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Fidel Castro | Article

Interview Excerpts

When filmmaker Adriana Bosch began working on Fidel Castro, she sought out thoughtful voices to help tell the story. Her interviewees had much more to say than could fit in a two-hour program. Read these excerpts from interviews with historians, journalists and analysts. 

Cuba and the Revolution

​​​​​​​William Leogrande, WGBH

William Leogrande, professor: Cuban political culture has been defined in some ways by revolutionary generations for a very long time. You have the generation that fought the first war of independence against Spain in the 1860s and '70s. The second revolutionary generation that fought against Spain beginning in 1895, led by Jose Marti. You have then the generation of '33, which overthrew [Gerardo] Machado, but had their revolution cut short by U.S. intervention. And then of course, the generation of 1959, which overthrew [Fulgencio] Batista. So there's this long tradition in Cuba of revolutionary generations, of each generation defining itself in a way by overthrowing a dictatorial regime.

When Castro says, this is going to be a real revolution, in 1959, I think he's referring to the aborted revolutions of 1898 and 1933. I think he wants to carry those revolutions through to their promise -- or to what he thinks their promise was, which is in particular... reforms that will address the economic and social inequalities of Cuban society. And those are reforms which even the republic of 1940, even though it was democratic, did not address.

Alina Fernández Revuelta, WGBH

Alina Fernández Revuelta, daughter of Fidel Castro: When the revolution triumphed, my generation was in Pampers... I think my generation was used as a test dummy for the revolutionary process. The first uniforms were worn by my generation; it was like trying to convert Cuba into an arm of China.

They did everything to my generation: the marches, the pioneer scarf, the emblems, volunteer work, the first field school... We were put through every type of experiment possible in order to convert us into "the new man"-- that's exactly what we are, a generation with many socially inadapted people.

Georgie Anne Geyer, WGBH

Georgie Anne Geyer, journalist: In the '60s, in Havana, there was a very, very real sense that this was the revolutionary capital of the world. There were guerillas there. I would talk to them -- it was fairly open -- from Guatemala, from Nicaragua, from Salvador, from Vietnam, from Central Africa. They were training guerillas. They had many training camps. They had enormous subsidies from the Soviet Union to do this. They had guerillas all over Central Africa. They had military helping in Libya, in Algeria, in Syria. Fidel saw himself as a great military leader... He wanted -- there is no question in my mind -- he wanted to be a real world military power, and he saw himself as standing up to the United States.

Tim Naftali, WGBH

Tim Naftali, author: The Cuban revolution... had a remarkable effect on Soviet spirits and on the men themselves in the Kremlin, particularly [Nikita] Khrushchev and [Anastas] Mikoyan. Both men responded romantically to this revolution. Khrushchev was capable of responding pragmatically to a progressive movement, but what you see in this attachment to Cuba is something quite different. This was not like his relationship with Egypt, his relationship with Iraq, or his relationship with Guinea. There was an emotional side to this. Partly, it was due to the charisma of Fidel Castro... but it was also because these were people talking about a Communist future who had not been trained in Moscow, who had not been paid by Moscow... They seemed to be a spontaneous movement that shared Moscow's ideas and was willing to take Moscow's guidance. This was a dream come true for the Soviet leadership.

Wayne Smith, WGBH

Wayne Smith, U.S. diplomat: Castro believed that there would be safety in numbers, that other revolutions would be stimulated by the Cuban revolution and you would have revolutions throughout the hemisphere and he very quickly would stand aligned with, let's say, a Venezuelan revolutionary government, a Colombian, Ecuadorian and so forth. And the United States would not attack him if he did stand with all these other governments... But the other revolutions didn't take place.

Brian Latell, WGBH

Brian Latell, CIA analyst: Jack Kennedy considered Latin America the most dangerous area of the world. And he did because he feared the appeal that Fidel Castro had among the youth and the nationalist groups in most of the Latin American countries... In summer of 1960... the entire U.S. intelligence community judged that there was a good likelihood that one or more other Latin American countries would fall under the sway of revolutionary regimes sponsored and supported by Cuba within the next year or year and a half. So the Kennedy administration was being told that other Latin American countries were going to fall to communist revolutionary regimes with the help of Fidel Castro. It was a real fear. If it was exaggerated in retrospect, I think it was only slightly exaggerated.

