Remembering Fidel Castro

He presided over dramatic improvements in health and other human-development indicators in Cuba, but crushed dissent and repressed human rights.

Alexandre Meneghini / Reuters

Fidel Castro, whose death was announced Saturday, outlasted a Cold War and 10 American presidents, and remained, until the end, defiant of the United States. He presided over dramatic improvements in health and other human-development indicators in his country, but crushed dissent and repressed human rights.

Castro led Cuba from 1959, when his Communist rebels toppled the regime of then-dictator Fulgencio Batista, until 2006, when he stepped down due to ill health; two years later, he formally handed the reins of power to his brother, Raul Castro. To put that in perspective, Castro took power during the Eisenhower years, and remained Cuba’s leader during the tenures of U.S. Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Clinton, and George W. Bush, and he nearly outlived the Obama administration. In that time, he fended off the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, urged Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to use nuclear weapons on the U.S., survived several U.S.-backed attempts to kill him, directed his country’s involvement in civil wars across Latin America, as well as in Mozambique and Angola, saw from afar the U.S. quagmire in Vietnam, and presided over a period of economic despair when his biggest patron, the Soviet Union, collapsed.

But he defied the odds, and expectations that his regime would collapse, surviving well into the 21st century, even as he watched Cubans flee to Miami and barely survive under what was euphemistically dubbed the “special period”— U.S. sanctions did not help. To his friends, Castro was the defiant leader of a little nation, 90 miles off the coast of Florida, who was a consistent thorn in the side of the U.S.; a man who with his marathon, hours-long speeches, trademark cigar, and military fatigues, challenged the might of Washington. But to his detractors, and he had many, Castro was another Latin American strongman who oppressed his people, stifled human rights, and imprisoned dissidents. Cuba had near universal literacy, but its citizens couldn’t freely read the books they wanted to.

Castro had been ailing for some time. He was hospitalized in 2006 with diverticulitis, a condition that afflicts the digestive tract, and reports of his imminent demise have appeared several times in the media since then. But he re-emerged each time. As my colleague Jeffrey Goldberg noted in 2010 when he met and interviewed Castro, “the allegedly ailing Fidel drank and spoke extemporaneously for hours—his prolixity did not surprise me, but his self-awareness, and humor, sometimes did.”

Ultimately, times changed, but Castro did not. Raul Castro, his brother, opened up the country’s economy, and undertook a historic rapprochement, brokered by Pope Francis, with the U.S. President Obama visited Cuba in March, a trip that was unimaginable when Fidel Castro was in power. Indeed, after Obama’s trip, Castro wrote a scathing letter, criticizing the American president’s remarks urging Cubans to look to the future. “We don’t need the empire to give us anything,” Castro wrote at the time. Last month, John Lee Anderson, in The New Yorker, wrote of the resistance among some in the Cuban establishment toward the rapprochement with the U.S. Indeed Castro’s own complex response to that historic achievement was perhaps reflected in some of the reactions that emerged following his death Saturday. In Miami, home to a large Cuban American community, there were celebrations. President-elect Donald Trump called him a “brutal dictator” while Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called him a “remarkable leader.” Obama himself seemed to suspend judgment.

“History,” the American president wrote, “will record and judge the enormous impact of this singular figure on the people and world around him.”