Fidel Castro’s Wild New York Visit

Fidel Castro’s Wild New York Visit

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Fidel Castro had previously visited New York in April 1959, just four months after he led his victorious guerilla army into Havana and took charge of Cuba. The trip was part of Castro’s victory lap after toppling the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, and he’d made the most of it by hiring a top public relations firm and touring the city with all the swagger of a rock star. News cameras had stalked the young revolutionary as he held babies, ate hotdogs and tossed peanuts to elephants at the Bronx Zoo. At one photo-op, he was pictured next to a group of American schoolchildren wearing fake Castro-style beards. There had been a few whispers about his suspected political leanings—he still hadn’t declared himself a communist—but many reporters were taken in by his fiery speeches and rugged military uniforms.

The mood was not so lighthearted when Fidel returned to New York in 1960 for the United Nations General Assembly. By then, Castro had nationalized U.S. business interests in Cuba, banned land ownership by foreigners and cozied up to the Soviet Union. Fearing Cuba was creeping toward communism, the United States had issued blanket sanctions including cutting sugar imports and restricting petroleum sales. President Dwight D. Eisenhower had even approved a secret plan to overthrow Castro’s regime.

The tensions appeared to weigh on Castro as he stepped onto the tarmac at Idlewild Airport (now JFK) on September 18. He was clad in the same olive fatigues he’d worn during his cheery 1959 trip, but this time he hardly cracked a smile as he greeted journalists and took in the sea of gathered supporters. The cigar-chomping leader seemed particularly annoyed by the large American security detail assigned to him. Unlike his previous visit, when he’d had free reign to wander, a suspicious U.S. State Department had now restricted his travel to the island of Manhattan.

After saying he would save any remarks for the U.N. meeting, Castro headed for the plush Shelburne Hotel in Midtown and disappeared into his rooms. The controversy began just a few hours later, when he stormed into the hotel’s lobby and announced that he was leaving because of unfair treatment. According to Castro, the Shelburne’s management had asked for an “unacceptable” cash advance of $10,000—allegedly to cover any damage his Cuban delegation might cause to their rooms. Convinced he was being harassed on the orders of the U.S. government, Castro immediately drove to the United Nations to complain. He even threatened to pitch camp in Central Park if need be. “We are mountain people,” he told reporters. “We are used to sleeping in the open air.”

Ignoring an offer of free lodgings at the nearby Commodore, Castro and his delegation eventually cruised to Harlem and checked into the Hotel Theresa, a decaying inn that doubled as a meeting place for New York’s African American politicians. Critics labeled the switch a publicity stunt, but Castro claimed to feel more at home among Harlem’s majority black population. He spent his first night giving exclusive interviews to African American newspapers and welcoming activist Malcolm X into his suite. A more controversial caller appeared the following morning, when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev strode up to the Theresa for his first ever face-to-face meeting with Castro. Afterwards, Khrushchev assured associates that the Cuban would turn communist, but added that he was “like a young horse that hasn’t been broken. He needs some training.”

A Cuban flag was soon hoisted above the Theresa, and the streets outside filled with thousands of curiosity seekers and journalists. Pro- and anti-Castro protestors came in droves, occasionally tossing eggs at one another or duking it out with fists and baseball bats. Tabloid papers also began printing wild—and most likely fictional—stories about the Cuban delegation’s rowdy behavior. There were rumors of prostitutes plying their trade in the Theresa, and a myth was born that Castro had been kicked out of the Shelburne for keeping live chickens in his hotel room.

Outside of occasional forays to the floor of the U.N., Castro spent the next few days laying low in the Theresa and rubbing elbows with the likes of poet Langston Hughes and Beat writer Allen Ginsberg (who supposedly asked about the Cuban Revolution’s stance on marijuana). When President Eisenhower excluded him from a September 22 luncheon for Latin American leaders, Castro held his own banquet in the Theresa’s ballroom and invited “the poor and humble people of Harlem” to join him.

The Cuban premier’s antics struck a chord with many Harlem locals, but some black commenters considered them nothing more than propaganda. “The Negro (U.S.) gets a kick, a big bang out of any embarrassment his Government suffers because of the race problem,” read an editorial in the New York Amsterdam News, a prominent African American paper. “But Castro’s stomping at the Theresa is not the answer to his problem.” The Baptist Ministers’ Conference of Greater New York, meanwhile, issued a letter denouncing “any attempts by Fidel Castro to make the Harlem community a battleground for his ideologies.”

Castro would find a better ideological battleground at the United Nations General Assembly, where he finally spoke on September 26. After assuring the gathered world leaders that he would “endeavor to be brief,” the 34-year-old launched into a searing monologue that clocked in at 4-and-a-half hours—a U.N. record that still stands today. The speech included a stern condemnation of the United States’ foreign policy toward Cuba and other small nations in Latin America and Africa. Castro then went on to accuse American leaders of plotting his government’s destruction and supporting “imperialist” and “monopolist” forces around the world. To the sound of applause from Khrushchev, he also praised the Soviet Union and warned that Cuba would not stand alone if provoked.

Two days after throwing down the gauntlet at the U.N., Castro checked out of the Theresa and prepared to return to Havana. A final bit of drama unfolded at Idlewild Airport, where his delegation learned that their planes had been seized over non-payment of debts to American creditors. Castro was furious, but he found an alternative ride home from Khrushchev, who was all too happy to lend the Cubans a luxury Soviet airliner. “The Soviets are our friends,” Castro told reporters in broken English. “Here you took our planes—the authorities rob our planes. Soviet gave us plane.” At that, he disappeared inside the hammer-and-sickle stamped aircraft and took off.

Castro wouldn’t officially declare himself a “Marxist-Leninist” until a year later, but Cuban-American relations continued to deteriorate in the wake of his riotous New York trip. The United States instituted a partial trade embargo on Cuba in October 1960, and later severed diplomatic relations entirely in January 1961. The years that followed brought a seemingly endless series of controversies and Cold War close calls including the Bay of Pigs Invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis. Even stranger was Operation Mongoose, a covert CIA program aimed at assassinating Castro and undermining his Soviet-aligned government. But despite repeated attempts to remove him, Castro remained Cuba’s leader until 2008, when he voluntarily stepped down at the age of 81. He also made several more trips to the United Nations in New York—including two more stopovers in Harlem in 1995 and 2000.

Castro Díaz-Balart's parents divorced in 1955, prior to the Cuban Revolution in which his father seized power in the country. His mother moved to Miami, United States, with the Diaz-Balart family, taking her son with her. Castro Díaz-Balart returned to Cuba as a child to visit his father, and remained there for the rest of his childhood. [6] In 1959, he appeared as a 9-year-old during an interview with his father on U.S. television. [7]

Castro Díaz-Balart moved to Moscow (in what was then the Soviet Union), where he enrolled at Voronezh State University in 1968. [8] For safety, he studied under the code name "José Raúl Fernández", [9] which he claimed to have chosen in homage to world chess champion José Raúl Capablanca and to have later used to publish 30 scientific publications. [10] He initially studied physical education before switching to nuclear physics in 1970. [8] He graduated from Lomonosov Moscow State University, and went on to work at the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research in Dubna, and to receive his first doctorate from Lomonosov, in 1978. [11] [8] [1] Returning to Cuba, he was placed in charge of Cuba's nuclear power program for a time, leading the Juragua Nuclear Power Plant construction program from 1980 to 1992, during which time he was also the executive secretary of the country's Atomic Energy Commission. [12] He served as a member of the Nonaligned Countries Movement's Coordinating Countries for the Peaceful Use of Nuclear Energy, and was elected to chair the Second Meeting of that group in April 1983. [13] Castro Díaz-Balart was removed from his positions in June 1992, following a falling out with his father, who cited "inefficiency" as the reason for the removal. [14] Castro then announced the suspension of construction at Juragua in September 1992, due to Cuba's inability to meet the financial terms set by Russia to complete the reactors. [14]

Castro Díaz-Balart then returned to further his studies in Moscow, and received his second doctorate at the Kurchatov Institute of Atomic Energy in 1999. [8] In the 2010s, he returned to a level of prominence, serving as a scientific advisor to the Council of State, the governing body of Cuba, and as vice-president of the Academy of Sciences of Cuba. [15] [16] Throughout his career, Castro Diaz-Balart authored articles on the developing role of nuclear energy. [17]

In 2012, Castro Diaz-Balart disputed reports that Fidel Castro was becoming senile, describing his father as "lucid" and "working hard", [18] which was similar to the "upbeat assessment" of Castro's health that Castro Diaz-Balart made in February 2007, following Castro's illness during that period. [19]

In April 2014, he visited Russia to declare Cuba's recognition of the annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation, also receiving an honorary doctorate at Voronezh State University. [8] In February 2015, during the Cuban thaw towards the end of the Obama Administration, when Americans were more freely allowed to visit Cuba, he participated in events to welcome American celebrities to the island, mingling with Paris Hilton and Naomi Campbell. [20] The following month, he visited Novosibirsk, Russia, meeting with the mayor, Anatoly Lokot, and regional governor Vladimir Gorodetsky to improve Cuban relations with scientific institutions in the region. [11]

Castro Díaz-Balart had three children — Mirta María, Fidel Antonio and José Raúl — with Natasha Smirnova, whom he met in Russia. After divorcing Smirnova, he married María Victoria Barreiro from Cuba. [21] U.S. Congressman Mario Díaz-Balart, currently representing the 25th district of Florida, and former U.S. Congressman Lincoln Díaz-Balart were his maternal cousins. [22]

Castro Díaz-Balart committed suicide in Havana on 1 February 2018, at the age of 68. [6] He had previously received outpatient care for depression. [23] [24] [25] The report of his suicide by the Cuban government was described as "unusually public." [26] Fidel Angel Castro Diaz-Balart's first cousin Gabriel Diaz-Balart had also earlier committed suicide as a result of depression. [27]

At his death he still held his positions with the Cuban Academy of Sciences and the Council of State. [16]

Fidel Castro visits the U.S., April 15, 1959

This day in 1959, four months after leading a successful revolution in Cuba, Fidel Castro began an 11-day visit to the United States. His visit came at a time when tensions between his regime and the American government were rising steadily.

Castro neither requested nor accepted an official government invitation for his trip to Washington and New York. Rather, he came at the invitation of what was then called the American Society of Newspaper Editors.

During his stay, Castro placed a wreath on George Washington’s grave, toured the Bronx Zoo, ate hot dogs and hamburgers at Yankee Stadium and generally made a big media splash. Wherever he went, the 33-year-old bearded Cuban leader invariably wore his trademark rumpled green fatigues.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower snubbed him, although the Cuban leader did meet with Vice President Richard Nixon and acting Secretary of State Christian Herter. Nixon later said he came away from the meeting with the conclusion that Castro was “either incredibly naive about communism or under communist discipline — my guess is the former.” On the other hand, after meeting with Castro, former Secretary of State Dean Acheson called him “the first democrat of Latin America.”

In a speech in New York to the Council on Foreign Relations, Castro said he would not beg the United States for economic assistance. He finally stormed out of the session, professing his anger at some of the questions raised by his audience.

Relations between the United States and Castro deteriorated rapidly after the April visit.

Fidel Castro Stayed in Harlem 60 Years Ago to Highlight Racial Injustice in the U.S.

When the General Assembly of the United Nations opened 60 years ago this week, Fidel Castro, the revolutionary leader of Cuba, audaciously ensured that the world’s attention would be drawn to America’s “race problem.” On the evening of September 19, 1960, Castro—in New York for the international summit—stormed out of his plush midtown hotel following a fight over money. After a brief sojourn at U.N. headquarters, where he threatened to set up camp in the complex’s rose garden, he relocated to the Hotel Theresa, the so-called “Waldorf of Harlem.”

The Manhattan neighborhood—with its crumbling tenement buildings, garbage-strewn streets, shockingly high rates of asthma and tuberculosis, soaring crime rates, poorly-funded, overcrowded and segregated schools, and endemic police brutality and corruption—offered a powerful illustration of the problems facing African Americans in America’s northern cities. As the local NAACP leader, Joe Overton, put it, Harlem was a “police state.”

Harlem also boasted, however, an exceptionally strong sense of political vitality. Its streets fizzed with activism, as black nationalists and integrationists, Christians and Muslims, competed for influence, mobilized to protest inequalities, and organized to demand their rights. Two years prior, nine black mothers, outraged by the poor quality of the education on offer, kept their children out of the three all-black junior high schools to which they had been assigned and demanded that they be allowed to enroll them in better schools, elsewhere in the city (they won a partial victory several months later.)

Ten Days in Harlem

Relive the ten days that revolutionized the Cold War: Fidel Castro's visit to New York.

Police brutality, meanwhile, sparked growing pressure for meaningful reforms, as well as angry protests on the streets. On July 12, 1959, for instance, more than 500 black New Yorkers gathered outside a Harlem police station, after Charles Samuel, a black postal clerk, was beaten and arrested for intervening in the brutal arrest of Carmela Caviglione, who had been dragged away from a restaurant by her hair. And in the spring of 1960, months before Castro’s stunt, as the lunch-counter sit-ins rocked the Jim Crow South, the New York-based Congress of Racial Equality organized sympathy protests outside the F. W. Woolworth’s Store in Harlem.

Fidel’s sensational “Harlem shuffle” afforded him the opportunity to cause plenty of trouble for the American government. In fact, he had barely had time to check-in at the Theresa before his first guest came calling: the firebrand black nationalist, and rising star of the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X. Meanwhile, hundreds of African Americans gathered in the streets around the hotel every day, to cheer Fidel, who, on coming to power in Cuba, had outlawed segregation in schools, beaches, swimming pools, hotels and other facilities (both public and private) and committed his new government to racial equality.

Photograph of a meeting in Harlem with Fidel Castro and Malcolm X. (Photo12 / Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev had decided on a meeting with Fidel even before he had set sail from Kaliningrad, aboard the Baltika mid-way across the Atlantic, he had confided to a close aide his hope that Cuba would become a “beacon of socialism in Latin America.”

Khrushchev also observed how the actions of the United States (which was increasingly hostile to the new revolutionary government in Havana) were, inexorably, pushing the Cuban leader closer to Moscow: “Castro,” he explained, “will have to gravitate to us like an iron filing to a magnet.” The Soviet leader well understood the romantic appeal of Castro’s revolution. But he was also keen to ensure that Cuba, and its leader – whom he had never met before – caused as much discomfort as possible to the United States of America. (A few months later, he would pledge support for “wars of national liberation” around the globe, as part of his efforts to extend Soviet influence and promote socialism across the developing world.)

On the morning of Tuesday, September 20, the Cubans had suggested that they would happily travel to the Soviet mission, on Park Avenue, but Khrushchev was having none of it. For one thing, he knew that a trip to Harlem would be a symbolic way to “emphasize our solidarity with Cuba and our indignation at the discrimination with which Cuba was being treated.” But, just as important, he understood that “by going to a Negro hotel in a Negro district, we would be making a double demonstration against the discriminatory policies of the United States of America toward Negroes, as well as toward Cuba.” It was a move also guaranteed to deliver newspaper headlines, both in the United States and around the world. Given the Cold War competition for “hearts and minds” across Asia and Africa, this was far too good an opportunity to pass up.

Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and Cuba's President Fidel Castro (bearded man) are surrounded by police and crowd outside the Hotel Theresa in Harlem during their visit to New York. (John Duprey / NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)

As Khrushchev’s motorcade approached the Theresa, the New York Herald Tribune described how it passed by “cut-rate department stores, cut-rate clothing, appliance, notions jewelry, and furniture stores, two huge movie theaters, the Harlem Lanes bowling alley, the Palm Café, and, on the corner diagonal to the hotel, a flashing neon sign proclaiming, ‘Herbert’s – cash or credit. The home of blue and white diamonds.” At 12:12 p.m., according to news reports, the Soviet leader arrived outside the Theresa.

Already, the area was packed with thousands of onlookers, as well as hundreds of police, including mounted units, detectives and security personnel. One member of Khrushchev’s entourage recalled how the noise was unbelievable. Antonio Núñez Jiménez, a senior Castro confidante who had been waiting patiently in the Theresa’s lobby, ran out to greet the Soviet leader and escort him inside. But as they made their way through the Theresa’s cramped, rather dreary lobby towards the rickety, manual-operated elevator, scuffles between Cuban, Soviet and U.S. security agents broke out. As the New York Daily News put it, in typically breathless style:

Khrushy’s burly security chief, Lt. Gen. Nikolai Zakharov, 6-foot-3, 220-pounder, became unaccountably irked with the way the city police were trying to squeeze his pudgy boss through the jampacked lobby.

As he was ushered into Castro’s corner suite, which overlooked Seventh Avenue and 125th Street, Khrushchev was appalled by the poor state of the hotel: it was, he recalled in his memoirs, shabby and the “air was heavy and stale. Apparently the furniture and bedclothes had not been aired out sufficiently, and perhaps they were not, as we say, of the first degree of freshness – or even the second.” He was further shocked by the state of Fidel’s quarters: the bed was covered with books, and the floor littered with records, maracas and cigar butts. But while his suite reminded Khrushchev of a pigsty, the Cuban leader himself made a much more favorable impact: “This was the first time that I had ever seen him in person, and he made a powerful impression on me: a man of great height with a black beard and a pleasant, stern face, which was lit up by a kind of goodness. His face simply glowed with it and it sparkled in his eyes.”

The two men talked only briefly. Fidel “expressed his pleasure at my visit, and I spoke words of solidarity and approval of his policies.” “That was,” Khrushchev recalled, “all there was to it. . .”

Shortly after 12:30 p.m., they emerged onto the sidewalk, before crowds of cheering spectators, excited journalists and hundreds of police, who were desperately trying to maintain order. It was, declared the New York Times, “the biggest event on 125th Street” since the funeral of W. C. Handy, the “father of the blues,” two years earlier.