William Leogrande, professor: The Cuban revolution is an example, an inspiration for young people, especially in Latin America but even beyond Latin America, in the United States and in Europe, during the 1960s because of the kind of idealism and promise that it represents. It's a revolution that promises to deal with the inequalities of underdeveloped Latin America. It's a revolution that promises more openness and freedom on the cultural front initially. It's a revolution, that promises to get beyond the corruption that's been so traditional, not just in Cuba but in many Latin American countries. It's a revolution that promises to try to solve all those problems by finding a third way between socialism and capitalism.

Marifeli Pérez Stable, WGBH

Marifeli Pérez Stable, author: The Cuban revolution does not have the same kind of human toll that Stalin or even Mao [did], but the fact is that in the 1960s, the context of what happened in Cuba -- the costs of the people who died or were killed and the political prisoners --those costs seemed to dwarf next to what right-wing military dictatorships were doing and what the United States was doing in Vietnam. It is a time when the human rights discourse was not yet internationally developed, the way fortunately, it is today. And so, Castro could paper over... the costs of the Cuban revolution, because there was a higher end that was being pursued... The logic... is wrong, but nonetheless, millions of people bought it. We bought it: that is, that it was not as bad as what was happening in Guatemala or what was happening in Argentina or what was happening in Vietnam.

The Bay of Pigs Invasion

James Blight, WGBH

James Blight, professor: As you move through 1959, you also have to look beneath the rhetoric because the American government begins actually having conversations. Usually they're in the CIA, but occasionally they're in the White House, about how to get rid of [Castro]. What are we going to do? I mean how do we do this? Because the American image in Latin America was not good and they were sort of conscious of this... the idea began to take shape, we've got to get rid of him and make it look like somebody else is doing it. Well the somebody else that they came up with were Cuban exiles that they would train and lead ashore at the Bay of Pigs.

Alfredo Duran, WGBH

Alfredo Duran, veteran, Bay of Pigs: When I went... to be part of what ultimately turned out to be the Bay of Pigs invasion, I really thought that what we were going to do was go and train as guerrillas and go and train as underground individuals who would organize a massive uprising in Cuba and continue the revolution. We did not envision an invasion supported by American planes, American tanks, American marines. I never expected that. I expected that it would be a guerrilla warfare, that I would be dropped someplace in the mountains of Cuba and that either I would be killed or win...

Wayne Smith, U.S. diplomat: We'd already bombed the airfields, [Castro] knew that there was a task force off the coast... he announced, for the first time, that this is a socialist revolution. This was a transparent effort on his part to get the Soviets to come to his support. Well, certainly, he didn't expect that we were going to put 1,200 exiles ashore and leave it at that. He expected the first and second Marine divisions to come in right after them. And so it was an effort on his part to say to the Soviets, I'm a good socialist just like you and when the Americans come in tomorrow, you must support me...

Of course, it turned out, he didn't need Soviet support. He defeated the American, the CIA effort without any difficulty on his own. Nonetheless, from that point forward, from having said this is a socialist revolution, he then began to convert it into a Soviet-style system with a party-state government apparatus. 

Brian Latell, CIA analyst: In the days immediately preceding, during and right after the Bay of Pigs in mid April of 1961, the repressive machinery of Castro's government the security and the internal police and other intelligence services, rounded up many thousands of Cubans -- real and imagined opponents of the regime. Held them, incarcerated them, held them in detention, fearing that that they would become involved with the exile brigade and offer them assistance. This broke the back of the internal resistance of the unorganized opposition to Castro at that time. And it was very large, the opposition to Castro, organized or not, in the spring of 1961.

