Tag Archives: Cuba

On the death of Cuba’s Fidel Castro

Fidel Castro died, age 90, in November, 2016. Above, People look at a picture of Cuba's former President Fidel Castro during the opening of the exhibition "Fidel" in Havana, Cuba, August 12, 2016. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini

Fidel Castro died, age 90, in November, 2016. Above, People look at a picture of Cuba’s former President Fidel Castro during the opening of the exhibition “Fidel” in Havana, Cuba, August 12, 2016. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini

DEBORAH JONES: FREE RANGE
November, 2016

I first went to Cuba in 1995, on a magazine assignment. Before I left a good friend, who travelled widely on government business, said it was the only Latin American country she knew where no children begged in the streets. I kept her comment in mind as I read up on the criticism of Cuba’s human rights and economic record.

At the airport at Holguin I encountered armed guards, enforcing Cuba’s then-rule against bringing in magazines, books or newspapers. Buildings everywhere were riddled with bullet holes, mementoes of the revolution. People were thin and food –- which mostly consisted of rice and beans — was scant, following the collapse of its ally the U.S.S.R. Cuba’s air roiled with black oily exhaust belching from ancient vehicles; taking public transit required clambering into the back of a dump truck.  Once in Santiago, a tour guide noted matter-of-factly that Cuba used firing squads for capital punishment.

But my friend was right: there was not a beggar to be seen. Children dressed in sparkling white walked to school in lines. Almost all of the adults I met had post-secondary education; my assigned driver had a PhD in anthropology and was married to a physician. Everyone had health care. Though Cubans were poor, no one I saw was downcast to the point of being broken. I still can’t say the same of other places I’ve been in the Americas — including the U.S.

Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution has had mixed results. But as with most things in life, it’s not all good nor all bad. Cuba ranks 67th in the UN Human Development Index. Had Castro not revolted against the American corporate pirates who were then raping and ransacking the country, would it now rival perhaps Haiti (163), Nicaragua (125) or Honduras (131)?

My driver in 1995 said he hoped Cuba would change, open up to the world, allow him to travel. He was tired of being poor and hungry, he said. Then he frowned, and added, “But we have to be careful. We don’t want to lose what we’ve gained.”

Those gains — by a small, isolated, and impoverished country — are revealed in an adult literacy rate of 99.8 %, and statistics that put the far wealthier United States to shame in areas like infant mortality (Cuba’s rate of 4, compared to 6 in the US); life expectancy (Cubans live to 79.1 years, Americans 78.8 years. Sources: UNICEF CubaUNICEF U.S.)

Such are the things I’ve kept in mind, in the aftermath of Fidel Castro’s death this month, while listening to modern critics of Cuba’s human rights and economic record.

©  Deborah Jones 2016

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Related works on F&O about Cuba and Fidel Castro include: two essays by International Affairs columnist Jonathan Manthorpe — Fidel Castro and the Defeat of South African’s Apartheid, and  Castro and Trudeau, Kindred Spirits.  Dispatches: Fidel Castro, dead at 90. A Life in Photos; with Fidel Castro, Facts and Quotes. Analysis by academic Mark Beeson, Fidel Castro: Anachronism, Achiever, With Tarnished Legacy.

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Contact: djones AT factsandopinions.com (including for republishing.)

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Castro and Trudeau, Kindred Spirits

Cuba's Fidel Castro with Pierre Trudeau, former Canadian Prime Minister. Duncan Cameron, Library and Archives Canada.

Cuba’s Fidel Castro with Pierre Trudeau, former Canadian Prime Minister. Duncan Cameron, Library and Archives Canada.

JONATHAN MANTHORPE: International Affairs
December 3, 2016

Pierre Trudeau and Fidel Castro were brothers under the skin.

It is no wonder they became life-long friends, for each could see a reflection of himself in the other. That didn’t, however, stop Castro as Cuban president lying purposefully to Canadian prime minister Trudeau if he thought it politically expedient to do so.

The similarity in the backgrounds of the two men is compelling. Both came from nouveau-riche families, and grew up in climates of privilege and entitlement. However, both had distant relationships with their fathers, which may well have contributed to the youthful rebellion and embrace of left-wing politics by both men.

Trudeau’s father came from a typical Quebec rural family that worked the farm that had been handed down for several generations. But Charles-Emile Trudeau was ambitious and hard-working; he managed to acquire a garage and then a chain of service stations in Montreal. In his memoirs, Trudeau recounts that the family became wealthy at the start of the Great Depression in the 1930s when his father sold his service-station empire and invested in mining companies, an amusement park and the Montreal Royals baseball team.

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Then Cuban President Fidel Castro acknowledges the applause of the audience while standing underneath an image of late revolutionary hero Ernesto Che Guevara, during the inauguration of games involving mainly Cuban and Venezuelan athletes in Havana in this June 17, 2005 file photo. REUTERS/Claudia Daut/File Photo

Then Cuban President Fidel Castro acknowledges the applause of the audience while standing underneath an image of late revolutionary hero Ernesto Che Guevara, during the inauguration of games involving mainly Cuban and Venezuelan athletes in Havana in this June 17, 2005 file photo. REUTERS/Claudia Daut/File Photo

Trudeau’s memories of his father are of brief encounters over the boy’s homework in the evenings before Charles-Emile returned to his office at the garage. During the long summer holidays, Pierre Trudeau, his mother and siblings would stay at the family cabin at Lac Tremblant, where his father, usually accompanied by a bevy of friends, would descend for boisterous weekends, often featuring vibrant political discussions – Charles-Emile was a devout Conservative.

Castro’s father, Angel Castro y Argiz, was an immigrant to Cuba from Galicia in northwestern Spain. He acquired a sugar-cane farm, Las Manacas, at Biran, inland from Santiago de Cuba in the island’s south, where Fidel’s ashes are to be kept. Fidel was the child of a household servant, Lina Ruz Gonzalez. After the dissolution of his marriage, Angel Castro took Lina first as his mistress and then married her.

Both Trudeau and Castro spent their formative teenage years at private Jesuit high schools. The Jesuits are primarily a missionary order, with a questing spirit wedded to a culture of discipline, austerity, and intellectual certainty that can border on arrogance among those lacking the antidote of Christian humility.

As politicians, both Castro and Trudeau displayed absolute certainty about the kind of political dispensations they considered best for the citizens of their countries. And both proceeded — though with far more bitter consequences for Cubans than for Canadians – knowing full well the rules would not apply to themselves.

Castro and Trudeau were politically active in high-school and university years. Both were rebellious, espoused left-wing causes, and took law degrees at university.

Trudeau got his law degree at the Université de Montréal. Castro started studying law in 1945 at the University of Havana, where he quickly became involved in radical and frequently violent left-wing politics. His charisma blossomed early and he was soon set on course as a revolutionary leader. He got involved in plans for a revolution in the Dominican Republic in 1947 and then attempts to overthrow the government of Colombia in 1948.

Trudeau’s rebellion was more modest. Like many Quebecois, he was unclear what the war against fascism in Europe had to do with French Canadians. He campaigned in a by-election in 1942 for the anti-conscription candidate Jean Drapeau, later mayor of Montreal. After Trudeau’s own conscription in 1943, he joined the Officer Training Corps, but got himself expelled for lack of discipline.

After the Second World War, Trudeau burnished his academic credentials with degrees from Harvard, where his master’s dissertation was on Marxism and Christianity, followed by studies at the Institut d’Études Politiques de Paris. He capped his academic endeavours by starting a doctorate (which he never finished), tutored by the socialist economist Harold Laski at the London School of Economics.

Trudeau’s early political involvement in Canada was decidedly left-wing. He gained a reputation as a labour lawyer campaigning for workers’ rights and through the 1950s supported the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, the precursor of the New Democratic Party. But when he decided to get involved full-time in federal politics, he opted to join the Liberal Party, arguing that the CCF had no chance of gaining power, and therefore no hope of implementing its policies.

Castro, too, was pragmatic when need be. In his book, Memoirs, Trudeau recalls an official visit to Cuba in 1976 as prime minister, accompanied by wife Margaret and baby Michel. They spent a day with Castro at a small cottage on an island and Trudeau recounts a conversation about Cuba’s military involvement in the Angolan civil war.

Trudeau put it to Castro that he was meddling in the internal affairs of a sovereign country. Was this not akin to the United States’ involvement in Vietnam, Trudeau asked. Castro said his soldiers and airmen were merely supporting the legitimate government against right-wing rebels backed by South Africa and the U.S.

Castro told Trudeau how many troops he had in Angola, and said they would not be there long. When Trudeau got back to Ottawa, officials told him the Cuban military contingent in Cuba was much larger than Castro had said, and (as will be shown in the accompanying story) it was there for the long haul. As a result, Trudeau cut off all development aid to Cuba.

“I did not meet Castro again until many years later, so I don’t know what his reaction was to our tough policy. But I’m sure he didn’t like it,” Trudeau wrote.

Copyright Jonathan Manthorpe 2016

Contact, including queries about syndication/republishing: jonathan.manthorpe@gmail.com

See alsoFidel Castro and the Defeat of South African’s Apartheid, by Jonathan Manthorpe

Many people questioned it then and continue to question it now, but Nelson Mandela had no doubt that Fidel Castro played a central and critical role in the defeat of apartheid in South Africa.

Related stories in F&O:

Fidel Castro, Dead at 90: A Life in Photos, by Marc Frank and Nelson Acosta  Report/Photo essay

Fidel Castro, the Cuban revolutionary leader who built a communist state on the doorstep of the United States and for five decades defied U.S. efforts to topple him, died Nov. 25, 2016. He was 90. A towering figure of the second half of the 20th Century, Castro stuck to his ideology beyond the collapse of Soviet communism and remained widely respected in parts of the world that had struggled against colonial rule.

Fidel Castro, The Facts, compiled by Reuters

Cuban revolutionary and its former president Fidel Castro died, age 90, on Friday November 26.  Following are some facts about former Cuban leader Fidel Castro, and quotes from his friends and foes.

Fidel Castro: Anachronism and Achiever, With Tarnished Legacy, by Mark Beeson   Analysis

Twentieth-century political icons don’t get much bigger than Fidel Castro. His death will reignite debates about his place in history and the revolutionary ideas he epitomised.

Generals in mufti still control BurmaJONATHAN MANTHORPE: International AffairsApril, 2015

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Manthorpe B&WJonathan Manthorpe is a founding columnist with Facts and Opinions and is the author of the journal’s International Affairs column. He is the author of “Forbidden Nation: A History of Taiwan,” and has been a foreign correspondent and international affairs columnist for nearly 40 years. Manthorpe’s  nomadic career began in the late 1970s as European Bureau Chief for The Toronto Star, the job that took Ernest Hemingway to Europe in the 1920s. In the mid-1980s Manthorpe became European Correspondent for Southam News. In the following years Manthorpe was sent by Southam News, the internal news agency for Canada’s largest group of metropolitan daily newspapers, to be the correspondent in Africa and then Asia. Between postings Manthorpe spent a few years based in Ottawa focusing on intelligence and military affairs, and the United Nations. Since 1998 Manthorpe has been based in Vancouver, but has travelled frequently on assignment to Asia, Europe and Latin America.

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Fidel Castro: The Facts

By Reuters
November 26, 2016

Fidel Castro attends manoeuvres during the anniversary of his and his fellow revolutionaries arrival on the yacht Granma, November 1976. REUTERS/Prensa Latina

See also: F&O’s report, Fidel Castro, Dead at 90: A Life in Photos, and an analysis, Fidel Castro: Anachronism and Achiever, With Tarnished Legacy. Above, Fidel Castro, the Cuban revolutionary leader who built a communist state on the doorstep of the United States and for five decades defied U.S. efforts to topple him, died Nov. 25, 2016. He was 90. A towering figure of the second half of the 20th Century, Castro stuck to his ideology beyond the collapse of Soviet communism and remained widely respected in parts of the world that had struggled against colonial rule. Fidel Castro attends manoeuvres during the anniversary of his and his fellow revolutionaries arrival on the yacht Granma, November 1976. REUTERS/Prensa Latina

Cuban revolutionary and its former president Fidel Castro died, age 90, on Friday November 26.  Following are some facts about former Cuban leader Fidel Castro, and quotes from his friends and foes.

* Fidel Castro led Cuba for five decades and was the world’s third longest-serving head of state, after Britain’s Queen Elizabeth and the King of Thailand. He temporarily ceded power to his brother Raul in July 2006 after undergoing intestinal surgery. The handover of power became official in 2008.

* In his last years, Castro occasionally appeared in public and in videos and pictures usually meeting with guests. He wrote hundreds of columns for the official media. Stooped and walking with difficulty, Castro was seen in public twice in 2012 and twice in 2013. He was seen in public on Jan. 8, 2014, at the opening of a cultural centre, though photos of visiting dignitaries at the Castro home appeared after that.

* Castro holds the record for the longest speech ever delivered to the United Nations: 4 hours and 29 minutes, on Sept. 26, 1960, according to the U.N. website. One of his longest speeches on record lasted 7 hours and 30 minutes on Feb. 24, 1998, after the national assembly re-elected him to a five-year term as president.

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* Castro claimed he survived 634 attempts or plots to assassinate him, mainly masterminded by the Central Intelligence Agency and U.S.-based exile organizations. They may have included poison pills, a toxic cigar, exploding mollusks, and a chemically tainted diving suit. Another alleged plan involved giving him powder that would make his beard fall out and so undermine his popularity.

* Despite the plots, a U.S.-backed exile invasion at the Bay of Pigs and five decades of economic sanctions, Castro outlasted nine U.S. presidents, from Dwight Eisenhower to Bill Clinton, stepping down while George W. Bush was in office.

* Castro used to chomp on Cuban cigars but gave them up in 1985. Years later he summed up the harm of smoking tobacco by saying: “The best thing you can do with this box of cigars is give them to your enemy.”

* Time Magazine in 2012 named Castro as one of the 100 most influential personalities of all time.

* Castro had nine children from five women. His eldest son Fidel Castro Diaz-Balart, who is the image of his father and is known as Fidelito, is a Soviet-trained nuclear scientist born in 1949 out of his brief marriage to Mirta Diaz-Balart. Daughter Alina Fernandez, the result of an affair with a Havana socialite when Castro was underground in the 1950s, escaped from Cuba disguised as a tourist in 1993 and is a vocal critic. Castro has five sons with his common-law wife since the 1960s, Dalia Soto del Valle. He also has a son and a daughter born to two other women with whom he had affairs before coming to power.

Copyright Reuters 2016

(Reporting by Marc Frank and Daniel Trotta; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

Quotes about Fidel Casto, from Friends and Foes

 

Fidel Castro relaxes in a swimming pool during a visit to Romania, May 28, 1972. REUTERS/Prensa Latina

Fidel Castro relaxes in a swimming pool during a visit to Romania, May 28, 1972. REUTERS/Prensa Latina

Fidel Castro, the Cuban revolutionary leader who built a communist state on the doorstep of the United States and for five decades defied U.S. efforts to topple him, has died, Cuban television said. He was 90.

Here are some comments on Castro from his friends and foes over the years.

“Castro is not just another Latin American dictator, a petty tyrant bent merely on personal power and gain. His ambitions extend far beyond his own shores.” – Former U.S. President John F. Kennedy, from “The Quotable Mr. Kennedy,” edited by Gerald C. Gardner, 1962.

“Fidel, for me, is a grand master. A wise man should never die; a man like Fidel will never die, because he will always be part of the people.” – Former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, in a January 2007 speech.

“Fidel Castro had Americans murdered illegally, and that was wrong, too. And I’m proud that we have a blockade against people who kill innocent Americans.” – Former U.S. President Bill Clinton, in 1996, after Cuba killed four U.S. citizens when it shot down two civilian planes belonging to a Cuban-American group that had agitated against the Castro government and had repeatedly flown into Cuban air space.

“From its earliest days, the Cuban revolution has been a source of inspiration for all those who value freedom. We admire the sacrifices of the Cuban people in maintaining their independence and sovereignty in the face of the vicious imperialist and orchestrated campaign to destroy the awesome force of the Cuban revolution. Long live the Cuban Revolution! Long live comrade Fidel Castro!” – Former South African President Nelson Mandela, in a July 1991 speech.

“I remember Herbert Matthews’ reports on Castro before he came to power, calling him a democrat and the hope of Cuba. And to some of you who are really too young to remember this, even people around our country were calling him the George Washington of Cuba, and George rolled over in his grave.” – U.S. President Ronald Reagan, on March 5, 1986.

“Fidel Castro is there to win. His attitude in the face of defeat, even in the most minimal actions of everyday life, would seem to obey a private logic: he does not even admit it, and does not have a minute’s peace until he succeeds in inverting the terms and converting it into victory.” – Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez, writing in Granma on the eve of Castro’s 80th birthday.

“The best thing that Fidel Castro left us is the lesson that we don’t want any more Fidel Castros in Cuba. The lesson is that a man like that ends up absorbing the whole nation, ends up seeing himself as the embodiment of the homeland, and ends up simply taking away our nationality. The lesson of Fidel Castro is no more Fidel Castros. Some people admire him, but they admire him for what they think he was, not for who he really was. Staying in power that long is no merit.” – Dissident blogger Yoani Sanchez, to Reuters in May 2014.

“Whatever we may think of him, he is going to be a great factor in the development of Cuba and very possibly in Latin American affairs generally. He seems to be sincere. He is either incredibly naive about communism or under communist discipline — my guess is the former, and as I have already implied his ideas as to how to run a government or an economy are less developed than those of almost any figure I have met in 50 countries.” – Richard Nixon, who was then the U.S. vice president, in a memorandum following a three-hour meeting with Castro on April 19, 1959.

“On December 18, 1956, Fidel and I were in the foothills of the Sierra Maestra, in a place called Cinco Palmas. After our first hug his first question was: ‘How many rifles do you have?’ I answered five. And he said, ‘I have two. That makes seven. Now we can win the war.” – Raul Castro, quoted in the 2009 book “This is Fidel,” by Luis Baez.

“It didn’t take much to prompt me to join any revolution against a tyrant, but Fidel struck me as an extraordinary man … He had exceptional faith that once we left for Cuba (from Mexico) we would arrive. That once we arrived we would fight. And once we fought we would win. I shared his optimism. I had to, to fight, to achieve. Stop crying and fight.” — Ernesto “Che” Guevara, in a letter to his parents, 1955.

“A man of great charisma. He’s brave, Fidel Castro. A politician, with an iron fist. He stays strong. He put his close friend in front of the firing squad. I would have given him a life sentence or expelled him from the country, but he had him shot.” – Former Chilean military dictator General Augusto Pinochet, regarding Castro’s treatment of General Arnaldo Ochoa, executed for treason in July 1989.

“He would tell us to place a canon here, move a tank over there. Where to attack, how to do it, with how many men, et cetera. He had it all at his fingertips. And most of the time he was right.” – Defense Minister Leopoldo Cintra Frias, regarding Fidel’s instructions in the Angola war, in Havana, 1996.

“At a time when almost the entire communist world marches towards democracy, Fidel Castro has gone against public opinion and refuses to accept any kind of change or anything that suggests perestroika or democracy … A profound philosopher, he has made it clear that material things are transient, to such a degree that there are virtually no material things in Cuba.” – Cuban dissident writer Reinaldo Arenas, in an essay written before his death in 1990 and published by Spanish newspaper El Pais in 2006.

Copyright Reuters 2016

(Compiled by Daniel Trotta and Nelson Acosta; Additional reporting by David Adams; Editing by Kieran Murray and Martin Howell)

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Fidel Castro: Death at 90, and A Life in Photos

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By Marc Frank and Nelson Acosta
November 26, 2016

Former Cuban leader Fidel Castro attends the closing ceremony of the sixth Cuban Communist Party (PCC) congress in Havana April 19, 2011. REUTERS/Desmond Boylan

Former Cuban leader Fidel Castro attends the closing ceremony of the sixth Cuban Communist Party (PCC) congress in Havana April 19, 2011. REUTERS/Desmond Boylan

HAVANA (Reuters) – Fidel Castro, the Cuban revolutionary leader who built a communist state on the doorstep of the United States and for five decades defied U.S. efforts to topple him, died on Friday. He was 90.

A towering figure of the second half of the 20th Century, Castro stuck to his ideology beyond the collapse of Soviet communism and remained widely respected in parts of the world that had struggled against colonial rule.

He had been in poor health since an intestinal ailment nearly killed him in 2006. He formally ceded power to his younger brother Raul Castro two years later.

Wearing a green military uniform, a somber Raul Castro, 85, appeared on state television on Friday night to announce his brother’s death.

“At 10.29 at night, the chief commander of the Cuban revolution, Fidel Castro Ruz, died,” he said, without giving a cause of death.

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“Ever onward, to victory,” he said, using the slogan of the Cuban revolution.

Tributes came in from around the world.

Venezuela’s Socialist President Nicolas Maduro said “revolutionaries of the world must follow his legacy,” while Pope Francis said he was grieving and praying for the repose of the professed atheist, whom he met in Cuba last year.

China’s president, Xi Jinping, said “the Chinese people have lost a close comrade and a sincere friend”. U.S. President-Elect Donald Trump said on Twitter: “Fidel Castro is dead!”, without elaborating.

DECADES OF HOSTILITY

Then Cuban President Fidel Castro talks to then Pope John Paul II during the presentation of their delegations at the Palace of the Revolution in Havana in this January 22, 1998 file photo. REUTERS/Paul Hanna/File Photo

Then Cuban President Fidel Castro talks to then Pope John Paul II during the presentation of their delegations at the Palace of the Revolution in Havana in this January 22, 1998 file photo. REUTERS/Paul Hanna/File Photo

Raul Castro, who always glorified his older brother, has nevertheless changed Cuba since taking over by introducing market-style economic reforms and agreeing with the United States in December 2014 to re-establish diplomatic ties and end decades of hostility.

It remains unclear if Trump will continue efforts to normalize relations with Cuba or fulfill a campaign promise to close the U.S. embassy in Havana once again.

Fidel Castro himself offered only lukewarm support for the 2014 deal with Washington, raising questions about whether he approved of ending hostilities with his longtime enemy. Some analysts believed his mere presence kept Raul from moving further and faster, while others saw him as either quietly supportive or increasingly irrelevant.

He did not meet Barack Obama when he visited Havana earlier this year, the first time a U.S. president had stepped foot on Cuban soil since 1928.

Days later, Castro wrote a scathing newspaper column condemning Obama’s “honey-coated” words and reminding Cubans of the many U.S. efforts to overthrow and weaken the Communist government.

The news of Castro’s death spread slowly among Friday night revelers on the streets of Havana. One famous club that was still open when word came in quickly closed.

Some residents reacted with sadness to the news.

“I’m very upset. Whatever you want to say, he is a public figure that the whole world respected and loved,” said Havana student Sariel Valdespino.

But in Miami, where many exiles from Castro’s government live, a large crowd waving Cuban flags cheered, danced and banged on pots and pans.

Castro’s body will be cremated, according to his wishes. Cuba declared nine days of mourning, during which time the ashes will be taken to different parts of the country. A burial ceremony will be held on Dec. 4.

The bearded Fidel Castro took power in a 1959 revolution and ruled Cuba for 49 years with a mix of charisma and iron will, creating a one-party state and becoming a central figure in the Cold War.

He was demonized by the United States and its allies but admired by many leftists around the world, especially socialist revolutionaries in Latin America and Africa.

Nelson Mandela, once freed from prison in 1990, repeatedly thanked Castro for his firm efforts in helping to weaken apartheid.

In April, in a rare public appearance at the Communist Party conference, Fidel Castro shocked party apparatchiks by referring to his own imminent mortality.

“Soon I will be like all the rest. Our turn comes to all of us, but the ideas of the Cuban communists will remain,” he said.

Castro was last seen by ordinary Cubans in photos showing him engaged in conversation with Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang earlier this month.

MILITARY FATIGUES, CIGARS

Fidel Castro dies, age 90. Then Cuban President Fidel Castro addresses the audience as president of the Non-Aligned Movement at the United Nations in New York, in this October 12, 1979 file photo. REUTERS/Prensa Latina/File Photo

Fidel Castro dies, age 90. Then Cuban President Fidel Castro addresses the audience as president of the Non-Aligned Movement at the United Nations in New York, in this October 12, 1979 file photo. REUTERS/Prensa Latina/File Photo

Transforming Cuba from a playground for rich Americans into a symbol of resistance to Washington, Castro crossed swords with 10 U.S. presidents while in power, and outlasted nine of them.

He fended off a CIA-backed invasion at the Bay of Pigs in 1961 as well as countless assassination attempts.

His alliance with Moscow helped trigger the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, a 13-day showdown with the United States that brought the world the closest it has been to nuclear war.

Wearing green military fatigues and chomping on cigars for many of his years in power, Castro was famous for long, fist-pounding speeches filled with blistering rhetoric, often aimed at the United States.

At home, he swept away capitalism and won support for bringing schools and hospitals to the poor. But he also created legions of enemies and critics, concentrated among the exiles in Miami who fled his rule and saw him as a ruthless tyrant.

“With Castro’s passing, some of the heat may go out of the antagonism between Cuba and the United States, and between Cuba and Miami, which would be good for everyone,” said William M. LeoGrande, co-author of a book on U.S.-Cuba relations.

