The Last Revolutionary

Article excerpt

Fidel Castro has survived 600 assassination attempts to become the world symbol of anti-capitalism. His sister has just confessed she used to spy on him, the US embargo stands, and his health is failing, yet still he endures

On 11 February 1981, President Ronald Reagan wrote in his diary that "intelligence reports say Castro is very worried about me ... I'm very worried that we can't come up with something to justify his worrying." Reagan's concern has been the concern of all US presidents since Fidel Castro took power in Cuba in 1959, and set about establishing a communist state just 90 miles across the water from Miami. In response to the emergence of Castro, the US sent the CIA in to Cuba and put in place a trade embargo. So began one of the longest political stalemates of modern history.

It is remarkable today how little between the two countries has changed--as recent events remind us. First, Juanita Castro, the estranged sister of Fidel and Raul, revealed that she herself had been a CIA spy before fleeing to Mexico in 1964. Then, on 28 October, the UN General Assembly in New York took its 18th consecutive annual vote to highlight international opposition to the US embargo, a vote that Washington chose once again to ignore. Some suspected that Juanita's revelations may have been timed to influence the vote, because it was feared that President Obama's promise to extend the hand of friendship to America's old enemies might make him the first US president to change policy on Cuba.

For now, that seems unlikely. But if Cuban relations with the US finally begin to thaw during the Obama presidency, Fidel Castro--if he lives to see it--will have overcome every US attempt to destroy him.

When Juanita defected in 1964, she took 21 suitcases with her. It is unlikely she would have had so many to take today. Fifty years of sanctions have impoverished Cuba, a country that under the acting president, Raul Castro, remains defiantly socialist 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. A half-century of Fidel Castro's personal rule has left a profound mark.

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It was in 1953 that Fidel Castro--a 26-year-old lawyer from a landowning family--first came to the wider attention of the island his revolution would later engulf. Stalin had just died and the first colour television sets were about to go on sale in the US. On 26 July he masterminded an attack on the Moncada Barracks, one of the military installations of the dictator Fulgencio Batista, situated in Castro's home town of Santiago de Cuba.

The attack failed, but Cubans were astounded by the audacity of what amounted to an attempted coup carried out by men with pea-shooter rifles and mock military uniforms. Castro's final speech to the court, before being sentenced to 15 years in prison for his part in the failed coup, was to become his working political platform: a programme of economic and social empowerment, threaded into the historical struggle of Cubans for independence from foreign powers.

With the speech worked up under the title of its ringing final line--"Condemn me, it does not matter, history will absolve me!"--it is the sentiment as much as the substance of this document that has been the most consistent element of Castro's political philosophy since he came to power in 1959.

As peritonitis forced him to hand the presidency to his brother Raul in February 2008, Fidel Castro, who is 83, is no longer his country's official leader. But little of substance is decided in Cuba without his being consulted and he remains the most controversial politician in postwar Latin America, the inspiration if not the figurehead for a new wave of leftist Latin leaders: Lula in Brazil, the Kirchners in Argentina, Tabare Vazquez in Uruguay and Evo Morales in Bolivia. Loathed by many but adored by many more, Castro has embodied more than any other George Bernard Shaw's maxim that "the secret to success is to offend the greatest number of people". …