Some Of the Posters Which Greeted Fidel Castro On His Arrival In New York. Cuba's Fidel Castro Arrives In New York. Yankee hating Cuban Premier Fidel Castro was created by both pro-and-anti Castroites - when he arrived at New York's International Airport. He had a strong police escort to the Shelbourne Hotel - where he stayed for a short time before moving - of his own accord - to a Hotel in the New York Harlem area. (© Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

As the photographers snapped away, Khrushchev and Castro embraced. Given the physical disparities between them, it was a moment fraught with danger. As Khrushchev put it, “we enclosed each other in an embrace . . . He bent over me as though covering my body with his. Although my dimensions were somewhat wider, his height overpowered everything. Besides, he was a solidly built man for his height.”

While Castro returned to his suite, to feast on T-bone steak (medium-rare), candied yams, French fries and a thick chicken soup (all prepared by the Theresa’s chef, Marion L. Burgess, under the watchful eye of two Cuban officials), Khrushchev headed back to the Upper East Side, the cheers of the crowds still ringing in his ears.

Two days later, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower deliberately excluded Fidel from a lunch for Latin American leaders at the Waldorf-Astoria, the Cuban prime minister treated 12 black employees of the Theresa to steak and beers, while declaring himself “honored to lunch with the poor and humble people of Harlem.” He of course made sure to invite the press along, too.

It was impossible to escape the broader consequences of Fidel’s move to the Theresa. According to one Havana radio station, by moving uptown Fidel had “pulled aside the screen” and shown the world how African Americans were “kept apart in a quarter as if they had the plague.” Fidel’s move to Harlem was especially embarrassing for the U.S. government precisely because it challenged directly the story about race relations that they liked to tell, both to Americans and to the wider world. They sought to frame segregation and institutionalized white supremacy as a regional problem, largely confined for historic reasons to the South. The Eisenhower Administration, through a combination of court rulings, federal legislation and carefully crafted initiatives, was attempting to show the world that the nation’s race problem was in the process of being eradicated in a peaceful and democratic manner, as mandated by the country’s constitutional form of government. By shining the world’s media spotlight on Harlem, Castro exposed this as little more than a self-serving myth: the stain of segregation was alive and well in the urban north, including in New York, one of the country’s most famous and important cities, and a citadel of mid-century American liberalism.

Today, of course, the world does not need a Fidel Castro to draw international attention to the racism that continues to blight the “Land of the Free.” The police killings of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and countless others—killings often captured on, or publicized through the power of, social media—mean that discussions of institutional racism, as well as mass protests for systemic and meaningful change, are operating at an intensity and on a scale that has not been seen for nearly 60 years.

When Fidel rocked up at the Theresa, in September 1960, the United States was on the eve of a historic presidential election, and in the midst of surging civil rights protests that augured a decade of liberal reforms and social activism that would define the coming decade and transform the nation – largely for the better.

Historians are notoriously bad at predicting the future, and 2020 is not 1960. But, as the saying apocryphally attributed to Mark Twain goes, while history may not repeat itself, it does sometimes rhyme.

Simon Hall held a Fox International Fellowship at Yale before moving to the University of Leeds in 2003, where he is currently Professor of Modern History. His new book, “Ten Days in Harlem: Fidel Castro and the Making of the 1960s” is published by Faber & Faber. Follow him on Twitter at @simonhallwriter.

My 60 Years of Disappointment With Fidel Castro

“History will absolve me,” the Cuban leader declared. It may not.

MEXICO CITY — I was 11 years old when I found out about the triumph of the Cuban Revolution from a friend’s Marxist-leaning mother. “Finally, justice will be served: Everyone may be poor, but equal,” she said. At that time, it was difficult to predict that Fidel Castro would become one of the most influential men of the twentieth century.

The Cuban Revolution inspired political awareness in almost all the writers, activists and intellectuals of my generation. Our university professors, contemporaries of Castro, saw in him the definitive vindication of “Our America” against the other, arrogant and imperialist, America. The literary supplements and magazines we read — by Julio Cortázar, Mario Vargas Llosa, Gabriel García Márquez, Carlos Fuentes — celebrated the Revolution not only for its economic and social achievements, but also for the cultural renaissance it ushered in.

Few of us were alarmed by Castro’s open adoption of communism, which he proclaimed in 1961. Che Guevara’s death in 1967 further fueled the flame of revolutionary idealism. In 1968 some of us excitedly followed Alexander Dubcek’s program of “socialism with a human face” in Czechoslovakia. As our movement faced the Mexican army’s tanks in August 1968, we heard that Soviet tanks had rolled into Prague, and that Castro supported the invasion. When the Mexican government repressed the student movement that October, my generation became decisively radicalized .

In early 1969, when young Jan Palach set himself on fire in Wenceslas Square to protest the Soviet invasion, I wrote an article linking the libertarian spirit of Paris in 1968 with the sacrifice of that hero of the Prague Spring. Thus my first decade with Castro drew to a close: I had gone from enthusiastic to disappointed.

For daring to publicly oppose the authoritarian and dogmatic course that the Revolution had taken, the imprisoned poet Heberto Padilla was forced to deliver a statement of self-criticism in 1971. Several writers signed a couple of protest letters, but one conspicuous name was lacking: Gabriel García Márquez. As a university student, I followed the situation with interest. It anticipated the division in the intellectual left, between the democratic and the authoritarian, but the former was always a minority — to depart from the Revolution meant opposing truth, reason, history, morality, the people.

Ibero-America may have begun to distance itself from Castro, but it was far from breaking with him. One exception was Octavio Paz. “I am a friend of the Cuban Revolution because of its influences from Martí, not Lenin,” the Mexican poet and Nobel laureate wrote in 1967. Paz founded the magazine Vuelta that led Spanish-language intellectual dissent against the totalitarianism of the Soviet bloc, and of which I was the deputy editor. Though Paz criticized Mexico’s Institutional Revolutionary Party and was as unyielding toward the South American military dictatorships as with Franco’s Spain, to his detractors he had become “right-wing.”

It’s true that it wasn’t easy to criticize Cuba. In Mexico, the revolution could be idealized because the country didn’t experience guerrilla movements of the scale of those in Colombia, Peru, Nicaragua and El Salvador. A tacit pact between the two countries was formed in 1962, when the government refused to break ties with Havana. Mexico has since served as a back channel for communication with the United States in return, Castro refrained from supporting the guerrillas.

Those of us who criticized authoritarianism rowed upstream: We were against the dictatorships of the right, against the Cuban dictatorship, against the revolutionary movements that it favored, and against the “perfect dictatorship” of the P.R.I., as Vargas Llosa called it.

My final break with Fidel Castro occurred when his rule was in its third decade. In 1980, hundreds of people stormed the Peruvian embassy in Havana, seeking asylum. Shortly thereafter, more than 100,000 Cubans left the port of Mariel for the United States, revealing a fracture in Castro’s utopia.

Among them was the writer Reinaldo Arenas, who had suffered firsthand the regime’s persecution against homosexuals. And just as Vuelta had given voice to Eastern European dissidents, we began to publish Cuban dissidents, especially Carlos Franqui and Guillermo Cabrera Infante.

In December 1988, Castro attended the inauguration of Mexico’s Carlos Salinas de Gortari, whose election was widely considered to be rigged. The old pact with the P.R.I. was even upheld on the 35th anniversary of the triumph of the Cuban Revolution, when the Zapatista rebellion broke out in Chiapas on Jan. 1, 1994, led by a postmodern avatar of Che Guevara, Subcomandante Marcos. “He talks too much about death,” Castro admonished.

Mexico held its first free elections in 2000. Castro attended Vicente Fox’s inauguration and reception at Chapultepec Castle on Dec. 1. It was the only time I met him. That day, he had an animated conversation with Hugo Chávez, whom he considered a kindred spirit. Through him, Castro was finally able to realize a long held dream: preferential access to Venezuelan oil that could bring the country out of its worst decade yet. In a 1999 speech in Havana, Chávez prophesied that Venezuela would reach the same “sea of happiness” on which Cuba was sailing.

I visited Cuba in July 2009, and was captivated by its natural beauty and the ingenuity and warmth of its people. On the side of the road, a 12-year-old girl waved a bag of cheese that she was selling for one dollar. “It’s forbidden,” the driver told me. The country lived without that age-old invention: the market. Time seemed to have stopped.

In Old Havana I bought “Geography of Cuba,” by the historian Leví Marrero. Beautifully illustrated with maps, photographs and charts, it was a revelation: Before the Revolution, Cuba had a rich and diversified economy. In 1957, Cuba had around 6,000,000 heads of cattle, well above the world’s per capita a verage . These days, cows are so scarce that killing one carries a multiyear prison sentence. Not too long ago, in order to eat beef legally, farmers “accidentally” sacrificed them by tying them to train tracks.

In an assessment of the Cuban Revolution in 2015, I contrasted the prophecies and promises with myth and reality. Without minimizing the enormous strides in health and education, I recalled what several Marxist historians have demonstrated: Cuba was already one of the most advanced countries in Latin America in 1959.

I also stressed the historical responsibility of the United States in the Cuban saga, and celebrated the diplomatic turn prompted by President Barack Obama in 2014, anticipating the end of the embargo. Unfortunately, the current president of the United States, Donald Trump, has marred any possibility of conciliation, which has further isolated Cuba and so perpetuated Castroism.

Venezuela is undergoing economic collapse, social upheaval, and a humanitarian crisis unprecedented in Latin American history. The failure of both regimes should have put an end to the Fidel era, especially when he is no longer alive, but the Commander lives on. Upon hearing of Castro’s death on Nov. 25, 2016, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, now president of Mexico, could barely suppress his tears and compared Castro to Nelson Mandela. There’s no doubt about it: Six decades on, there is still widespread reverence for the strongman.

Six years before his triumph, after the assault on the Moncada barracks in July 1953, Castro famously declared: “History will absolve me.” That’s no longer a sure thing. An awareness of freedom awakens sooner or later when faced with the obvious excesses of authoritarian rulers. If history examines his regretful legacy through that lens, it may not absolve him.

Latin American historians and intellectuals have the floor. With few exceptions, they have refused to see the historical failure of the Cuban Revolution and the oppressive and impoverishing domination of their patriarch. But the parlous situation in Venezuela — with Cuba as a crutch — is undeniable, and the Cuban reality will be increasingly hard to bear . This has been Lenin’s decade. Perhaps the next one will belong to Martí.

Enrique Krauze is a Mexican historian, the editor of the literary magazine Letras Libres, and the author of “Redeemers: Ideas and Power in Latin America.” This article was translated from the Spanish by Erin Goodman.

Fidel Castro

In the United States, Latin America, Europe, and in far corners of the globe, people from all walks of life either despised Fidel Castro as a ruthless dictator or lionized him as a champion of social justice. More than five decades after he assumed power, he remained a living legend, a touchstone for revolutionaries the world over, and a symbol of resistance to American dominance.

For the leader of a small Caribbean nation, Castro's impact on the latter half of the twentieth century has been inordinate. The controversial, charismatic dictator confounded American presidents from Eisenhower to Bush, while surviving a CIA-backed invasion, countless assassination plots, an economic embargo — even the collapse of his benefactor, the Soviet Union. Castro sent his soldiers to the farthest reaches of the world and roused his people to accomplish heroic feats, in the name of justice and the promise of a brilliant future. But he also drove two million Cubans into exile, and silenced those who dared challenge his rule.


Written and Produced by
Adriana Bosch

Directed by
Adriana Bosch

Patricia Alvarado Núñez

Edited by
Jon Neuburger

Associate Producer
Rose M. Compagine

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Karen Colbron

Music by
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David Ogden Stiers

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Lighting Design
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Marcos "Popu" Cruz

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©2004 WGBH Educational Foundation
All Rights Reserved.


EDWARD R. MURROW, ARCHIVAL FILM: Just thirty days ago, Fidel Castro entered Havana to be greeted by cheering mobs, as one of the greatest heroes in Cuba's history. Fidel Castro, at the age of 32, you now have in your hands a great deal of power and a great deal of responsibility. Aren't you a little frightened by this?

FIDEL CASTRO: Well really, not frightened, because I have self-confidence, but something worried, of course.

MURROW: Not frightened but a little worried.

NARRATOR: He had led a revolution that overthrew a hated dictator. And on January 6, 1959, the day of his triumphant march into Havana, he embodied the hopes of an entire nation.

CARLOS ALBERTO MONTANER, AUTHOR (SPANISH): Fidel arrives as a messiah. Young, bearded, and at the head of a guerilla army. That unleashes the imagination and the fantasy of the Cuban people.

GEORGIE ANNE GEYER, JOURNALIST: You had this romantic revolutionary hero. He's big. He's manly. Very charismatic.

ARCHIVAL FILM: Fidel, will you say just a few words to New Yorkers who have seen you for the first time?

FIDEL CASTRO: Well, I am very glad to be here again, because I fulfilled my promise of coming after the victorious revolution.

GEYER: This is a man of huge appetites and huge ambition.

BRIAN LATELL, CIA ANALYST: He is endlessly complex. He is a man of enormous intellect, of an inflexible will. His revolution was from the very first moments a one-man show.

NARRATOR: He would rouse his people to accomplish heroic feats -- in the name of justice and the promise of a brilliant future. Send his soldiers to the farthest reaches of the world, inspiring many with dreams of greatness.

NORBERTO FUENTES, AUTHOR (SPANISH): There was a thirst for glory, for heroism and he awakened that thirst.

NARRATOR: But he would drive two million Cubans into exile and silence those who dared challenged his rule.

MARIFELI PEREZ STABLE, AUTHOR: The extraordinary leadership that Castro exercised went along with thousands of people brought before firing squads. Forty, or maybe even fifty thousand political prisoners, the treatment of political prisoners.

ARCHIVAL FILM -- FIDEL CASTRO (SPANISH): Only now I understand that my destiny was not to rest at the end of my life.

NARRATOR: For more than four decades Fidel Castro has ruled Cuba. He survived a U.S. backed invasion. Countless assassination plots. An economic embargo. Even the collapse of his benefactor, the Soviet Union.

JAMES BLIGHT, PROFESSOR OF INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS: The epic of the Castro era is probably one of the greatest stories of the last one hundred years. What are the odds that a little, dinky country would project its forces around the world and drive the United States crazy? Impossible. How could it happen?

NARRATOR: His classmates called him "el guajiro," the hick, and he liked nothing more than to revisit the Cuba of his childhood. Fidel Castro came of age at Las Manacas, a sprawling sugar plantation in Cuba's remote northeast. His father, Angel, a former Spanish soldier, had come to Cuba at the turn of the century to fight in the Spanish-American War, and made his fortune growing sugarcane for the U.S.-owned United Fruit Company, a, the dominant economic and social force in the region at the time.

GEORGIE ANNE GEYER: There is definitely a lot of history encoded in that childhood of Fidel Castro's. He was the outsider. He was born illegitimately. His father had been married to a schoolteacher. Then he took up with the family maid, who was Fidel's mother. And they were only married when the children were sent to Catholic schools. Fidel very seldom spoke about this. Never directly.

NARRATOR: Fidel's mother, Lina Ruz, was a poor but ambitious country girl. Once described as an "Annie Oakley" type she was known to fire a gun to call her family to dinner. Though Lina barely knew how to read and write, she insisted their children get the best education Angel's money could buy. Fidel and his two brothers, Raúl and Ramón, were sent to a boarding school in Santiago de Cuba. But the unruly Castro boys were too disruptive and were expelled.

BRIAN LATELL: Fidel told his father and mother, "I want to go back to that school." But his parents said, "No you can't go back, you and your brothers were just too rough, you were too violent, and the priests don't want you there anymore." And, uh, what he did was he told his mother, "If you do not send me back to that school I will burn this house down." And his mother knew that this boy, this ferocious son of hers, truly meant what he said.

NARRATOR: In October 1941, at age fifteen, Fidel went to Havana, to attend El Colegio de Belén, Cuba's best and most exclusive school. His rural upbringing clashed with that of his schoolmates, raised in the cultured and literate homes of Cuba's upper class. His reckless behavior earned him a nickname: "El Loco," the crazy one.

JOSE IGNACIO RASCO, SCHOOLMATE (SPANISH): Fidel Castro, who always wanted to win at everything, once made a bet that he would crash against the back wall of one of the school's long corridors. For five dollars he got on his bike and crashed onto the wall. He lost consciousness and spent several days in the infirmary recovering.

NARRATOR: It was at Belen, under the guidance of the Spanish Jesuits priests, that the young Castro began to form his world- view.

CARLOS ALBERTO MONTANER (SPANISH): The Jesuits Fidel encountered in Havana in the 1940s, came out of the experience of the Spanish Civil War. From the Nationalist faction, the faction close to Fascism and they were steeped in the idea of the superiority of the Hispanic, Catholic world over the materialistic and corrupt Anglo-Saxon world.

NARRATOR: Fidel impressed his teachers with his athletic abilities, photographic memory, and enormous tenacity. They singled him out as someone who would, "no doubt, fill the book of his life with brilliant pages." When he entered the University of Havana in 1945, he set out to fulfill that promise.

ALFREDO "CHINO" ESQUIVEL, SCHOOLMATE (SPANISH): One night we were studying and we decided to take a break and we went to have a café con leche. And we started talking about the future. And I said I'd like to travel and have a lot of friends, which was the truth. And another guy said, I want to be a poet. Another one wanted to be a lawyer. Then I turned to Fidel and said, "Guajiro, what do you want?" And he said, "I want glory and fame."

NARRATOR: The University of Havana had been a hotbed of political activity since the 1930's, when students led a revolt against dictator Gerardo Machado.

