Former Cuban leader and longtime US foe Fidel Castro turned 90 on Saturday, some 58 years after he and fellow revolutionaries seized control of the island in 1958.
While the elder Castro did not make a public appearance for the occasion, and the government now run by his 85-year-old brother, Raul, did not put on any special events, Cubans did make an effort to honour the firebrand who has for so long defied threats to his life and plots against him.
Cuban tobacconist Jose Castelar and a team of assistants worked 12 hours a day for 10 days to roll a cigar 90 meters, or about 295 feet, long. “It is 90 meters long, to commemorate 90 years of our comandante,” Castelar told AFP.
Castro himself hasn’t smoked since the 1980s. “I haven’t lit up a cigar for several months now,” he said in an interview in late 1985. “I reached the conclusion long ago that the one last sacrifice I must make for (Cuban) public health is to stop smoking. I haven’t really missed it that much.”
“He hasn’t smoked for years, but the gift we are offering him is the hard work that we have done to commemorate his birthday,” said Castelar, whose team rolled the cigar, which had the same width as an ordinary one, on long tables in an old colonial fort that overlooks Havana’s harbour.
The legacy of the longtime Cuban leader, accused by many of brutally suppressing dissent, is mixed.
“Fidel is everything. He is sport, he is culture. He is rebellion. If Cubans are rebels, it is thanks to Fidel,” Manuel Bravo, a 48-year-old glazier, told AFP.
“I will remember him as a dictator,” Martha Beatriz Roque, 71, an anti-Castro dissident who was one of 75 opponents jailed in the “black spring” of 2003, said to AFP. “He is the man of ‘E’s: egomaniacal, egotistical, egocentric. I don’t know whether I will be able to wish him a happy birthday.”
Castro, who formally handed power over to Raul in 2008 after an intestinal illness and subsequent botched surgeries put his life in danger, has not only avoided the dangers of tobacco. The revolutionary leader also survived more than 600 attempts on his life, according to Cuban officials, though that number can’t be confirmed.
Those assassination attempts include efforts by the US mafia, which was forced out of the island’s lucrative hotel and gambling trades by Castro’s revolution, as well as US government attempts to enlist people close to the Cuban leader in plots to kill him.
In a letter titled “The Birthday” published on Cuban state-run media on Saturday, Castro again demonstrated his defiance of the threats that accumulated against him, saying, “I almost laughed at the Machiavellian plans of the United States’ presidents.”
And while Raul has reopened relations with the US over the past two years, Fidel did not shy from criticism of Barack Obama, the first US president to visit Cuba since Calvin Coolidge in 1928.
“I think it lacked stature, the discourse of the president of the United States when he visited Japan, and he lacked the words to excuse for the killing of hundreds of thousands of people in Hiroshima, despite having known the effects of the bomb. It was equally criminal the attack on Nagasaki, a city that the owners of life chose at random,” Castro wrote in his birthday letter.
Castro’s criticism for the US leader doesn’t mean he’s shut out the world, however. He reportedly got a congratulatory call from Russian President Vladimir Putin, and embattled Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro is reportedly on the island to greet him.
For many in the region, the elder Castro has long represented resistance to the overbearing presence of the US, a perception bolstered by his ability to survive repeated attempts on his life.
While it’s unclear how changing attitudes in Latin America, especially after Cuba’s opening to the US, will affect how he is remembered, Castro himself has no doubts about what is ahead for him.
“Soon I’ll be like all the rest,” he said. “Everyone’s turn comes.”
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