good portion of their energy dreaming up methods of doing away with him.

Dubbed Operation Mongoose, most attempts were downright silly: exploding cigars, a Mob contract, a lethal wet suit, an exploding seashell, even hair removal powder.

"This was a bright idea. If we got a certain powder to him and if he put it on his beard it would fall out," remembers one CIA operative. "The Cuban people would all fall over laughing at him and he would be ridiculed. This was a measure of our desperation."

Pure politician

Socialismo o Muerte (Socialism or Death) may still be Castro's motto but he has proved himself to be far more than a rigid ideologue. Castro has defied all to outlast his communist colleagues - and most democratic state leaders.

At 32, he became a revolutionary icon. At 70, he proved that he could still play to the crowds. He gave up cigars to support anti-smoking groups.

For the UN's 50th birthday celebration, he shed his famous fatigues for a sharp designer suit but re-donned them for a nostalgic trip through Harlem.

But romantic as Castro seems to some, for many he is still the ultimate enemy.

He may have brought literacy to a whopping 98% of the population but he is blamed by many for starving them while he dines on his favourite caviar.

In 1994, hundreds of Cubans took to the sea in an extraordinary exodus to Florida. Even his own daughter prefers a life of exile to rule under her "despotic" father.

And so even after more than 40 years, the jury is still out. While many Cubans undoubtedly detest Castro, others genuinely love him. He is the David who stood up to the Goliath of America.

For them, everything about Castro is Cuban and everything Cuban is Castro.


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