JORGE DOMINGUEZ, PROFESSOR OF INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS: The 1930's is a violent period in Cuban political history. Social and political struggles continue through a good part of that decade and the idea was that if you were to be politically effective at some point you needed to be ready to wield a gun. When Fidel arrives at the University, you needed guns as well. Now not for noble revolutionary goals, but just to protect yourself and your friends. And there are gangs.

GEORGIE ANNE GEYER: Fidel's generation had a terrible sense of frustration. Cuba was supposed to be one of the three wealthiest countries in the hemisphere with the United States and Argentina. And yet, they couldn't put themselves together politically. It was one tragedy after the other -- the War of 1898, the Americans' intervention, the Platt Amendment, which gave the United States virtually power over anything in Cuba. They saw leader after leader either be corrupt, killed, replaced by the United States: fail, fail, fail.

BRIAN LATELL: While he was a student at the University of Havana, Fidel came under the influence of nationalist Cuban professors, began to study Cuban history very seriously. He concluded that Cuba had not been in control of its own history. And he blamed the United States.

NARRATOR: Fidel jumped into the fray. He helped organize strikes and demonstrations. Ran for student president. Joined a gang. "He was a combination of genius and juvenile delinquent," one fellow student recalled. "He would show signs of brilliance and then behave like a hoodlum. He was implicated in the fatal shooting of a rival student leader, but charges were never filed. He was identified by a witness in connection with the murder of a University police sergeant. But the witness recanted his testimony.

Mirta Díaz Balart was 19 years old when she fell in love with Fidel Castro. She was a philosophy student at the University of Havana and a member of a prominent Cuban family.

RAFAEL DIAZ-BALART, BROTHER-IN-LAW (SPANISH): I introduced them. And told her: You know he's crazy, he's a paranoid and a psychopath, who would just as soon throw you off the tenth floor as buy you a mink coat. And she said, I know, but I am in love. And I replied, "well, then, marry him." She was the one who was in love, not I.

NARRATOR: They were married on October 12th, 1948, and went on an extended honeymoon to New York. "For the first time I tried T-bone steak, smoked salmon and other things that a young man with a big appetite enjoyed a lot," Fidel later recalled. With his father's money he bought a white Lincoln Continental, took an apartment in the Bronx and tried to teach himself English by learning 200 words per day. Back from their honeymoon, Fidel and Mirta settled in Havana, where he set up a small law practice. Mirta gave birth to a son, Fidel Castro Díaz-Balart, Fidelito. But Castro was seldom home and there was never enough money.

MARIFELI PEREZ STABLE: Castro came in one morning and he didn't realize until later that day, that all his furniture in the living room, including Fidelito's playpen, all is gone because they've been repossessed. He didn't pay the bills. This is a man who doesn't have a sense of feeling, empathy, for the things that ordinary human beings need to live their lives more or less normally.

NARRATOR: Politics was Fidel's all consuming passion. As Cubans looked forward to free elections in 1952 -- the fourth to be held since a new constitution went into effect in 1940, the young lawyer seized the moment. He campaigned for a Congressional seat as a member of the Orthodoxo Party, calling for responsible government and an end to corruption. As election day approached, Fidel Castro had a real chance for victory. Then, on March 10th, General Fulgencio Batista, led a military coup d'etat, shattering Cuban democracy, and Fidel's political aspirations

ARCHIVAL FILM -- BATISTA: I speak to the people of Cuba from military quarters now. It is where circumstances have forced me to return.

CARLOS ALBERTO MONTANER (SPANISH): Batista's coup open a Pandora's Box. He creates the perfect conditions for the rise of a revolutionary hero. Institutions no longer matter. What matters is audacity. The individual that is capable of violent actions.

NORBERTO FUENTES: There is a story Fidel tells. He's on the steps of the university, without money, his marriage on the rocks, no work, and he doesn't know what to do and it is a wonderful moment. That night he says, "I have to deliver a blow. I have to make a revolution." And it is at that moment that he decides to attack the Moncada Barracks.

NARRATOR: On July 26th, 1953, Fidel Castro, hoping to incite a rebellion, led 129 men and two women in a daring assault against the Moncada Army Barracks in Santiago de Cuba.

NARRATOR: "Even if it fails", Fidel had said, "it would be heroic and have symbolic value." It was a massacre. Eight attackers were killed, twelve wounded, more than 60 were taken prisoner -- tortured and then executed. Fidel Castro was captured seven days later. His life spared through the intervention of Santiago's Catholic Archbishop. In the days following the assault, Fulgencio Batista called for ten men to be killed for every one of his soldiers dead at Moncada. Published photographs of the mutilated bodies of Cuba's youth repulsed a nation, and made a hero of the man who had led the daring assault.

MARIFELI PEREZ-STABLE: The repression by the Batista forces was so harsh - there were so many young men, mostly young men, who were killed and who were savagely repressed that it was a wake-up call for the Cuban people.

NARRATOR: At his trial, Fidel Castro held the attention of all Cuba. Arguing in his own defense, the young lawyer spoke the words that would become legend. "Condemn me," he said, " it does not matter, "history will absolve me." Fidel, and his younger brother Raúl, were sentenced to fifteen years and sent to the Isle of Pines prison. "November 7, 1953 Dear Naty, if you have suffered because of me, remember that I would gladly give my life for your honor and your happiness." Fidel Castro had fallen in love with Natalia Revuelta, the beautiful wife of a prominent Cuban doctor.

ALINA FERNANDEZ REVUELTA, DAUGHTER OF FIDEL CASTRO: The relationship between my mother and Fidel began in the early 1950's. They met in the days before Moncada, and then he's sent to jail. And then, from prison, there began an exchange that with time became deeper, more passionate.

NARRATOR: Fidel asked for cigars, his favorite foods. Mostly he asked for books. He read the works of Cuba's patriot José Martí, Dostoyevsky, Rousseau, Marx, and Lenin. "What a terrific school this prison is!" he wrote Naty. "Here I can shape my view of the world and perfect the meaning of my life." From his prison cell, Castro reworked his defense speech, "History will Absolve Me," which his wife, Mirta, smuggled out of prison a few pages at a time. It called for the violent overthrow of the Batista government, democratic elections, and addressed the inequalities in Cuban society. Twenty thousand copies were clandestinely distributed.

RICARDO BOFILL, HUMAN RIGHTS ACTIVIST (SPANISH): It had a profound impact. It touch on many social problems. It spoke of teachers without jobs, of peasants without land. Of poverty. History Will Absolve Me had a profound message of social justice.

MARIFELI PEREZ STABLE: Cuban political culture in the 20th century up until 1959 was a center-left political culture, and the text, History Will Absolve Me, was pretty much a standard fare: economic reform, social reform. He is not on the fringe at all.

NARRATOR: Castro had been in prison one year when he learned that his wife Mirta had filed for divorce and taken custody of their son after discovering his affair with Naty Revuelta.

ALINA FERNANDEZ (SPANISH): The prison censor, on purpose or by mistake, sent Fidel's wife a letter that had been written for my mother and vice versa. When my mother sees that the letter is for the wife she closes it, but it appears that Fidel's wife read the letter written to my mother.

NARRATOR: Fidel was bitter. "One day I'll be out of here and I'll get my son back," he wrote one of his sisters, "even if the earth should be destroyed in the process."

In April, 1955, after 22 months of confinement, Fidel and Raúl were released from prison under a general amnesty declared by Batista. Castro was 29, a recognized political figure, and the head of an organization he called the "26th of July Movement" in memory of the Moncada Assault. He soon left Cuba for Mexico, to resume his revolution.

On November 25th, 1956, a 65-foot yacht approached the coast of Southeast Cuba. Aboard the Granma were Fidel Castro and 81 expeditionaries returning from Mexico to wage war against Batista. But the Granma had been spotted and by the time Castro's men landed, Batista's Army was waiting. Fidel Castro was reported dead. But he had taken cover in a sugarcane field. Three days later, unharmed, he began walking towards the mountains.

NORBERTO FUENTES (SPANISH): Batista makes a huge strategic blunder. You push landings back toward the sea. But Batista pushes Castro toward the Sierra Maestra. And he says, and this is verbatim, "no one survives in the Sierra Maestra."

NARRATOR: Eighteen men vanished into the forbidding Sierra Maestra mountain range, including Fidel, Raúl, and an Argentine doctor named Ernesto Guevara, known as "Ché." Three months later, the rebels reappeared on the front page of the New York Times. In a series of three articles, Herbert Matthews, a seasoned war correspondent, launched the legend of Fidel Castro. Matthews wrote, "Here is quite a man, a powerful six-footer, olive skinned, with a scraggly beard," "He has strong ideas of liberty, democracy, and social justice."

ARCHIVAL FILM: This is the Sierra Maestra. Two hundred miles of jungle on .

NARRATOR Following in Matthews' footsteps, a CBS documentary crew made its own pilgrimage. "These are the jungle fighters, the rebels of Sierra Maestra. This is their story".

CASTRO: (captioned) I am going to tell you what happened. Batista chose not want to admit that he is incapable of defeating us. He hopes to obtain by lies that which he cannot get by force of hand. Sometimes he says that I am dead. And other times he says that there is nobody in the Sierra Maestra. But he won't let anyone come here to the Sierra Maestra. And when the soldiers are killed in battle, he says that they died in accidents. There have been a great deal of accidents here in the Sierra Maestra last month.

NARRATOR: Fidel played up his war for an American television audience, but a much larger war was being waged in Cuba's cities. In Havana, The Student Revolutionary Directorate stormed the Presidential Palace in March 1957, in a desperate attempt to assassinate Batista. Their leader, Jose Antonio Echeverría, was gunned down. In Santiago, Cuba's second largest city, the 26th of July Movement Underground, waged a fierce struggle and bore the brunt of the repression. Their leader, Frank País, was ambushed in July. Cubans from all walks of life -- rich and poor, businessmen and workers, angry students and grieving mothers -- filled the streets of Santiago in a somber demonstration.

WILLIAM LEOGRANDE, PROFESSOR OF POLITICAL SCIENCE: Batista does a number of things that gradually expand the revolutionary coalition until it includes almost everyone. He's corrupt. He's very repressive. You reach a point in the late 1950's where virtually everyone is opposed to the regime.

NARRATOR: High up in the Mountains of the Sierra Maestra, Fidel Castro was fast becoming the symbol of resistance against Batista. It was there, among the peasants that the romance of Castro's guerilla war was born. Years later, Celia Sánchez, Fidel's friend and confidant, wistfully recalled, "Those were the best times. We'll never be so happy again. Never." Members of the Urban Underground and opposition party leaders climbed up the mountains to meet with Fidel and work out the details of a future coalition government.

CARLOS FRANQUI, JOURNALIST (SPANISH): The manifesto of the Sierra Maestra called for a democratic republic, a return to the constitution of 1940, free elections. I don't think he signed it intending to honor it.

NORBERTO FUENTES (SPANISH): Fidel realizes that he has his army and his people, who have nothing to do with the politicians among whom he once belonged. He discovers in those sallow, ill-humored, illiterate peasants, the true meaning of a revolution, which is to subvert society. To take the people from the bottom, everyone, and create something new. That old idea of Lenin that you must destroy the State, he understands it and now he knows who he can destory it with.

NARRATOR: The handful of guerrillas who had survived the disaster of the Granmagrew into a rebel army. Fidel commanded with an iron hand.

JORGE DOMINGUEZ People began to notice that Fidel demanded obedience that he was not very likely to consult, uh, that he wanted to take decisions on his own and wanted others simply to comply.

HUBER MATOS, REBEL LEADER (SPANISH): I remember Fidel once scolded a guerilla fighter. He was so brutal, so obscene, so humiliating. I would stay up under my hammock, thinking, "What will happen in the future?" Then I would see Camilo, Ché obey Fidel and admire him so. And I would ask, "Am I the only one who doubts?"

NARRATOR: In the summer of 1958, Batista decided once and for all to get rid of Fidel Castro, deploying ten thousand soldiers against 300 rebels. Within 30 days, they had encircled Fidel's forces, but they were now deep in rebel territory and vulnerable to attack. Fidel's strategy was simple. "Like ping pong," he said, "you hit them where they least expect it. " Earlier that Spring, the United Sates, embarrrassed by Batista's brutality, had suspended military assistance to his regime.

ALFREDO DURAN, VETERAN, BAY OF PIGS: It created the perception that one, the Cuban army could no longer effectively fight the guerilla movement up in the hills, and secondly, from a political perspective, it sent the signal that the United States no longer supported Batista.

NARRATOR: But Fidel, who since his days at the University had resented the American presence in Cuba, found the gesture to be meaningless. "Once this struggle is finished, I'll begin the real struggle of my life, " he wrote Celia in June of 1958, "the fight I will wage against the United States. I believe that is my true destiny."

NARRATOR: In August, rebel forces left the mountains and fanned across Cuba. Fidel ordered Camilo Cienfuegos and Ché Guevara to move west. Huber Matos took the surrender of Santiago de Cuba. Ché Guevara blew up an armored train in Santa Clara, and took the city. Batista's demoralized army crumbled.

NARRATOR: December 31, 1958. Cubans rang in an uncertain New Year. At dawn Fulgencio Batista fled Cuba, with one hundred and eighty of his closes friends, having amassed a fortune of over 100 million dollars. On January 2, 1959, Fidel Castro and his rebel army set out from Santiago de Cuba toward Havana, a 600 mile triumphant march along Cuba's central highway. Fidel spoke at every stop. Broadcast live on radio and television, his words reached every corner of the island.

JORGE DOMINGUEZ: There is a real feeling that something genuinely new and different will take place . It's new people. They dance and they joke and they flirt with girls. It is a sense of embeddedness in Cuban society.

HUBER MATOS (SPANISH): For the rebel army it all came as a surprise. We were euphoric on that day. We felt the spiritual satisfaction of someone who has fulfilled his duty selflessly.

MARIFELI PEREZ-STABLE: The first thing that people hoped for was honest democratic government and in my family, my uncles, my grandfathers, everyone went out, once the revolution came to power, to pay their back taxes because now there was going to be an honest government in Cuba.

ARCHIVAL FILM -- REPORTER: Dr. Castro, it is reported that you feel that your role in the Revolution is about over and that you plan, perhaps, to return to civilian life. Is this true? And if not, how soon do you think it would be before you could do that?

CASTRO: My obligation with the people. what I have to do now, and in the future, is that, what be good for my country, and if for my country it is necessary that I renounce to any position, I would gladly renounce to any position because sincerely, I don't ambition power, money, nothing, only to serve my country.


NARRATOR: In keeping with the Manifesto of the Sierra Maestra, an interim government that included all opposition groups assumed power. Elections were scheduled to take place in eighteen months. But real power resided with Fidel, at his old headquarters in the Sierra, at Celia Sanchez's apartment in El Vedado, at a beach house in Cojímar, where all major decision were made.

NARRATOR: One of the first acts of the revolutionary government was retribution. In less than three months, more than 500 Batistianos were publicly tried and executed. When the International Press called it a bloodbath, Castro, incensed, made his case on television.

ARCHIVAL FILM: The purpose of today's gathering is to show the whole world that all Cubans are united in the rebel victory and that all of them support the execution.

FIDEL CASTRO: When the young people would appear murdered in the street, when the yards of the barracks would be full of cadavers, when our women were violated, when the children were murdered, when the police force would go into the embassy to assassinate our people, no one made a campaign against Cuba.

NARRATOR: An ominous new chant, Paredón, "to the wall," was heard throughout Cuba. Fidel Castro's role as Cuba's leader became official on February 16, the day he was appointed Prime Minister.

ARCHIVAL FILM: New York's Pennsylvania Station rarely has seen anything like it. Only the magnetism of a Castro could produce it.

NARRATOR: Prime Minister Fidel Castro arrived in New York in April of 1959, part of a fifteen day good will tour. He was young and idealistic. His appeal undiminished by the recent accusations of a bloodbath.

ARCHIVAL FILM: Fidel, will you say just a few words to New Yorkers who have seen you for the first time?

ARCHIVAL FILM -- FIDEL: Well, I'm very glad to be here again, because I fulfilled my promise of coming after a victorious revolution.

TIM NAFTALI, AUTHOR: He's a movie star. The James Dean of international politics. He's viewed as a savior, leading a revolution to improve people's lives and to show that the people of Latin America can be in control of their own destiny. However, there was some concern that he might be a Communist. So on Meet the Press he is asked.

ARCHIVAL FILM -- MEET THE PRESS: Dr. Castro, Senator Smathers of Florida says that you have many Communists in your government. Is that so?

CASTRO: And because Senator Smathers said, it ought to be true? I don't think that.

TIM NAFTALI: And then he's asked, "Well, what about your brother?"

ARCHIVAL FILM -- MEET THE PRESS: An American magazine published here this week says that your brother is a Communist, and his wife also. Do you believe that?

CASTRO: And how, how the U.S. is going to know that better than myself. That is my brother and my, my sister-in law? I can tell that they are not Communists.

TIM NAFTALI: He denied, and he knew that this was not true. He denied the role that Communists in his inner circle had played.

NARRATOR: In Washington, U.S. officials stood ready to offer Castro economic aid.

ARCHIVAL FILM: Did you ask for any economic assistance?

FIDEL CASTRO: No. What happens is that here, you in the United States, are accustomed to see governments coming for only money. No, I came for good relations, for good understanding, for good economical relations.

NARRATOR: Vice President Richard Nixon urged the Cuban Prime Minister to hold elections as soon as possible. "The people do not want elections," Castro informed him. "In the past they produced bad government. "

JAMES BLIGHT: Nixon's conclusion was that he's probably not a Communist but he is going to be, the phrase was roughly, "a man to be reckoned with" in this hemisphere. And we have to be very careful.

NARRATOR: Cuba's revolutionary transformation began on May 17th, 1959, with the proclamation of the Agrarian reform law. Las Manacas, the Castro family farm, was the first land-holding to be confiscated. Fidel's mother, Lina, was furious, and would never forgive her son. Two hundred thousand peasants received title to land they had once worked. On July 26th, the anniversary of Moncada, they descended on Havana to celebrate.