Carlos Alberto Montaner, WGBH

  Carlos Alberto Montaner, author: For Fidel, Playa Girón means everything because it is the triumph against his Cuban enemies and against the United States. It is the possibility of beheading all of the opposition with a single blow. Hundreds of thousands of people are detained in Cuba at the moment of the invasion. The political opposition is left without leaders and at the same time the opposition suffers a demoralizing defeat. I think we didn't realize it but the possibility of defeating Cuba militarily ended in April of '61. 

James Blight, professor: There's a famous conversation that takes place in South America in November of 1961 between Che Guevara and Richard Goodman, who's a White House speechwriter for Kennedy. And Guevara walks across the room and shakes Goodman's hand and says, Mr. Goodman I would just like to thank you for the Bay of Pigs, thank you very much. And Goodman says, you're welcome....

The Bay of Pigs provided the perfect pretext for Castro to say, "I am a socialist and I've always been a socialist," to declare the Cuban revolution a socialist revolution -- all this takes place in that context -- and also, to do something very risky, which was to roll up the whole internal resistance movement, to round up somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 people and put them in stadiums and put them in stockades. Risky because there was still a civil war going on inside Cuba at this point. But the Bay of Pigs, to the Americans, [was] this little dinky thing that happened, 1500 guys that went ashore, 72 hours later they're either dead or running around in the jungle or most of them are being marched up to Havana for a show trial. It might have looked like that to the Americans, and it was kind of a humiliation, it didn't really affect our security much, but what it provided Castro -- Playa Girón, April 1961, is the primal event to which he always goes back when there's ever any question of whether we should trust the Americans or whether we shouldn't trust the Americans. After that, the hostility, the enmity in the relationship is guaranteed.  

Brian Latell, CIA analyst: In the aftermath of the Bay of Pigs, the immediate aftermath of the Bay of Pigs, and the Cuban military victory over the exile brigade, Castro's credibility, his strength in Cuba and throughout Latin America, was enormously enhanced. His revolution at that moment was more consolidated than it had ever been before. He had done what no Latin American leader before him had ever done and that was to defeat a really significant challenge --military kind of challenge -- mounted by the United States. He defeated it entirely.

And his credibility on the island, in Latin America, soared and whatever remaining opponents he had on the island, they were cowed and intimidated, because Castro was no longer the David fighting the Goliath; he was a Goliath of a different sort, in his own realm.  

William Leogrande, professor: The Bay of Pigs invasion so closely associates opposition to the revolution with the United States, that Castro is able to wrap himself in the Cuban flag and declare the revolution socialist. It's not a coincidence that he declares the revolution a socialist revolution at the time of the Bay of Pigs, because he now he can wrap the socialist project in Cuban nationalism.

Ernesto Betancourt, WGBH

 Ernesto Betancourt, former director, Radio Martí: I disagree with many of the Cubans who blame Kennedy [for the Bay of Pigs]. I think that the minor damage was the Bay of Pigs and the biggest contribution that Kennedy made was stopping any further action at that time because, if the United States had acted, Cuba would have been like Vietnam. It would have been a bloodshed and a constant struggle... He made a great service historically to Cuba and to the United States.

The Cuban Missile Crisis

James Blight, professor: The idea for deploying missiles in Cuba, nuclear missiles in Cuba, was Khrushchev's. In the spring of 1962, Khrushchev began thinking about what to do about several problems at once. One of them was that the Soviets had a very inferior missile battery, missile capability. Their missiles didn't fly often, they didn't go straight, the bombs didn't explode -- a classic Soviet problem. Most of the missiles that were launched in Siberia wound up exploding somewhere in Siberia. But one way around that problem was pointed out to him by his generals, which is, it might sound strange Nikita, but if you put them in Cuba, it's like putting them in Florida. I mean, they're right there. All they have to do is get over 90 miles of water and some.

