- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Cuban President Fidel Castro, who dominated his island-nation for nearly a half-century and defied U.S. presidents from Dwight D. Eisenhower to George W. Bush, is going out on his own terms.

The ailing Mr. Castro’s announcement yesterday that he was stepping down as president ends the term of the world’s longest serving head of government, one who survived hot and cold wars, assassination attempts, a string of internal challengers, the collapse of his regime’s main patron abroad and the unrelenting hostility of a superpower just 90 miles from his island’s shore.

With his trademark olive-green military fatigues, flowing beard and marathon speeches, Mr. Castro was a pivotal figure in U.S.-Latin American relations from the moment he seized power in Havana in 1959. He nearly provoked a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union in the Cuban missile crisis of 1962.

A hero to some and a ruthless tyrant to others, the “Maximum Leader” proved a polarizing figure in Cuba and then on the world stage for decades, outlasting most of his closest allies and most ardent foes, including 10 U.S. presidents and four popes.

But economic and political stagnation at home have tarnished many of the touted achievements of Mr. Castro’s revolution. Cuba’s international standing as a model of socialist justice and equality fell sharply in the later years of Mr. Castro’s rule.

Refusing to release his iron grip on Cuba’s government, Mr. Castro himself never expressed doubt that his one-man rule could transform his country.

“The revolution is not a bed of roses,” he said in one of his most often-quoted remarks. “The revolution is a dictatorship of the exploited against the exploiters.”

Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz was born Aug. 13, 1926, in the remote southeastern Cuban province of Oriente, the son of a relatively well-to-do landowner and his cook, who married only after Mr. Castro was born.

Though never poor, Mr. Castro later recalled the sting of prejudice he felt as a provincial boy mixing with the sons of Cuba’s wealthiest families, first in the provincial city of Santiago and then in Havana.

He got his very first taste of revolutionary violence while still in school, when he joined a failed expedition in 1947 to oust Gen. Rafael Trujillo, military dictator of the Dominican Republic.

In December 1956, Mr. Castro, his brother (and now successor) Raul, and a young Argentine doctor and leftist revolutionary named Ernesto “Che” Guevara led a guerrilla force that returned to Cuba and, just two years later, seized power in Havana and forced military dictator Fulgencio Batista to flee.

The U.S. government, which had withdrawn its support for Batista, initially was not hostile to the Castro government. Mr. Castro himself declared in 1959, “I am not a communist, and neither is the revolutionary movement.”

But the new government’s land and commercial reforms included the seizure of American oil refineries and other businesses, and many Cubans fled Mr. Castro’s increasingly harsh rule. Mr. Castro soon declared himself a Marxist-Leninist and forged a close alliance with the Soviet Union.

In 1961, more than 1,200 U.S.-based Cuban exiles supported by the CIA staged a disastrous invasion at Cuba’s Bay of Pigs, an event that would loom large both for the regime’s mythology and for the course of Cuban exile politics in the United States.

By February 1962, the United States banned all Cuban exports, a total embargo that persists to this day.

Eight months later, Mr. Castro’s Cuba became the focus for the gravest superpower confrontation of the Cold War. U.S. reconnaissance planes in October 1962 confirmed plans to install Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba, and President Kennedy demanded their removal.

Over Mr. Castro’s objections, Mr. Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev negotiated an end to the crisis. Mr. Castro was said to have urged Mr. Khrushchev to launch a nuclear strike on the United States.

At home, Mr. Castro could highlight a number of early successes in improving public health, infant mortality, literacy and other social indicators, but the regime’s economic reforms failed to produce lasting prosperity, a failure symbolized by Mr. Castro’s disastrous 1970 crash program to mobilize the entire country to produce a record sugar harvest.

Mr. Castro brooked no opposition to his rule, jailed dissidents, forbade criticism in the press and railed against the United States and anti-Castro Cuban exiles centered in nearby southern Florida.

An even greater crisis for Mr. Castro and the regime, however, was the 1989 decision by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to cut off about $6 billion in annual subsidies, military and technical aid to Cuba. The Cuban GDP fell by more than a third in the next five years, exports collapsed and the 1990s became known in Cuba as the “special period” of bread lines, shortages, rising crime and black markets.

Mr. Castro faced growing dissent and was forced into a series of humiliating policy reversals: He experimented with limited free-market reforms, permitted “dollar stores” that sold goods to tourists for U.S. dollars that were unavailable to ordinary Cubans and opened the economy to limited foreign investment.

The hard times sparked another exodus of Cubans attempting the dangerous ocean passage to Florida in the mid-1990s. Mr. Castro responded with increased repression at home, targeting a younger generation of Cubans who had no memories of the 1959 revolution and the changes it had brought to the island.

In the face of continuing economic hardship, political repression and U.S. hostility, Mr. Castro managed to retain his grip on power and his ability to seize the limelight into the new century.

Despite his decades in the public eye and his penchant for six-hour speeches, Mr. Castro’s private life has been guarded and the source of vast gossip and speculation inside Cuba. He reportedly lives in a modest two-house compound in Havana and gave up his one obvious luxury — Cuban cigars, yet another trademark — in the mid-1980s for health reasons.

But Forbes magazine in 2006 enraged the Cuban dictator by listing him among the world’s richest people, with a net worth of $550 million based on the value of nationalized enterprises controlled by the regime.

To the end, Mr. Castro proved a domineering and divisive figure, hated and loved in equal measure.

As Castro biographer Clive Foss put it: “History may view him as a revolutionary hero who spread the idea of liberation through the world or as an ossified despot who has transformed one of the richest countries of Latin American into one of the poorest. Most likely, he combines elements of both.”

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