News-Decoder correspondents remember Fidel Castro — in an East German football stadium brandishing a rifle, at the UN podium, on a walk in Algiers. Always feisty, always controversial.
“Alcohol and music have been banned for nine days.”
– Malcolm Davidson
I was in Cuba when when news of Castro’s death broke. The night he died, the place was throbbing, with people listening to music and dancing on steps leading from the Plaza Mayor. Now, alcohol and music have been banned for nine days.
Last night the place was dead, with police in the plaza making sure nobody was drinking. A young guide named Frederick said: “Fidel might have made many mistakes, but for me he was a hero.”
“His feisty resistance to Western diktats appealed to the Third World.”
– John Rogers
Fidel’s charismatic personality and his history of challenging the United States cannot be underestimated.
In the 1960s and 1970s, he was a hero to politicians and ordinary people in what was known as the Third World, the newly independent former colonies of Britain, France, Spain, Portugal and other old colonial powers in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
Grouped in the Non-Aligned Movement, they saw him as a symbol of what they called their collective struggle against imperialism. His de facto alignment with the Soviet Union and his harsh treatment of opponents in Cuba did not matter, or could be ignored.
It was his feisty resistance to Western diktats that appealed in the streets of emerging nations. And his charisma rubbed off on some of the more dour former independence fighters, turned political leaders in sharp suits, like the shy President Houari Boumedienne of Algeria, who went on a rare walkabout in Algiers with Fidel at his side on a visit in 1972.
This time, Castro kept his remarks brief.
– Robert Holloway
Fidel Castro, who was famous for his extraordinarily long speeches, was among 149 heads of state or government at the United Nations Millennium Summit, the biggest such gathering in history, which took place in New York in September 2000.
UN officials wanted to keep speeches as short as possible, but you cannot give orders to heads of state. So, they requested participants to limit themselves to three minutes each. And they put three lights on the rostrum: green to start, orange to signal 60 seconds left and red for time’s up.
Bill Clinton complied. So did Tony Blair and Jacques Chirac and all the other speakers.
When it was Castro’s turn, he ostentatiously took a large handkerchief from his pocket and used it to hide the lights. He then spoke for precisely three minutes.
The real change came in 2008.
– Deborah Charles
Fidel’s death is just another step in the changing face of Cuba. The real change from Fidel came in February 2008, when Fidel stepped down and ceded power to his brother Raul.
I was traveling in Africa with U.S. President George W. Bush when that happened, and we had just arrived in Kigali, Rwanda when the news broke. Bush and Rwandan President Paul Kigame had a press conference. I was surprised to get called on as one of two U.S. reporters who got to ask questions, so I asked Bush for his reaction to what was happening in Cuba.
Bush said: “I believe that the change from Fidel Castro ought to begin a period of a democratic transition. Eventually this transition ought to lead to free and fair elections. And I mean free and I mean fair.”
This was one of those days that the news doesn’t go according to the White House press office’s plans. They had surely hoped for stories about Rwanda that day, but instead most of us ended up using his reaction to Fidel’s move.
“Does this look like someone with a bad heart?”
– Colin McIntyre
In the early 1970s, while Castro was visiting Warsaw, Reuters correspondent Michael Lockley asked the Cuban leader in Spanish about rumors that he had suffered a heart attack.
Castro went up to Lockley, picked him up in a bear hug, put him down and said something along the lines of, “Does this look like someone with a bad heart?”
In 1972, Castro visited East Germany, a close ally and Cuba’s second largest trading partner after the Soviet Union. I attended a rally in a football stadium in the port city of Rostock. Castro galvanized the crowd of people, who were used to the monotone speeches of their leaders, with his rhetoric — and by brandishing a rifle.
During his visit to East Germany, Castro renamed an uninhabited island off Cuba’s coast after Ernst Thaelmann, the German communist leader during the Weimar Republic who was imprisoned and eventually executed by the Nazis.
One of the island’s beaches was renamed “Playa RDA” (Republica Democratica Alemana – German Democratic Republic, the country’s formal title). The German ambassador to Cuba erected a bust to Thaelmann on the island, though it was reported to have fallen down when Hurricane Mitch swept through the region in 1998, and not replaced.
Interest in the island was revived in 2001 when a German online journal learned of its existence and attempted to parcel it up for sale. Both the Cuban and German governments insisted the naming of the island was purely symbolic.
One key reason for Cuba’s undoubtedly impressive welfare system was that they were being funded with billions of dollars by the Soviet Union, to create a functioning communist system a speed boat ride from the United States and as a contrast to other former colonial Caribbean countries which were not doing particularly well.
When the Soviet Union fell apart and the money stopped, Cuba had to turn to mass tourism, among other things, to try to fill the gap.
The Soviet money also enabled Cuba to send thousands of highly trained troops to Africa to join the liberation cause in places like South Africa, Zimbabwe, Angola, Mozambique and Namibia, where in some places they played a key role.
Small Caribbean countries with limited economic resources would seem unlikely to be able to fund these sorts of foreign adventures.
Malcolm Davidson worked for four decades as a journalist in Europe, Asia and Australasia. He served as correspondent with Reuters in India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Philippines, and reported widely from other parts of Asia.
John Rogers worked for more than 35 years as a Reuters correspondent, bureau chief or editor, with postings in India, Algeria, Thailand, Iran, Canada, Egypt and Vietnam, and stints as London-based diplomatic correspondent and senior desk editor in London and Washington. He was Reuters correspondent in Algiers when Castro visited in 1972.
Robert Holloway is News-Decoder Editor. He had a long career at Agence France-Presse, serving as Sydney bureau chief, foreign editor, head of the English desk in Paris, United Nations correspondent in New York, deputy managing editor and acting editor in chief, before becoming director of the AFP Foundation.
Deborah Charles was a Reuters correspondent for 24 years. She worked on four continents on issues ranging from the White House to Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi and was the White House correspondent during the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush presidencies. She covered four U.S. presidential campaigns and six Olympics, and worked in bureaus in Madrid, Bangkok, Montreal, Toronto, New York and Buenos Aires.
Colin McIntyre led Reuters coverage of the end of communism in Eastern Europe as chief correspondent in the region in the late 1980s. During 34 years at Reuters, he covered the last days of the Vietnam War and was posted to Indonesia, Ireland and London.