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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

Leaders of more than 100 developing countries were on hand in Havana this morning for the opening of the summit of the so-called non-aligned countries. Earlier this week, Cuba's foreign minister said Fidel Castro would be heading the Cuban delegation, but at the last minute he was replaced by his brother, Raul.

Fidel Castro has not made a public appearance since undergoing intestinal surgery in late July, and his absence from the nonaligned summit was unprecedented. Since taking power in 1959, Castro has seen himself as a spokesman for the poor and underdeveloped countries of the world. In Latin America especially, the triumph of the Cuban revolution was a defining event.

In the final part of our series on Latin America's turn to the left, NPR's Tom Gjelten reports on what Castro means for the region now, nearly 50 years after he took power.

TOM GJELTEN: There were left-leaning politicians all across Latin America in the 1950s, but none of them was anything like Fidel Castro, a bearded young revolutionary who came down from the mountains and said he was going to build a new Cuba based on social justice.

Castro is now an old man and unable even to make an appearance at this non-aligned summit in Havana. But a few of the gray haired diplomats here remember how Castro's triumph electrified the continent. Jorge Manuel Toha, Chile's current ambassador to Cuba, was 21 years old at the time Castro came to power.

Mr. JORGE MANUEL TOHA (Chile's ambassador to Cuba): (Speaking foreign language)

GJELTEN: I don't think there was a single young person across Latin America who did not feel sympathy for what was happening here, Toha says, or who did not see this as an interesting and unusual process.

But that was not the way Fidel Castro and his revolution were seen by governments across Latin America or by Washington. Castro was a radical. He had come to power through an armed struggle. And the more he excited young people across the region, the more he terrified the established powers.

They reacted to his 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. That would be about $6 billion in today's dollars.

Ernesto Betancourt, who was Fidel Castro's representative in Washington during the early days of the revolution, says Fidel Castro in a way deserves the credit for that program.

Mr. ERNESTO BETANCOURT (Former Castro representative to Washington): The notion was that this was a way of countering the Castro threat of promoting revolution, which by that time had become a matter of great concern for the governments and the establishment in all of Latin America.

GJELTEN: In fact, that aid program was origin of President John Kennedy's Alliance for Progress, a project conceived with the idea it would bring such dramatic change in Latin America that Fidel Castro and his revolutionary message would no longer have any appeal.

President JOHN F. KENNEDY: Therefore I have called on all people of the hemisphere to join in a new Alliance for Progress - Alianza para Progresso.

GJELTEN: Those who make peaceful revolution impossible, Kennedy later said, make violent revolution inevitable. The problem was that there were very few governments in Latin America capable of promoting development. Much of the U.S. aid was wasted. Fidel Castro, meanwhile, was becoming all the more determined to export Cuba's revolution.

In 1965, he sent his fellow revolutionary Che Guevara off 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 - Fidel read Che's letter aloud.

President FIDEL CASTRO (Cuba): (Speaking foreign language)

GJELTEN: On new battlefields, Che wrote Fidel, 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.

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.

Mr. JORGE CASTANEDA: He was just very young and very attractive and very charismatic and very vigorous and refreshing, as opposed to the traditional stereotype of the Latin American leftist at the time.

GJELTEN: Guerrilla movements were soon flourishing in Colombia and across Central America. In 1979, the Sandinistas came to power in Nicaragua through a revolution. Fidel 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 leftists began to doubt whether they really could follow his example. Again, Jorge Castaneda.

Mr. CASTANEDA: I think that the Cuban revolution lost any meaningful relevance, value, to the left in Latin America in practical terms many, many years ago -probably since the 1980s if not since the 1970s - 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 - probably equivalent to 25 percent of GDP - and that that Soviet subsidy could not be extended to any other country in Latin America. Consequently it was just not a model to follow.

GJELTEN: The Cold War is over, the Soviet Union and its subsidies long gone, communist models tossed aside. Still at the non-aligned meeting here in Havana this week, Fidel Castro has been receiving tributes.

Jorge Manuel Toha served as a cabinet minister in the early 1970s under a traditional Latin leftist, Salvador Allende, in Chile, at the time a close ally of Fidel Castro. Now, as the representative in Havana of Chile's new socialist government, Toha says Fidel Castro's Cuba doesn't mean what it meant to Chile 35 years ago.

Mr. TOHA: (Speaking foreign language)

GJELTEN: We don't want to pass judgment on any other countries, Toha says, we are very respectful. But anyone knows these are two different models of development.

For some visiting Latin dignitaries this summit amounts almost to a farewell to Fidel. The governments of Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina and Bolivia, as well as Chile, are led by people who at one time in one way or another were inspired by what Fidel Castro was doing in Cuba. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez calls him the father of all the revolutionaries of America, the lighthouse that lights the paths.

At one of Castro's last public appearances, a crowd of college students in Argentina gave him a rousing welcome. Jorge Castaneda, who went to Cuba as a young Mexican college student to cut sugar cane, says Fidel Castro's appeal to young Latin leftists today is different now than it was in the 1960s and '70s.

Mr. CASTANEDA: He became more an iconic figure, a figure mostly of Latin American nationalism and anti-Americanism. I think that's what the kids like. They know he's not a revolutionary, they know that the Cuban experience is a failure. They know that they would never accept the type of regime that there exists in Havana. But they still say well, yes, but he stands up to the Americans.

GJELTEN: And at a time when the image of the United States has suffered in Latin America as in other parts of the world, that reputation is likely to ensure Fidel Castro an honored place in the history of the Latin left.

Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Havana.

NORRIS: You can find a timeline of Castro's political career and analysis of U.S. policy on Cuba and more stories in this series at npr.org.

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