CARLOS FRANQUI (SPANISH): When I first arrived in Havana from the countryside in 1941, everyone treated me with scorn. To see now how the rich, the middle classes welcomed the peasants to Havana, in 1959, had put them up in their own homes was beautiful, as if everyone realized that there had to be an end to injustice.

NARRATOR: As Castro surveyed the crowd of one million gathered on that day, he compared Cuba's new government to ancient Athens. Except better, because Cuba's revolutionary government was not for the privileged classes or the oligarchy. "This," he said, "is true democracy."

HUBER MATOS (SPANISH): As early as March I found some pro-Marxist propaganda in a magazine distributed to the Rebel Army. One, two, three articles. And we saw Guevara and Raúl meeting with Communist party leaders, and I began to think there's a second plan being put in place here.

NARRATOR: Commadante Huber Matos had noted that the Cuban Communists were an unexpected and influential new force in the revolution. "Fidel, you are destroying your own work," Matos wrote, resigning his command. Fidel called the rebel Comandante disloyal, ungrateful, a traitor, and had him arrested.

WILLIAM LEOGRANDE: This is a critical moment, a defining moment, in which the radicals say, this is the direction we're going. And even people who fought with us cannot say no.

NARRATOR: Matos' fate seemed a foregone conclusion.

CARLOS FRANQUI (SPANISH): Raúl Castro wanted him executed. Ché Guevara agreed, then changed his mind. I said, " Fidel, didn't you say that this revolution wouldn't be like Saturn, who devoured his own children?" And Fidel responded, "No. We're not going to execute him. We don't want to create a martyr.

NARRATOR: Matos was sentenced to twenty years in prison. Many moderates in Castro's government resigned in protest or were dismissed. Some left for the United States. Others joined an opposition movement beginning to take shape in Cuba. By the first anniversary of the revolution, Fidel Castro had the reins of power firmly in hand. His brother Raúl was Minister of Defense. His friend Ché Guevara headed the Central Bank. An obscure lawyer, Osvaldo Dorticós, was President. In just one year there had been many accomplishments. The price of public services dropped. New public works projects were begun. Rents were slashed in half, and students would soon be sent into the mountains to teach peasants to read and write.

ALCIBIADES HIDALGO, CUBAN OFFICIAL (SPANISH): My generation fell in love with that revolution. Popular education, access to health, social justice, and he was so appealing he had such an interesting way of expressing ideas.

ARCHIVAL FILM -- CASTRO: (captioned) Did we come out of military barracks? Did we come to power through a coup d'état? Why are we in power? Did we stage a military coup?

GEORGIE ANNE GEYER: What I found so fascinating, was there was Fidel up here on the podium, making all these strange gestures, waving his arms.

CASTRO: (captioned) Did we come to power because we bought votes? Did we overthrow a constitutional government?

GEORGIE ANNE GEYER: There out here are two hundred-thousand plus Cubans, for seven, eight hours while Fidel is up there directing them and enchanting them, weaving a spell over them.

MARIFELI PEREZ STABLE: Perhaps his most important accomplishment was understanding the Cuban people, where they were, and challenging them to do great things. And the Cuban people, at that time, a majority of them responded. They turned their goodwill, their faith, and their judgment over to Fidel Castro. And that was a huge political capitol - a political capitol that allowed him to, in fact, centralize power.

NARRATOR: Soviet Deputy Premiere Anastas Mikoyan arrived in Havana t on February 3, 1960 to inaugurate a technological and cultural exhibit. For three days he was feted in tropical splendor. For the Soviets, it was a foray into a world filled with opportunity for Americans, it was the beginning of a Cold War nightmare.

WAYNE SMITH, U.S. DIPLOMAT: Our fear was twofold number one that, uh, the Soviets might somehow use Cuba in such a way as to threaten the U.S. security. Number two, that Castro's revolution would strengthen the Soviet hand in Latin America.

TIM NAFTALI: Cuba, 90 miles away from Florida, is an aircraft carrier for the Soviets. It is something that they've never had before. It is a place from which they can project power. That island of Cuba was the off-shore base that the Soviet Union had always wanted to have next to the United States.

ARCHIVAL FILM: Crisis in Cuba. Anti-Castro leaflets are scattered over the city by a plane based in the United States and reportedly flown by Castro's former air force chief. United States gets much of the blame for.

NARRATOR: For some time now, relations between the United States and Cuba had deteriorated. As Castro fanned the flames of Cuban nationalism, playing up a history of American domination.

JAMES BLIGHT: The American government would send in its Ambassador, Philip Bonsal, to say, "look, we understand, the American enterprises are over-represented here. The drug companies, the oil companies, the cement companies, Bell Telephone -- Let's talk about this." Instead of talking, Fidel Castro would go out and make a four or five hour speech condemning American imperialism and bringing a million people into the square and sending them off really rabid with anti-American fervor.

JORGE DOMINGUEZ: At some point in February, March 1959, Fidel Castro had come to the decision that there could not be a revolution in Cuba, that he could not build the Cuba that he wanted, unless he extirpated the United States from Cuba. And at that point, there was very little the U.S. government could do to shake that conviction.

NARRATOR: At the end of Mikoyan's visit Castro signed an agreement with the Soviet Union that would seal the fate of Cuba-US relations. The Soviets would provide oil in exchange for Cuban sugar.

WILLIAM LEOGRANDE: This was a time when most Latin American countries had no relationship whatsoever with the Soviet Union. And to forge such a relationship was seen by Washington as deserting the United States in the Cold War.

WAYNE SMITH: Our interpretation was that Castro had made his decision. He was going to side with the Soviet Union and therefore we lost interest in negotiations and in March of 1960. President Eisenhower signed the finding, which authorized the CIA to begin actions to get rid of the Castro regime.

NARRATOR: In June, the first major shipment of Soviet crude oil arrived. Castro requested that American oil companies in Cuba refine one million barrels of the Soviet crude. They refused. On June 29 the Cuban government nationalized the oil companies.

SOT: (captioned) What choice did the revolutionary government have? To betray our people?

CASTRO: (captioned) Instead of being loyal to our people, should we have been loyal to American monopolies that exploited our country?

NARRATOR: That September, Castro lashed out at the US before the United Nations, and flaunted his new friendship with Soviet Premiere Nikita Khrushchev. The following month, the Eisenhower administration imposed a trade embargo against Cuba.

ARCHIVAL FILM -- HAGARTY: There is a limit to what the United states and self-respect can endure. That limit has now been reached.

NARRATOR: On January third, 1961, the United States broke relations with Cuba. The departure of Cubans to the United States, which began shortly after the revolution, turned into an exodus.

ALFREDO DURAN: Batista people were the first to arrive here. Then political figures started arriving and finally, the people whose property were being threatened, or confiscated.

NARRATOR: Cuban exiles organized themselves into an anti-Castro movement, in close contact with the opposition within Cuba.

MARIFELI PEREZ STABLE: The overwhelming majority of the people -- who opposed Castro in 1959, 1960, 1961 had opposed Batista and, and so they were -- they felt doubly aggrieved. They had fought for a free democratic Cuba. And what they got was an emerging dictatorship, the elimination of most private property, and a menacing alliance with the Soviet Union.

NARRATOR: An urban underground as powerful as the resistance against Batista now fought against Castro. Almost nightly stores were bombed, sugar cane fields burned, factories sabotaged. And in the Escambray Mountains, in the center of Cuba, an insurrection had taken hold.

MARIFELI PEREZ STABLE: This was a largely, although not exclusively, peasant rebellion against the Cuban revolution. The Cuban government, in the '60s, had mobilized four times between fifty and one hundred thousand milicianos to fight the rebels, to clean, to sweep the Escambray. The area became so dangerous for the government that they forcibly transferred thousands of peasant families out of the Escambray and relocated them in different parts of Cuba.

NARRATOR: While the internal resistance fought the Cuban government, the CIA trained an Army of exiles in Guatemala, for an invasion of Cuba.

ALFREDO DURAN: When I went and volunteered to be part of what ultimately turned out to be the Bay of Pigs invasion, I really thought that what we were going to do was go and train as guerillas and go and train as underground individuals who would organize a massive uprising in Cuba. The concept of the invasion, I think, caught by surprise most of the people who were in the Bay of Pigs.

NARRATOR: President John F. Kennedy launched the U.S.-backed invasion of Cuba on April 15th, 1961 when he authorized B-26 planes to bomb Cuba's major airports, destroying most, but not all of Castro's airforce.

NORBERTO FUENTES (SPANISH): In the bombardment, there's a boy who is mortally wounded and then he dips his finger in his own guts and writes with his blood, on a door "Fidel." They take the fragment of a door to Fidel, who is deeply moved by this sixteen year old boy, who in his final moment of agony demonstrated his devotion with his blood.

NARRATOR: The next day, Fidel Castro declared, for he first time, that his revolution was socialist. Immediately, he ordered the arrest of at least 20,000 Cubans identified as opponents to the regime. For the next hours he anxiously awaited news. At dawn on April 17, 1400 Cuban exiles landed at Bay of Pigs, on the Zapata Swamp, a site chosen at the last minute. Fidel, personnaly took over the island's defense. Surrounded by the Cuban army, pounded from the ground and from the air, the exiles stood no chance. Seventy two hours later, they surrended.

WILLIAM LEOGRANDE: The Bay of Pigs invasion so closely associates, uh, opposition to the revolution with the United States, that Castro is able to wrap himself in the Cuban flag and declares any kind of opposition to the revolution as treason. And in most countries, treason is punishable by death.

BRIAN LATELL: That was a very dramatic turning point, a very decisive moment. Castro's credibility, his strength, in Cuba and through Latin America was enormously enhanced. His revolution, at that moment, was more consolidated than it had ever been before. He had done what no Latin American leader before him had ever done, and that was to defeat a really significant challenge mounted by the united States.

NARRATOR: In November 1961, seven months after the failure of the Bay of Pigs, President John Kennedy put his brother, Robert, in charge of a covert operation to get rid of Fidel Castro. Determined to avenge the President's humiliation on the beaches of Cuba, the Attorney General would stop at nothing. He engaged hundreds of CIA operatives in economic sabotage and infiltration missions. Old mafia contacts were dusted off to carry out harebrained assassination schemes: Arsenic in Castro's milkshake. Poison in his cigars. Spray powders on his boots to make his beard fall off.

WILLIAM LEOGRANDE: There's no question Fidel Castro thinks that the United States will try again after the failure of the Bay of Pigs. He sees the covert programs that are already underway trying to assassinate him, trying to sabotage the economy and he expects that the next time the United States will use its own troops since the exile army was such a failure.

NARRATOR: On October 14, photographs by U2 spy planes, revealed that the Soviets were constructing ballistic missile sites in Cuba -- to house missiles that could reach the United States.

TIM NAFTALI: Fidel had not wanted the nuclear missiles. The Cuban request was for tanks, surface to air missiles, and for some, perhaps some Soviet soldiers. But once Fidel got them, he saw their value, and he loved the fact that they scared the Gringoes.

NARRATOR: For the next 13 days the world came closer to nuclear war than at any other time. The missiles intended to defend Cuba had only served to endanger it, as the island now faced the threat of an imminent US invasion. On October 27th, Castro dictated a letter to Ambassador Aleksander Alekseev, meant for Nikita Khrushchev.

TIM NAFTALI: According to Alexeev's own account, Fidel dictated it ten times and at the very end, the letter was still red-hot. Fidel was basically telling Khrushchev, that if the Soviet Union had to use nuclear weapons to defend the socialist world and if that meant that Cuba might be sacrificed, that's OK.

JAMES BLIGHT: He had concluded that actually he had one of two choices. The choice was for Cuba to be destroyed and for Cuba to be destroyed, but for a reason. And you know, Khrushchev's reaction to this was, "That guy's nuts. It sounds like he's telling me to blow up the world!"

CARLOS FRANQUI (SPANISH): I was in my office preparing the Monday paper, when I read on the teletype, "Khrushchev orders missiles removed from Cuba." I called Fidel, and asked him, "What do I do with this cable?" Because I could not imagine he didn't know it. And for five minutes, we went back and forth. Until he said, "read it to me again." And that's how he found out.

NARRATOR: Castro called Khrushchev, a bastard, an SOB. Enraged, he shattered a huge mirror that hung in his office. He retreated to La Plata, his old guerrilla camp in the Sierra Maestra, to nurse his grievances. Friends remarked on his decline. He was gaunt - his brown eyes larger and darker than ever.

WILLIAM LEOGRANDE: He sees that the Soviet Union will treat him in the same way the United States has treated Cuba historically. Great powers treat small powers as if they're inconsequential. And he never again trusts the Soviet Union fully.

ARCHIVAL FILM: Gentlemen of the Brigade, I need not tell you how happy I am.

NARRATOR: In December 1962, President Kennedy spoke to the surviving members of the Bay of Pigs. They had been ransomed for 53 million dollars worth of food and medicine. " I can assure you that it is the strongest wish of the people of this country, that Cuba shall one day be free again."

NARRATOR: But Kennedy had made a pledge. At the end of the missile crisis, he promised Khrushchev the United States would not invade Cuba.

JAMES BLIGHT: Kennedy took one look at Cuba after the missile crisis and said I'm out of here. I don't want to mess with these -- look it almost got us blown up. Let's -- OK, you got to do a little something with the covert operations and Bobby, my brother, will handle that. But no more messing around so that the Soviets come in here. I don't want this island on my chart anymore.

NARRATOR In the 1960s Cuba became a Mecca for a young generation, committed to transforming the world.

MARIFELI PEREZ STABLE: It was an anti-imperialist era. The old colonialism was breaking down and the movements for national liberation in Africa and in Asia, the war in Vietnam, Castro was very much a part of that landscape.

GEORGIE ANNE GEYER: There was a very, very real sense that this was the revolutionary capital of the world. There were many, many Americans, Europeans and others there who were madly in love with Fidel Castro. He's very amusing, when he wants to charm you, he can really charm you.

RICARDO BOFILL (SPANISH): He was a populist. He mixed with the people. Fidel Castro would go to a farm and throw his arm around a woman and say, "Sister, how are those chicks coming along?" For all his arrogance, he has a special touch with people.

GEORGIE ANNE GEYER: Women loved Fidel. Women were just crazy about him. And after the revolution, particularly, they just swarmed all over him. Fidel never wanted any information about his ladies -- his women in his life because, with any charismatic leader, that dilutes the effectiveness. He has to remain mythical. He has to remain distant.

NARRATOR Fidel's alleged affairs became the talk of Havana and one affair in particular, with a mystery woman, a woman from the city of Trinidad.

NORBERTO FUENTES (SPANISH): He meets Dalia in 1961, in the literacy campaign. He fell pretty hard for her. And took her places in 64, 65, and he has been living with her ever since. He married her in 1980.

NARRATOR: It would be years before the world learned that Fidel had a wife, Dalia Soto del Valle, five children and even grandchildren.

NARRATOR: In an effort to patch up relations, Khrushchev invited Castro to visit the Soviet Union, in April of 1963.

TIM NAFTALI: Fidel brought the old guard of the Soviet leadership back to their own youth. The days when they were struggling as revolutionaries. Um, it had a remarkable effect on the Soviet spirits.

NARRATOR: Castro reveled in his popularity and enjoyed the privileges reserved for the Soviet elite. He even indulged in a bit of daydreaming. During a hunting trip at Khrushchev's country dacha, he could not help himself from wondering what would happen if he accidentally shot the Soviet Premier?

JAMES BLIGHT: The terms of the Soviet-Cuban military and civilian relationship was pretty much blueprinted on that trip. From that point forward Cubans never paid a penny for any military hardware. They asked and then they received, more or less. The other part was that the Soviets would buy sugar at inflated prices, they would sell oil at deflated prices, and this one would -- this would be paradise.

NARRATOR: In 1966, before an audience of Third World revolutionaries, Fidel Castro reiterated his most unwavering commitment.

CASTRO: (captioned) We revolutionary Cubans understand our international obligations. Our people understand their obligation because they understand that we face a common enemy. The enemy that threatens Cuba is the same enemy that threatens everyone else. That is why we say and we proclaim that Cuban fighters will lend support to any revolutionary movement in any corner of the earth.

GEORGIE ANNE GEYER: Fidel was engaged in this worldwide movement to really overthrow governments from Zanzibar to El Salvador to Nicaragua all over Central Africa, he helped in Vietnam, in Libya, in Algeria, in Syria. They had training camps for guerillas all over Cuba and at different parts of the world. I don't think they anyone has any idea of what a big thing Fidel's adventures and ambitions led him to in the 1960's and even into the 70's.

ARCHIVAL FILM -- CHE AT UNITED NATIONS: (captioned) Now the world must recognize poor of Latin America.

NARRATOR: While Castro built a world revolutionary movement, the Argentine Ché Guevara became its most visible advocate.

ARCHIVAL FILM -- CHE AT UNITED NATIONS: The people who have begun to write their own history. They have said, "Enough!" and begun to march.

NARRATOR: Eloquent and idealistic, the dashing Guevara had acquired a reputation and a following second only to Fidel's.

GEORGIE ANNE GEYER: There was simply not enough space by the mid-60's for both the gigantic personalities of Fidel Castro and Ernesto "Ché" Guevara in Cuba. And the one that was going to leave was Ché.

NORBERTO FUENTES (SPANISH): Fidel's relationship with Ché is the same as with anyone else. You're useful to him one day and not the next. Ché tells Fidel is in Cuba only to train to go to other countries. Fidel says, "If that's what you want."

NARRATOR: Disguised as a businessman, Ché Guevara arrived in the Bolivian Andes in November 1966. He and a small band of Cubans hoped to ignite a continental revolution which would, transform the Andean Mountains into the Sierra Maestra."