Tim Naftali, author: Fidel Castro did not ask for these weapons. What he wanted were defensive conventional weapons to defend his country against an attack that he assumed would occur, perhaps, in 1963, or 1964. The Soviets, themselves, did not expect an attack until just before the Kennedy reelection of 1964. The assumption was that John F. Kennedy would have some kind of October surprise in 1964 so that he could be reelected. The Cubans and the Soviets did not expect an American attack in 1962. They did not. So the Cuban request was for tanks, surface-to-air missiles, and for some, perhaps some, Soviet soldiers, but, really, to train the Cuban army to be ready for the attack in 1964. The missiles came as a surprise to Fidel... his reaction was, well, I'll take them, but you know we don't need them. I will take them for the sake of socialist unity, but for Cuban defense, we don't need them. In fact, what Fidel wanted was to be part of the Warsaw pact. He suggested, why don't you just let us sign a collective security agreement. That would be enough to deter the Americans. That, plus these tanks.

But the Soviets had other reasons. They had ulterior motives for putting missiles in Cuba. The missiles weren't going just to defend Fidel. They were going to threaten Kennedy. The Soviet policy was an offensive policy. Later on, Nikita Khrushchev would talk about this as a defensive measure to protect Cuba, but in the very beginning, the Soviets were talking about this as an offensive strategy to apply pressure to the United States in the game of 1962.  

Wayne Smith, U.S. diplomat: Castro was right and Khrushchev was wrong. When Khrushchev raised the possibility of putting these missiles in to defend Cuba, Castro understood immediately that the real purpose was to improve the balance of power somewhat for the Soviet Union because the United States had far more intercontinental missiles than the Soviet Union did. So if they placed these missiles in Cuba, that strengthened the hand of the Soviet Union. Castro said he would do it to as his support for the socialist bloc, but that it wouldn't really defend Cuba because if the Americans had not decided to invade before the missiles came in, they certainly would invade once they knew the missiles were coming in. So the best thing to do was to do it openly, sign a new mutual defense agreement and as part of it, have the missiles in. Then, if the Americans didn't like it, there was a possibility of negotiating and maybe the Soviets could bring about the withdrawal of the American Jupiter missiles in Turkey. And they might even get the United States to give some pledge not to invade Cuba, if the Soviets wouldn't put the missiles in.

Khrushchev said no. Khrushchev said no, we'll move them in secretly. Well, that's utter nonsense. There was no way that the Soviets could get those missiles in secretly. Construct the site, bring the missiles and the warheads to the ports, truck them up to the sites, raise the missiles, mate the warheads to the missiles with all the paraphernalia involved. [The U.S.] had U2s going over periodically, P-4 reconnaissance planes sucking up all the radio messages inside the island, absolutely no way that that could be done. At one of the [recent, scholarly] missile crisis conferences, we asked one of the Russian delegates, "How did you possibly think you could get those missiles in secretly?" He said, "Well, at the time our military men told us we could disguise the missiles to look like palm trees." He sort of waved his hand out the window — this was in Antigua down in the Caribbean -- and he said, "Of course, now that we've seen palm trees we know that that not feasible."  

James Blight, professor: Many issues came to the fore immediately when the Soviets began arriving in the summer of 1962. One of them was camouflage. The Soviets said, we're going to put the missiles here, and they'd clear away an area. And as the CIA later discovered, what they actually did was to create a missile site with the pad and the bunkers and so forth, that was identical to the ones they had in Siberia. It's what they knew. So the idea was to take this hilly, thickly forested terrain, bulldoze it, and turn it into a more humid, warmer version of Siberia. Of course, this drove the Cubans crazy, because they would say to the Soviets, but wait a minute now, surely the Americans have U2 pictures of the sites in Siberia, shouldn't we do something different? We should camouflage it. We should disguise it somehow and so forth. And they were told to shut up, literally.

No Cuban was ever allowed on any missile site, not Fidel, not anybody. These were Russian. This was one of the problems for the Cubans because if the truth had gotten out about the contract that they signed, sort of a treaty, what it really did was to grant the Soviets four pieces of property a little bit like Guantanamo, which the Americans occupy and have occupied since 1903. To make that kind of an analogy was not good for Cuban public relations, to say the least, and it would also create a problem of how to explain this to the Cuban people....

