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Fidel Castro's 'True Destiny': His Decades-Long Struggle Against U.S.


Fidel Castro died Friday night in Havana, Cuba. He was 90 years old. The Cuban leader came to power when Dwight D. Eisenhower was president. Over the years, Castro survived 10 more U.S. presidential administrations, and he was a headache for all of them as NPR's Tom Gjelten reports.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: Fidel Castro took power in 1959 at the height of the Cold War. Though Castro insisted he was not a communist, he moved sharply to the left once he was in power. By the fall of 1960, thousands of Cubans had fled to the United States fearful, they said, that Castro was, in fact, establishing a communist dictatorship. They asked the United States to help them overthrow Castro. John Kennedy, running for president against Vice President Richard Nixon, said the United States should support the exiles. That brought this response from Nixon during a candidates debate.


FORMER PRESIDENT RICHARD NIXON: I don't know what Senator Kennedy suggests when he says that we should help those who oppose the Castro regime. But I do know this - that if we were to follow that recommendation, that we would lose all of our friends in Latin America, we would probably be condemned in the United Nation and we would not accomplish our objective. I know something else. It would be an open invitation for Mr. Khrushchev to come in.

GJELTEN: Kennedy won the election. Three months after taking office, he authorized the Bay of Pigs operation, a U.S.-sponsored invasion of Cuba by an exile army of about 1,500 fighters. But Nixon had gotten it right. The Bay of Pigs invasion failed. It was condemned by governments around the world, and Fidel Castro cited the threat of another invasion in convincing Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev to put nuclear missiles in Cuba aimed at the United States. Kennedy broke the news to Americans in a televised speech in October 1962.


FORMER PRESIDENT JOHN F. KENNEDY: Good evening, my fellow citizens. This government, as promised, has maintained the closest surveillance of the Soviet military buildup on the island of Cuba. Within the past week, unmistakable evidence has established the fact that a series of offensive missile sites is now in preparation on that imprisoned island.

GJELTEN: For 13 days, the world stood on the brink of nuclear war with neither Kennedy nor Khrushchev backing down. In the end, war was averted in part because Kennedy promised the United States would not lead any more invasions of Cuba. But in the months that followed, Kennedy ordered the CIA to support those exiles who were ready to go back to Cuba and fight on their own.

ALFREDO DURAN: Miami, at that time - there was a CIA person recruiting people in every corner in Miami.

GJELTEN: Alfredo Duran (ph) fought in the Bay of Pigs and observed other CIA-led efforts aimed against Castro. John Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963, but covert, anti-Castro operations continued under Lyndon Johnson.

DURAN: President Johnson kept open the camps in Guatemala and Nicaragua. Up until the end, they were doing raids in Cuba. They sank a couple of Russia - of oil ships. They attacked the refinery in Santiago de Cuba.

GJELTEN: It was Richard Nixon who finally abandoned all such efforts. He turned his attention to the war in Vietnam. Gerald Ford made a tentative move toward improving relations with Cuba, but that effort ended after Castro sent Cuban troops to Angola. Jimmy Carter tried again, but gave up after Fidel Castro dispatched 20,000 thousand soldiers to Ethiopia. In the spring of 1980, Fidel Castro sprung another surprise on Carter suddenly telling Cubans they were free to leave for the United States if they wanted. Carter initially said the United States should welcome the refugees, but after more than 100,000 Cubans were brought to Florida, Carter said enough was enough.


FORMER PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER: The Coast Guard is now communicating with all boats who are en route to Cuba and those in Mariel Harbor in Cuba to urge them to return to the United States without accepting additional passengers.

GJELTEN: But the Exodus continued and soon the United States was overwhelmed to the point that Carter briefly considered an intervention to halt the boatlift. Ronald Reagan took office determined to oppose the Soviet Union and its global empire. In his view, Cuba was supporting pro-communist groups in Central America. It may have been too late to get rid of Castro himself, but Reagan wanted to be sure Castro would not establish any more Cubas in the U.S. backyard.


FORMER PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: Sadly, we must acknowledge that Cuba is no longer independent. But let me assure you, we will not let this same fate befall others in the hemisphere. We will not permit the Soviets and their henchmen in Havana to deprive others of their freedom.

GJELTEN: Cuba's role as a Soviet proxy would end, however. The collapse of communism brought a halt to the $6 billion a year Soviet subsidy to Cuba. By the early 1990s, Fidel Castro was struggling just to survive. With unrest rising on the island, Castro, again, gave a green light to Cubans to leave the island this time on whatever rickety boats they could find. Once more, a U.S. president faced the prospect of a de-stabilizing inflow of Cuban refugees. This time it was Bill Clinton.


FORMER PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: Let me be clear, the Cuban government will not succeed in any attempt to dictate American immigration policy.

GJELTEN: Fidel Castro's Cuba now represented a different kind of security threat. In the 1960s, the U.S. military trained exiles to take up arms against Fidel Castro. Now U.S. commanders actually fear that Castro might be overthrown and that chaos would follow. The new U.S. goal was to promote peaceful change on the island. But once again, a provocative act by Fidel Castro derailed the effort. This time he ordered Cuban fighters to shoot down two small aircraft flown by Cuban-Americans off the Cuban coast. In retaliation, Clinton and the U.S. Congress strengthened the embargo. Next came George W. Bush, owing his election in 2000 to a contested vote in Florida where tough anti-Castro stands were welcomed. Under his administration, the trade embargo was tightened once again.


FORMER PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Without political reform, without economic reform, trade with Cuba will merely enrich Fidel Castro and his cronies.

GJELTEN: The Bush administration made it official U.S. policy to promote regime change in Cuba. But Fidel Castro fell ill and turned power over to his brother Raul. In the last years of his life, Fidel seemed no longer to matter. Barack Obama, who was not yet born when Castro took power, decided, in 2014, that the U.S. could do business with Raul. He restored diplomatic relations with Cuba. In March 2016, he traveled to Havana to meet with Raul. He was the first U.S. president since Calvin Coolidge to visit Cuba.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I have come here to bury the last remnant of the Cold War in the Americas.


GJELTEN: Fidel, a few months short of his 90th birthday and as stubborn as ever, did not meet Obama nor applaud his visit. For him, a half century of enmity was apparently too much to put aside. "We don't need the empire to give us anything," he grumped afterwards in a newspaper column. But the man whose every command had long been followed without question no longer spoke for his government much less the Cuban people. Tom Gjelten, NPR News.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In the original broadcast of this story, the following quote was included, but not identified: “We had warned Fidel I personally met with him - that any further military intervention on Cuba's part in Africa …. would ….make it impossible for us to move forward on normalization of relations. And that’s, of course, exactly what happened.” That was a sound cut of Robert Pastor, an advisor to President Carter, that was mistakenly included in the story. We have removed it.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: November 26, 2016 at 11:00 PM CST
In the original broadcast of this story, the following quote was included, but not identified: "We had warned Fidel — I personally met with him — that any further military intervention on Cuba's part in Africa ... would ... make it impossible for us to move forward on normalization of relations. And that's, of course, exactly what happened." That was a sound cut of Robert Pastor, an adviser to President Jimmy Carter, that was mistakenly included in the story. We have removed it.