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Fidel Castro: The man who beat all the odds

  • Published at 09:40 pm November 27th, 2016
Fidel Castro: The man who beat all the odds

Fidel Castro, a titan of the Cold War who defied 10 US presidents and thrust Cuba onto the world stage, is dead at age 90. The US government spent more than $1bn trying to kill, undermine or otherwise force Castro from power, but he endured unscathed before old age and disease finally took him. Cuban people described him as a tireless defender of the poor.

Castro was "a giant of the Third World", said Agustin Diaz Cartaya, 85, who joined Castro in the 1953 attack in eastern Cuba that launched the revolution. "No one has done more for the Third World than Fidel Castro."

For five decades, Castro worked to turn the island nation into a place of equality and social justice. His government produced tens of thousands of doctors and teachers and achieved some of the lowest infant mortality and illiteracy rates in the Western hemisphere.

The US had tried for years to topple the Cuban government. Cuba stumbled along even after the collapse of its chief ally, the former Soviet Union. The CIA plotted to assassinate Castro using everything from exploding seashells to lethal fungus, US officials cut off almost all trade to Cuba and they financed dissidents and pro-democracy activists. But nothing worked during 11 successive administrations, from Dwight Eisenhower to Barack Obama. On December 17, 2014, Obama announced that the US planned to renew diplomatic ties with Cuba and loosen some trade and travel restrictions.

Fidel castro

A Young Revolutionary

In January 1959, Fidel Castro, a fiery revolutionary, emerged from the jungle and entered Havana to triumphantly declare the overthrow of Fulgencio Batista, a dictator and US ally. Soon, the young guerrilla would remove any doubt as to his ideology, declaring the revolution socialist and the country communist, and in the process altering the relationship between Cuba and the US for the next 55 years.

Castro quickly became a thorn in Washington’s side, and US leaders repeatedly sought ways to weaken his hold and oust him from power, including an economic embargo, assassination attempts and a failed invasion at the Bay of Pigs.

Failed invasion attempt

On April 17, 1961, about 1,500 Cuban exiles trained by the CIA stormed the beaches of the Bay of Pigs in a failed attempt to overthrow Castro. The invasion, ordered by US President John F Kennedy, was a disaster. The dissidents telegraphed their plans for what was supposed to be a covert operation, US efforts to destroy Cuba’s air force ahead of the invasion were unsuccessful and the Cuban people did not support the rebels in their fight. After three days, more than 100 of the exiles were killed and 1,200 were captured. The failed invasion embarrassed the US and pushed Cuba closer to the Soviet Union.

The Missile Crisis

Tensions between the US and Cuba reached their apex for 13 days in October 1962. An US spy plane photographed Soviet ballistic nuclear missiles stationed on the island on October 14. The tensest days came after October 22, when Kennedy went public with what was happening, ordered a naval blockade of Cuba and mobilised 140,000 troops. He pledged that any missile launched from Cuba would be regarded as an attack on the US by the Soviet Union, and demanded the Soviets remove all offensive weapons from Cuba. Castro put 400,000 of his own people on alert, anticipating a military invasion that - it emerged years later - was not in any of Kennedy's immediate plans. But Kennedy at one point ordered low-level reconnaissance missions once every two hours. On October 26, Khrushchev offered to withdraw the missiles if the US promised not to invade Cuba.

Exporting Revolution

From 1975 to 1991, Cuba sent 300,000 combat troops and 50,000 civilians to Angola to protect the government there from foreign intervention, according to Fidel Castro. The war, which devolved into a bloody, violent civil conflict, cost 2,000 Cubans their lives, and it was part of what US often denounced as Castro’s ambitious attempt to export the Revolution abroad. At the height of the Cold War, Cuba was involved in conflicts in both Africa and the Americas, sometimes working alongside the Soviet Union, and often angering the US.

Longest speech at UN

Fidel Castro tried to win over Cubans in speeches that sometimes lasted more than seven hours. A four-hour and 29-minute spiel in 1960 earned him the Guinness Book of Records title for the longest speech ever delivered at the UN.