Castro’s death — which would once have thrown a question mark over Cuba’s future — seems unlikely to trigger a crisis as Raul Castro is firmly ensconced in power.

In his final years, Fidel Castro no longer held leadership posts. He wrote newspaper commentaries on world affairs and occasionally met foreign leaders but he lived in semi-seclusion.

Still, the passing of the man known to most Cubans as “El Comandante” — the commander — or simply “Fidel” leaves a huge void in the country he dominated for so long. It also underlines the generational change in Cuba’s communist leadership.

Raul Castro vows to step down when his term ends in 2018 and the Communist Party has elevated younger leaders to its Politburo, including 56-year-old Miguel Diaz-Canel, who is first vice-president and the heir apparent.

Others in their 50s include Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez and economic reform czar Marino Murillo.

The reforms have led to more private enterprise and the lifting of some restrictions on personal freedoms but they aim to strengthen Communist Party rule, not weaken it.

Fidel Castro and PLO leader Yasser Arafat stand together at the airport in Havana during Arafat's first visit to Cuba November 14, 1974. REUTERS/Prensa Latina

Fidel Castro and PLO leader Yasser Arafat stand together at the airport in Havana during Arafat’s first visit to Cuba November 14, 1974. REUTERS/Prensa Latina

REVOLUTIONARY ICON

A Jesuit-educated lawyer, Fidel Castro led the revolution that ousted U.S.-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista on Jan 1, 1959. Aged 32, he quickly took control of Cuba and sought to transform it into an egalitarian society.

His government improved the living conditions of the very poor, achieved health and literacy levels on a par with rich countries and rid Cuba of a powerful Mafia presence.

But he also tolerated little dissent, jailed opponents, seized private businesses and monopolized the media.

Castro’s opponents labeled him a dictator and hundreds of thousands fled the island.

“The dictator Fidel Castro has died, the cause of many deaths in Cuba, Latin American and Africa,” Jose Daniel Ferrer, leader of the island’s largest dissident group, the Patriotic Union of Cuba, said on Twitter.

Many dissidents settled in Florida, influencing U.S. policy toward Cuba and plotting Castro’s demise. Some even trained in the Florida swamps for the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion.

But they could never dislodge him.

Castro claimed he survived or evaded hundreds of assassination attempts, including some conjured up by the CIA.

In 1962, the United States imposed a damaging trade embargo that Castro blamed for most of Cuba’s ills, using it to his advantage to rally patriotic fury.

Over the years, he expanded his influence by sending Cuban troops into far-away wars, including 350,000 to fight in Africa. They provided critical support to a left-wing government in Angola and contributed to the independence of Namibia in a war that helped end apartheid in South Africa.

He also won friends by sending tens of thousands of Cuban doctors abroad to treat the poor and bringing young people from developing countries to train them as physicians

‘HISTORY WILL ABSOLVE ME’

Born on August 13, 1926, in Biran in eastern Cuba, Castro was the son of a Spanish immigrant who became a wealthy landowner.

Angry at social conditions and Batista’s dictatorship, Castro launched his revolution on July 26, 1953, with a failed assault on the Moncada barracks in the eastern city of Santiago.

“History will absolve me,” he declared during his trial for the attack.

He was sentenced to 15 years in prison but was released in 1955 after a pardon that would come back to haunt Batista.

Castro went into exile in Mexico and prepared a small rebel army to fight Batista. It included Argentine revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara, who became his comrade-in-arms.

In December 1956, Castro and a rag-tag band of 81 followers sailed to Cuba aboard a badly overloaded yacht called “Granma”.

Only 12, including him, his brother and Guevara, escaped a government ambush when they landed in eastern Cuba.

Taking refuge in the rugged Sierra Maestra mountains, they built a guerrilla force of several thousand fighters who, along with urban rebel groups, defeated Batista’s military in just over two years.

Early in his rule, at the height of the Cold War, Castro allied Cuba to the Soviet Union, which protected the Caribbean island and was its principal benefactor for three decades.

The alliance brought in $4 billion worth of aid annually, including everything from oil to guns, but also provoked the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis when the United States discovered Soviet missiles on the island.

Convinced that the United States was about to invade Cuba, Castro urged the Soviets to launch a nuclear attack.

Cooler heads prevailed. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and U.S. President John F. Kennedy agreed the Soviets would withdraw the missiles in return for a U.S. promise never to invade Cuba. The United States also secretly agreed to remove its nuclear missiles from Turkey.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin and Cuba's President Fidel Castro stand side by side during Putin's official welcoming ceremony outside Havana's Palace of the Revolution, December 14, 2000.REUTERS/Jorge Silva

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and Cuba’s President Fidel Castro stand side by side during Putin’s official welcoming ceremony outside Havana’s Palace of the Revolution, December 14, 2000.REUTERS/Jorge Silva

‘SPECIAL PERIOD’

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, an isolated Cuba fell into an economic crisis that lasted for years and was known as the “special period”. Food, transport and basics such as soap were scarce and energy shortages led to frequent and long blackouts.

Castro undertook a series of tentative economic reforms to get through the crisis, including opening up to foreign tourism.

The economy improved when Venezuela’s late socialist leader Hugo Chavez, who looked up to Castro as a hero, came to the rescue with cheap oil. Aid from communist-run China also helped, but Venezuelan support for Cuba has been scaled down since Chavez’s death in 2013.

Plagued by chronic economic problems, Cuba’s population of 11 million has endured years of hardship, although not the deep poverty, violent crime and government neglect of many other developing countries.

Cubans earn on average the equivalent of $20 a month and struggle to make ends meet even in an economy where education and health care are free and many basic goods and services are heavily subsidized.

For most Cubans, Castro has been the ubiquitous figure of their entire life.

Many still love him and share his faith in a communist future, and even some who abandoned their political belief still view him with respect.

“For everyone in Cuba and outside his death is very sad,” said Havana resident Luis Martinez. “It is very painful news.”

Copyright Reuters 2016

(Reporting by Daniel Trotta and Marc Frank; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel, Kieran Murray and Hugh Lawson)

Related stories on F&O:

Fidel Castro, The Facts, compiled by Reuters

Cuban revolutionary and its former president Fidel Castro died, age 90, on Friday November 26.  Following are some facts about former Cuban leader Fidel Castro, and quotes from his friends and foes.

Fidel Castro: Anachronism and Achiever, With Tarnished Legacy, by Mark Beeson   Analysis

Twentieth-century political icons don’t get much bigger than Fidel Castro. His death will reignite debates about his place in history and the revolutionary ideas he epitomised.

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Posted in Also tagged |

Faith and tradition in Cuba

By Reuters 
September, 2015

Santeria practitioners undergo a brief fit of spirit-induced convulsions during a ceremony to attract spirits of dead ancestors to ask for guidance in downtown Havana, August 18, 2015. Santeria adherents can only hope the upcoming visit from Pope Francis will somehow nudge the Church toward recognizing the millions of Cubans who identify with both religious traditions. Picture taken on August 18, 2015. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini

Santeria practitioners undergo a brief fit of spirit-induced convulsions during a ceremony to attract spirits of dead ancestors to ask for guidance in downtown Havana, August 18, 2015. Santeria adherents can only hope the upcoming visit from Pope Francis will somehow nudge the Church toward recognizing the millions of Cubans who identify with both religious traditions. Picture taken on August 18, 2015. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini

The air was choked with smoke from incense and cigars while the faithful sipped sugarcane liquor from a gourd at the altar and spat mist over the crowd.

Niurka Mola 50, stood at the altar in the cramped living room of a downtown Havana apartment block, calling on the spirits of ancestors to give guidance. Later, with followers enthralled by the arrival of the spirits, one man fell into a brief fit of convulsions.

Mola is a “godmother” in Cuba’s Santeria tradition, which has its roots in the Yoruba religion brought to Cuba from West Africa by slaves.

Like many Santeria practitioners, Mola is also a Roman Catholic who goes to church twice a month.

She is delighted that Pope Francis will visit the Caribbean island on September 19 to 22. But she would like the pontiff to give formal recognition to the role of Santeria in Cubans’ spiritual lives.

“Catholicism is present in all manifestations of Santeria,” said Mola, a teacher at a daycare centre in Havana. “In the end, they have the same purpose: getting closer to God.”

About 60 percent of Cuba’s 11 million people are baptised Catholic, the Church says, but experts say at least an equal number practice Santeria or another form of Afro-Cuban religion.

Gilian Caballero, 8, holds a pigeon for sale used for Santeria rituals in downtown Havana, August 4, 2015. Santeria adherents can only hope the upcoming visit from Pope Francis will somehow nudge the Church toward recognizing the millions of Cubans who identify with both religious traditions. Picture taken on August 4, 2015. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini       TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

Gilian Caballero, 8, holds a pigeon for sale used for Santeria rituals in downtown Havana, August 4, 2015. Santeria adherents can only hope the upcoming visit from Pope Francis will somehow nudge the Church toward recognizing the millions of Cubans who identify with both religious traditions. Picture taken on August 4, 2015. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

Santeria combines elements of Catholicism with the Yoruba religion and many Cubans identify with both traditions and their ceremonies.

The Church has been tolerant of Santeria but remains wary. The Vatican does not recognise Santeria as a religion and Francis has no events scheduled with practitioners.

“The Catholic Church has no role in Santeria,” said Dionisio Garcia, the archbishop of Santiago de Cuba and president of the Cuban bishops’ conference.

Though monotheistic, the Yoruba religion that bore Santeria shares no common ancestry with Christianity, experts say. Catholic priests worry that some of those who attend Mass in Cuba do not accept Jesus or recognise the Virgin Mary, which are tenets of the Catholic Church.

Santeria practitioner Yuris Landis, a 27-year-old nurse, smokes a cigar during a ceremony of the Afro-Cuban religion Santeria to attract spirits of dead ancestors to ask for guidance in downtown Havana, August 18, 2015. Santeria adherents can only hope the upcoming visit from Pope Francis will somehow nudge the Church toward recognizing the millions of Cubans who identify with both religious traditions. Picture taken on August 18, 2015. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini

Santeria practitioner Yuris Landis, a 27-year-old nurse, smokes a cigar during a ceremony of the Afro-Cuban religion Santeria to attract spirits of dead ancestors to ask for guidance in downtown Havana, August 18, 2015. Santeria adherents can only hope the upcoming visit from Pope Francis will somehow nudge the Church toward recognizing the millions of Cubans who identify with both religious traditions. Picture taken on August 18, 2015. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini

“Being Catholic and being a Santero is not a contradiction for them. It is for us,” said Gilbert Walker, a priest from Mississippi who has been working in Cuba for 12 years. “Although the Santeria religion uses Christian symbols, they’re empty of Christian content.”

Walker says up to half of his churchgoers in Old Havana practice Santeria. He says he often finds decapitated pigeons, meringues, coconuts and other ceremonial offerings to Obatala, the name of one “orisha,” a Yoruba sacred being that has a Catholic saint as a counterpart.

“Santeros,” a term often used to refer to all believers but technically reserved for those who have completed a year-long rite of passage, choose how much of each religion to follow.

“We will continue believing in God even if the pope doesn’t recognise us as Santeros,” says Yuris Landis, a 27-year-old nurse.

Dozens of Santeros trickled in for a recent afternoon ceremony in Havana to ask the dead for health and success for a fellow practitioner, 36-year-old Lyan Hernandez, one of many white Cubans who have adopted the Afro-Cuban religion.

Santeria practitioner Lyan Hernandez, 36, (C) undergoes a brief fit of spirit-induced convulsions during a ceremony to attract spirits of dead ancestors to ask for guidance in downtown Havana, August 18, 2015. Santeria adherents can only hope the upcoming visit from Pope Francis will somehow nudge the Church toward recognizing the millions of Cubans who identify with both religious traditions. Picture taken on August 18, 2015. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini

Santeria practitioner Lyan Hernandez, 36, (C) undergoes a brief fit of spirit-induced convulsions during a ceremony to attract spirits of dead ancestors to ask for guidance in downtown Havana, August 18, 2015. Santeria adherents can only hope the upcoming visit from Pope Francis will somehow nudge the Church toward recognizing the millions of Cubans who identify with both religious traditions. Picture taken on August 18, 2015. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini

As they arrived, they cleansed themselves of negative energy by splashing their foreheads and arms with perfumed water that stood on a shrine of dolls and figurines, each representing one of Lyan’s ancestors, and a cross to symbolise God’s presence.

Mola recited opening prayers to summon the spirits in Spanish and the Yoruba language, ending with the Lord’s Prayer.

For five hours, a four-piece band pounded out Yoruba rhythms while believers danced African and salsa steps – whatever the spirits inspired them, she said.

Then the ceremony ended as casually as it had begun, without applause or fanfare.

Home ceremonies pick up where church worship leaves off, Mola said. But while Santeria followers easily venerate both the orisha and the saint they see before them, Cuba’s clergy perceive this as a confusion of the two religions.

Against the odds, Santeria devotees hope Pope Francis might change the Church’s outlook, given the changes the first Latin American pontiff has introduced at the Vatican since he assumed the office in 2013.

Copyright Reuters 2015

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Some presidential pointers to the meaning of Cuban-American rapprochement

 

Roosevelt and the Rough Riders atop San Juan Hill. 1898. Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace National Historic Site.

Roosevelt and the Rough Riders atop San Juan Hill, 1898, Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace National Historic Site, New York City.

 

 

MICHAEL SASGES: VERBATIM
December, 2014

 

Restoration of diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba would reverse an estrangement that has endured for more than half a century.  As President Obama said in his dramatic announcement: “I was born in 1961 –- just over two years after Fidel Castro took power in Cuba, and just a few months after the Bay of Pigs invasion, which tried to overthrow his regime.” What follows are observations and professions by American presidents about Cuba, really about its definitional role in American national consciousness, in the half-century before Barack Obama’s birth.

Private letters from Theodore Roosevelt are reminders that Cuban affairs have troubled American presidents and divided Americans since there was an independent Cuba, and that there was an independent Cuba because of U.S. military intervention.
About a Russian painter who wanted to visit the geography of the Rough Rider attack Roosevelt commanded, the president writes:
He wishes to paint a picture of the San Juan charge, especially covering the part taken by my regiment. I think that what he desires is to go over the ground . . . .

Theodore Roosevelt to Elihu Root, Feb. 22, 1902,
Theodore Roosevelt Papers, manuscripts division, Library of Congress

About a confidant’s concerns, the president writes:
With what you say about Cuban reciprocity I heartily agree, although I wish to add with all emphasis that I entirely understand the opposition from certain districts and States to the reduction of sugar duties. The western farmer is anxious to have the tariff revised in the direction of lower duties upon the so called trust products . . .; and he does not like to have even an appearance of a reduction of duty on a farm product as the first step towards reciprocity. Of course to my mind there are great moral and economic issues of a national kind involved in this Cuban reciprocity business, and I think the attitude of those who have been against me on it is wholly wrong; but it is difficult to convince a man of this when his interests are the other way.

Theodore Roosevelt to Nicholas Murray Butler, May 27, 1902,
Theodore Roosevelt Papers, manuscripts division, Library of Congress

 A speech in 1918 by Woodrow Wilson, his audience Mexican newspaper editors visiting the White House, acknowledges the asymmetrical quality of the relationship of the United States and the rest of the Americas.
The famous Monroe Doctrine was adopted . . . without the consent of any of the Central or South American States. If I may express it in terms that we so often use in this country, we said, “We are going to be your big brother, whether you want us to be or not.” We did not ask whether it was agreeable to you that we should be your big brother. We said we were going to be.

“Disinterested Service to Latin America,”

Selected Addresses and Public Papers of Woodrow Wilson,

https://archive.org/stream/selectedaddresse02unit – page/261/mode/1up/search/Latin

 

Calvin Coolidge, in 1928 in Havana, praised the just-like-us achievements of Cubans.
The intellectual qualities of the Cuban people have won for them a permanent place in science, art, and literature, and their production of staple commodities has made them an important factor in the economic structure of the world. They have reached a position in the stability of their government, in the genuine expression of their public opinion at the ballot box, and in the recognized soundness of their public credit that has commanded universal respect and admiration. What Cuba has done, others have done and are doing.

http://coolidgefoundation.org/?s=Cuba

 

 In 1933, however, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, after meeting Cuba’s ambassador, inserted into American considerations of Cuba’s fortunes some dreadful news.
[The] President and Ambassador Cintas . . . feel that the problems of starvation and of depression are of such immediate importance that every political problem should be met in the most patriotic spirit in order to improve conditions at the earliest possible moment. The Ambassador is communicating with his Government.

