Gilsinan: To talk about Cuba as a global power, how did he manage to wield such disproportionate influence, relative to his position at the helm of this small island that became increasingly poor following the revolution? To what extent was this the power of being able to stick it to the United States so consistently?
Kornbluh: I think this is Fidel Castro’s greatest legacy: transforming Cuba from a regular-sized Caribbean island into a player on the world stage completely disproportionate to its geographic size and location. There is no doubt that while the impact of Fidel’s vision and socialist principles on Cuban society will be debated for years if not decades to come, his impact on Cuba as nation in the global arena, as a sovereign, proud, and supportive nation on kind of the correct side of history if you will—supporting the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa; the efforts very early on [supporting] small groups of guerrillas called the Sandinistas to overthrow the brutal and greedy Somoza dynasty in Nicaragua; having kind of the Cuban equivalent of Doctors Without Borders, sending tens of thousands of doctors around the world on free medical missions, to be supportive of other communities that didn’t have access to doctors—Cuba really gained in tremendous prestige, influence, and impact.
And that is completely indisputable, and you’re going to see that in the outpouring of condolences from world leaders today, and in the presence of many of those leaders at the memorial service for Fidel. And Cuba today is a proud country, and a respected country, throughout the region of Latin America and in the Third World. You’ll see the quotes from Nelson Mandela, for example, who said, we can’t even put into words the importance of Cuba’s support for our movement. The United States found itself on the other side of the anti-apartheid movement. In the confines of the White House and the Oval Office Henry Kissinger referred to Fidel Castro as a pipsqueak, denounced him for his role in Africa in the mid-1970s, and actually developed contingency plans to invade Cuba. But on the world stage Fidel Castro was a giant. He was the David versus Goliath when it came to Cuba versus the United States.
Gilsinan: Not in all cases on the right side of history, right? Certainly not on the right side of the Cold War, and elsewhere in Africa—Angola, for example.
Kornbluh: His role in Africa and Angola was an anti-colonial role, but the CIA was on the other side, really, and Kissinger as well. If you look at the history carefully, the Eisenhower administration kind of pushed Fidel right into the arms of the Soviets. They were kind of thin-skinned about his anti-American rhetoric. They’d never known a Latin American leader to say the things that he said about the United States, and his impudence at the time—his willingness to say, “Why should Cuba have to play by one set of rules, where you tell us what to do and you get to do whatever you want? We’re a sovereign country, and the revolution means that we can act independently, that’s what the revolution was for.” And he was constantly reminding the United States of this issue, every time a president would say let’s negotiate better relations, here’s what we want from you—you know, get out of Africa, or terminate your relationship with the Soviet Union—Fidel’s response would be, “I don’t tell you how to run your foreign policy, and I don’t deserve to be told how to run mine.”