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Well Played, Fidel

Jolly decent, I say, of Fidel Castro to kick the bucket and provide a welcome distraction from the grim prospects for Trump and Brexit.  Well played, Fidel!

The tributes have predictably divided along political lines.  Figures on the political left have praised him as a man of the people who rescued his country from a cruel and corrupt dictator and defied attempts to oust him by his bullying American neighbour.  To which those on the right have countered that he was an even more vicious dictator than the one he replaced and held Cuba in a social time-warp for over half a century.

You can pay your money and take your pick. 

My own view is that only Cubans who lived under his regime can plausibly pronounce on whether he was saviour or oppressor.  He was, in truth, probably something of both – and like the rest of us -Cubans appear to have split along narrow partisan and perhaps generational lines. 

He is surely destined to become no more than a romantic footnote in history.  His impact on the world outside Cuba was confined to his contribution to that brief period of largely manufactured tension we called the Cold War, which we might now, looking back, rename the Phoney War. 

By taking over one half of a feudal Caribbean island – the bit that had previously been governed by a tin-pot fascist and his cronies in the American Mafia – Castro turned it into a minor communist satellite of no particular consequence. Until, that is, he provoked, or was provoked into – depending on your political prejudice – what might have been a dangerous quarrel with the United States by installing Soviet missiles and pointing them at the American mainland, a mere ninety miles away.  Other than that, in half a century he did nothing extraordinary to command the world’s attention, admiring or otherwise.  After the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 had subsided, Cuba became the same irrelevance it had been before – which in geopolitical terms is more or less what it is today.

My abiding recollection of the man is that, for a couple of short weeks – thirteen days, to be precise – he gave the world a terrible fright.  His run-in with the Americans, or more to the point, his courting of the Soviet Union, might have plunged the world into the nuclear holocaust it had been conditioned to dread.  For the only time since the Berlin crisis a decade or so earlier, the world (as the hacks were wont to write at the time) ‘held its breath’.         

I was working in the Fleet Street newsroom of Reuters news agency that year – probably the next best thing to being a fly on the wall in the White House or the Kremlin.  For days on end I worked double shifts, not because there was a heavier work-load but because I couldn’t tear myself away from an unfolding drama, one for which I fancied I had a seat in the front row of the stalls.

“Will you be home for your tea?” I remember my mother telephoning to enquire one evening.  (At the time, aged twenty-two, I was still living at home.)  We’re all very worried.”

“No, Mum,” I probably said, with an insufferable and quite unjustified sense of self-importance “we’re all too busy trying to save the world”.

“Well, good luck,” she might have said.  “I’ll save you something for later.”

Would there even be a later, perhaps she wondered, as did I.

The Cuban missile crisis of 1962 began on October 16 and lasted until October 28.  It began when an American U2 spy plane photographed military bases in Cuba with launch pads equipped with medium and intermediate range missiles, either type capable of taking out a city or two on mainland America, presumably starting with Miami.  Castro had negotiated their installation with Soviet Prime Minister Nikita Khrushchev, who justified it on the grounds that the United States had put missiles in Turkey and other places within striking distance of Russian cities. 

When American military advisors spotted a convoy of Soviet ships approaching Cuba, all clearly carrying cargoes of military equipment, President John F. Kennedy ordered the island to be blockaded, or quarantined.  These were military terms that belonged to another era, so old-fashioned that they had politicians and journalists alike reaching for dictionaries to ascertain their precise meaning.  What they meant in practical terms was that the Russian ships would have to turn back or be attacked. 

After several tense days of stand-off between the United States and the Soviet Union, a secret ‘understanding’ was reached via back channels – one of them organised by a reporter for ABC television named John Scali, who had contacts with spooks from the Soviet embassy.  It might have been a Reuters man, some of us pondered, with a touch of envy. 

Khrushchev, as we now know, agreed to end the shipments and to dismantle the existing Cuban sites.  In return, Kennedy offered secret assurances that the American bases in Turkey would be closed.  

And that was that, as it turned out, the high point of Castro’s fame.  He was to stay in power for decades to come but would never again trouble the world, or his hated neighbour, other than to deprive Americans of the right to smoke Cuban cigars, a privilege of which they remain deprived to this day.

What President-elect Trump will make of the potential for advancing the recent signs of Obama-sponsored rapprochement between the two countries remains to be seen.  He has already declared that he will not attend the funeral.  This I find surprising, given his recent confusing of America’s national and his commercial interests, since he might have regarded the occasion as a heaven-sent opportunity to open negotiations for building a Trump Tower in downtown Havana. 

Otherwise, in the grim catalogue of world trouble spots, existing and prospective, Cuba hardly matters.

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