The Russians arrived -- this is one of my favorite stories about Soviet cleverness -- 43,000 arrived by the time the missile crisis erupts in October, and in order to disguise themselves they all wear striped shirts so as not to be seen, and then they march in formation. So we have groups of 200 blond, bull-necked, blue-eyed, sunburned people in striped shirts marching around thinking, they won't know we're here, they won't know we're Russians...  

Tim Naftali, author: Fidel wanted to tell Khrushchev, that if the Soviet Union had to use nuclear weapons to defend the socialist world and if that meant that Cuba might be sacrificed, that's OK -- that the Cuban people were dedicated to socialism and would sacrifice themselves for the greater good of the socialist commonwealth. That's what Fidel wanted Khrushchev to know.

When Khrushchev received this letter, he was aghast. How could this man think about a nuclear war? The whole point here is to get our way without war. War is failure. In fact, Khrushchev, who was an optimist, was pessimistic only about nuclear war. The only thing he felt that could disrupt the development of socialism worldwide was a nuclear war.  

James Blight, professor: If you ask any of the Americans who were involved in this [what was] the most critical mistake that the Soviets made, it was to lie about it. Because Kennedy's speech -- 7:00, 22nd of October -- he came on and told the American people what was going on. Re-reading that speech recently, I was impressed. Seven times he says they're lying, they're deceptive, and in a superpower this is intolerable. You cannot tolerate a nuclear superpower that doesn't play by the rules of the game and therefore, these things are coming out on principle, as well as for all kinds of strategic reasons. The Cubans anticipated this totally; it's in all of the documents. They explained this to the Russians.

Of course, so when the Americans discovered them, when they put the heat on, they cranked up the quarantine, a thousand and some jets are ready to fly out of Miami and everywhere and all throughout the Caribbean to totally destroy the northern tier of Cuba, Castro says, "Well, I told you." But then Castro does something very interesting. He says to Khrushchev, "OK, look that was in the past." He writes him a letter... and says, "don't worry about us... They're going to attack, you've given them all these reasons, but hey, OK. The entire nation of Cuba is willing to be martyred for socialism. So when they attack -- not if, but when, they attack -- make sure the attack is underway, and then I want you to nuke the United States and destroy it." And you know, Khrushchev's reaction to this was, "Jesus Christ! That guy's nuts. It sounds like he's telling me to blow up the world!"  

Ernesto Betancourt, former director, Radio Martí: In addressing Fidel as an enemy, the United States has to realize that you are dealing with an individual who is obsessed with his place in history. And very few rulers are so indifferent to the well being of their peoples as Fidel Castro is. This was dramatically shown at the time of the Missile Crisis in 1962 when Fidel tried to get the Soviets to launch a nuclear attack on the United States, a preemptive attack, realizing very well that this will result in a response on the part of the United States that will wipe out Cuba. And he didn't care, because he had never worried about the Cuban people's well being.  

Tim Naftali, author:  When the Soviets decided to withdraw the big missiles, Castro hoped that they would not withdraw the short-range missiles, the tactical missiles, that his people could use against American invasion. He very much wanted to tell the world that Cuba had a nuclear defense on its beaches.

Initially, the Soviets were prepared to share those missiles, to give those missiles to the Cubans. But after Fidel Castro's behavior, Moscow realized that it was too risky to let the Cubans have nuclear weapons and so they decided to withdraw them. This made Castro even angrier.

Cuban/American Relations 

Andres Oppenheimer, journalist: Cuba [had been] very important to the Spanish Crown. Cuba was the port of entry to the Americas for Spain, and its main source of sugar. And Cuba's independence came very late, in 1902, 80 years after... most of the Latin Americans had their independence.

