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In the ’70s Castro institutionalized his regime along Soviet lines and cultural Stalinism reached its high point, culminating in what the Cuban writer Ambrosio Fornet called the “Quinquenio Gris” (the Gray Five-Year Period), from 1971 to 1976. The Cuban joke that best sums up the period goes like this: In the Cuban family the mother is the nation; the father the comrade; the child the future. One night the child starts crying and wakes up his older brother, who in turn wakes up his father saying, “Comrade, the future is covered with shit.”
In 1989 Cuba was rocked by scandal, this time involving allegations that one of the country’s most celebrated generals and “heroes of the revolution” was corrupt and involved in the lucrative drugs trade. The accusations directed at Arnaldo Ochoa by the Castro brothers were followed by the general’s hasty trial, public confession, and execution by firing squad. According to Roberto Ortega, a former colonel of the Cuban armed forces who defected in 2003, Ochoa was executed because of his popularity with the troops and support for Mikhail Gorbachev’s liberalizing reforms in the Soviet Union. When Che Guevara himself became disillusioned with Sovietization in the mid-1960s, he was encouraged by Castro to leave Cuba in order to ferment guerrilla war in Africa and then Latin America, where he died soon after. Guevara was a zealous and fanatical Communist; but he was never a party man. Despite subsequently admonishing Cuban children to “be like Che,” Castro was undoubtedly glad to be rid of a potential rival.
From the earliest days of the revolution western celebrities and intellectuals paid homage to Castro. Jack Nicholson (“Castro is a humanist”), Oliver Stone (“Castro is very selfless and moral, one of the world’s wisest men”), and the supermodels Naomi Campbell and Kate Moss (Castro is “an inspiration to everyone”) were just some of those who lavished praise on the dictator. “I just spent an hour and a half talking with your president, Fidel Castro,” a star-struck Campbell told a press conference in the Hotel National in 1994. “But he told me there was nothing to be afraid of because he already knew a lot about us from reading the press.” As the high-ranking Cuban intelligence defector Delfin Fernandez would later disclose, the information did not come from the media. “My job was to bug their hotel rooms with both cameras and listening devices,” Delfin noted.
Admirers of the revolution often resembled the fellow travelers Arthur Koestler described as peeping toms, peering through a hole in the wall at history while not having to experience it themselves. The novelist Gabriel García Márquez, a personal friend of Castro, once told The New York Times that he personally could never live under the Cuban system. “I would miss too many things. I couldn’t live with the lack of information. I am a voracious reader of newspapers and magazines from around the world.” For Cubans those privations were apparently acceptable.
Fidel Castro relinquished the presidency in 2008, handing power to his brother Raúl after a period of illness. Since then he has gradually disappeared from public life, occasionally penning a column for the state newspaper, Granma.
Long after the heroism and mystique of the revolution has faded, Fidel Castro will likely be remembered for his role in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, when civilization came as close as it has yet come to nuclear Armageddon. During that 13-day trilateral confrontation, while the world watched the stand-off on black and white television sets, behind the scenes Castro was furiously writing to his Soviet counterpart Nikita Khrushchev demanding that the Ukrainian press the button and incinerate us all by launching a first nuclear strike on the United States. “However hard and terrible the solution might be, there is no other,” wrote Castro. Thankfully Stalin’s former henchman, who by his own admission was “up to his elbows” in blood, chose not to heed Castro’s advice.
Read more: Adios Caudillo: Fidel Castro Finally Dies at 90 - The Daily Beast