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.”
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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.
The loss of the American market and the shift to a state-run economy created significant hardships, and the economic development that Castro had forecast during the heady days of the revolution was failing to materialize. In the 1970s Castro suddenly announced that Cuba’s economic future would henceforth be tied to agriculture. In 1969, at the behest of The Atlantic, the economist Emma Rothschild went to Havana to observe Castro’s new approach in action. “In the first decade of the Cuban Revolution,” she wrote, “the old Cuba died, in the second it is to be born again, to grow again like sugar in a field… The frontier of the revolution is the frontier of agriculture.” She noted, however, that despite Castro's grand plans, the new measures thus far appeared to be having little effect and that the Cuban people were still facing considerable hardships. “After ten years of stumbling progress,” she observed, “the country has experienced bitter deprivation. In Havana, strict rationing is now in effect; even the hours to be spent waiting in line for food are rationed.”
Castro’s economic policies also produced peculiar living conditions, many of them paradoxical. The island possessed an abundance of labor, but much of the time there was little work to be done, and even when per capita income rose there were precious few goods to purchase. In a 1977 Atlantic report, journalist Stephen Kinzer observed:
Consumer goods are rare and often allotted according to need or “revolutionary merit”; the purchase of clothing is restricted; travel abroad is difficult; and thousands of items which westerners and even many Eastern Europeans take for granted are unavailable. A visitor to Cuba is likely to be approached on the street and asked to sell his jeans, t-shirt, or sunglasses.
Economic difficulties notwithstanding, Castro gave no signs of relinquishing control. His military-security apparatus was massive and he used it vigorously. Many dissenters were jailed or harassed, and any attempt to subvert Castro’s rule was dealt with harshly. A considerable gulf widened between the military establishment and the Cuban populace. “While Cubans today have few consumer goods, their armed services possess an abundance of howitzers and assault rifles,” wrote historian John Hoyt Williams in a 1988 Atlantic piece profiling the state of Cuba’s military. “The military, always highly visible in Castro’s Cuba, bodes ill for the peace and prosperity of people out of uniform. Castro has so militarized Cuban society that, as Hugh Thomas has recently written, ‘Batista’s tyranny seems, from the angle of the present, a mild and indolent undertaking.’” Not surprisingly, many Cubans fled into exile.
With the deterioration of the Soviet Empire in the late 1980s, Castro suddenly found himself adrift both ideologically and economically. Years of favorable trade agreements with the Soviets had helped prop up the Cuban economy during a number of difficult periods. But when Moscow fell, Cuba was left without its primary benefactor. In the years since then, the situation has changed very little, by most accounts: the economy has struggled, dissidents continue to be jailed, and through it all Castro has railed consistently against the evils of capitalism and “Yanqui” influence.
Castro’s retirement raises serious questions about the future of the island over which he has held sway for so long. Cuba now faces a power vacuum, one fraught with challenges and opportunities. Although Castro’s brother Raúl is the logical heir to the throne, it is unclear whether he has the temperament to continue where his brother left off. Nor is he the only one who has waited for this moment. Many of Castro’s opponents have looked forward to the end of his regime with great anticipation, eager to see Cuba shed its former ideology and embrace the tenets of an open society. Whatever comes next for Cuba, Castro’s legacy will cast a very long shadow.