Franklin D. Roosevelt, “Joint Statement with Ambassador Cintas
on the Cuban Situation,” Aug. 9, 1933,
The American Presidency Project,
http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=14498.F

 

Harry Truman welcomed the president of Cuba to Washington, D.C., in 1948 with words that suggest that, for the Americans, Cuba was a more consequential neighbour than the two countries with whom the United States shares a border, Canada and Mexico .
No two countries of this closely knit hemisphere have been bound together more closely than the Republic of Cuba and the United States. The friendly bond between them was forged in a common struggle for freedom, and it has continued through all the trials of two world wars and through the many other problems in the political and economic growth of our two countries. There is no relationship which better typifies the firm solidarity of the American States than the traditionally cordial collaboration between Cuba and the United States.

Harry Truman, “Remarks of Welcome at the Washington National Airport to President Prio of Cuba,” Dec. 8, 1948,
The American Presidency Project,
 http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=13097

 

In 1960 Dwight Eisenhower thought Fidel Castro’s successes the previous year the successes of a Soviet proxy in the Cold War.
. . . the United States government has confidence in the ability of the Cuban people to recognize and defeat the intrigues of international communism which are aimed at destroying democratic institutions in Cuba and the traditional and mutually beneficial friendship between Cuban and American peoples.

Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States,
http://quod.lib.umich.edu/p/ppotpus/4728424.1960.001/188?page=root;rgn=full+text;size=100;view=image;q1=Castro

 

In 1961, during a White House meeting with advisers and members of his cabinet on Jan. 28, John Kennedy directed the American military and the CIA to prepare to insert into Cuba anti-Castro Cubans then undergoing military training by the CIA. The Bay of Pigs invasion on April 17 was a disaster for the attackers and the Kennedy administration. The minutes of the Jan. 28 meeting record this direction from Kennedy:
The Defense Department, with CIA, will review proposals for the active deployment of anti-Castro Cuban forces on Cuban territory, and the results of this analysis will be promptly reported to the President.

Papers of John F. Kennedy, Presidential Papers, National Security Files,
John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum
http://www.jfklibrary.org/JFK/JFK-in-History/The-Bay-of-Pigs.aspx

 

Read more:

A White House transcript of President Obama’s statement is here:
http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2014/12/17/statement-president-cuba-policy-changes

A London academic foresees a lot more Cuban cigars being enjoyed in the U.S.
http://theconversation.com/diplomatic-thaw-with-the-us-is-a-gift-to-the-cuban-economy-35692

An extraordinary account, authored by Stephen Kimber and published earlier this year by Facts and Opinions, of immediately recent American-Cuban relations and of Miami and the rest of America is here:

