In a photo taken from Cuban television, Fidel Castro greets Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez — seen by many as Castro's leftist successor in Latin America — from his hospital bed. Castro is recovering from abdominal surgery and handed power over to his brother Raul.
A special series of reports on the political future of the island nation:
Fidel Castro, left, and Ernesto "Che" Guevara meet in Havana in the early 1960s. Guevara took Castro's call to spread the communist revolution to heart, traveling first to Africa and then to Bolivia to foment armed revolt. He was killed in Bolivia in 1967.
The United States began imposing trade embargoes against Cuba beginning in 1960, and after Castro's government aligned with the Soviet Union in 1962, President Kennedy widened the scope of the embargo. Most of those trade restrictions are still in place, and in some cases have been made even tougher.
Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev hugs Castro at a 1960 meeting in New York City. For decades, Cuba relied heavily on subsidies from the Soviet Union to prop up the island's economy and counter a U.S.-led economic embargo.
Castro visits Chilean President Salvador Allende in Santiago, 1971. Allende, a popularly elected socialist, was deposed and killed in a military coup backed by the CIA in 1973. During Gen. Augusto Pinochet's 17-year rule, thousands of political dissidents were imprisoned or simply "disappeared."
A bicyclist in 1994 rides past a billboard in Havana that reads: "There is nothing impossible from now on." The demise of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s had a severe impact on Cuba's economy, where vintage cars are the norm and many rely on bicyles for transportation.
A bicyclist in 1994 rides past a billboard in Havana that reads: "There is nothing impossible from now on." The demise of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s had a severe impact on Cuba's economy, where vintage cars are the norm and many rely on bicyles for transportation. Najlah Feanny/Corbis/SABA
There were left-leaning politicians all across Latin America in the 1950s, but none of them was anything like Fidel Castro — the bearded firebrand revolutionary who fought his way down from the mountains of central Cuba, vowing to build a nation based on social justice.
Fast-forward two generations: Castro is now an old man, still recovering from abdominal surgery and unable to make an appearance at a summit of non-aligned nations in his own capital of Havana. But a few of the gray-haired diplomats at the summit recall how Castro's triumph electrified the continent.
"I don't think there was a single young person across Latin America who did not feel sympathy for what was happening here, or who did not see this as an interesting and unusual process," says Jorge Manuel Toha, Chile's current ambassador to Cuba, who was 21 years old at the time Castro came to power.
Yet that wasn't the way Castro and his revolution were seen by existing governments across Latin America — let alone Washington, D.C. Castro was considered a radical who rose to power through an armed struggle against a strong ally of Western powers. The more he excited young people across the region, the more he terrified those established powers.
Some governments reacted to Castro's revolution by suddenly getting serious about promoting reform and ending poverty. In 1960, the Eisenhower administration pledged to contribute $500 million to a development fund for Latin America — an amount equal to about $6 billion in current dollars.
Ernesto Betancourt, who was Castro's representative in Washington, D.C., during the early days of the Cuban revolution, says Castro in a way deserves credit for inspiring that program.
"The notion was that this was a way of countering the Castro threat of revolution — which by that time, had become a matter of great concern for the governments and establishment in all Latin America," Betancourt says.
Eisenhower's aid program was in fact the starting point for President John F. Kennedy's Alliance for Progress, a project conceived with the idea it would bring such dramatic change in Latin America that Castro and his revolutionary message would no longer have any appeal. Those who make peaceful revolution impossible, Kennedy would say later, make violent revolution inevitable.
But there was a snag — at the time, there were few governments in Latin America capable of promoting this kind of development. Much of the U.S. aid was wasted. Castro, meanwhile, was becoming all the more determined to export Cuba's revolution.
In 1965, he sent fellow revolutionary Che Guevara to organize revolutionary movements in other Latin American countries. Before he left, Che wrote Castro a farewell letter — and in what would be a memorable moment for the revolution, Castro read Che's letter in public.
"On new battlefields," Che wrote, "I will carry with me the faith that you inculcated in me, the revolutionary spirit of my people, the feeling of having fulfilled the most sacred of duties: to fight against Imperialism wherever it may be."
Fifty years ago, most of the established leftist leaders in Latin America were old men with old ideas, loyal for the most part to the Soviet Union. Jorge Castaneda, whose father was a Mexican diplomat in the 1960s, says Fidel Castro broke with other Latin leftists by actively promoting revolution across Latin America.
"He was just very young and very attractive and very charismatic and refreshing, as opposed to the traditional stereotype of the Latin American leftist at the time," Castaneda says.
Guerrilla movements were soon flourishing in Colombia and across Central America. In 1979, the Sandinistas came to power in Nicaragua through a revolution. Castro was at the peak of his power and influence in the region.
But other Cuban-style revolutionary movements were brutally suppressed in Latin America, and in the coming years Castro's Cuba began to lose some of its appeal. Though his revolution's achievements in education and health were widely admired, Latin American leftists began to doubt whether they really could follow his example.
"I think that the Cuban revolution lost any meaningful relevance [and] value to the left in Latin America ... when it became perfectly clear that whatever successes they may have been achieving in education and health were only possible thanks to a huge Soviet subsidy" Castaneda says. "And that Soviet subsidy could not be extended to any other country in Latin America — it was just not a model to follow."
Now the Cold War is over, the Soviet Union and its subsidies long gone and communist social and economic models have been tossed aside. But Castro is still highly respected across much of Latin America — just in a new, modern context.
Jorge Manuel Toha served as a cabinet minister in the early 1970s under a traditional Latin leftist — former Chilean President Salvador Allende Chile, once a close ally of Fidel Castro, who was deposed by a CIA-backed military coup. Now, as the representative of Chile's newly elected socialist government, Toha says Castro's Cuba doesn't mean what it meant to Chile 35 years ago.
"We don't want to pass judgment on any other countries — we are very respectful," he says. "But anyone knows these are two different models of development."
New governments in Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia and Chile are led by people who at one time were inspired by what Castro was doing in Cuba. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez calls Castro "the father of all the revolutionaries of America ... the lighthouse that lights the paths."
Castaneda, who went to Cuba as a young Mexican college student to cut sugar cane, says Castro's appeal to young Latin American leftists today is different now than it was in the 1960s and '70s.
"He became more [of] an iconic figure, a figure mostly of Latin American nationalism and anti-Americanism — I think that's what the kids like," Castaneda says. "They know he's not a revolutionary, they know the Cuban experience is a failure, they know that they would never accept the kind of regime that exists in Havana. But they still say, 'Well, yes, but he stands up to the Americans.'"
And at a time when the image of the United States has suffered in Latin America and in other parts of the world, that reputation is likely to ensure Castro an honored place in the history of Latin America's left.