ARCHIVAL FILM -- LYNDON JOHNSON: The American nation cannot, must not, and will not.

NARRATOR: By then, President Lyndon Johnson was determined to stop the spread of communism.

ARCHIVAL FILM -- LYNDON JOHNSON: and will not permit the establishment of another communist government in the western hemisphere.

NARRATOR: And the Soviet leadership, who had never fully supported Castro's revolutionary adventures decided to put an end to them.

JAMES BLIGHT: Khrushchev is gone in October of '64, Leonid Brezhnev takes over. His number one priority is arms control negotiations with the United States. And these damned little Cubans are really ruining everything because the Americans say we can't start arms control until you, Soviets, bring these guys under control. This was the ultimatum that Brezhnev gave Castro in -- roughly April of '67. We're not exactly sure of the date. This is in a letter to Castro. If they didn't rein in their revolutionary activities, Brezhnev would give the green light to Lyndon Johnson to go into Cuba.

NARRATOR: Bolivia. July 1967: Ché wrote in his diary, "The negative aspects prevail, including the failure to make contact with the outside. We are down to 22 men, three of whom are disabled, including myself." For months, Ché complained of being betrayed by Bolivia's Soviet-run Communist party and of having no contact with Havana.

GEORGIE ANNE GEYER: The interesting thing about Ché in Bolivia was that he was in the eastern high Andes, which are readily accessible by, for anyone who knew where he was. Fidel knew where he was, but he cut off all radio contact with Ché in Bolivia. And I went there, went in his footsteps, talked to his guerilla group. He could've sent someone up from Paraguay. He could've sent someone out from La Paz, the capital. There was no contact. Ché is left wandering around this very wild, high jungle.

NARRATOR: On October 8, hungry, sick, cut off from the outside world, Ché Guevara and his handful of guerrillas were surrounded by the Bolivian Rangers, an elite army unit trained in counter-insurgency by the United States. Ché was taken prisoner. The next day he was executed. In death, Ché Guevara would become an icon of revolution.

NARRATOR: As the prospects of world revolution dimmed, Fidel Castro turned his energies back toward transforming Cuban society. He set out to build Communism in record time -- faster than the Soviet Union, even China. Fidel would even try to mold a new man, selfless, dedicated, incorruptible. There were some real achievements: children in Cuba did not go hungry. The sons and daughters of peasants and workers received a free education, one day becoming the engineers and doctors of revolutionary Cuba. Hospitals and clinics were built in the farthest reaches of the island -- the foundation of a system that would eventually deliver health care to all Cubans. Prostitution and gambling virtually disappeared. But Cuba's socialist economy bordered on disaster. The U.S. embargo, the flight of managers and technicians to the United States, and economic mismanagement had left factories idle, store shelves empty, basic goods strictly rationed. La cola -- the waiting line to purchase whatever was available--became the staple of daily life. Cubans called Castro "El Señor Habrá" -- Mr. There-Will-Be -- and joked that if Spanish lacked a future tense, Castro would be rendered speechless. But Cubans could do little more than trade jokes. In Castro's Cuba, criticism was not permitted. There were no newspapers, except official ones. No books, except those sanctioned by the regime. Artists, hippies, homosexuals, Jehovah Witnesses, were labeled "antisocial," rounded up, and sent to labor camps. Jails filled with prisoners -- who simply spoke out against the regime and to those who committed acts of violence.

2ND MAN: (captioned) I was fighting in the mountains. They think that I killed people.

REPORTER (OFF CAMERA): Was that true?

2ND MAN: I don't know. I was judged in a tribunal.

REPORTER (OFF CAMERA): Did you have a fair trial?

MARIFELI PEREZ STABLE: There were thousands of political prisoners. Castro himself, in the mid 1960s, admitted to 20,000 which is already a staggering number already makes Cuba one of the highest, if not the highest, for per capita political imprisonment in Latin America's 20th Century. The figure was probably closer to forty or maybe even fifty thousand.

NARRATOR: In March of 1968, Castro moved to eliminate the last vestiges of Capitalism in Cuba. He decreed all private businesses illegal - street vendors, neighborhood cafes, shoe repair shops. "Fixing a toaster in Cuba," one visiting economist commented, "has now become a matter of State."

WILLIAM LEOGRANDE:He traveled in the 1960s, constantly around the island, checking up on local managers and administrators, and trying to solve problems himself, first-hand. He didn't delegate authority. And the result, of course, is that Fidel could not be everywhere. And so consequently, -- when he wasn't there to make a decision, the decision didn't get made because no one else felt they had the authority to make the decision.

JORGE DOMINGUEZ:Fidel Castro is an enormously self-confident man, and he understands who he is, what he wants to do, where he wants to go, and he believes that he can do it. He fails to understand that there are many things he does not know. That there are a great many instances where people do not support him and he will not be able to accomplish his goal.

NARRATOR: Fidel undertook one scheme after another: draining the Zapata swamp, planting a circle of dwarf coffee around Havana, creating a new breed of cattle.

CARLOS FRANQUI (SPANISH): Cuba was going to produce more cheese than Switzerland, more meat than France, more milk. so many things, that I think that man believed them because Fidel Castro believe his own words. And that's the most dangerous thing.

NARRATOR: As one project faltered, Castro moved on to the next, always looking for "the silver bullet." Finally, he turned to sugar, Cuba's traditional crop. And staked his reputation on producing 10 million tons of sugar in 1970.

FIDEL CASTRO: And we've already said not one pound less than the 10 million. That's the problem -- and it needs to be addressed and corrected. And it would be an incredible embarrassment if we were to fall short of the 10 million.

JORGE DOMINGUEZ: The idea was, in effect, to double the size of the country's, uh, sugar harvest and it meant turning Cuba upside down.

NARRATOR: Everyone was mobilized: factory workers, students, housewives volunteers came from all over the world. Vietnam, North Korea, the United States. But no matter how hard Fidel swung his machete, or how often he called on others to give their best, Cubans could not turn his dream into reality.

JORGE DOMINGUEZ: Instead of ten million, eight and a half million metric tons of sugar were produced in 1970. It was nonetheless the largest sugar harvest in Cuban history. But it was a failure because the goal was not achieved and because Cuban resources were destroyed and because the country, instead of free, powerful and independent, was in a state of virtual collapse.

ARCHIVAL FILM -- FIDEL: (captioned) I am not going to beat around the bush. For me, like any other Cuban, this is a very difficult moment. Perhaps more difficult than any other experience in our revolutionary struggle.

NARRATOR: The Soviet Union stepped in. Fidel would no longer be allowed to run the economy from his jeep. A powerful Council of Ministers would make all major decisions in concert with the Soviet bloc. Ten thousand Soviet advisors would lend a hand.

BRIAN LATELL: Castro presided over the revolution's essential capitulation to, uh, to Soviet demands. Organizational demands, structural demands, foreign policy demands. And perhaps one of the hardest things for Castro to accept was that he agreed to stop criticizing the Soviet Union in any fashion, direct or veiled criticism.

NARRATOR: Delighted, Moscow rewarded Cuba with subsidies of up to 6 billion dollars per year.


LEOGRANDE: The economy began to recover in 1970, through about 1976, 1977. People had a real feeling of hope that the sacrifices of the 1960s were paying off economically.

ARCHIVAL FILM -- KISSINGER: We see no virtue in perpetual antagonism between the United States and Cuba. Our concern relates, above all, to Cuba's export of revolution.

NARRATOR: On March 1, 1975, US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger made a surprising announcement.

ARCHIVAL FILM -- KISSINGER: We have taken some symbolic steps to indicate that we are prepared to move in a new direction, if Cuba will.

NARRATOR: It was the era of US-Soviet détente, and the President Gerald Ford moved to normalize relations with Cuba, and to end the fifteen-year old economic embargo.

BARBARA WALTERS: What would you like Americans to know about you and Cuba? And could you possibly say it in English, so they could understand?

CASTRO: In English? I am not well in English.

WALTERS: OK, then, in Spanish.

CASTRO: Good wish to the people of the United States.

CASTRO: Wish of understanding. Wish of friendship. I understand it is not easy. We belong to two different worlds. But I, we are [aside in Spanish] neighbors. And in one way or another, we ought to live in peace. The United States and Cuba.

NARRATOR: That Fall, the State Department announced Cuba and the United States were ready to begin an official dialogue. But all along, Fidel Castro had had his eye on a situation developing half a world away, and preparing Cuba for its first large-scale war. In West Africa, the Portuguese colony of Angola, about to become independent, was fast sliding into civil war. The Marxist Movement for the Liberation of Angola, the MPLA, asked Castro for military assistance to fight against its rivals, backed by South Africa. Fidel Castro faced a tough choice: intervention in Angola or rapprochement with the United States. On November 7th, three days before Independence Day, Cuban troops arrived in force. The U.S. government was caught by surprise.

BRIAN LATELL: The rapprochement, or normalization with the United States, was derailed. He placed a higher priority on his internationalist revolutionary objectives than on better relations with the United States.

ARCHIVAL FILM -- CASTRO: (captioned) What kinds of conditions does imperialist U.S. think it can impose on our country? We are in solidarity with Angola. We are helping Angola, and we will continue to help the people of Angola.

NARRATOR: By January 1976 there were 15,000 Cuban troops in Angola. Armed and supplied by the Soviet Union, they pushed back the Army of South Africa and secured the MPLA in power.

WILLIAM LEOGRANDE: The Cuban intervention in Angola identifies Cuba as a country that's willing to take a risk, willing to put its own interests on the line, willing to provoke a confrontation with the United States in support of national liberation in Africa. It boosts Cuba's prestige in the Third World enormously.

NARRATOR: Castro assumed the role of leader of a major power. His doctors and teachers were serving as far away as Yemen. His troops were fighting in Angola and Ethiopia, in close alliance with the Soviet Union. Soon he would play a key role in another war. the Sandinista insurrection against Anastasio Somoza in Nicaragua.

NORBERTO FUENTES (SPANISH): The Sandinista victory in Nicaragua was directed by Fidel Castro from the headquarters of Cuba's Special Forces. They had broken the codes of Somoza's army. Fidel knew all the movements and told the Sandinistas where to lay ambushes, what to do, until they took power. That was a war directed by Fidel.

NARRATOR: It was Castro's first victory in the Western Hemisphere, one he'd been waiting for since 1959.

ARCHIVAL FILM -- CASTRO: (captioned) Revolutionaries cannot be pessimistic. Revolutionaries are, and always will be, optimistic. We will not be intimidated. Our peoples have shown that they can struggle and persevere.

CARLOS ALBERTO MONTANER (SPANISH): He sees himself as the spearhead of a great socialist revolution and he believes that in ten years all the Caribbean is going to be dominated by Cuba. And he was going to play the key role to beat the other "great power" and he sees himself as a figure of that stature.

NARRATOR: In September 1979, Fidel Castro was elected leader of Movement of Non-Aligned Nations. One month later, he traveled to New York to address the UN.

REPORTER OFF CAMERA: And you're always wearing your bullet roof vest?

REPORTER OFF CAMERA: Everyone always says you have a bullet proof vest.

CASTRO: No. I will land in New York like this. I have a moral one. A moral vest. It's strong.

BRIAN LATELL: Those months of the fall of 1979, really were the apogee of his triumphs. Here he was, the duly chosen, selected president of the nonaligned countries -- the Asian, African, Middle Eastern and Latin American countries. How can you be a loyal, dependable Soviet ally and at the same time be the leader of the nonaligned nations? Well, Castro was able to carry out that exquisite, seemingly impossible balancing act, until the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

WILLIAM LEOGRANDE: Here you had the Soviet Union occupying a non-aligned country. Cuba was caught, then, between its constituency among the nonaligned and its partnership with the Soviet Union, and it refused to denounce the invasion of Afghanistan and lost extraordinary credibility with the rest of the nonaligned countries.

NARRATOR: The following spring, Castro faced an unexpected crisis, when an incident at an Embassy in Havana spiraled out of control.

WAYNE SMITH: This bus, Cubans seeking asylum in the Peruvian embassy, crashes through the gates. Now, the two guards on each side are firing at the bus, but as the bus goes through, they, they shoot each other. And so, Castro takes a position: we're not going to risk the lives of our policemen to keep people out of embassies when we don't care if they go in. So they removed the guards. Bad mistake because within three days you have 10,000 people inside the Peruvian embassy and more headed there from all over the island.

BRIAN LATELL: He was totally preoccupied with international affairs in the fall and winter of 1979. I'm convinced that he was not aware of the depth of unrest on the island, the unrest that was steadily growing below the surface.

NARRATOR Castro was enraged. He branded the refugees "escoria" - trash. Anyone who wanted to leave Cuba, he announced, was free to go.

ARCHIVAL FILM -- CASTRO: We don't want them. We don't need them.

NARRATOR: Cubans who so publicly turned their back on Castro's revolution were subjected to every humiliation: harassment, even beatings, in full view of the newly opened U.S. Interest Section in Havana.

WAYNE SMITH: They were brought here in trucks and buses. They were brought here in trucks and buses. This is stimulated by the government and the foreign minister will not answer the phone.

NARRATOR: In Miami, the Cuban exile community organized a massive sealift, which received the blessing of President Jimmy Carter.

ARCHIVAL FILM -- CARTER: We are the most generous nation on earth, in receiving the refugees seeking freedom from Communist domination and from economic deprivation, brought about primarily by Fidel Castro and his government.

NARRATOR: The flotilla anchored at the Port of Mariel, where tens of thousands were waiting.

ARHCIVAL FILM: We're taking whatever people, you know, they give us. We got crazy people, we got prisoners, they say political prisoners, we got some criminals. Who knows what kind of people we got here?

NARRATOR: Castro," one senior US official remarked, "is using people like bullets aimed at this country."

BRIAN LATELL: Castro wanted to inflict the greatest possible pain on the United States. And he wanted perhaps to contaminate in a sense, the Cuban exile community. Because at that time the Cuban exile community was beginning to, to acquire considerable political influence in the American political process.

NARRATOR: By September, 125,000 refugees had arrived in Miami. Overwhelmed by the influx, Jimmy Carr put an end to the boatlift.

JORGE DOMINGUEZ: Mariel was a shame because it was not just Cuba's upper class that immigrated but ordinary factory workers immigrated. Some of Cuba's leading intellectuals. Many young people who had grown up under the revolution immigrated as well. But Mariel was also a shame because the regime showed its ugly side to the international community when it deported common criminals to the United States, committing an act of aggression. Not just against the imperialist U.S. government, but against the American people.

NARRATOR: Mariel had not yet faded from memory when Fidel Castro faced a new challenge.

ARCHIVAL FILM -- REAGAN: As for the enemies of freedom .

NARRATOR: President Ronald Reagan came to office determined to wage war on Communism, beginning close to home. Reagan authorized the CIA to train an army, the "contras," to wage war against Castro's Sandinista allies in Nicaragua. He sent American troops to invade the island of Grenada, a Cuban ally, where for the first time Castro's men faced American soldiers. And set out to expose Castro's Human Rights record, building on the testimony of political prisoners recently released from Cuban jails.

ARMANDO VALLADARES, POLITICAL PRISONER (SPANISH): I have the sad memory that three of my cellmates were murdered in prison. The first was Roberto López Chávez. He was sixteen years old when he was first imprisoned. Another of my cell mates was Pedro Luis Boitel, a student leader Castro hated with all his heart. Boitel went on a hunger strike and Fidel Castro ordered that his cell door not be opend until he died of thirst. He died of thirst fifty-three days later, like these, hundreds and hundreds of assassinations and torture.

RICARDO BOFILL (SPANISH): Those prisons were killing machines. People were not only deprived of their liberty, what the government wanted was to eliminate all counter-revolutionaries. La Cabaña, Isla de Pinos. all those stories. Words cannot express all the suffering and anguish, because words pale against the reality behind them.

NARRATOR: In March 1987, the U.S. delegation in Geneva requested that the U.N. Human Rights Commission condemn Cuba for "massive, systematic and flagrant abuses of human rights." The next year, under pressure, Castro invited the commission to Cuba to investigate. From Havana, Ricardo Bofill encouraged witnesses to come forward.

ARCHIVAL FILM: (captioned) Ricardo Bofill doesn't worry us. I can't judge what he'll do or won't do. I've no idea what his attitude may be. It doesn't matter -- fireworks against the reality of History. Not to worry!

RICARDO BOFILL (SPANISH): The Commission met at the Commodore Hotel in Havana. Hundreds of people came. The relatives of people who had been executed, including those murdered in the Escambray, people who had been tortured, of prisoners unjustly jailed. In short, witnesses of violations of practically all 30 articles of the Declaration of Human Rights.

NARRATOR:: The Commission's findings were documented in a four hundred page report and presented in Geneva.

JORGE DOMINGUEZ: It is at that moment when even activists from the political left, when left-wing democratic politicians begin to say to the Cuban government, your violation of the human rights of ordinary Cubans is wrong and unacceptable even by the standards of the international left, that the Cuban government finds itself cornered, humiliated, and for the first time understands that it is losing allies everywhere.

NARRATOR: In April 1989, Soviet Premiere Mikhail Gorbachev paid an overdue visit to Fidel Castro's Cuba. For four years now, Gorbachev had pushed economic and political reform in the Soviet Union, and expectations in Cuba had been running high.

ANDRES OPPENHEIMER, JOURNALIST: There was almost euphoria that Cuba would follow the steps, which they had been doing for several decades, of the Soviet Union, in opening up. And the people I was talking to in the Cuban Communist Party, were very, very enthusiastic that Cuba would open up just as the Soviet Union had opened up.

NARRATOR: But by the time of Gorbachev's visit, those who expected Fidel to embrace Perestroika and Glasnost were bitterly disappointed. "Openness and reform are dangerous," Fidel had declared in July of 1988, "and represent a threat to fundamental socialist principles."

