After 49 years in power, Fidel Castro has resigned as Cuba's president. That he would make it this far was largely unexpected. According to the former head of Castro’s secret service, a grand total of 638 assassination attempts were made on the man during the course of his rule. The attempts ranged from the pedestrian—shooting, poisoning, bombing—to the downright bizarre: in the early 1960s, the CIA launched a series of Wile E. Coyote-esque schemes that included presenting Castro with a box of exploding cigars, slipping him a bacteria-infected handkerchief, and packing a garishly colored seashell with explosives in the hope that Castro would approach it during one of his frequent scuba-diving trips. In response to all these machinations, Castro reportedly quipped, “If surviving assassination attempts were an Olympic event, then I would win the gold medal.”
"Inside the Department of Dirty Tricks" (August 1979)
An in-depth look at the CIA under Richard Helms. By Thomas Powers
Castro's decades-long reign made him one of the world's longest ruling leaders; during his tenure, nine U.S. presidents came and went—and his improbable overthrow of the Fulgencio Batista Regime became the stuff of popular legend. Even in the early days of his rule, Castro was a natural leader—an effusive speaker whose passionate, fiery performances were typically measured in hours rather than minutes. In downtown Havana, people gathered in the hundreds of thousands to watch the bearded, fatigue-clad Castro let loose from a seemingly bottomless well of revolutionary zeal.
In 1964, just five years after Castro took control, Atlantic contributor James Cameron ventured to Cuba to report on the country’s first steps down the communist path. Cameron, an award-winning British reporter, unexpectedly found himself in the front row during one of Castro’s performances. He wrote,
The man himself was up there on the plinth before the vast bust of Jose Marti: Castro, the shock-haired, bearded, uniformed wonder, arguing, rambling, jesting, threatening, exhorting, mesmerizing above a crowd of at least three hundred thousand, who made the plaza of the Revolucion like a vast bed of multicolored flowers.
To sit immediately below Fidel in full spate is an extraordinary experience. His technique is unique and hypnotic. For two hours he spoke below the brazen sky—the sky which, he cried, is daily profaned and violated by the Yanqui spy planes, “to destroy which,” he demanded, “who of us is not ready to die?” As he shot his furious finger aloft, one almost expected to see the microscopic speck of the U-2 drifting balefully by at 60,000 feet, bristling with cameras.
Behind him an enormous poster said: ‘Si Quieren Paz con Nuestro Pueblo Pueblo Habra Paz: Pero si Quieren Guerra—No tenemos Miedo a la Guerra!’ Castro echoed it: “We want peace, but we don’t fear war!” And they roared approval. “Peace, but only with dignity!” and the applause was like a beat on the ocean. The contemporary word for it all was charismatic; a virtuoso performance, without notes, improvised, histrionic, masterly.
Castro was a master of image and projection — indeed the survival of his revolution depended upon it — and little was left to chance. Every wall on the island was fair game for murals decrying the Imperialistas. State-run television offered a steady diet of pro-Castro news. Anyone or anything associated with the revolution was quickly memorialized with a statue, mural, or park.
But under Castro’s meticulously polished façade lay a more somber reality. After being sworn in as president, he swiftly consolidated power and began to guide the state on an increasingly Marxist course. Castro—no admirer of the United States’ economic influence in Cuba—began nationalizing many American-owned assets. In response, the United States—a vital market for the island’s main export— slashed its Cuban sugar quota, and relations between the two countries quickly deteriorated, paving the way for the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis.