SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Fidel Castro has died in Havana at the age of 90. Out of power but still a powerful figure, he came to power in Cuba in 1959 and led his country for nearly 50 years. NPR's Tom Gjelten looks back at Fidel Castro's life.
TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: Fidel Castro is one of the most inspiring leaders of the 20th century. He was loved and hated passionately. Many who later lost faith in him can remember how they once admired the man who needed just a dozen men to launch the Cuban revolution. Domingo Amuchastegui was a diplomat in Castro's government until he fled Cuba in 1994.
DOMINGO AMUCHASTEGUI: He was not a corrupt politician as in the past we used to have. He was a very promising, courageous, dedicated, intelligent kind of people - an excellent fighter, man willing to risk his life for his ideas.
GJELTEN: Fidel Castro got involved in revolutionary politics while still a teenager. In his 20s, as a young lawyer, he began organizing a movement to overthrow Fulgencio Batista, Cuba's military dictator. By the time Batista fled the country on January 1, 1959, the charismatic 32-year-old rebel Fidel had much of the country behind him, rich and poor alike. On a visit to Washington in April 1959, Castro presented himself as a political moderate. A highlight of his trip was a guest appearance on NBC Television's "Meet The Press."
(SOUNDBITE OF "MEET THE PRESS")
LAWRENCE SPIVAK: Our guest is the prime minister of Cuba, Dr. Fidel Castro.
GJELTEN: Under questioning that day from panelist Lawrence Spivak, Castro reassured all those who feared he might be a communist, and he made a promise he would never fulfill.
PRESIDENT FIDEL CASTRO: Democracy's my idea. I do not agree with communists, my acts prove. Free press in Cuba - free ideas, freedom religion belief. What we want is to get, as soon as possible, the condition for free election.
SPIVAK: How long will that take?
CASTRO: Not in any condition more than four years.
GJELTEN: In fact, that 1959 trip would be the only one Castro ever made to Washington. Like many Cuban nationalists, Fidel Castro did not like the United States, which had dominated Cuba ever since the country gained its independence from Spain.
Once in power, Castro expropriated U.S. property in Cuba and took an increasingly hostile attitude towards the United States. Within four months of his trip to Washington, the Eisenhower administration had drawn up a plan to overthrow Castro. He had declared allegiance, instead, to Cuba's poor. They saw their rents reduced and their utility bills cut, and they benefited from the construction of new schools and hospitals around the country.
ALFREDO DURAN: A lot of people who had been left out for many years took advantage of that to say, now is our time under the sun.
GJELTEN: Alfredo Duran was a college student from a prosperous Havana family.
DURAN: Unfortunately, it turned out bad. It turned out that this guy was - had such an ego, that - and wanted so much power and wanted to be an international figure that he embraced the communism and the Soviet Union.
GJELTEN: Duran was among several hundred thousand Cubans who fled to Miami. He later fought in the U.S.-supported Bay of Pigs rebellion, the first of many efforts by Cuban exiles and their U.S. government backers to remove Castro from power.
Historians debate to this day whether Fidel Castro was a communist from the time he took power or only became one after he was spurned by the United States. What is not disputed is that he was always an autocrat moving ruthlessly against anyone who dared oppose him. More than 400 of his political enemies were executed by firing squad in his first 90 days in power.
As Cuba's leader, Castro answered to no one and allowed no challenge to his authority. Domingo Amuchastegui, who was with him often while serving in the Cuban foreign ministry, says Castro sought advice when making a decision but in the end did things his own way.
AMUCHASTEGUI: Once he became convinced of any of these projects, despite whatever evidence, despite whatever arguments against that project, he stood by his convictions, and he would go on and on regardless of everything and everyone.
GJELTEN: Some of Castro's biographers think his stubbornness came from the years he spent in strict Catholic boarding schools. He was a born rebel. Unlike his brother Raul, Fidel was never close to his family - not to his parents, not to his wives, not to his children. He did not hesitate to order the arrest of former friends and associates if he thought they were conspiring against him. He set up an immense security apparatus to keep him in power.
And yet, Castro was not interested in personal enrichment. His supporters say he deployed his enormous authority on behalf of health, education and welfare programs that brought Cuba attention around the world. Near the peak of his international popularity, in October 1979, Castro addressed the U.N. General Assembly on behalf of the countries in the Non-Aligned Movement. Castro told the delegates that if they were to talk about human rights, they should talk also about the rights of humanity.
CASTRO: (Through interpreter) Why do some people have to go barefoot so that others can drive luxury cars? Why are some people able to live only 35 years in order that others can live 70 years? Why do some people have to be miserably poor in order that others can be extravagantly rich? I speak for all the children in the world who don't even have a piece of bread.
GJELTEN: But interest in Fidel Castro's Cuban model declined once the flaws of his centrally planned, socialist system became obvious. The collapse of the Soviet bloc ended the massive subsidies that had kept the Cuban economy afloat. The once-vaunted education and health care systems fell into disrepair. Fidel Castro's stubbornness, meanwhile, made political and economic change difficult in Cuba. As his country crumbled around him, Castro's stature diminished abroad and at home. He ceded power to his brother Raul in 2006 and spent the last years of his life as a sickly old man.
His final major speech came at a Communist Party congress in the spring of 2016. President Barack Obama had made an historic trip to Cuba just a few weeks earlier. Speaking to the Congress in a voice that had long since lost its vigor, Castro ignored Obama's overture to Cuba. He defended the revolution he had led 60 years earlier. But it was a farewell address.
CASTRO: (Speaking in Spanish).
GJELTEN: "Soon I'll be 90 years old," he said. "Soon, I'll be like all the others. For all of us, our turn will come."
His time had passed. By then, his brother Raul and other Cuban leaders were in command. Jorge Dominguez of Harvard University followed Fidel Castro for many years.
JORGE DOMINGUEZ: Had Fidel died in 1985, he would have seemed like a much more impressive figure with a much more substantial legacy.
GJELTEN: As it is, Dominguez gives Fidel Castro, at best, mixed marks. The leader who wanted to uplift the poor and educate the illiterate was also a megalomaniac determined to hold on to power at all costs.
DOMINGUEZ: He also ordered the imprisonment and abuse of hundreds of thousands of people during the course of his career. That's what makes him such a complex figure. When he did things for good, he did a great deal of good. And when he did things for bad, he did a great deal of bad.
GJELTEN: Fidel Castro outlasted U.S. presidents determined to overthrow him, survived the collapse of the communist bloc that sustained him and outlived many of those who wanted to replace him. For those reasons, he will go down in history as among the world's most skillful politicians, even if his achievements largely die with him.
Tom Gjelten, NPR News.
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