CARLOS ALBERTO MONTANER (SPANISH): Fidel Castro believes the United States is going to have an economic crisis and is going to collapse, and that everyone will see he is the one who is right. And that Cuba is going to remain a breeding ground of Revolution. That is, Cuba was going to be the Jurassic Park of communism.

NARRATOR: But it was the Soviet Union that collapsed in 1991.

JORGE DOMINGUEZ: From the first time Fidel Castro appears on Cuba's national stage, July 26, 1953, he has been convinced that history is on his side and he believes so for the decades that follow, until the Soviet Union collapses. All of a sudden, he knew that his world had come to an end.

NORBERTO FUENTES (SPANISH): The collapse of the Soviet Union was a blow. He aged at that moment, and in fact he said. "We never thought the sun would stop shinning. And it did."

ARCHIVAL FILM -- CASTRO: May our country always have dignity, always be independent, not a Yankee colony. We must save our country. We must save the Revolution. We must save socialism. Socialism or death!

ANDRES OPPENHEIMER: Fidel was telling Cubans to preserve the revolution, and to preserve socialism, they had to tighten their belts and, uh, replace cars with oxen, and uh, go back to the stone ages and live in caves if necessary. He said that, actually, I'm not making this up. So, the stuff you saw, like, uh, on the streets and everywhere, were amazing, crazy.

JAMES BLIGHT: Between the spring of 1992 and the spring of 1994, we were stunned at what had happened. Everybody was in such terrible shape that it was hard to believe they could pull themselves out of what they called this special period. It looked as if the Cuban Revolution, the regime of Fidel Castro, was finished

NARRATOR: In Miami, the exile community waited for Fidel to fall, and lobbied Washington to tighten the Embargo. But Castro refused to give in. He exported discontent, by making it legal for anyone leave Cuba -- unleashing a new exodous. In a stunning reversal, Castro opened Cuba to foreign investments, and foreign tourists and allowed U.S. dollars to circulate freely. The economy improved. But prostitution, corruption, and speculation flourished.

ALCIBIADES HIDALGO (SPANISH): There is a great chasm between the promise of the revolution and its results. Fidel has always been a man of promises. He wooed the Cuban people with promises. The end result was a dictatiorship, pure and simple, each day more stripped of the attributes that once made it attractive.

NARRATOR: For more than four decades, Fidel Castro ruled Cuba, inspiring many with visions of a brilliant future, and silencing those who dared oppose him. Striding across the world stage in a role never intended for the leader of a small island in the shadow of the United States.

BRIAN LATELL: He managed to remain in power longer than almost any other leader in the last 100 or 200 years.

ARCHIVAL FILM -- CASTRO: (captioned) Only now do I understand that my destiny was not to rest near the end of my life.

BRIAN LATELL: It's a remarkable tenure. And it's testament to his political skills to his ability to manage crisis, to anticipate crisis to play as a grandmaster at chess to play two and three moves ahead.

WAYNE SMITH: Castro plays David to our Goliath masterfully. Wherever Castro goes, he is applauded. Not because people want to adopt the Cuban system, no, because he has defied the United States and survived.

CARLOS FRANQUI (SPANISH): As a Cuban, I wish more could be salvaged because it would make it easier to rebuild Cuba. Cuba was a nation with a history, a culture, with an economy, that needed reform, but not the madness of more than four decades.

NARRATOR: For Cuba, January 1959 was a time of glory, a time when all things seemed possible. When an entire nation placed its hopes in just one man.

60 Years Ago, 'Fidelmania' Took New York City By Storm

On April 21, 1959, Fidel Castro arrived in New York to a crowd of 20,000 people. NPR's Scott Simon speaks with author Tony Perrottet about the Cuban leader's historic U.S. visit.

Sixty years ago, a bearded, young revolutionary marched into Havana with his band of rebels. Fidel Castro was celebrated as a liberator by many in America then as the man who'd overthrown a brutal dictator. U.S. journalists flocked to Cuba to interview him. Even Ed Sullivan got into the act. As America's foremost variety show host stood among bearded men in fatigues who were toting machine guns, Ed Sullivan practically fawned.


ED SULLIVAN: We want you to like us, and we like you - you and Cuba.

FIDEL CASTRO: Very glad and very happy for the honor of your interview.

SIMON: And a few months later, April 21, 1959, Fidel Castro took New York City by storm.

Here to tell us about what was called Fidelmania is Tony Perrottet. He's the author of "Cuba Libre!: Che, Fidel, And The Improbable Revolution That Changed World History." He joins us from Los Angeles. Thanks so much for being with us.

TONY PERROTTET: Oh, thanks for having me.

SIMON: We're going to get to the New York visit in a moment, but first, Ed Sullivan. I mean, we think of Elvis. We think of The Beatles. How did interviewing Fidel Castro come about - and in Cuba, no less?

PERROTTET: Well, he may have been the most powerful man in showbiz in '59, but he was somewhat insecure. He - what he really wanted was to be taken seriously as a foreign correspondent or a political commentator. So he decided that all the - every journalist in the United States wanted to interview - get the first TV interview with Fidel, so he decided to hop on a plane and go down there and meet the young rebel.

So they interview him in the town hall. It was a very improvised thing. All the guerrillas are standing around. One of them knocks over the - you know, one of - the lighting. They can't find a plug to put in the - that's powerful enough to put in the camera. But they do this interview. And it's the first - it is the first TV interview. And Ed Sullivan really falls over himself. He's really starstruck.


SULLIVAN: They said your army was communist and that you were communist. I've seen your army. They carry Bibles. Cuba, I know, is mostly Catholic. And you, too - aren't you Catholic?

SIMON: At the time of the interview, there were concerns that Fidel Castro and a lot of the rebels were secretly communist, as opposed to the avowed communist that they became, right?

PERROTTET: There was a lot of concern. The - Batista, the dictator, actually hired a PR company in Washington to promote this idea that these guys were communists. But the CIA would send people down regularly to interview, you know, the revolutionaries and find their secret contacts. And they come - always come back saying that they're very - they're sort of left of center. They're nationalist, but they're not communist. And so weirdly, you have the situation where the CIA members are actually starting to support Fidel.

SIMON: Let's get to the New York visit. And to set the scene a bit, some audio from a contemporary newsreel.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: New York Pennsylvania Station rarely has seen anything like it. Only the magnetism of a Castro could produce it. For this is the spontaneous, oh-for-sure unrehearsed enthusiasm greeting the Cuban premier, bearded Fidel Castro. Visiting this town.

SIMON: And we'll explain. There's a little boy held aloft, and he has (laughter) a fake beard, little army hat, little army fatigues. What was included in this New York visit?

PERROTTET: Oh, it was very touristic in a sense. He's - he went to City Hall and, you know, met the mayor. He went up the Empire State Building and the observation deck. He went to Bronx Zoo, and he leapt over the fence and patted a tiger at one stage, much to the, you know, delight of the journalists. And then he ate a hot dog and declared the Bronx Zoo the best thing that New York has.

SIMON: And a big speech in Central Park, right?

PERROTTET: Yes, that was the climax on the last night. And some 30,000 people turned up.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: This is his hour in New York town.

SIMON: Let me ask you about some other stops that he made, including, by the way, from Washington, D.C., where we often forget he met Richard Nixon.

PERROTTET: Yes, that was the start of the trip. And so he went to D.C., and Eisenhower - President Eisenhower made sure that he was off on a golf trip. So Nixon was there, and they had this meeting. And it didn't go terribly well. (Laughter) Fidel disliked Nixon, and Nixon sort of snubbed him a little bit and was sort of very aloof. He said that Fidel was either lying about being a communist, or he's just extremely naive. And so he's just playing into the hands.

SIMON: So when Fidel Castro visited the United States 60 years ago, what was the effect on the relationship that the U.S. hoped to strike with Cuba?

PERROTTET: Well, on the popular level, it was extremely successful. He was mobbed at every stop. But on this other level - the official level - he sort of wasn't making any headway at all. He thought that he could actually be a populist, as he was in Cuba, that he could speak directly to the American people and that the government would sort of go, oh, wow. But they - Eisenhower and Nixon had other ideas.

What happened, unfortunately, was that the romantic idea of Fidel sort of started to slide. And it was a very sort of superficial obsession that the Americans had with Fidel - you know, this idea that he was this heroic figure. They expected him to sort of get out of his khakis, put on a three-piece suit and become the young lawyer that he was raised to be.

There was a communist guy who was with him at one stage, and he tried to convince Fidel to, you know, to the Red camp. And Fidel said, I would be a communist if I could be Stalin. You know, in other words, you know, if he could run the whole show, he'd be a communist. If not, not that interested. So it was kind of - he was more interested in power than the ideology.

SIMON: Tony Perrottet, author of "Cuba Libre!," thanks so much for being with us.

PERROTTET: Well, thank you for having me.


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‘We lay claim to a world without ruthless blockades’

Castro is escorted by United Nations Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim, right, during his visit to address the UN General Assembly in New York in 1979. Photograph: REX/Shutterstock

The wheels of history continued to turn. In 1989, the Berlin Wall fell. The Soviet Union collapsed. Cuba was increasingly isolated.

But Castro was back in New York in 1995 for the UN’s 50th anniversary. This time he spoke for only six minutes but got a longer ovation than President Bill Clinton. “We lay claim to a world without ruthless blockades that cause the death of men, women and children like silent atomic bombs,” he said, referring to US sanctions against Cuba and the embargo against Iraq.

Castro wore a double-breasted blue suit. Gazing at him across the hall, Clinton reportedly commented: “He’s the only guy here who’s better dressed than Warren Christopher,” a reference to his dapper secretary of state.

Castro and Russian president Boris Yeltsin embraced warmly but, outside the UN building, hundreds of Cuban Americans called for Castro’s head.

Castro discarded the suit and returned to his trademark olive-green military uniform for a nostalgic visit to the Hotel Theresa in Harlem, followed by one of the biggest black churches in the US, the Abyssinian Baptist Church.

“Standing at a podium before 1,300 admirers, Mr Castro held forth as if he were on a balcony overlooking a plaza in Havana, drinking in the cheers and applause that greeted his nearly every remark,” said a New York Times report.

As Castro spoke, the paper noted, most other world leaders were at Clinton’s cocktail party at the New York Public Library. “This is the 35th anniversary of my first visit to this neighborhood,” he said. “And the incredible thing is, I am still expelled. I am still being left out of the dinners, as if nothing had changed in all these years, as if we were still in the days of the cold war.”

Castro also dropped in at Jimmy’s Bronx Café and held a meeting with a hundred religious leaders. But his visit triggered protests by thousands of Cuban exiles, including his daughter, Alina Fernandez Revuelta, who had fled Cuba a year earlier, disguised as a Spanish tourist.

“Castro must go,” she said. “We are all trying to get the embargo toughened.”

New York mayor Rudy Giuliani refused to meet him or invite him to events for world leaders. Giuliani said: “I wouldn’t invite him anywhere. What Fidel Castro has done to the Cuban people, including friends of mine, is an outrage of this century.”

Castro shakes hands with the then UN secretary-general, Kofi Annan, in 2000. Photograph: Henny Ray Abrams/AFP/Getty Images

Visiting the office of the New York Times, Castro shot back: “I would not vote for the mayor. It’s not just because he didn’t invite me to dinner but because on my way into town from the airport there were such enormous potholes.”

He also said he ordered 46 translators to transcribe Colin Powell’s autobiography into Spanish, for reading by himself and senior Cuban officials.

The New York Times recorded: “Mr Castro punctuated his remarks with disarming humor and, at times, long-winded asides. He wore his recently disclosed wardrobe of international diplomacy – a starched white shirt, gold cuff links, a red tie and comfortable shoes.”

Castro defied 10 US administrations. On his final visit to the country in 2000, Giuliani branded him a “murderer” but Clinton spoke with him and shook his hand. The Cuban president gave a three-and-a-half hour speech at Riverside church, telling the 3,000-strong audience that he loved the “real people” of New York.

How Cuba Remembers Its Revolutionary Past and Present

It’s not hard to see why Fidel Castro’s guerrilla headquarters during the Cuban revolutionary war was never found by the army. Even today, getting to the command post feels like a covert mission. Known as Comandancia La Plata, the remote hide-out was built in the spring of 1958 in the succulent rainforest of the Sierra Maestra at Cuba’s eastern tip, and it still lies at the end of steep, treacherous, unpaved roads. There are no road signs in the Sierra, so photographer João Pina and I had to stop our vehicle and ask for directions from passing campesinos on horseback while zigzagging between enormous potholes and wandering livestock. In the hamlet of Santo Domingo, we filled out paperwork in quadruplicate to secure access permits, before an official government guide ushered us into a creaky state-owned four-wheel-drive vehicle. This proceeded to wheeze its way up into one of the Caribbean’s last wilderness areas, with breathtaking views of rugged green peaks at every turn.

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One Day in December: Celia Sánchez and the Cuban Revolution

The guide, Omar Pérez, then directed us toward a steep hiking trail, which ascends for a mile into the forest. Rains had turned stretches into muddy streams, and the near-100 percent humidity had us soaked with sweat after only a few steps. A spry local farmer, Pérez pushed us along with mock-military exhortations of Vámanos, muchachos! By the time I spotted the first shack—the dirt-floored field hospital set up by the young medical graduate Ernesto “Che” Guevara—I looked like a half-wild guerrilla myself.

In any other country, the Comandancia would make an excellent eco-lodge, but in Cuba it remains one of the revolution’s most intimate historical shrines. The base was first carved out in April 1958 and continued to be Fidel’s main command post until December 1958, as the guerrillas gained one unexpected victory after the next and began to seize the rest of the island. Its 16 thatch-roofed huts were home to some 200 rebel soldiers and had the ambience of a self-contained—and strikingly beautiful—jungle republic.

The structures are all original, Pérez insisted, and are lovingly labeled with wooden signs. Che’s hospital was used to treat wounded guerrillas and enemy soldiers, and ill local peasant supporters. (“Che performed a lot of dentistry here,” Pérez said. “Not very well.”) Paths lead to the press office, where the rebels’ newspaper, El Cubano Libre, was produced mostly by hand. At the summit, Radio Rebelde was transmitted around Cuba using an antenna that could be raised and lowered unseen.

The main attraction is La Casa de Fidel—Castro’s cabin. Perched on a ledge above a burbling stream, with large windows propped open by poles to let in a cooling breeze, it’s a refuge that would suit a Cuban John Muir. The spacious two-room hut was designed by his resourceful secretary, rural organizer and lover, Celia Sánchez, and the interior still looks like the revolutionary power couple has just popped out for a cigar. There is a pleasant kitchen table and gasoline-fueled refrigerator used to store medicines, complete with bullet holes from when it was shot at while being transported on the back of a mule. The bedroom still has the couple’s armchairs, and an ample double bed with the original mattress now covered in plastic. Raised in a well-to-do family of landowners, Fidel enjoyed his creature comforts, but Celia also thought it important for visitors to see the rebel leader well established and comfortable—acting, in fact, as if the war were already won and he was president of Cuba. She would serve guests fine cognac, cigars and potent local coffee even as enemy airplanes strafed randomly overhead. Celia even managed to get a cake to the hut packed in dry ice via mule train for Fidel’s 32nd birthday.

The interior of the cabin is off-limits to visitors, but when Pérez meandered off, I climbed up the ladder and slipped inside. At one point, I lay down on the bed, gazing up at a window filled with jungle foliage and mariposa flowers like a lush Rousseau painting. It was the ideal place to channel 1958—a time when the revolution was still bathed in romance. “The Cuban Revolution was a dream revolution,” says Nancy Stout, author of One Day in December: Celia Sánchez and the Cuban Revolution. “It didn’t take too long. It worked. And it was filled with these extraordinary, larger-than-life characters.” As it was unfolding, the outside world was fascinated by the spectacle of a ragtag bunch of self-taught guerrillas, many of them barely out of college, who managed to overthrow one of Latin America’s most brutal dictatorships. “It was,” says Stout, “like an operetta.”

But even the hallowed Comandancia cannot escape Cuba’s modern realities, as the Socialist system is slowly being dismantled. As we hiked back down the mountain, Pérez explained that he had landed his prized job as a guide a decade ago, in part because his grandfather had helped the rebels in the 1950s. Although he has a university degree in agricultural engineering, he said he makes far more money in tourism than he could on a state-run farm. “My salary is 14 CUC [$16] a month, but I get by on propinitas, little tips,” he added pointedly. Pérez also hoped the opening of the economy since 2011 by Raúl Castro—Fidel’s younger brother, a guerrilla who also spent time at the Comandancia—would speed up. “Cuba has to change!” he said. “There’s no other way for us to move forward.”

It was a startling admission at such a hallowed revolutionary spot. Ten years ago, he might have been fired for such a declaration.

Castro’s cabin at the rebel headquarters had a simple bed, a fridge, a study and a secret trapdoor, in case he came under attack. (João Pina) The Sierra has long been a refuge for rebels, starting with the Taíno chief Hatuey, who led an uprising against the Spanish in the 1500s. (João Pina) The deserted road between Santiago de Cuba and Marea del Portillo. Much of the route has been wrecked by hurricanes and landslides. (João Pina) Sections of the road between Santiago de Cuba and Marea del Portillo can only be traversed at five miles an hour. (João Pina) (Guilbert Gates)

Cubans love anniversaries, and this December 2 marks one of its greatest milestones: the 60th anniversary of the secret landing of Granma, the ramshackle boat that brought Fidel, Che, Raúl and 79 other barely trained guerrillas to start the revolution in 1956. Che later described it as “less a landing than a shipwreck,” and only a quarter of the men made it to the Sierra Maestra—but it began the campaign that would, in a little over two years, bring down the Cuban government and reshape world politics. To me, the coming anniversary was an ideal excuse for a road trip to untangle a saga whose details I, like many who live in the United States, know only vaguely. Within Cuba, the revolutionary war is very much alive: Almost everywhere the guerrillas went now has a lavish memorial or a quasi-religious museum featuring artifacts like Che’s beret, Fidel’s tommy gun, or homemade Molotov cocktails. It’s still possible to meet with people who lived through the battles, and even the younger generation likes to remain on a first-name basis with the heroes. Cubans remain extremely proud of the revolution’s self-sacrifice and against-all-odds victories. Recalling that moment of hope can be as startling as seeing photographs of the young Fidel without a beard.

