How intelligent was Fidel Castro

On the death of Fidel CastroLoved, hated, feared

The world-famous "Chan Chan" of the "Buena Vista Social Club" is more suitable than almost any other song as a musical swan song for the era of Fidel Castro. Because near the town of Mayarí in the former "Wild East" of the island of Cuba, to which the popular composition is dedicated, the man who kept the world in suspense for more than half a century was born on the "Finca Manacas" near the village of Birán and should write an eventful chapter in the history of the 20th century.

As the son of a large landowner, revolutionary, comandante, liberation fighter, tribune, caudillo, leader, dictator, patriarch. As Máximo Líder. As a hate and hero figure. Bitterly loved as much as feared. As a lone fighter for the faded ideology of an outdated communism as well as a bulwark against the most powerful enemy of its authoritarian rule - the United States. And not to forget his role as a world revolutionary.

"The Cuban revolutionaries see it as their obligation that revolutionary movements in every corner of the world can count on our fighters."

640 murder plots were forged against Castro

After two years of guerrilla warfare, at dawn on January 1, 1959, the doctor of law had descended like a messiah with his bearded troop, the Barbudos, from the mountains of the Sierra Maestra. Five and a half years after his failed assault on the Moncada barracks in Santiago de Cuba, he was there. The corrupt dictator and Washington informant, Fulgencio Batista, who was associated with the American mafia, had run away hours before with his closest entourage and the state treasury in their luggage.

Street scene in Havana: Likenesses of Fidel castro and Ernesto "Che" Guevara, among others. (dpa / picture alliance / Fredrik von Erichsen)

Castro immediately began to implement a social revolutionary program of comprehensive social, educational and economic reforms formulated after the Moncada episode. The former Jesuit student was initially more of a left-wing bourgeois rebel, whom the communists in Cuba and those in Moscow dismissed as a hot-headed adventurer. But even though he even sought understanding in Washington, he was immediately put on the hit list there.

Hardly any other politician has ever been forged as many murder plots as against Fidel Castro. His secret service counted around 640 of them. Former CIA agent Philipp Agee, who once operated in Latin America, revealed:

"Since the 1960s it had been official US government policy to kill Castro. Later these terrorists, who owed their training and their existence to the CIA, went independent and continued their terrorist operations to kill Fidel Castro."

Even the Mafia was asked for help by the CIA. The grueling recipes ranged from deadly cigars to a former - German - mistress as a poison mixer to being shot down with a large-caliber bazooka.

The US economic embargo boosted Castro's worldwide popularity

When Castro began to nationalize large American estates and the branches of US corporations, the United States broke off relations, ensured Cuba's international isolation and henceforth placed the island with an economic embargo that was not even imposed on the most bloodthirsty dictators. However, it did not weaken Castro, but rather strengthened his resistance - and promoted his worldwide popularity.

Former diplomat and Cuba expert at the US State Department Wayne Smith, who happened to be an eyewitness to the victory of the revolution in 1959 and was appointed the first head of the US advocacy group in the Cuban capital, observed at the time:

"Castro is playing David and Goliath with us. Wonderful. And we give him the opportunity to do so - month after month, after month."

Fidel Castro speaks to supporters in the Cuban capital Havana in 1959. (AP)

Thanks to an instinct that amounted to a sixth sense, a secret service that was one of the best in the world, but above all thanks to his iron will to power, Castro outlasted ten US presidents, generations of Soviet general secretaries, heads of state and government, popes and rebel leaders, democrats and Potentates until he was the longest ruling number one in the world and one of the most controversial and fascinating personalities in contemporary history.

Cuban model didn't work even in Cuba

Declared dead countless times, the immortal lived so many lives that it was feared that the Almighty had simply forgotten him. Restless to the last breath, he intended to cement his revolution, frozen into anachronism, for all time. Years ago he said:

"I realized that I was not meant to have a quiet retirement."

In the summer of 2006, however, Fidel Castro fell seriously ill and was forced to hand over the official duties to his brother Raúl, who was five years his junior. He initially tightened the political reins, fired executives suspected of reform such as the long-standing de facto head of government Carlos Lage and filled key positions with loyal military men who were anxious to keep the old apparatus in power.

