It happens to few people in history to be known simply by their first name: but when the word went around the world that Fidel was dead, everyone must have known of whom the news spoke. And this Fidel was a man who led a revolution on a small Caribbean island 57 years ago. He was not everybody’s cup of tea: his revolution did not mess around. Within 80 days of taking office, they had summarily executed some hundreds of people who were judged by their revolutionary tribunals to be irreconcilable enemies. It was the signal for tens of thousands of other residents to decamp, with all their belongings and wealth, to the United States.
No one could have imagined that this tiny island led by its bearded guerrilla fighters could withstand the assembled power of their great neighbour for decade after decade. And yet, such was this man’s charisma, such his determination, his stubbornness, his idealism, often his wrong-headedness, and his caution in face of hundreds of assassination plots directed against him, that such has been the case. The Cuban revolutionaries are still in command, and the island is as far as it could be from the evil days when the dictator, supported and armed by the United States, made it into a safe playground for corrupt American gambling.
Not four months after marching into Havana, Fidel Castro visited Montreal to collect some 20,000 toys that had been collected for destitute Cuban children by the Junior Chamber of Commerce. I was a reporter in Montreal when Fidel visited in April 1959, and was assigned to follow him around all day. He was like no other politician the local security authorities ever had to deal with. Immediately on emerging from the plane at the airport he broke away from his security and insisted on pressing the flesh with the people who had turned up to see him. He did the same thing throughout the day, giving headaches to his security men, and more especially to the local police who were assigned to protect him. He was taken to the hospital where he insisted on stopping off to meet sick children, and spent so long with them that he immediately fell behind schedule, and when he arrived at the downtown hotel for a scheduled press conference, at which he arrived 40 minutes late, he gave of his time so generously that he was still at it 90 minutes later, giving one-on-one interviews to television reporters (one of whom was Rene Levesque, who later became, just as Fidel has become in Cuba, one of the most memorable figures in the political history of Quebec.)
That press conference in Montreal was held in the months when Fidel was denying he had any interest in taking office in the new Cuban government. He also said he was anti-communist. But within months he took over the running of the government, and he never relinquished his hold on it for the next 47 years. I have a picture of that press conference, and I was surprised to see a little reproduction of it on the below mentioned web site, showing me scribbling away in the front row of journalists.
The day after the visit, when my story had been published in the newspaper, my boss came up to me and said, “I see you didn’t think too much of our visitor.” And yet, other people who read my stuff and were used to my style, said to me, “How the hell did you ever get such a favorable impression of Castro into the newspaper?” It was all done by smoke and mirrors. In those days I always considered myself part of the opposition within the newspaper, and had developed the useful skill of suggesting things that I would never have been allowed to say straight out.
The whole story of this visit is well told in a web site with the following link:
Of course, as the government began in the succeeding months to redistribute the agricultural land it had seized from the owners of the big estates, and finally to nationalize all American companies, the United States, smarting from this defiance, so much at odds with the previous history of Latin America, imposed an embargo on all trade, expecting to bring them to their knees overnight. That this embargo should have continued until the present day is a tribute to the irrationality of big power politics as well as to the stubborn resistance of the island’s people.
One of the outstanding characteristics of the new leader that is exhibited by the story of the locals who organized Fidel’s 1959 visit to Montreal, was the extreme difficulty they had in getting in touch with him, and the near-impossibility of pinning down anything like a meaningful schedule on which plans could be based. This was a caution that he carried through the rest of his life, and which accounted for the failure of so many well-organized efforts to assassinate him. One of my friends in later years was Robert Resha, a South African member of the African National Congress, who was assigned to London and whose job it was in the tough years of the 1960s (for the South African revolutionaries), to tour the world trying to raise money that would enable the AFN to carry out its proposed armed rebellion against the apartheid regime in their country. Robert visited Cuba in pursuit of this objective, and he told a remarkable story of waiting for days in a hotel room in the hope that his messages for Fidel had been delivered and he might be summoned to the presence. That never happened. But what did happen was that one night, when he was fast asleep, at something like 3 am, there was a knock on his hotel door, and the great man himself stood there, available at last. He came in, sat down, and talked for several hours to his comrade-in-arms. It could have been that this meeting, and the rapport that Robert succeeded in creating with him, set the stage for the extremely significant interventions Cuba later made in the anti-colonial struggle in Africa.
According to Robert, Fidel never slept in the same bed for two nights in a row. And his experience is reflected in the later stages of the account of the Montreal visit given on the above-mentioned web site. A Montreal businessman who had offered a gift of tractors to Cuba, managed to get his gift delivered, but he wanted, if possible, to have it formally accepted by Fidel. He travelled to Cuba with that expectation, and contacted the people who knew about his gift, and the circumstances of the Montreal visit. But he waited for one night, only to be told Fidel was at the other end of the island, then a second night, a third, a fourth, and finally he announced he would have to return to Montreal. He never did get the picture he so wanted for his company’s publicity.
On the same subject, the National Film Board made a very amusing film called Waiting for Fidel, which recorded the experience of the Newfoundland premier, Joey Smallwood, who once travelled to Cuba, in company with a newspaper proprietor of his acquaintance, with the expectation of meeting el jefe. They travelled around, visiting hospitals and the like, waited and waited some more, and even had time for the newspaper proprietor to stand on his head on the beach at the Bay of Pigs, but they never did get to meet the boss.
Fidel was definitely cheeky. He not only provided a signpost to better possibilities in Latin America (although Che Guevara’s ill-advised attempt to foment revolution in Bolivia was a miserable failure), but as his nation outstripped all others in Latin America in education and medical services, he also began to make an impact by exchanging thousands of doctors in exchange for oil and the like, much to the chagrin of he Americans. His intervention in Africa was probably the most significant of his foreign adventures. It began in the 1970s, when he sent 5,000 troops to help the leftist FNLA government of Angola to resist the American supported and armed right-wing group UNITA. This Cuban involvement in Africa had so enraged Henry Kissinger, that, according to the US National Security Archive, which released documents to this effect, he had urged President Gerald Ford to order a massive bombing of Cuba to be followed by an assault of ground troops based on the US base at Guantanamo Bay. But its most important effect came a decade later when South Africa sent its army into Angola in an effort to stem a government advance. Cuba in 1987 sent a force of 15,000 troops (later, according to the Archive, increased to 55,000) who fought huge battles against the invading South Africans, and beat them. The UNITA rebellion was beaten off, and, although this is not widely known --- but it is recognized by the AFN --- this defeat was one of the major influences in the later downfall of the apartheid regime.
So, Fidel is dead. And whatever may have been his weaknesses, he certainly was a figure of world-wide influence, who apparently knew when his time had come to quit (unlike so many others in the developing world), and who, to judge by the articles he contributed until almost his last year, certainly understood very well the affairs of the wider world, and kept his marbles intact right until the end. The world will miss him; I miss him already.