The Spaniards held onto Cuba much tighter than almost any other country. At one point there were 200,000 Spanish troops in Cuba, as much as in all the rest of Latin America together. So the Cubans developed this idea that they were terribly important, that Spain and the U.S. were fighting for Cuba, and that Cuba was the key to the Western world 

Ernesto Betancourt, former director, Radio Martí: The United States put as a condition for withdrawing American forces from Cuba in 1902 that in the Cuban Constitution there would be an amendment saying that the United States had the right to intervene in Cuba. This was abolished by President [Franklin] Roosevelt in 1933, but it was part of the history of the Cubans trying to get this blemish off the independence and sovereignty of Cuba through all those years. And this is very recent history for the people of my generation. Today, perhaps, 1933 is very far away, but not for the people of my generation.

Jorge Domínguez, WGBH

Jorge Domínguez, professor: The power of the United States over Cuba increased from the start of the 20th century. It peaks in the 1920s, and then gradually declines from the 1920s to the 1950s. The U.S. had intervened militarily repeatedly in the first quarter of the 20th century...

The United States owned and operated the majority of Cuba's sugar mills, and certainly the most efficient ones, through the first quarter of the 1920s. In the second quarter of the 20th century, the proportion of the sugar harvest accounted for by U.S. farms declines. U.S. banks control the Cuban financial system in the first quarter of the 20th century. Their control of the Cuban financial system declines during the second quarter of the 19th century. In subject after subject, the effective power of the United States over Cuba declined from the first to the second quarter of the 20th century. 

William Leogrande, professor: The role of the United States in Cuba begins in important ways in 1898 with the Spanish-American War, when the United States sends troops to Cuba to fight Spain, but really is intervening in Cuba's war of independence. Of course, rather than immediately turning the government over to Cuba, we install a military governor who governs for a number of years. We impose the Platt Amendment on Cuba, which, in effect, constrains Cuba's rights as a sovereign country to have dealings with other countries, gives the United States the right to intervene in Cuba whenever we find it convenient. And the United States then does, in fact, intervene in Cuba several times over the next decade. And it becomes clear, as the old saying went, that the United States' ambassador was the second most powerful person in Cuba, behind the president himself.

The United States intervenes again in 1932-33 in the midst of a revolution against the dictator [Gerardo] Machado. The United States imposes a solution on that situation, and overthrows a very popular nationalist government that gets rid of the Machado regime in 1933. So there's a sense for Cuban nationalists in which every time Cuba is about to seize control of its own destiny -- in 1898, in 1933 -- the United States steps in and takes control of Cuba and moves Cuba in a way that's consonant with the interests of the United States, rather than the interests of Cuba. And that's why Fidel Castro is so adamant in 1959 about seeing to it that the United States doesn't control his Cuban revolution.  

Alfredo Duran, veteran, Bay of Pigs: Since our independence, that was one of the constant factors in Cuba politics, the support of the United States government for a particular political figure, or a president. It either made him or break him. It was constant participation and involvement in political matters in Cuba. Until the Platt Amendment was lifted, there were two big military interventions, but there was also a political intervention and economic intervention constantly...

Carlos Franqui,WGBH

Carlos Franqui, journalist: The history of Cuba and the United States had been a very troubled one, because in reality the United States hadn't wanted Cuban independence during the entire 19th century. After that, they intervened; after that, they occupied Cuba. The American occupation signified, from the economic point of view... a positive thing. But from a political point of view, it was very negative, because it put an end to independent tendencies... One can't forget that in 1952, the United States recognized [Fulgencio] Batista immediately because at that time it was American policy to recognize dictators. Now, fortunately, they've changed in that respect. So all the elements mixed in with the idea of an unfinished revolution, and mixed in with this conflict, which had diminished the Cuban nation, were found in all the unrest that Fidel Castro stirred up marvelously in the Sixties. 

Jorge Domínguez, professor: There are two ways to think about the impact of the United States on the course of the Cuban revolution at the end of the first quarter of 1959. One has been very common, and it is the argument that the U.S. government pushed Fidel into the arms of the Soviet Union, the communists, and radicals. I believe that argument is wrong. In January, February, March, early April of 1959, the United States undertook a variety of initiatives to try to reach out to the Cuban government and to discuss, professionally and effectively, a number of ways whereby the U.S. government could help the Cuban government. And on the Cuban government's side, including Fidel Castro's own words, there are a number of instances that he thought, at least for a short period of time, a few weeks in early 1959, that there could be this kind of constructive, mutually beneficial relationship with the United States, that included accepting international assistance and foreign investment.

