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Fidel Castro, who led Cuba for a half-century, dies at 90

November 26, 2016 at 5:48 PM EST
Communist leader Fidel Castro ruled the island of Cuba with an iron fist for almost half a century until he handed over power to his brother eight years ago. Hari Sreenivasan reports on his life and times and his ongoing discord with the U.S.
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Read the full transcript below.

HARI SREENIVASAN, PBS NEWSHOUR WEEKEND: His communist revolution outlasted 10 American presidencies and withstood half a century of American economic embargo.

He survived numerous attempts to overthrow or assassinate him.

He fought off one U.S.-backed invasion at a little known beach called Playa Giron, in what Americans came to know as the Bay of Pigs and helped unleash a superpower confrontation by installing soviet missiles in Cuba.

The world had seen little of the Cuban leader in the past decade after serious intestinal illness struck in 2006.

In 2008, he stepped down as president, putting his brother — army head Raul Castro — at the country’s helm.

This feeble old man in a track suit was a pale shadow of the overconfident 32-year-old guerrilla who shook up the western hemisphere.

Fidel Castro triumphantly took control of Cuba on January 1, 1959.

He rolled into Havana atop a tank a week later.

He came down from his guerrilla stronghold in the Sierra Maestra Mountains — joined by his partner in revolution — the Argentine Che Guevara and a small rebel army. They had toppled the right wing dictator Fulgencio Batista, who had been in and out of power in Cuba for 25 years.

Castro quickly nationalized U.S.-owned companies and property in Cuba, along with church holdings, and the farms and businesses of wealthy and middle class Cubans.

The U.S. responded with an economic boycott that lasted decades.

And Castro began an alliance with America’s superpower rival, the Soviet Union.

CASTRO: “Viva la amistad entre las personas de la Union sovietica y cuba!”

SREENIVASAN: Departing president Dwight Eisenhower, severed all links with Cuba.

JAMES HAGERTY, PRESS SECRETARY, 1961: There is a limit to what the united states and self-respect can endure. That limit has now been reached. Our friendship for the Cuban people is not affected.

SREENIVASAN: The hardships placed upon the Cuban economy, and Castro’s repression of his Cuban opposition sparked a series of mass migrations that would profoundly affect the United States, and the future of U.S.-Cuba relations.

The new American president, John Kennedy, picked up one of his predecessor’s plans — an armed overthrow of Castro. The CIA trained an army of 1200 Cuban exiles to invade and begin a popular uprising.

On April 17, 1961 the small, counter-revolutionary force stormed the beach on Cuba’s south-east coast.

Many Cuban people rallied to Castro and his forces quickly put down the Bay of Pigs invasion.

It was a disaster for the new Kennedy Administration.

But the following year brought a new confrontation and even more danger.

On October 16, 1962, U.S. spy planes photographed the construction of a soviet missile site in Cuba.

A crisis ensued which brought the world the closest it had ever come to nuclear annihilation. A U.S. naval blockade, called a “quarantine” was forced on Cuba. Kennedy took to the airwaves and warned of the consequences.

JOHN KENNEDY, U.S. PRESIDENT: To halt this offensive build up, a strict quarantine on all offensive military equipment under shipment to Cuba will be initiated. It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union.

SREENIVASAN: It took 12 days of intense negotiations and U.N. diplomatic efforts, but the Soviets backed down and promised to remove the missiles from Cuba, in return for a U.S. commitment not to invade the Caribbean island.

The NewsHour’s Robert MacNeil, who was in Havana at the time, asked Fidel Castro about the missile crisis in a 1985 NewsHour interview.

ROBERT MACNEIL, PBS NEWSHOUR: When the crisis was at its very height, did you personally think that nuclear war was a possibility one of those days? Did you believe that?

CASTRO (VOICE OF INTERPRETER): Yes, I believed that was a possibility.

MACNEIL: What did you feel about your role in having brought it to that point?