Former President Fidel Castro (left) and his brother Raúl (right) who took over the leadership. (picture-alliance / dpa / Ismael Francisco)

But only in order to then - in a pilgrimage process - dare to undertake a series of inevitable reforms: the government leased previously unused land to private farmers, expanded the sector of private service professions and small businesses, and laid off over 500,000 redundant government employees. In an interview with the American magazine "The Atlantic" in September 2010, the resigned "Máximo Líder" had to admit:

"The Cuban model doesn't even work for us anymore."

His teachers already predicted a great future for him

A bitter realization for him, after all, he had always dreamed of exporting his revolution. Castro was an indomitable and always determined character who was deeply convinced of his mission. From an early age he practiced and learned to assert himself:

"During my childhood I was exposed to situations around three times that I felt were so unfair that they fueled my rebellious spirit."

He was highly intelligent, had a phenomenal memory, and was so talented in sports that a New York baseball team offered him a professional career. His teachers at the Belén Jesuit College in Havana, the best school in the country, predicted a great future for him as early as the mid-forties. His fellow student Max Lesnick, who of course had left for Miami, recalled:

"I think Fidel has a lot from Saint Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit order. His education at the College of Belén taught him the craft of achieving political goals."

At the University of Havana Castro discovered his calling to inherit the writer and national hero José Martí, who led the independence struggle against the Spanish colonial power at the end of the 19th century. In this role, Castro wanted to liberate Cuba from American guardianship 60 years later.

His revolution was therefore not a socialist but a nationalist one. After the victory there was a nationwide enthusiasm and hope. Former US diplomat Wayne Smith recalls:

"There was an atmosphere of a completely new beginning. The world was now open to Cuba, the way was free for a great future."

In 1959, Castro was still celebrated in New York

Even in the United States, the young revolutionary leader was extremely popular. When he came to New York in April 1959 at the invitation of American newspaper publishers - without realizing that plans for his assassination were already being discussed in the National Security Council - he was celebrated in the streets by cheering crowds.

Seldom, according to an overwhelmed television reporter, has New York seen anything like this. Castro promptly stated that he wanted a relaxed relationship with the United States.

"I came in the interests of good relationships, understanding and good economic relations."

Fidel Castro waves to the crowd in the street during a visit to New York in 1959. (EFE / Cooperation Cultural Center)

But the Cold War was raging, and America was still traumatized by Senator Joseph McCarthy's communist hatred. Castro was cross-examined at a press conference.

"Florida Senator Smathers says you have a lot of communists in your government. Is that so?"

"Oh no. Do you think just because Senator Smathers says so does it have to be true? I don't think so."

Socialism brought increasing repression

In the months that followed, the propaganda war between Washington and Havana came to a head. When the US government isolated and economically blocked Cuba internationally, while CIA agents collaborated with Cuban exiles in sabotage and attacks on the island, Washington drove the regime into the arms of the Soviet Union, which offered itself as a new partner and protector.

The alliance with Moscow, however, was not a love marriage, but a marriage of convenience and convenience that lasted 30 years until the death of the Soviet Union. Cuba needed someone to keep the island afloat economically, while the Soviet Union unexpectedly found a base on the doorstep of the United States.

In April 1961, immediately after the miserable failure of a CIA-controlled invasion of around 1,200 exiled Cuban mercenaries in the Cuban Bay of Pigs, Fidel Castro declared his country a socialist state, leaving the working class, the peasants, the common people, the martyrs of the revolution and celebrate the fatherland.

"Viva la clase obrera, vivan los campesinos ... de la patria ..."

Socialism, however, brought increasing repression against those who think differently. Over a million well-educated members of the middle class, intellectuals, but ultimately also simple economic refugees fled into exile over the decades, mainly to the USA.

Castro had what his fellow citizens wrote and read censored

Initially, the Cuban Revolution was celebrated by writers, artists and intellectuals around the world as a kind of cultural revolution that brought the Third World together with the First World. Its tragedy, however, was that it got between the lines of the Cold War and its leaders subordinated themselves to the cultural and political understanding of Moscow bureaucrats.

Rebellious artists and critics were banned from their profession and imprisoned. Of all people, the man who taught his people to read and write and who described himself as a manic reader had what his fellow citizens wrote and read censored. In the eyes of the former US representative in Havana, Castro was convinced:

"That he knows the only way to harmonized nirvana. And that those who contradict him are enemies."