The second way to think about the impact of the United States on Cuba in 1959 is the long legacy of U.S. presence, the role of U.S. firms, the salience of the United States way of life on Cuban society. And at some point in February, March, and early April of 1959, Fidel Castro comes to the decision that there could not be a revolution in Cuba, that he could not build the Cuba that he wanted unless he extirpated the United States from Cuba. And at that point, there was very little the U.S. government could do to shake that conviction. So that when Fidel Castro comes to the United States in April of 1959, and the Eisenhower administration tries to open up discussions on foreign aid and other means of international cooperation, Fidel instructs his economic team not to ask for aid, not to accept aid, not even to discuss it.

Armando Valladares, WGBH

 Armando Valladares, political prisoner: If Fidel Castro's dictatorship would have been established in Europe or Asia it would have disappeared years ago. The reason it has maintained itself is because of its encounters, and nearness to the United States... they have made an aberration out of the hate towards the United States and have canalized their hostility by supporting Fidel Castro. They think that by doing so they're driving the Americans nuts, but the truth is nobody in the United States cares about it.  

Wayne Smith, U.S. diplomat: [Cubans] disagree with American policies, but they tend to like Americans and Americans and Cubans get along famously. There's almost a mystical bond between them. But the objections to U.S. policy come about because from 1898 until 1959, the United States controlled Cuba.  

Jorge Domínguez, professor: There is something odd about the sense of Cuban nationalism that is perhaps summarized by the fact that Cubans today and over time, for a long time, consider that one of the national drinks is rum and Coke, cuba libre as it is called in Spanish. Rum and Coke is rum, a Cuban drink, and Coca-Cola, a U.S. product. One of the affirmations, one of the symbols of Cuban enjoyment, of Cuban sociability in this cuba libre, in this national drink, connects the United States and Cuba...

Cuba and the United States have been intertwined for at least a century, and perhaps more. It is not possible to be a Cuban without in some sense incorporating the United States into that sense of being. Cubans can confront the United States. Cubans can embrace the United States. What they cannot do is escape the United States.

Fidel Castro and History 

Carlos Alberto Montaner, author: First of all, I think Fidel Castro awakens a deep anthropological curiosity -- he's the bearded man dressed in military costume with a heroic history, and he militarily defeated a dictatorship. Then he is the man that confronts the United States...The legendary image that he constructs is assisted by the fact that there are very powerful feelings against the United States, the capitalist economy, and he is looked upon as a hero. The Latin American leftists perceive him as a hero that battles against adversity, and even though on occasion he has erratic behavior, his untamable character is more important than anything else.  

Brian Latell, CIA analyst: As early as the university years, and certainly by the time of the Moncada attack in July of 1953, I believe that [Castro] had constructed for himself a kind of belief that... there were historical forces that were driving him as an instrument of Cuban history, to bring about the completion of the independence struggle, of the nationalist struggle that had been interrupted by the American intervention in the War of 1898... The illogical result of that is that he has been able to exculpate himself, to remove himself morally from virtually all of consequences of his actions. It's not him as an individual acting, it's historical forces that are compelling him to act.

Through his entire career, beginning with Moncada and maybe going back even to the student activist days, he has been able to absolve himself. That was what he said, that was the closing line, the main theme of his speech in self-defense when he was tried in 1953 after the attack on the Moncada barracks, which launched the Cuban revolutionary process. During his trial, he defended himself with a memorable phrase, "History will absolve me." [He's saying] I may have engaged in this violence against the Batista dictatorship, we may have attacked this military barracks in Santiago, the Moncada, but what we did was right.