Fidel Castro (seated left) and his comrades in revolution review plans at the Sierra Maestra command post in 1958. (Andrew Saint-George / Magnum Photos)

“The war was both a long time ago and not so long ago,” says Jon Lee Anderson, author of Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life. “For Americans, the best way to understand what the era was like is to visit Cuba itself. You see the world as it was 60 years ago, without expressways or fast-food stores or strip malls. Today, the U.S. has been tamed. It’s a suburban landscape. But in the 1950s, there were no cellphones, no internet, there weren’t even many telephones. Everything moved in a different time frame.”

Following the path of the revolutionary war also leads to corners of Cuba that few travelers reach. While most outsiders are fascinated by Havana, with its rococo mansions and retro-chic hotels funded by the American mob, the cradle of revolt was at the opposite end of the long, slender island, in the wild, thinly populated Oriente (“East”).

Cuba was the last Spanish possession in the Americas, and two vicious 19th-century wars of independence began there. Victory in the second was plucked from Cuban hands by the intervention of the United States in the Spanish-American War in 1898. The humiliating Platt Amendment, passed by Congress in 1901, made it legal for the U.S. to intervene in Cuban politics, a safeguard that protected a flood of Yanqui investment. Although President Franklin D. Roosevelt repealed the law in 1934, the island remained a virtual American colony, with everything from power plants to sugar plantations in U.S. hands. This troubled situation took a dire turn in 1952, when a strongman with matinée idol looks named Fulgencio Batista seized power in a coup. Although Cuba remained one of the wealthiest nations in Latin America, Batista’s rule was marked by blatant corruption and a savage level of political repression.

“If you really want to understand the Cuban Revolution, you should start in Santiago cemetery,” Nancy Stout advised me before I flew to the city. Santiago de Cuba, whose palm-fringed plazas and colonial cathedrals now bask in splendid decay, is the country’s second-largest city. No sooner had I arrived than I hopped on the back of a motorbike taxi and gritting my teeth in the unnerving traffic, sped to the ancient necropolis of Santa Ifigenia. The memorial to “Those Fallen in the Insurgency” is a simple wall with dozens of bronze plaques, each one adorned with a fresh red rose, naming those killed by Batista’s security forces, usually after sickening torture. Many mutilated bodies were found strung from trees in city parks or dumped in gutters. Some victims were as young as 14 and 15. “The police officer in charge of Santiago was, literally, a psychopath,” Stout said. “Some of Batista’s generals had only fifth-grade educations. The ‘leftist agitators’ they were executing were often just kids.” On one occasion, the mothers of Santiago staged a protest march carrying placards that said: Stop the Murder of Our Sons. “A lot of everyday Cubans—students, bricklayers, teachers—were simply fed up.”

One of those was the young law graduate Fidel Castro Ruiz. Born into a wealthy landowning family some 60 miles north of Santiago, Fidel was from his teens known for a rebellious nature, hypnotic charisma and staggering self-confidence. At university in Havana he became involved in radical student politics and at age 24 planned to run as a progressive candidate in the 1952 election, before Batista canceled it. Photographs of him from the time show a tall, well-fed youth, often in a snappy suit, V-neck sweater and tie, and sporting a pencil mustache. With his chances of working within the system gone, Fidel and fellow activists in 1953 decided to take direct action.

The story would seem straight out of Woody Allen’s Bananas if the consequences had not been so tragic. With about 160 inexperienced men (and two women) disguised as soldiers, Fidel planned to storm government sites including a Santiago barracks called La Moncada, where he would surprise the 1,000 or so troops—who were hopefully sleeping off hangovers due to the previous evening’s carnival celebrations— and escape with a cache of arms. This resounding victory, Fidel hoped, would provoke Cubans to rise up against Batista and restore constitutional democracy. From the start, it was a fiasco. As his convoy of 15 cars approached the Moncada before dawn on July 26, it ran into two patrolmen. Fidel stopped his car and leapt out to deal with them, but this confused the other rebels, who mistook a military hospital for the Moncada and began firing wildly. By the time they had regrouped, soldiers were everywhere. Fidel ordered a retreat, but most of his men surrendered.

The reaction of the army shocked Cubans. Five of the attackers had been killed in the shootout, but 56 prisoners were summarily executed and their bodies scattered in the Moncada’s hallways to make it look as if they had been killed in battle. Many, in fact, had been gruesomely tortured. The eyes of one leader, Abel Santamaría, were gouged out and presented to his sister in an attempt to make her reveal their hide-out. Fidel was captured in the countryside soon after, by a by-the-books officer who refused to hand his prisoner over to superiors who wanted to dispense summary justice. It was the first of countless lucky breaks in the story of the revolution. Although Fidel and his men were sentenced to 15 years in prison, the 󈬊th of July Movement” was born.

Fidel spent two years incarcerated on the Isle of Pines, Cuba’s answer to Devil’s Island, reading Marx and becoming ever more radical. Nothing short of true revolution would change Cuba, he concluded, although the chances of his becoming personally involved seemed remote. Then, in 1955, Batista succumbed to popular opinion and included Fidel and his compañeros in an amnesty of political prisoners. It was a moment of over-confidence that the dictator would soon regret.

From exile in Mexico City, Fidel concocted a plan that seemed even more harebrained than the Moncada attack: to return to Cuba in a secret amphibious landing and begin an insurgency in the mountains. He bought a secondhand boat, the Granma, from an American expat and gathered a band of fellow firebrands, among them Ernesto Guevara. A quiet Argentine, quickly nicknamed “Che” (an Argentine term of affection), Guevara had haunting good looks and a steely willpower born of years battling asthma. It was an attraction of opposites with the strapping, extroverted Fidel that would turn into one of history’s great revolutionary partnerships.

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This article is a selection from the October issue of Smithsonian magazine

Travel in Cuba is never straightforward. Airport lines can take three hours, hotels demand mysterious printed “vouchers” and the few eccentric rental car companies are booked three months in advance. The Granma landing site and Sierra base are unusually far-flung, so an enterprising Cuban friend of a friend offered to drive us there in his own car for a tidy sum in U.S. dollars. But just before flying to Santiago, I received a forlorn message: “Bad news, compañeros, very bad news. ” The driver had been given a parking fine in Havana and lost his license. It was time to scramble for Plan B. We soon had a dozen local insiders scouring Cuba for any possible vehicle, with emails flying to expat acquaintances as far away as Toronto and Brussels. At the 11th hour, I received a message from a certain Esther Heinekamp of Cuba Travel Network, an educational agency based in Europe. She had tracked down a rental car in Santiago—“the last rental in the entire country!” I’d like to say it was a 1955 Chevrolet, but it turned out to be a silver MG, circa 2013. Still, on a steamy afternoon I drove us south of Santiago toward the famous Granma landing site, along one of the most spectacular and worst-maintained roads in the Western Hemisphere. On this wild shore, the ocean hits the coast with terrifying force. Much of the route has been wrecked by hurricanes and landslides, becoming a bare expanse of slippery rocks that could only be traversed at five miles an hour.

The Granma landing site, still pristine, is part of a national park, and the lone guide on duty, a jovial woman named Yadi León, seemed astonished to see us. We were the only visitors that day, she admitted, directing us toward a sun-blasted concrete walkway that had been laid across the mangroves. As dozens of tiny black crabs scuttled underfoot, León recounted the legendary story that every Cuban schoolchild knows by heart. The Granma had turned out to be barely seaworthy, more suited for a pleasure cruise than a military operation, and was seriously overloaded. “Fidel had calculated the journey from Mexico to Cuba would take five days,” León marveled. “But with over 80 men crowded onboard, it took seven.” As soon as they hit open ocean, half the passengers became seasick. Local supporters who had planned to meet the boat when it landed gave up when it failed to appear on time. As government air patrols threatened them on December 2, Fidel ordered the pilot to head to shore before sunrise, unaware that he had chosen the most inhospitable spot on the entire Cuban coastline.

At around 5:40 a.m., the Granma hit a sandbank, and the 82 men groggily lurched into the hostile swamp. The guerrillas were basically city slickers, and few had even seen mangroves. They sunk waist-deep into mud and struggled over abrasive roots. When they finally staggered onto dry land, Fidel burst into a farmer’s hut and grandly declared: “Have no fear, I am Fidel Castro and we have come to liberate the Cuban people!” The baffled family gave the exhausted and half-starved men pork and fried bananas. But the army had already gotten wind of their arrival, and three days later, on December 5, the rebels were caught in a surprise attack as they rested by a sugar-cane field. The official figure is that, of the 82 guerrillas, 21 were killed (2 in combat, 19 executed), 21 were taken prisoner and 19 gave up the fight. The 21 survivors were lost in the Sierra. Soldiers were swarming. As Che laconically recalled: “The situation was not good.”

Today, our stroll through the mangroves was decidedly less arduous, although the 1,300-meter path gives a vivid idea of the claustrophobia of the alien landscape. It was a relief when the horizon opened up to the sparkling Caribbean. A concrete jetty was being installed on the landing spot for the upcoming 60th anniversary celebrations, when a replica of the Granma will arrive for the faithful to admire. The gala on December 2 will be a more extravagant version of the fiesta that has been held there every year since the 1970s, León explained, complete with cultural activities, anthems and “acts of political solidarity.” The highlight is when 82 young men jump out of a boat and re-enact the rebels’ arrival. “But we don’t force them to wade through the swamp,” she added.

Workmen today tend to the historic site where the Granma landed in 1956 near Playa Las Coloradas. (João Pina)

A few days after the Granma debacle, the handful of survivors were reunited in the mountains with the aid of campesinos. One of the most beloved anecdotes of the war recounts the moment Fidel met up with his brother Raúl. Fidel asked how many guns he had saved. “Five,” Raúl answered. Fidel said he had two, then declared: “Now we’ve won the war!” He wasn’t joking. His fantastical confidence was unbowed.

As they settled into the Sierra Maestra, the urban intellectuals quickly realized they were now dependent on the campesinos for their very survival. Luckily, there was a built-in reservoir of support. Many in the Sierra had been evicted from their land by the Rural Guards and were virtual refugees, squatting in dirt-floor huts and subsisting by growing coffee and marijuana. Their generations of despair had already been tapped by Celia Sánchez, a fearless young activist for the 26th of July Movement who was at the top of Batista’s most-wanted list in the Oriente. A brilliant organizer, Sánchez would soon become Fidel’s closest confidante and effective second in command. (The romance with Fidel developed slowly over the following months, says biographer Stout. “Fidel was so tall and handsome, and he had a really sweet personality.”)

Young farmhands swelled the rebel ranks as soldiers. Girls carried rebel missives folded into tiny squares and hidden (as Celia mischievously explained) “in a place where nobody can find it.” Undercover teams of mules were organized to carry supplies across the Sierra. A farmer even saved Che’s life by hiking into town for asthma medication. The campesinos also risked the savage reprisals of soldiers of the Rural Guard, who beat, raped or executed peasants they suspected of rebel sympathies.

Today, the Sierra is still a frayed cobweb of dirt roads that lead to a few official attractions—oddities like the Museum of the Heroic Campesino—but my accidental meetings are more vivid. On one occasion, after easing the car across a surging stream, I approached a lonely hut to ask for directions, and the owner, a 78-year-old gentleman named Uvaldo Peña Mas, invited me in for a cup of coffee. The interior of his shack was wallpapered with ancient photographs of family members, and he pointed to a sepia image of a poker-faced, middle-aged man—his father, he said, who had been murdered early in Batista’s rule. The father had been an organizer for the sharecroppers in the area, and one day an assassin walked up and shot him in the face. “I still remember when they brought in his body,” he said. “It was 8 in the morning. People came from all around, friends, relatives, supporters. Of course, we had to kill a pig to feed them all at the funeral.” Although he supported the revolution, he recalled that not everyone who joined Fidel was a hero. “My next-door neighbor joined the guerrillas,” Peña said wryly. “He was a womanizer, a drunk, a gambler. He ran away to join the guerrillas to get out of his debts.”

Uvaldo Peña Mas, now 78, was a child when his father, a local organizer, was murdered. “I still remember when they brought in his body,” he says. (João Pina) A farmer poses near Santo Domingo in the Sierra Mountains. (João Pina) A family farm in Granma province (João Pina)

For six months, Fidel and his battered band lay low, training for combat and scoring unusual propaganda points. The first came when Batista told the press that Fidel had been killed after the landing, a claim the rebels were quickly able to disprove. (To this day, Cubans relish photos of the 1956 newspaper headline FIDEL CASTRO DEAD.) The next PR coup came in February 1957, when New York Times correspondent Herbert Matthews climbed into the Sierra for the first interview with Fidel. Matthews was star-struck, describing Fidel with enthusiasm as “quite a man—a powerful six-footer, olive-skinned, full-faced.” Castro had stage-managed the meeting carefully. To give the impression that his tiny “army” was larger than it was, he ordered soldiers to walk back and forth through the camp in different uniforms, and a breathless messenger to arrive with a missive from the “second front”—a complete fiction. The story was splashed across the front page of the Times, and a glowing TV interview with CBS followed, shot on Cuba’s highest summit, Mount Turquino, with postcard-perfect views. If he had not become a revolutionary, Fidel could have had a stellar career in advertising.

A more concrete milestone came on May 28, 1957, when the guerrillas, now numbering 80 men, attacked a military outpost in the drowsy coastal village of El Uvero. The bloody firefight was led by Che, who was showing an unexpected talent as a tactician and a reckless indifference to his own personal safety his disciplined inner circle would soon be nicknamed “the Suicide Squad.” Today, a monument with a gilded rifle marks Fidel’s lookout above the battle site, although visitors are distracted by the coastal views that unfold like a tropical Big Sur. Elderly residents still like to recount the story of the attack in detail. “It was 5:15 in the afternoon when we heard the first gunshots,” Roberto Sánchez, who was 17 at the time, told me proudly in a break from picking mangoes. “We all thought it was the Rural Guards training. We had no idea! Then we realized it was Fidel. From that day on, we did what we could to help him.”

“This was the victory that marked our coming of age,” Che later wrote of El Uvero. “From this battle on, our morale grew tremendously.” The emboldened guerrillas began to enjoy success after success, descending on the weak points of the vastly more numerous Batista forces, then melting into the Sierra. Their strategies were often improvised. Fidel later said he fell back for ideas on Ernest Hemingway’s novel of the Spanish Civil War, For Whom the Bell Tolls, which describes behind-the-lines combat in detail.

By mid-1958, the rebels had established Comandancia La Plata and a network of other refuges, and even the self-deluded Batista could not deny that the government was losing control of the Oriente. In summer, the dictator ordered 10,000 troops into the Sierra backed with air support, but after three tortuous months, the army withdrew in frustration. When the rebels revealed how many civilians were being killed and mutilated by napalm bombing, the U.S. government stopped Cuban air force flights from refueling at the Guantánamo naval base. Congress ended U.S. arms supplies. The CIA even began feeling out contacts with Fidel.

Sensing victory, Fidel in November dispatched Che and another comandante, Camilo Cienfuegos, to seize the strategic city of Santa Clara, located in the geographical center of Cuba. The 250-mile dash was one of the most harrowing episodes of the campaign, as troops slogged through flat sugar country exposed to strafing aircraft. But by late December, Che had surrounded Santa Clara and cut the island in two. Although 3,500 well-armed government troops were defending the city against Che’s 350, the army surrendered. It was a stunning victory. The news reached Batista back in Havana early on New Year’s Eve, and the panicked president concluded that Cuba was lost. Soon after the champagne corks popped, he was escaping with his cronies on a private plane loaded with gold bullion to the Dominican Republic. He soon moved to Portugal, then under a military dictatorship, and died from a heart attack in Spain in 1973.

Despite its revolutionary credentials, Santa Clara today is one of the most decrepit provincial outposts in Cuba. The Art Deco hotel in the plaza is pockmarked with bullet holes, relics of when army snipers held out on the tenth floor, and sitting by a busy road in the middle of town are a half-dozen carriages from the Tren Blindado, an armored train loaded with weapons that Che’s men derailed on December 29. A strikingly ugly memorial has been erected by the carriages, with concrete obelisks placed at angles to evoke an explosion. Guards show off burn marks from rebel bombs on the train floors, before cheerfully trying to sell visitors black market Cohiba cigars.

As the site of his greatest victory, Santa Clara will always be associated with Che. His remains are even buried here in the country’s most grandiose memorial, complete with a statue of the hero marching toward the future like Lenin at Finland Station. Still, the story of Che’s last days is a discouraging one for budding radicals. In the mid-1960s, he tried to apply his guerrilla tactics to other impoverished corners of the world with little success. In 1967, he was captured by the Bolivian Army in the Andes and executed. After the mass grave was rediscovered in 1997, Che’s remains were interred with much fanfare in Santa Clara by an eternal flame. The mausoleum is now guarded by cadres of young military women dressed in olive-drab miniskirts and aviator sunglasses, who loll about in the heat like Che groupies. An attached museum offers some poignant exhibits from Che’s childhood in Argentina, including his leather asthma inhaler and copies of schoolbooks “read by young Ernesto.” They include Tom Sawyer, Treasure Island and—perhaps most appropriately—Don Quixote.