Heroes of the Revolution? The Cuban Five, by Stephen Kimber   http://www.factsandopinions.com/galleries/magazine-in-focus/heroes-of-the-revolution/

~~~

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Heroes of the Revolution? The Cuban Five

In the spring of 2009 Canadian author, journalist and professor Stephen Kimber traveled to Havana to research a novel, a love story set partly in Cuba. The novel, he writes, was “sideswiped by the truth-is-stranger-but-way-more-interesting story of the Cuban Five.” He explains in this excerpt from the resulting book: What Lies Across the Water: The Real Story of the Cuban Five.

By STEPHEN KIMBER 
February 2014, re-published on F&O

I’d vaguely heard of them. Back in 2004, my wife and I spent a week at Breezes Jibacoa, a beach resort halfway between Havana and Varadero. It was there, in fact, that I conceived the idea for the novel, perhaps for no better reason than to ensure I would have to return. Like most Cuban resorts at the time, communication with the outside world from Jibacoa was primitive: two painfully slow Internet-connected computers tucked away in a second-floor lounge. Since you invariably had to line up to use them, I filled up my waiting time one day literally reading the writing on the wall — a collection of Soviet-style government posters about the plight of a group of men known as the “Cuban Five.” They were, the posters declared, “political prisoners” in the United States. The English translation was awful — “Prisoners of the Impire” was the heading on one — and the information about their case was confusing and frustratingly incomplete. As if I should already know the details. I hadn’t a clue.

Cinco_heroes_cuban_five_2

Photo by Giorgiopilato,Wikimedia Commons

When I returned to Canada, I did a Google News search for “Cuban Five” but found only one mainstream American news story from the previous month — in spite of the fact lawyers for the Five were in the midst of appealing their controversial convictions up the ladder of the U.S. court system. Most of the rest of what I discovered about them on the Internet consisted of polemics, which painted the Five either as heroic young patriots worthy of veneration or as murderous villains for whom even the death penalty wasn’t punishment enough.

Reading between the bombast and broadsides, the short version seemed to be that the Five were members of a Cuban intelligence network who’d surreptitiously entered the United States, infiltrated several militant anti-Castro groups, got caught by the FBI, were tried and sentenced to lengthy prison terms. I wrote a brief newspaper column about what I’d learned — and the fact no one except the Cuban government seemed to care — filed it and forgot it.

Until five years later, that is, when I met Alejandro Trelles Shaw. Alex was an energetic 70-year-old Cuban who could still vividly remember what it had been like to be an idealistic 20-year-old banker caught up in the headiest days of the life-altering Cuban revolution. Unlike the rest of his well-to-do family, who all fled to Miami or ended up in jail after Castro took power, Alex stayed. “I was the red sheep of the family,” he jokes. “I looked around, saw what the revolution was trying to do. I thought, ‘if this is communism, then I’m a communist.’”

He eventually became a counter-intelligence officer in Cuba’s Ministry of the Interior (minint), the all-powerful ministry responsible for foreign and domestic intelligence, among many other duties. Alex can — and will if you ask — regale you with fascinating tales of how he infiltrated CIA-backed student groups at the University of Havana, and later served as a government “minder” for Cuban delegations and sports teams when they visited other countries. Without seeming to brag, he would explain he’d also occasionally translated for the “Commander” when Castro travelled abroad. Not that he ever totally swallowed the Kool-Aid. “Part of the problem in Cuba,” he told me, “is that Fidel was involved in everything. I call it the Law of the Jeep. Fidel would arrive in his Jeep, he would talk and then he would leave, and suddenly we had a new law.”

When he was in his late fifties — for reasons I’m not sure I understood or that mattered all that much — Alex had a falling out with his bosses, and retired. In the mid-1990s, he got kicked out of the Communist Party but somehow managed to hold onto his prized party ID card. Like plenty of others in that distressed, depressed, post-Soviet, “Special-Period-in-Time-of-Peace” Cuba, Alex re-invented himself. He became an off-the-books entrepreneur, employing his language skills, guile and charm to survive in impossibly difficult circumstances. One of the many services he offered was as a guide and raconteur for tourists who wanted a “no-guff introduction to the real Havana.”

Kimber

Alex Trellis. © Stephen Kimber

I did. I’d read about him in a newspaper travel story before I left home, and I gave him a call soon after I arrived in Havana in May 2009. He picked me up at my hotel the next morning in his battered, Russian-made Lada. He’d been allowed to buy the car back in 1979, he told me, as a reward for being a good communist. The price: 2,200 pesos, paid off at 35 pesos a month for five years, interest-free. The engine now had over 400,000 km on it but was running “just fine.”

We spent the day tooling around parts of the city I’d never have experienced on my own. But far more interesting than what I got to see — as interesting as that was — was getting the chance to listen to Alex’s stories: in the car, over cigars after lunch at an outdoor restaurant where everyone knew his name, over drinks back on the terrace at the Hotel Nacional, where the security guards kept an especially watchful, wary eye on a smooth-talking Cuban in relaxed English conversation with a foreigner.

He’d been married three times, he told me, had four children and four grandchildren. These days, he lived in a one-bedroom apartment with his 18-year-old daughter, a university student. She slept in a second bedroom he’d carved out of the balcony. To save money, he never turned on the air conditioning. But he had an antenna on the roof of his building so he could watch television. And he had an Internet connection, in the name of a friend.

Alex was interested in, and thoughtful about, the world beyond Cuba. Because many of his customers came from Canada, he told me, he read the Toronto Globe and Mail online every day. He mentioned a recent report in that paper about a speech Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega had given at the Summit of the Americas. “When you only get one side of the story,” he noted, referring more to me than himself, “how can you be informed?” He even followed Canadian politics. “What do you think of Stephen Harper?” he asked at one point.

I was curious too. Barack Obama had just won the American presidency, and there was much wishful hoping among my liberal friends in the United States that his ascendancy might finally signal not only an overdue end to the counter-productive U.S. trade embargo but also fresh water in the poisoned well of personal relations between the two old enemies. What did Alex think Obama’s victory might mean, I asked, assuming the best?

He paused, took a contemplative puff on his cigar, exhaled. “Nothing,” he said simply. “It doesn’t matter who is the president of the United States or who is in charge in Cuba. Nothing will change between Cuba and the United States until they resolve the issue of the Five.”

The Five?

Suddenly, I was back to the Cuban Five. In Cuba — as I was about to discover — all conversations about the future of Cuba-U.S. relations invariably wind their way back to Los Cinco. In Cuba, their real-life story has long since transcended mere fact to become myth. Hundreds of thousands of Cubans have marched past the United States Interest Section in Havana shouting demands for their release. Their images are ubiquitous. They stare back at you from highway billboards beneath a starkly confident: “Volverán.” They Will Return. Much younger versions of their faces are painted on fences, the sides of apartment buildings, office waiting-room walls, postage stamps, even on stickers glued to the dashboards in Old Havana Coco cabs.

Gerardo, René, Antonio, Ramón and Fernando: though they still rank below Fidel and Ché in the revolutionary pantheon, in Cuba the five men have become certified, certifiable, first-name Heroes of the Revolution. In America, the stories are different — and twofold.

 

Though they still rank below Fidel and Ché in the revolutionary pantheon, they have become certified, certifiable, first-name Heroes of the Revolution. Ask any Cuban school child and they can rhyme off those first names: Gerardo, René, Antonio, Ramón and Fernando. The children will inform you that los muchachos — though all are now well into middle age, they are usually still described in Cuban propaganda as “the young men” — are Cuban heroes unjustly imprisoned in the United States for trying to protect their homeland from terrorist attack.

CubanFiveVaradero

Sign in Varadero, Cuba. Photo by BarryNL, 2010, Wikimedia Commons

The Cuban version of their story is straightforward: During the nineties, Miami-based counter-revolutionary terrorist groups were plotting — and sometimes succeeding in carrying out — violent attacks against Cuba. Since the American government seemed unable or unwilling (or both) to stop them, Cuba dispatched intelligence agents to Miami to infiltrate these violent anti-Castro organizations, find out what they were planning and, if possible, stop them before they could wreak their havoc.

Sometimes they succeeded, sometimes they didn’t. An Italian-Canadian businessman was killed in one 1997 explosion at a Havana hotel. To prevent an even worse tragedy, Cuba reluctantly agreed to share the fruits of their agents’ work at an unprecedented meeting between Cuban State Security and the FBI in Havana in June of 1998. But the FBI, instead of charging the terrorists the Cubans had fingered, arrested Cuba’s agents instead. The Five were thrown into solitary confinement for close to a year and a half to break their will, then tried in a rabidly anti-Castro Miami, convicted and sentenced to unconscionable prison terms ranging from 15 years to something obscenely described as double life plus 15 years.

For what? For trying to prevent terrorists from attacking their homeland. Surely, in the wake of 9/11, Americans could understand the necessity of the kind of heroic work the Five had been doing. If only the American media would tell the truth… That’s the Cuban version.

The American version? Actually, there are two. In most of the United States beyond South Florida, the Cuban Five are still more likely to be the Cuban Who? Or the Cuban What? As stories about their arrest, trial, conviction and sentencing played out daily on the front pages in Miami newspapers, the Five registered barely a blip on the national media radar screen. During much of that period, of course, the media’s Florida antennae were jammed by another, very different, and more emotionally appealing tug of war between Miami and Havana: the crisis/circus over Elián González, and whether his Cuban father or Miami relatives should get custody of the six-year-old miracle survivor of a 1999 rafting disaster that killed his mother. That story had barely faded from public consciousness when the national media became obsessed by the might-have-been-laughable-if-it-hadn’t-been-so-consequential tale of the “hanging chads” and Florida’s (particularly Cuban-American Floridians) even more than usually decisive voice in determining the outcome of the 2000 U.S. presidential election. After that came 9/11 and the stunning revelation that several of the hijackers who attacked New York and Washington had learned how to fly jets on simulators at training schools in — where else? — Florida. If the Cubans hoped terrorism-terrified Americans might finally understand their rationale for sending agents to Florida, they were thinking wishfully. The media’s fixed lens moved quickly from Florida, to Afghanistan, then Iraq. Three months after 9/11, while American forces were gearing up to chase the evil Taliban out of Afghanistan, the Cuban Five were being sentenced and disappeared into the abyss of the U.S. prison system.

In Miami, on the other hand, everyone knew about the Five. Most believed they got what they deserved. Or, more likely, that they got off lightly, considering… Considering that the Five were responsible for the deaths of four civilian fliers from Brothers to the Rescue. The Floridians are quick to point out that that story — the one about how the Brothers fliers, who were only trying to save the lives of innocent Cubans, were blown out of the sky by Cuban MiGs, and how the Five had helped murder them — is somehow left out of the Cuban narrative. (That’s not quite true, I was to discover. It’s just that the Cubans see the shootdown as a separate, different issue, one more example in which the exact same facts can unfurl polar opposite narratives.)

Castro’s version, the Floridians added, made it seem as if his agents had somehow been sent to Florida because a few bombs — probably planted by his own agents for his own purposes — had exploded in Havana. Castro has been sending his army of infiltrators, double agents, dupes and agent provocateurs to Florida since the day he seized power in 1959. Don’t believe it? Look at the Five. One of them “defected” to the United States in 1990, seven years before any bombs exploded in the hotels. And, despite what the Cubans claim, their agents were not just spying on legitimate, peaceful exile organizations like Brothers to the Rescue and the Cuban American National Foundation. These Cuban spies were also trying to burrow inside the United States military in order to steal secrets Cuba could use to launch a military attack on America, or peddle to fellow-traveling, terrorist rogue states like Iran or Libya.