Alfredo "el Chino" Esquivel, WGBH

 Alfredo "el Chino" Esquivel, schoolmate of Castro: He has his own code and if you violate it, then that means you're against him. He lives by his code and on that basis he decides that his ideas are correct and what he does is the right thing to do. If you don't follow that way of thinking then you're out of his code, you're punishable, condemnable -- you lose everything. When you're with him, in his circle of power, you have influence, but if he, as they say, "lets go of you," then you turn into nobody, it's over and everyone finds out that you're no longer under Fidel Castro's protection. You have no more influence -- you're a nobody.  

William Leogrande, professor: I think Cuban history is very much alive for Fidel Castro. He almost never gives a speech without making reference to earlier struggles. From the very beginning, he said that the revolution in 1959 was not a separate revolution, but was a continuation of the struggles that began against Spain and continued throughout the twentieth century. He really has a feel for the icons of Cuba's political culture and its history of struggle for independence. And he makes reference to them all the time.  

Marifeli Pérez Stable, author: [Castro] was the great hope of Cuba in the late 1950s... I didn't know very much about him except that he was up in the Sierra Maestra and that people pinned their hopes on this man. He promised a new Cuba. In my family, my immediate family, my uncles and my grandfather, everyone went out once the revolution came to power to pay their back taxes, because now there was going to be an honest government in Cuba.  

Ricardo Bofill, human rights activist: He's a charismatic figure. The Soviet leadership was rather grey. [Leonid] Brezhnev was a man that whispered into the microphone in the Red Square... Fidel Castro not only came with the legend of Sierra Maestra but also from having defeated the Americans at Playa Girón -- that was magnified. They didn't portray the battle as one against a simple brigade. No, they would say the battle was against the United States. Fidel Castro had defeated the Americans.  

William Leogrande, professor: I think even during the struggle against [Fulgencio] Batista, Fidel Castro was motivated by two sets of important values. One was the drive for social equality, social justice within Cuba. He saw the terrible discrepancies between rich and poor, urban and rural, men and women, black and white, and he felt compelled to do something about that. The second set of principles had to do with Cuba's relationship to the United States. He saw the history of Cuba being dominated by U.S. power, both economic and political, and he had as an objective of the revolution to free Cuba from that U.S. dominance.  

James Blight, professor: The epic of the Castro era -- the last half of the 20th century and who knows how far into the 21st -- I think is probably one of the half a dozen most important biographies... over the last 100 years. I'd put Ho Chi Minh probably in there, I might put Lenin, I might put Churchill. But Fidel Castro is in some ways even more interesting, because he leads a country that is 1/87th the size of his principal mortal enemy and he not only gets away with it, but he does it with flair. He gets people to hate him but not to be able to do anything about it. He has co-opted the United States in so many ways, including getting, I would say, even now, the majority of non-U.S. citizens on his side.

Cuba is a little place. It's tiny. It has very limited resources, almost no natural resources. But [Castro] has been able to slip between this alliance and get out of that one, to bring back tourism that he said he wouldn't, to survive the collapse of the Soviet Union when everybody said he wouldn't. I read the FBI stuff, the CIA stuff in the late '80s and early '90s -- "six months, Cuba's toast." Six months is all he'll last. And then I found a document from 1959, '60 written by [U.S. foreign policy expert] Paul Nitze -- it said six months. That's all he'll last. But he's still there.  

Georgie Anne Geyer, journalist: Fidel Castro was able to stay in power for so many years and after so many challenges, particularly the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, because he was so incredibly clever -- and usually much, much more clever than the people who were against him. He always knew the instincts of the other person as well as his own. He knew how to manipulate their negatives. He's not a good manipulator of positive things. He's a very strong manipulator of negatives: anti-Americanism, anti- the upper class, anti- the middle class, et cetera, et cetera. Also a lot of people weren't paying that much attention to him, and he was attending very carefully to the United States. He knew how to reach our young people, how to appear to be the romantic hero, and by the time people sort of got onto him in the '80s and more into the '90s, there was nobody who was going to overthrow him. It was better in their eyes to leave him alone. He had an incredible instinct for human weaknesses.

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