Fidel Castro, who ruled Cuba for nearly 50 years, died late Friday at the age of 90. One of the world’s longest serving heads of state, Castro began to fade from the public eye in 2006. But he is still both beloved and deeply loathed by generations of Cubans. Castro’s death has set off celebration and mourning in his country and around the world, as Cuba begins to look at how to move forward without one of the world’s most revolutionary—and polarizing—figures. Diane and a panel remember the personal and political life of Fidel Castro and look at what’s next for Cuba.
- Tom Gjelten Correspondent, NPR; author, "Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba: The Biography of a Cause" and "A Nation of Nations: A Great American Immigration Story."
- Michael Weissenstein AP Bureau Chief, Havana.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Later this hour, we look at what Congress can accomplish in its lame duck session and how President Obama is trying to protect his legacy before he leaves the White House. But first, Fidel Castro, who ruled Cuba for nearly 50 years, died late Friday at the age of 90. One of the world's longest serving heads of state, Castro began to fade from the public eye in 2006. But in his iconic green military fatigues he remained both beloved and deeply loathed by generations of Cubans for his Communist leadership.
MS. DIANE REHMHere to look at Castro's complicated legacy and what's next for Cuba, Tom Gjelten, correspondent for NPR News and joining us from Havana, Cuba, Michael Weissenstein, Associated Press chief of bureau in Havana. Michael Weissenstein and Tom Gjelten, thanks for joining us.
MR. TOM GJELTENGreat to be with you, Diane.
MR. MICHAEL WEISSENSTEINThanks for having me.
REHMTom Gjelten, paint for us a brief portrait of Castro, what he was like as a person and a leader.
GJELTENFidel Castro was singular in the sense that he felt that he embodied the Cuban Revolution, both in its very earliest phases and right down until the time that he took -- surrendered power to his brother, Raul and arguably even after that. He still felt very proprietary about it. And what that meant is that he was able to use -- to deploy his enormous personal power, charisma, energy on behalf of the revolution, but what it also meant is that he was almost incapable of sharing power with others, of listening to others, of taking the suggestions or advice of others.
GJELTENHe really was -- and this is why he developed this reputation as a megalomaniac because he really saw it as his own personal responsibility to carry on this revolution. I think now we're going to see what the cost of that is because he really was not interested in developing institutions, political institutions in Cuba that could carry on the work of the revolution. He trusted his brother, Raul, but boy, outside of that, he really showed no interest in any kind of transition succession plan.
REHMMichael, since Fidel had to step aside, at least, and allow Raul more authority, more power, was there a change in how Fidel behaved?
WEISSENSTEINYeah, absolutely. He increasingly dropped out of the spotlight and out of the public eye and really only came back into it in the last year and a half, when he registered some strong complaints about his brother's opening to the U.S. and warned Cubans about the dangers of making friends with the United States.
REHMWarned Cubans about making friends with the United States and yet, here in the States, you had so much anti-Castro feeling.
WEISSENSTEINSure. There are hard-liners on both sides who are very much against the de tante between the U.S. and Cuba and Fidel really, just in the last year of his life, became a powerful symbol of objection to that here.
GJELTENAnd I think this is why, Diane, you saw such an outpouring of emotion in the streets of Miami, because this was very personal for many Cuban exiles. It wasn't that they were -- it wasn't even that they were so alienated from Cuba as a country or even the Cuban government. For them, it was Fidel Castro himself. And he had said some awful, awful things about the people who left Cuba. He said once that, who do the ones who left signify? It's the same thing as squeezing a boil.
GJELTENThose who have left are the puss, the puss that was expelled when the Cuban Revolution squeezed the society. How good the body feels when puss is eliminated. He called them worms. So you can understand why Cuban exiles living in the United States felt so strongly about Fidel.
REHMMichael, I gather parts of his legacy are really contradictory. He was an advocate for the poor, but many people say he also destroyed the economy for everyone else. How fair a statement is that?
