Sometime after midnight on 4 January 1994, I sat down with Fidel Castro for an interview for Vanity Fair magazine. This was my second meeting with Cuban revolutionary leader at the headquarters of the Communist party in the centre of Havana, a city reeling from the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba’s ally for three decades.
After some perfunctory, softball questions, I delicately broached the topic of his retirement. After all, he was then in his mid-60s and had ruled Cuba single-handedly for 35 years, triple the reign of Napoleon Bonaparte, the political role model and hero since his teen years.
“My vocation is the revolution. I am a revolutionary and revolutionaries don’t retire,” he shot back, pausing for effect, “Any more than writers.”
Asked what would happen to Cuba after his death, he said, “It’s not my fault that I haven’t died yet,” adding gleefully, “It’s not my fault that the CIA has failed to kill me.”
A more obsessive micro-manager – of matters big and small – the world has never known. Castro had commanded every second and manoeuvre against the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961. During the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, he famously exhorted the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, to call the bluff of the Americans and deploy missiles aimed at the US.
In the mid-1950s, Castro had been a political prisoner for about 22 months. From his cell, he never doubted the outrageous destiny that awaited him. He read and wrote ceaselessly and relentlessly plotted his political future. Those letters amply demonstrate Castro’s strategic thinking and natural leadership, and are an early indicator of his Machiavellian genius for public relations.
Letter after letter illustrates Castro’s capacity to inspire others to do his bidding. He even provided the talking points, “Maintain a deceptively soft touch and smile with everyone,” he advised one cohort. “Follow the same strategy that we followed during the Moncada trial; defend our points of view without raising resentments. There will be enough time later to squash all the cockroaches together. Do not lose heart over anything or anyone.”
Castro trusted no one, with the possible exception of his brother Raúl and Celia Sánchez, his confidante and comrade from the early 1950s. But when Sánchez’s health began to fail in the late 1970s, Castro decided that she was better off not knowing that she was dying. Sánchez, perhaps the most beloved figure of the revolution, died in 1980 without ever knowing the nature of her illness.
As befitted one of the world’s longest-reigning heads of state, Castro would take his time leaving the stage. That exit, with periodic finales, was fated to be a marathon, his own personal epic that one might be tempted to call The Fideliad.
“Don’t worry about me,” Castro wrote his half-sister in 1954. “You know I have a heart of steel and that I will be stalwart until the last day of my life.”
And so he was.