I will confess that — on the hot spring afternoon when Alex Trelles and I were sitting on the terrace at the Hotel Nacional contemplating the view of the sparkling waters of la Bahia de la Habana, sipping mojitos, puffing cigars and discussing the future of Cuban-American relations in the Obama era — I understood almost nothing about the unfathomable pit of this abyss between the American and Cuban versions of reality. But I was intrigued. Was any of this documented, I asked?

“Fidel gave a speech,” he said. “It’s all there. Names, dates, places. They put it on the Internet. In English. Look it up.”

Eventually, I did. The speech,1 which was delivered on May 20, 2005, at the José Marti Anti-imperialist Square in Havana, opens with a kind of breathless urgency. “My fellow countrymen,” Fidel Castro begins, “what I will immediately read to you has been elaborated on the basis of numerous documents from our archives. I have had very little time, but many comrades have cooperated…” It was hardly a speech in the way I understood speeches, even speeches by a legendary speechmaker like Fidel Castro. It was, essentially, a remarkable 10,286-word j’accuse in which the Cuban leader read into the public record details of every one of the significant events of the 1997 Havana hotel bombing campaign: from April 12, 1997 (“a bomb explodes in the ‘Ache’ discotheque at the Melia Cohiba hotel”) to September 12, 1998 (“the five comrades, now heroes of the Republic of Cuba, are arrested”).

Fidel Castro had his good friend Gabriel García Márquez, the Nobel prize-winning Colombian novelist, carry a top secret message about a terrorist plot to American President Bill Clinton.

 

“It’s all there,” Alex repeated, “even the part about García Márquez.”

Gabriel García Márquez? The Nobel prize-winning Colombian novelist? In the middle of the bombing campaign, it turned out, Castro had asked his good friend García Márquez to carry a top secret message about the Miami exiles’ latest, even-worse-than-bombing-hotels terrorist plot to Washington. As Castro explained in his speech: “Knowing that writer Gabriel García Márquez would be traveling to the United States soon where he would be meeting with William Clinton, a reader and admirer of his books (as so many other people in the world)… I decided to send a message to the U.S. president, which I personally drafted.”

After returning from his secret mission in May 1998, García Márquez wrote a chatty, finely detailed, 4,000-word report on his adventures, which Castro also proceeded to read into the record — “an exact copy without removing a word.” He even included the text of a message he’d sent García Márquez the day before his speech, asking permission to publish the novelist’s report: “It is indispensable that I discuss the subject of the message I sent with you about terrorist activities against our country,” Castro wrote. “It is basically the message that I sent and the wonderful report you sent back to me, which is written in your unmistakable style… This will in no way,” he added, perhaps unnecessarily, “damage the addressee and much less will it affect your literary glory.”

According to Castro’s speech, Gabriel García Márquez’s visit to the White House opened a back channel that eventually led to an unprecedented meeting between Cuban State Security and the FBI in Havana in June 1998. At the conclusion of three days of face-to-face gatherings, Castro claimed, “the U.S. side acknowledged the value of the information they had been given and made a commitment to give a reply with an analysis of these materials as soon as possible. It is strange that almost three months went by without the serious response promised… On September 12 — mark my words, hardly three months had passed — the Five comrades, now heroes of the Republic of Cuba, are arrested.”

“After you read that speech,” Alex told me that afternoon, “you’ll begin to understand why the Five matter so much here and why nothing can really be resolved between Havana and Washington until they are returned to Cuba.” He paused, smiled. “But you’ll only begin to understand… It’s complicated.”

It is. After I returned from Havana, I began to burrow deeper into that labyrinthian netherworld. I started with the Castro speech, then moved on — novel? what novel? — to the Miami Herald archive, where I read hundreds of news stories about the arrest, trial, conviction and appeals of the Cuban Five. Eventually, I tracked down an electronic copy of the 20,000-plus-page transcript of United States of America versus Gerardo Hernández, et al., Case Number 98-721, and read it from opening gavel to final sentencing. And then began an ongoing correspondence with the Five in prison. The more I read, the more I realized I didn’t know.

I began to read books about Cuba, about Cuban-American relations, about Fidel, about the exile experience, about Havana, about Miami, about migration accords and foreign policy, even novels about Cuba’s Special Period and its effect on Cubans. I tried to make sense of the Alpha-66 to Omega-7 Greek alphabet soup of militant Miami exile groups who’ve been doing their best to topple Fidel Castro since the day he took power. I tried — and gave up trying — to add up the dozens, probably hundreds, maybe even thousands of Cuban government agents who’ve infiltrated, disrupted, undermined, exposed and even led those same groups. (So many prominent anti-Castro exiles have ultimately unmasked themselves, or been unmasked, or at least been accused of being Cuban intelligence agents, that even exile groups can never be certain who among them is working for Cuban State Security. Which, of course, is the goal.)2.

The Cuban American National Foundation helped elect — and influenced the Cuba policy of — every American president since Ronald Reagan.

 

Nothing, it seems, is ever as it seems. Consider the Cuban American National Foundation, ostensibly the single most powerful American lobby group working for peaceful, democratic regime change in Cuba. CANF has helped elect — and influenced the Cuba policy of — every American president since Ronald Reagan. CANF’s leaders hang out at the White House and in the best offices on Capitol Hill, posing for photos and peddling their stridently anti-Castro, tighten-the-embargo-screws-and-we’ll-win message. Privately, however, some among them were also organizing and financing their own secret paramilitary wing whose purpose was to overthrow the Cuban government by force and, if possible, murder Fidel Castro. The fingerprints of upstanding CANF board members are smudged over more than a few of the 638 — and counting — failed plots to assassinate Castro.

All of which led me back — and forward — to Luis Posada Carriles and Orlando Bosch Ávila, the founding fathers of anti-Castro terrorism. And, of course, to those many and various turning-point moments in the history of Cuba-American relations, such as the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, and the 1976 terrorist bombing of Cubana Airlines Flight 455, which killed 73 people. But every single incident, event, deception, plot, individual, group or policy has its own 180-degree different reality, depending on which side of the Florida Straits you happen to be.

The more I investigated, the more I realized I couldn’t take anything for granted.

Consider the Five themselves. Although the group that would become known as the Cuban Five consists of the five men — Gerardo Hernández, René González, Fernando González, Ramón Labañino and Antonio Guerrero — who stood in the prisoners’ dock in Miami when their trial finally began in 2000, there were, initially, many more than five of them.

According to U.S. prosecutors, the Five were members of a Cuban intelligence network called La Red Avispa, or the Wasp Network, a name they discovered buried in decoded computer disks.3 When FBI agents initially swooped in on September 12, 1998, they arrested 10 people. Five of them quickly struck deals, pleading guilty in exchange for lesser sentences and a promise to testify against their compatriots. At the same time, the FBI publicly identified four other Avispa agents it claimed had left the country before they could be arrested.

So that adds up to 14.

But reading between the lines of the thousands of pages of decoded documents and testimony presented during the Five’s trial, it’s clear there were other officers and agents associated with La Red Avispa, people with code names like Sol, Ariel, Laura, José, Tania, Horacio and Manny. Some of them probably returned to Cuba before the arrests. A few were likely among a scattering of Cubans arrested on other charges over the next few years and linked, at least tangentially, to the Wasp Network. And then, of course, one or two might have been FBI double agents all along.4

Adding up all those names and code names, I arrived at a total of 22 members of La Red Avispa. But I’ve seen estimates as high as 27. Not that those numbers really tell you much, other than to affirm that nothing is as it seems. During the time it operated, La Red Avispa was only one aspect of a much larger Cuban intelligence-gathering picture. Percy Alvarado, for example, wasn’t a member of La Red Avispa, but his penetration of the Cuban American National Foundation as a Cuban counter-intelligence agent during the same period provided Cuba with a critical link from Luis Posada to CANF to the 1997 hotel bombing campaign. And, on a broader canvas, La Red Avispa represents just a few brush strokes in the picture of Havana-Miami spying — and terrorism — that’s been painted since 1959 and is still being tinkered with today.

So, the story of the Cuban Five isn’t really the story of the Five at all. Or, at least, it’s not just their story. And it isn’t a simple linear narrative. It’s a cascading accumulation of incident and irritant, of connivance and consequence, a parallel, converging, diverging narrative featuring an ensemble cast of eclectic characters on both sides of the Straits of Florida — spies, terrorists, revolutionaries, counter-revolutionaries, cops, mercenaries, politicians, heroes, villains, journalists, innocents — whose personal ambitions, actions, loyalties, vanities, secrets, strengths and foibles collectively weave larger narratives: about Cuban-American relations, about the war on terror, about hypocrisy, about truth and fiction, about right and wrong.

Perhaps it was the quicksand complexity of it all that ultimately convinced me this story needed to be told, and needed to be told by someone who didn’t already know which versions of which stories were true.

Copyright © Stephen Kimber, 2013

 

 

Stephen Kimber

Stephen Kimber

Republished by F&O with permission.

Stephen Kimber, a professor at the School of Journalism at the University of King’s College in Halifax, is an award-winning writer, editor and broadcaster. He is the author of one novel, Reparations, and seven non-fiction books. His web site is stephenkimber.com. His book, What Lies Across the Water: The Real Story of the Cuban Five, can be ordered here.

 

References, notes and further reading:
1. Fidel Castro’s 2005 speech: http://cubanfive.ca/documents/fidel-castros-may-2005-speech
2.Exile groups aren’t the only ones who’ve found themselves fooled and/or confused by Cuban double agents. Consider the case of Florentino Azpillaga, the head of Cuban intelligence in Czechoslovakia, who sought asylum in the United States in 1987. Azpillaga told his CIA interrogators that many of the Cubans the Americans believed they were “running” in various intelligence operations were actually double agents working for Cuban State Security and feeding the CIA “misleading or useless” information. “We certainly underestimated the Cubans,” one official told the Los Angeles Times in an August 12, 1987, story. “We never realized that the operations we thought were so good were theirs all along.” Assuming, of course, that Azpillaga wasn’t himself a plant… Which many believed he was.
3. Hernández, the intelligence officer identified in court as Avispa’s senior agent, told me he doesn’t know how or why Avispa got its name, or what, if anything, the name was supposed to signify. He didn’t even appear to think of it as a network, perhaps because most of the people in the so-called network didn’t connect at all. René González and Antonio Guerrero, for example, who were both described as Avispa field agents, didn’t meet — or even know of each other’s existence — until after their arrest. Fernando González told me he’d known Hernández when they were students together at Havana’s elite International Relations Institute but hadn’t known he’d also become an intelligence officer until he was dispatched to Miami to fill in for Hernández when he returned home on vacation.
4. During the trial of the Five, prosecutors — for national security reasons — were never required to say when or why they began surveillance of La Red Avispa. In 2010, however, an exile named Edgerton Ivor Levy told an anti-Castro Miami television station he and his wife were agents Ariel and Laura, and that they’d told American authorities “what the intentions of the Castrista intelligence were… as soon as we got here.” The two arrived in the Florida Keys, ostensibly as rafters, in 1993. Although Levy claimed he’d come forward because “it bothers me to see so much propaganda based on a basic lie that [the Five] were fighting against terrorism,” it is worth noting the Miami Hispanic television station paid Ivor Levy for exclusive rights to his story, so other reporters didn’t have chance to question his account.

Web site for the book What Lies Across the Water: The Real Story of the Cuban Five, including collected research and other materials: cubanfive.ca
Wikipedia page for The Cuban Five: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cuban_five

 

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