In October 1962, the world was on the brink of World War III for 13 days because of the secret stationing of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba. US President John F. Kennedy ordered a sea blockade:

"All ships of any kind bound for Cuba ... be turned back."

After hours of anxiety, his Soviet opponent Nikita Khrushchev relented. Over the head of Fidel Castro, he ordered the withdrawal of all medium-range missiles already stationed. In return, the USA gave the secret assurance, renewed in the 1970s by then Foreign Minister Henry Kissinger, that it would refrain from a military invasion of Cuba.

A decisive factor in Khrushchev's relenting may have been his horror at a letter from Castro from which the Soviets read that the Cuban advised them to carry out a first nuclear strike against the United States in the event that American soldiers land in Cuba. From then on, Moscow and Havana mistrusted each other.

Soviet Prime Minister Nikita Khrushchev and Cuban President Fidel Castro. (AP)

Castro was now able to satisfy his ambition to play a role in world politics in the Horn of Africa and in Angola, where he waged costly, loss-making, but also victorious proxy wars for Moscow. In 1991 the Soviet empire collapsed.

"I don't want to talk around it. I think for myself, as for every other Cuban up to the top management, that means a hard setback. Perhaps harder than any other stroke of fate in our revolutionary struggle."

Castro as the Third World Elder Statesman

Unexpectedly completely on its own, Cuba was truly independent for the first time in its history - and survived contrary to all forecasts. Even if the system remained essentially socialist, the nomenclature played increasingly on the keyboard of national identity and autonomy in the vocabulary of its speeches and on propaganda boards.

Lonely for a long time, Castro experienced an unexpected resurrection towards the end of his days as an elder statesman of the Third World. Countries like China, Russia, Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia, even Chile and Mexico and others renewed their old friendships with Cuba. The Organization of American States, OAS, offered Cuba a resumption in 2009, risking a scandal with the United States. In the end, a circle came full for Castro:

"We revolutionaries must not be pessimists. We are and will always remain optimists."

What did Fidel Castro bring to the Cubans at the end of his 47-year term in office? His longtime friend, the writer Gabriel García Márquez, once wrote:

"He is one of the greatest idealists of our time, and that may be his greatest virtue, although it has always been his greatest threat."

In essence, the revolution has given the Cubans a free education, social and health system, which - freed from ideological baggage - could even be a model of success for the Third World. Although the country is poor, it does not live in misery like millions upon millions of people in the neighborhood. Nevertheless, young Cubans in particular are eagerly awaiting change and prosperity.

"If the boys fail, everything will fail" - the simple sentence comes from Fidel Castro. It was one of the old people, Eloy Gutierrez Menoyo, the only former comandante of the revolution who defected to the opposition and companion of the Castro brothers, whom Fidel had forgiven and who, shortly before his death, insisted:

"The youth should spark a new revolution in the country. But we prefer a peaceful transition to democracy."

Obama's visit heralded the beginning of a new era

The Catholic Church of all people has now promoted this peaceful change in Cuba - in the role of a moderate opposition. Pope John Paul the Second was welcomed with jubilation in Cuba in 1998 - his visit made Fidel Castro acceptable again. Pope Benedict the 16th also greeted the Cubans gratefully. Then, under Pope Francis, the Argentine, who even came to Cuba twice, the longstanding discreet church diplomacy finally culminated in the spectacular announcement of the resumption of full diplomatic relations between the USA and Cuba. And at the summit meeting of the Organization of American States in April 2015, US President Barack Obama and his Cuban counterpart Raúl Castro sealed the start of a new common future in political and economic relations with a handshake.

Last March, President Obama and his family finally floated into Air Force One in Havana, marking the beginning of a new era between the former mortal enemies as "Tourist in Chief".

"... for more than half a century, the sight of the US-President here in Havana would have been unimagible, but this is a new day ..."

US President Obama and Cuba's head of state Castro at a press conference in Havana (dpa / picture alliance / Alejandro Ernesto)

However, there was no handshake with Fidel Castro. He only took note of the historical event as a shadow of himself in front of the television.

But still, his immortality seems to be taken care of: State mourning is ordered until December 4th. The body of the man who died yesterday evening at the age of 90 is cremated, and the urn is brought in a four-day funeral procession to the city of Santiago de Cuba, 900 kilometers from Havana, in whose cemetery allegedly feverishly worked for months on the construction of a mausoleum for Fidel Castro.