WEISSENSTEINI think that's absolutely fair. I think what Tom said about his seeing himself as the one man with the vision of the direction that Cuba and indeed the rest of the world should go in is absolutely correct. And he had a vision of social equality, of healthcare and education for everyone in Cuba, particularly the poor, but enacting those changes in society exacted a big cost. And one of those was that the economy is very much in ruins today. It's been boosted by tourism.
WEISSENSTEINIt was boosted by Venezuela after Raul Chavez came to power, but it is nothing close to a functioning economy today and that is like almost everything else here, very much on Fidel's shoulders.
REHMSo Tom, in your coverage this weekend, you said Castro's rule was marked by his relationship with two global powers, the Soviet Union as his ally, the U.S. as his adversary. Talk about those relationships.
GJELTENWell, they, you know, Fidel cited a line from Karl Marx that actually came from 1848 where Karl Marx and Fidel Castro paraphrased it, saying that a revolution cannot survive without an enemy in front of it. He really had, I think, in his view, the Cuban Revolution had an existential need to have the United States as an adversary by which it could identify itself because a revolution, in that sense, needs a counter revolution.
GJELTENIt needs an enemy in order to establish its own identity. So I think this is one of the reasons why you saw this adversarial relation between the United States and Fidel Castro's Cuba from the very beginning. Obviously, there was a lot of hostility to Fidel Castro. I mean, at the height of the Cold War, he was, you know, a communist satellite just off the shore of the United States. But I think as much of the responsibility for that adversarial relationship rests with Fidel, too.
GJELTENAnd as I say, he needed the United States as his enemy.
REHMAnd with President-elect Trump in the wings, what does that auger for the relationship between the U.S. and Cuba, Tom?
GJELTENWell, everything that Donald Trump has said would suggest that he wants to reverse some of the changes that Barack Obama has made in terms of opening to Cuba. I mean, it's been the Obama theory that engaging Cuba and being more -- allowing more interchange with Cuba would actually soften the regime there. Trump has really questioned that strategy. On the other hand, Diane, Donald Trump's a businessman and he does business in Turkey and in Russia and a lot of places where the United States does not have great relations and he's always sort of been very pro-business in his world view.
GJELTENSo given the amount of interest on the part of the U.S. business community in doing business in Cuba, I would think that he's going to spend some time thinking about, you know, whether he really wants to alienate the U.S. travel industry, the U.S. agricultural industry and all these other segments of U.S. business that are very interested in doing business there.
REHMAnd Michael, I gather Raul has announced plans to retire as president in 2018. What's next for Cuba?
WEISSENSTEINHe will hand power to a successor who's long been waiting in the wings, Miguel Diaz-Canel, who is a much younger man, but has given no indication that he has a different vision of the Cuban system than Raul. Of course, he hasn't said very much at all so there could be changes waiting under him. Raul will remain as the first secretary of the Communist party, which is, in many ways, a more powerful position. So he's not shuffling off into retirement.
WEISSENSTEINHe will remain the most powerful person in Cuba, I mean, given his profile and his actual role. So who knows what lies in the future for Cuba? I mean, it does, I think, very much depend on what the Trump administration does. And something that people haven't spoken much about is not the relationship between U.S. business and the Cuban government, but between U.S. business and U.S. people and the growing Cuban private sector. And that has really, along with the government to be sure, received a huge shot in the arm from all the visitors and the increasing business from the U.S. over the last two years.
WEISSENSTEINSo it's going to be very interesting to see what happens to that opening, which is really, you know, fueled the non state sector, if Trump cuts back on relations between the U.S. and Cuba.
GJELTENOne last thing, Diane, is even though Fidel is dead, there were a number of fidelistas that were more loyal to him than to his brother, Raul, and they're kind of the old guard of the revolution who resisted a lot of these reforms, even those associated with Raul. We saw this wing sort of arise in the last party congress. So even though Fidel is gone, I don't think that you can rule out the possibilities that some of his closest allies will still be pushing for their program.
REHMTom Gjelten, correspondent for NPR News. He covered Cuba extensively for many years. He's the author of "Bacardi and the Long Fight For Cuba." Michael Weissenstein is Associated Press chief of bureau in Havana. Thanks for joining us. Stay with us.