Fidel Castro is dead. Or almost dead. Or something. (There have been a couple of Fidel photo-ops. Or were they Photoshops? I'm waiting for The People's Cube to offer Flat Fidel. Insert your own 'Weekend At Bernie's' joke here.)
Born in 1926, Fidel Castro was a rebellious, loud, and troublesome child and was sent to a Jesuit boarding school in Santiago de Cuba, where he was often teased by his wealthier classmates who called him a "peasant." He later earned a law degree at the University of Havana.
He married in 1948 and had a son. However, he got divorced in 1954.
Castro was a vocal opponent of the dictator Fulgencio Batista and, in 1953, led a failed attack on an army barracks. Originally sentenced to 15 years in prison, Fidel was granted amnesty in 1955.
He went into exile in Mexico, returning to Cuba in late 1956 along with Che Guevara and a small band of supporters. They launched a guerrilla war, starting in the hills of Cuba with relatively few followers and little support. Castro treated the peasants well and appealed to students and gradually won support as they became more disenchanted with the corruption of the increasingly-repressive Batista government. The Cuban army was weak and ineffective. Castro toppled Batista's regime on January 1, 1959.
In 1957, Fidel Castro had told the New York Times: "Power does not interest me. After victory I want to go back to my village and just be a lawyer again." Yeah, right.
The U.S. press never thought much of Batista and didn't know what to think of the new guy. Here was an interesting man, a rabid baseball fan. The media found him fascinating.
At that time of the regime change, I was a sophomore in high school. Our history teacher, Joe Bloh (how could I ever forget that name), said, "Don't believe what you read. This guy is no hero; Castro's a hard-line Communist. He'll wreck what's left of Cuba." Damn, Joe, you sure were prescient.
At first, the U.S. tried to make nice, officially recognizing the Castro government. Fidel didn't care. He was full of anti-U.S. vitriol. Soon there was a break in diplomatic relations. Cuba aligned with the Russkies and began bring in missiles. Assassination plots were hatched - perhaps on both sides.
A wry comment on the Castro's politics/philosophy was made by Robert Lovett, a member of the President's Board of Consultants on Foreign Intelligence Activities. After listening to an extensive CIA briefing in the fall of 1960, in which no clear answer appeared as to whether Castro was or was not a Communist, he summed it up succinctly: "Well, it really doesn't matter, does it? He acts like one."
Castro tried to get Nikita Khrushchev to nuke several southern cities in the US in the early 1960s, including New Orleans and Baton Rouge.
Cubans had never really dreamed that anyone could be worse than Batista. But Castro's brutal treatment of so many thousands proved that, at heart, he is a murderous thug in the mold of Berea or Stalin. Thousands of the Cuban middle class who fled Cuba leaving everything behind offer testimony to his methods. There is a reason for the anti-Castro anger in Miami.
Castro maintained power through a network of informers and a reign of fear. He took Cuba from being a First World economy to a Third World country with some of the highest suicide and abortion rates in the world.
Said Oscar Espinosa Chepe, a former Cuban diplomat, "The revolution died long ago. Fidel was a national hero and we dreamed of a new Cuba but the state just took over the land and the factories and destroyed the economy." Quoting official figures, he said the average monthly salary was about $20 and most pensioners receive just about $8 a month.
Most Cubans, reliant on the supposedly universal health system, have to pay for even basic drugs such as aspirin and X-rays. Castro also routinely imprisons homosexuals for no reason other than that he does not share their preferences. He has special quarantine camps for anyone who is HIV-positive.
Forbes magazine estimated Castro's wealth at $900 million. It is rumored that much of it has come from his cut of a lucrative drugs trade.
Long ago, as that high-school sophomore, my thoughts turned to the more ... ummmmm ... sophomoric aspects of Cuba's regime change. The joke-of-the-era became: "What did Castro ride in to his inauguration?" A: "A Castro convertible!!!"
This bit of humor means nothing unless you're a U.S. citizen of a certain age and geographic area. New Yorker Bernard Castro invented a sofa which converted into a bed by means of its "feather-lift mechanism."
Castro was one of the first users of saturation advertising on radio and television in several East Coast cities. The Castro Convertible became a household word and the company sold over 5 million units.
In 1993, the Bernard Castro's family sold the tradename to another firm which folded in 2001. The Castro Convertible is no more.
Now Fidel Castro is no more. Or soon will be.
PS: Fidel Castro officially died on November 26, 2016.