CASTRO (VOICE OF INTERPRETER): It was not me. It was the United States that led us to that point. It was the United States that initiated the blockade, that organized the invasion, the sabotage, the pirate attacks, the mercenary invasion and those that spoke of an invasion against Cuba. It was the United States, it was not us. And I believe that we answered correctly, I have no doubt whatsoever. What were we to do? Yield? The United States could be assured that we will never yield, under conditions such as those we will fight.

SREENIVASAN: Castro put down dissent. Economic conditions worsened.
Emigration to the United States surged.

Exiles and their families filled American cities and prospered in places like Miami’s “Little Havana.” These immigrants became a force in American politics — standing against any efforts to lift the embargo, or reopen diplomatic relations.

All the while, Castro endured. He rallied his faithful supporters in the capital with his trademark hours-long, fiery speeches full of nationalist and socialist rhetoric.

CASTRO, (TRANSLATED): Of the revolution and the construction of socialism.

SREENIVASAN: Crowds of thousands turned out to listen.

Even with massive soviet subsidies, another dramatic economic downturn hit Cuba in 1980, and Castro said anyone who wanted to leave Cuba could do so by boat.

Again, a huge wave of immigrants headed to the United States in what became known as the Mariel boatlift.

Many of these were prisoners and convicts.

But Castro continued to hold a tight grip on his people through restrictions on free speech and free press. He quieted the opposition with imprisonment.

And he did not deny that his jail held political prisoners when the NewsHour’s Robert MacNeil asked him in 1985.

CASTRO (VOICE OF INTERPRETER): Yes, we have them. We have a few hundred political prisoners. Is that a violation of human rights? Those that have infiltrated through our coasts, those that have been trained by the CIA to kill, to place bombs. Do we have the right to put them to trial or not? Are they political prisoners? They’re something more than political prisoners. They’re traitors to the homeland.

SREENIVASAN: With the collapse of the Soviet Union in The early 1990’s, subsidized sugar prices and cheap oil from Cuba’s communist ally disappeared.

Cubans were again asked to tighten their belts again. Castro needed new friends.

In 1998 the communist leader came face-to-face with communism’s arch rival. Castro welcomed Pope John Paul II to Cuba.

The pope addressed the Cuban people at a mass where thousands turned out. He called for an end to human rights abuses and drew the world’s attention to the plight of the Cuban people.

Castro did come to loosen some restrictions on the Catholics in Cuba, the pope’s message did little else to change the day-to-day lives of Cubans.

But in later years, Castro found new allies in the hemisphere.

CASTRO: Viva la Republica Boliviarana de Venezuela! Viva Cuba!”

SREENIVASAN: And leftist leaders like Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and Bolivia’s Evo Morales, who said they were inspired by the Cuban revolution and joined Castro in delighted defiance of Uncle Sam.

Fidel’s slow fade began on July 31, 2006, when he ceded power to his younger brother, Raul. The news that Castro had undergone successful surgery for gastrointestinal bleeding aired over state television.

In the states, among the exile and Cuban American population, there was anxiety, along with jubilation at the idea that this could be the end.

But soon Castro allowed himself to appear in photos from his hospital bed and even entertained friends while convalescing. When he was up and moving in October 2006 the video captured a frail and aging man in a much weakened state trying to look healthy.

In December 2006, Cubans celebrated the 50th anniversary of the revolution and a belated birthday without the guest of honor who was still too ill to attend.

He didn’t reappear in the public eye until 2010, and almost a year later, he officially resigned as the communist party’s leader.

In 2012, Cuba hosted another pontiff – Pope Benedict. Castro was too ill to attend a large mass which drew thousands. But the pair did hold a meeting.

BARACK OBAMA, U.S. PRESIDENT: These 50 years have shown that isolation has not worked. It’s time for a new approach.

SREENIVASAN: Then, in December of 2014, President Obama announced the United States would re-establish diplomatic ties with Cuba.

That meant opening up an embassy in Havana, expanding economic ties and easing travel bans.

The first step was a prisoner swap between the two countries.

But the deal was made with Fidel’s brother — President Raul Castro. It was the first major discussion between presidents of the U.S. and Cuba since 1961.

And Fidel was still nowhere to be seen.

Despite his decline from public life and politics, the communist icon continued to publish editorial columns, and assumed the role of an elder statesman.

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