A monument to the Cuban revolution marks the place where Fidel Castro fired the first shot in the coastal village of El Uvero. (João Pina) The grand monument to Che in Santa Clara houses his remains and those of 29 fellow rebels executed with him in Bolivia in 1967. (João Pina) In Santa Clara, a detail from the mausoleum of Che Guevara depicts the Argentine revolutionary who assisted Castro. (João Pina) Many roadside billboards (like this one near Yaguajay in Sancti Spiritus province) still offer support for the revolution. (João Pina)

It was around 4:30 a.m. on New Year’s Day, 1959, when news filtered though Havana of Batista’s flight. What happened next is familiar—in broad brushstrokes—to anyone who has seen The Godfather Part II. To many Cubans, the capital had become a symbol of decadence, a seedy enclave of prostitution, gambling and raunchy burlesque shows for drunken foreign tourists. Lured by the louche glamour, Marlon Brando, Errol Flynn and Frank Sinatra took raucous holidays in Havana, actor George Raft became master of ceremonies at the mob-owned Capri Hotel, and Hemingway moved to a leafy mansion on the city outskirts so he could fish for marlin in the Caribbean and guzzle daiquiris in the bar El Floridita.

Batista’s departure let loose years of frustration. By dawn, crowds were taking out their anger on symbols of Batista’s rule, smashing parking meters with baseball bats and sacking several of the American casinos. Fidel ordered Che and Camilo to rush ahead to Havana to restore order and occupy the two main military barracks. The spectacle of 20,000 soldiers submitting to a few hundred rebels was “enough to make you burst out laughing,” one guerrilla, Carlos Franqui, later wrote, while the grimy Camilo met the U.S. ambassador with his boots off and feet on a table, “looking like Christ on a spree.”

Fidel traveled the length of Cuba in a weeklong “caravan of victory.” The 1,000 or so guerrillas in his column, nicknamed Los Barbudos, “the bearded ones,” were greeted as heroes at every stop. The cavalcade finally arrived in Havana on January 8, with Fidel riding a tank and chomping a cigar. “It was like the liberation of Paris,” Anderson says. “No matter your political persuasion, nobody loved the police or the army. People had been terrorized. And here were these baseball-playing, roguish, sexy guys who roll into town and chase them off. By all accounts, it was an orgy.” Fidel rode his tank to the doors of the brand-new Havana Hilton and took the presidential suite for himself and Celia. Other guerrillas camped out in the lobby, treading mud over the carpets, while tourists going to the pool looked on in confusion.

As for us, we too were soon triumphantly speeding along the Malecón, Havana’s spectacular seafront avenue, which looks just as it did when Graham Greene’s novel Our Man in Havana came out the month before Fidel’s victory. (“Waves broke over the Avenida de Maceo and misted the windscreens of cars,” Greene wrote. “The pink, green, yellow pillars of what had once been the aristocrat’s quarter were eroded like rocks an ancient coat of arms, smudged and featureless, was set over the doorway of a shabby hotel, and the shutters of a night club were varnished in bright crude colors to protect them from the wet and salt of the sea.”) Compared with in the countryside, the old revolutionary spirit has only a tenuous hold in Havana. Today, the city has come full circle to the wild 1950s, with bars and restaurants sprouting alongside nightclubs worked by jineteras, freelance prostitutes.

The baroque Presidential Palace now houses the Museum of the Revolution, but it is a shabby affair, its exhibits fraying in cracked, dusty cases. A glimpse of the feisty past is provided by the notorious Corner of the Cretins, a propaganda classic with life-size caricatures of Batista and U.S. presidents Reagan, Bush senior and junior. A new exhibit for Castro’s 90th birthday celebration was unironically titled “Gracias por Todo, Fidel!” (“Thanks for Everything, Fidel!”) and included the crib in which he was born.

Shaking the country dust from my bag, I emulated Fidel and checked into the old Hilton, long ago renamed the Habana Libre (Free Havana). It was perversely satisfying to find that the hotel has defied renovation. It’s now as frayed and gray as Fidel’s beard, towering like a tombstone slab above the seaside suburb of Vedado. The marble-floored lobby is filled with leftover modernist furniture beneath Picasso-esque murals, and the cafe where Fidel came for a chocolate milkshake every night is still serving. My room on the 19th floor had million-dollar views of Havana, although the bath taps were falling off the wall and the air conditioner gave a death rattle every time I turned it on.

I made a formal request to visit the Presidential Suite, which had been sealed up like a time capsule since Fidel decamped after several months. It was a voyage into the demise of the Cuban dream. A portly concierge named Raúl casually hit me up for a propinita as he accompanied me to the 23rd floor, and seconds after we stepped out of the elevator, a blackout hit. While we used the light from my iPhone to find our way, we could hear the increasingly shrill cries of a woman stuck in the elevator a couple of floors down.

When we cracked the double doors, Fidel’s suite exploded with sunlight. With its Eisenhower-era furniture and vintage ashtrays, it looked like the perfect holiday apartment for Don Draper. Celia’s room had floor-to-ceiling copper-toned mirrors, one of which was still cracked after Fidel kicked it in a tantrum. But the suite’s period stylishness couldn’t distract from the creeping decay. A crumbling sculpture in the main hallway was threatened by a pool of brownish water accumulating on the floor part of the railing on the wraparound veranda was missing. As we left, we heard the woman trapped in the elevator still screaming: “Por dios, ayúdame! Help!” I left Raúl yelling to her, “Cálmase, Señora! Calm yourself, madam!” I left, nervously, in another lift.

Fidel Castro at the Lincoln Memorial, 1959

Castro visiting the Lincoln Memorial during his visit to the United States, 1959.

Shortly after Fidel Castro took power in Cuba in 1959, he visited the United States for two weeks, invited by the American Society of Newspaper Editors. The trip had all the features of a diplomatic tour— he met American officials, appeared on Meet the Press, and visited national landmarks such as Mount Vernon and the Lincoln Memorial.

Instead of meeting Castro, Eisenhower left Washington to play golf. Vice President Nixon met Castro in a 3-hour long meeting. Nixon asked about elections, and Castro told him that the Cuban people did not want elections. Nixon complained that Castro was “either incredibly naive about communism or under communist discipline”. Castro took full advantage of his 11-day stay. He hired a public relations firm, ate hot dogs, kissed ladies like a rock star, and held babies like a politician.

During his visit Castro laid a wreath at the Lincoln Memorial and stood for some minutes in silent contemplation before the statue. The moment was immortalized by his photographer Alfredo Korda. The New York Times described Castro’s visit at the memorial: At the Lincoln Memorial, Dr. Castro walked up to the crowd of several hundred, shook hands, and chatted. Then he went up the steps to the memorial and slowly, in a low voice, read the Gettysburg Address inscribed on the wall. “Formidable and very interesting!” he murmured.

Fidel Castro remained an admirer of Abraham Lincoln for the next half a century. He had a bust of Lincoln in his office, and wrote that Lincoln was devoted “to the just idea that all citizens are born free and equal”, and once even saying, “Long Live Lincoln!”.

When Fidel Castro Charmed the United States

The world’s most notorious guerrilla leader was about to invade their living rooms, and Americans were thrilled. At 8:00 p.m. on Sunday, January 11, 1959, some 50 million viewers tuned their television sets to “The Ed Sullivan Show,” the trendsetting variety revue that had introduced them to Elvis Presley a few years earlier and would bring them the Beatles several years later. On this winter’s evening the avuncular Sullivan was hosting a Latin celebrity who had aroused intense curiosity across the United States: Fidel Castro, a charming 32-year-old lawyer-turned-revolutionary, known for his unkempt beard and khaki patrol cap, who had against all odds overthrown a bloodthirsty military regime in Cuba.

For America’s most beloved entertainment program, it was a rare excursion into politics. Earlier in the hour, Sullivan had presented a more typical array of artistic offerings for the staid Eisenhower era. Four acrobats leapt and gamboled around the stage (two of them wearing ape costumes). The Little Gaelic Singers crooned soothing Irish harmonies. A stand-up comic performed a cheesy routine about suburban house parties. Finally, Sullivan cut to the main attraction: his friendly interview with Fidel at the very cusp of the rebels’ victory.

The segment had been filmed at 2:00 a.m. on January 8 in the provincial outpost of Matanzas, 60 miles east of Havana, using the town hall as an improvised TV studio. Only a few hours after the interview, Fidel would make his triumphant entrance into the Cuban capital, his men riding on the backs of captured tanks in euphoric scenes that evoked the liberation of Paris. It was the electrifying climax of history’s most unlikely revolution: a scruffy handful of self-taught insurgents—many of them kids just out of college, literature majors, art students, and engineers, including a number of trailblazing women—had somehow defeated 40,000 professional soldiers and forced the sinister dictator, President Fulgencio Batista, to flee from the island like a thief in the night

Cuba Libre!: Che, Fidel, and the Improbable Revolution That Changed World History

The surprising story of Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, and the scrappy band of rebel men and women who followed them.

Given the animosity that sprang up between the U.S. and Cuba soon after, the chummy atmosphere of the conversation today seems closer to “The Twilight Zone.” On-screen, Sullivan and his guest could hardly look more incongruous. Trying to look casual as he leans against a table, the thickset 57 -year-old yanqui impresario appears to have just walked out of a Brooks Brothers ad in his tailored suit and tie, his helmet of dyed hair neatly combed and brilliantined. (He was often parodied as a “well-dressed gorilla.”)

Fidel, by contrast, was already a fashion icon for rebellious American youth, his olive-drab uniform, martial kepi, and raffish facial hair instantly recognizable. Clustered around the pair are a dozen equally shaggy young rebels who were known in Cuba simply as los barbudos, “the bearded ones,” all cradling weapons—“a forest of tommy guns,” Sullivan later said. Fidel’s lover and confidante, Celia Sánchez, who often appeared by his side in press interviews, was this time standing off-camera, wearing specially tailored fatigues and balancing a cigarette in her finely manicured fingers. The most efficient organizer of the Rebel Army, she had brokered the media event and now dedicated herself to keeping the male guerrillas, who were as excitable as schoolboys, from wandering across the set or talking.

With his first breath, Sullivan assures CBS viewers that they are about to meet “a wonderful group of revolutionary youngsters,” as if they are the latest pop music sensation. Despite their unwashed appearance, Fidel’s followers are a far cry from the godless Communists depicted by the Cuban military’s propaganda machine, he adds in fact, they are all wearing Catholic medals and some are even piously carrying copies of the Bible. But Sullivan is most interested in Fidel himself. The sheer improbability of his victory over the thuggish strongman Batista had bathed him in a romantic aura. U.S. magazines openly described Fidel as a new Robin Hood, with Celia as his Maid Marian, robbing from the rich to give to the poor.

Sullivan’s first questions are not the most hard-hitting: “Now, in school,” he chortles in his distinctively nasal voice, “I understand you were a very fine student and a very fine athlete. Were you a baseball pitcher?”

“Yes,” Fidel replies in the halting English learned at his Jesuit high school and several visits to New York City. “Baseball, basketball, softball. Every kind of sport.”

“Undoubtedly all of this exercise you did at school prepared you for this role?”

“Yes. I found myself in good condition to exist in the mountains . . .”

The hardened celebrity hound Sullivan is clearly starstruck by his guest, and his delivery is far more animated than his usual monotonous drone back in the New York studio. Comandante en Jefe Castro, meanwhile, comes across as earnest, sweet-natured, and eager to please, furrowing his brow with effort as he grasps for his English vocabulary. It’s hard not to feel for the rebel leader as he struggles gamely with the half-remembered tongue.

Some of the interview is haunting in retrospect. “I’d like to ask you a couple of questions, Fidel,” Sullivan says, serious for a moment. “In Latin American countries over and over again, dictators [have] stolen millions and millions of dollars, tortured and killed people. How do you propose to end that here in Cuba?”

Fidel laughs. “Very easy. By not permitting that any dictatorship come again to rule our country. You can be sure that Batista . . . will be the last dictator of Cuba.”

In 1959, Sullivan saw no reason to argue.

The lovefest now proceeds to its crescendo. “The people of the United States, they have great admiration for you and your men,” the host advises Fidel. “Because you are in the real American tradition—of a George Washington—of any band who started off with a small body [of men] and fought against a great nation and won.” Fidel takes the compliment in stride after all, the U.S. press had been idolizing him for nearly two years as a citizen-soldier in the very spirit of 1776.

“What do you feel about the United States?” Sullivan asks.

“My feeling to the people of the United States is a feeling of sympathy,” Fidel says evenly, “because they are a very worker people . . ."

(“They work hard,” Ed interprets.)

“They have founded that big nation, working very much . . .”

“United States is not one race [of] people, [they] came from every part in the world . . . at is why the United States belong[s] to the world, to those who were persecuted, to those who could not live in their own country . . .”

“We want you to like us.” Sullivan glows. “And we like you. You and Cuba!”

The show then cuts back to Sullivan in CBS’s Manhattan studio, where the arbiter of middle-class American taste lavishes Fidel with the same magnanimous praise he had heaped on Elvis.

“You know, this is a fine young man and a very smart young man,” he pronounces, squeezing his arms together in his famous hunched stance. “And with the help of God and our prayers, and with the help of the American government, he will come up with the sort of democracy down there that America should have.”

And then the show rolled on to its next variety segment: a fashion show for poodles.

Today, it is all but impossible to imagine that moment in 1959 when the Cuban Revolution was fresh, Fidel and Che were young and handsome, and Americans could view the uprising as an embodiment of their own finest ideals. As Sullivan observed, here was a people fighting for freedom against injustice and tyranny, a modern echo of the War of Independence, with Fidel as a sexier version of a Founding Father and his guerrillas the reincarnation of Ethan Allen’s Green Mountain Boys, the irregular sharpshooters who helped defeat the redcoats.

A string of other gushing interviews would quickly follow Sullivan’s, conducted by everyone from the revered CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow to the Hollywood actor Errol Flynn. A few months later, in April 1959, Fidel even traveled on a victory lap of the northeastern United States: he was mobbed by admirers as he ate hot dogs in New York City, spoke at Princeton, and made dutiful visits to hallowed shrines of democracy such as Mount Vernon and the Lincoln Memorial.

Meanwhile, American Cubaphiles flocked to Havana to see the revolution firsthand and were warmly welcomed. They immersed themselves in the Mardi Gras atmosphere, attending mass rallies and wacky, radical street celebrations such as a mock funeral parade for a nationalized telephone company, complete with musicians dressed as mourners and fake coffins. Havana was a round-the-clock fiesta, with buskers on every corner singing patriotic songs to raise money for the new Cuban state in a delirious wave of optimism.

Beat poets wrote odes to Fidel. African-Americans were exhilarated by Cuba’s overnight abolition of all segregation laws, just as the Civil Rights Movement was gaining pace in the U.S., and joined special group tours for black writers and artists. A Creek chief traveled to meet Fidel wearing a full-feathered war bonnet. Feminists rejoiced in Cuba’s promise that women’s liberation would be “a revolution within the revolution.”

The entire world was fascinated by the apparent explosion of idealism: Fidel, Che and Celia basked in goodwill, entertaining intellectuals like Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. There was a chance, many felt, that Cuba would become a paradise of political, racial, and gender equality.

The reason for our amnesia about how the revolution was received is, of course, political: the popular memory of the guerrilla campaign was an early casualty of the Cold War. When los barbudos first rolled into Havana in January 1959, they were showered with admiration for what seemed a black-and-white struggle for liberty. But Atomic Age milestones such as the CIA-backed Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961 and the near-Armageddon of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, which pushed the human race the closest it has ever come to extinction in nuclear war, quickly overshadowed any romance for most in the Western world. It became widely accepted in the U.S. that Fidel and his supporters had been covering up Communist sympathies that had lurked in their hearts from the start.

And yet, the story of how a few amateur subversives defeated one of Latin America’s most loathsome regimes remains a defining saga of the 20th century. In the words of historian Nancy Stout, Cuba’s was “the perfect revolution” for the visual media age that kicked off in the 1950s: it was short it was successful it unfolded in neat stages—“like an operetta”—and yet with the narrative arc of a paperback thriller. It was also full of larger-than-life characters. Coinciding with the birth of network television and the golden age of magazines, it became history’s most photogenic revolt. Images of the dashing guerrillas and attractive guerrilla women—almost all in their 20s or early 30s, some of them fresh-faced teenagers—jolted the world towards the 1960s.

Thanks to the veil of suspicion and ideology hanging over Cuba today, few are aware of just how improvised the revolution was its leaders were largely forced to make up their own brand of jungle combat and urban resistance as they went along. Even fewer recall the genuine bravery and self-sacrifice of those years, when ordinary Cubans risked torture and death every day at the hands of Batista’s henchmen, who were as sadistic as Gestapo agents. Under Batista, thousands of young rebel sympathizers disappeared into police torture chambers, their mutilated bodies strung up in parks or dumped in gutters the next morning. Today, long decades after el triunfo, “the triumph,” a few famous images of the main characters—Fidel with his Old Testament beard, Che in his beret gazing mystically ahead—have become frozen as Soviet-era clichés.

But by going back to original letters, diaries, TV and newspaper accounts, it's possible to turn back the clock to recapture the atmosphere of Cuba in the 1950s, when the actors were unknowns, history was unformed, and the fate of the revolution hung in the balance. Imagining history as it was lived helps to explain how the optimism of the uprising went so badly awry. Were Americans—and the many moderate Cubans who supported the revolution—duped by Fidel, as hardliners would later allege, tricked by a Machiavellian figure who had a secret agenda from the start? Or could the story of modern Cuba, which reshaped international politics so radically, have gone another way?

From ¡Cuba Libre!: Che, Fidel and the Improbable Revolution That Changed World History by Tony Perrottet, published by Blue Rider Press, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright (c) 2019 by Tony Perrottet.

Watch the video: Fidel Castro speech in 1966