Photos: Fidel Castro: The Life of the Cuban Leader

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  1. Three-year-old Fidel Castro is pictured here in 1929. (Cuban Council of State Photo Archive) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. The three Castro brothers in 1941 from left to right: Fidel, Raul, and Ramon. Castro named his younger brother Raul his temporary successor on July, 31, 2006, after undergoing intestinal surgery. It marked the first time that Castro had relinquished power in 47 years of rule. (Council of State Photo Archive) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Castro, at 17 years old, plays basketball at Belen Jesuit High School in 1943. (Cuban Council of State Photo Archive) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Castro took up arms against the Cuban regime of President Fulgencio Batista for the first time unsuccessfully in 1953. Hoping to spark a popular revolt, Castro led more than 100 followers in a failed attack on the Moncada military barracks in Santiago de Cuba on July 26, 1953. He survived the attack, but was imprisoned for two years. After receiving amnesty he went to Mexico where he was detained by Mexican immigration authorities for training troops for another uprising in Cuba. He is shown here resting on his cot in December 1956 in a Mexico City jail. He was released shortly after this picture was taken and continued his fight against Batista. (Bettmann via Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Castro is cheered by a village crowd on his victorious march into Havana in January 1959 after revolutionary forces seized control of Cuba. (Grey Villet / Time & Life Pictures via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Castro and his Marxist revolutionary ally, Che Guevara, try their hand at golf in 1959 after seizing power in the Cuban Revolution. (Cuban Council of State Photo Archive) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Castro and the American novelist Ernest Hemingway in Havana in 1959. Hemingway spent many years in Cuba and his novella “The Old Man and the Sea,” for which he won both the Pulitzer Prize and the Nobel Prize in Literature, centers on an aging Cuban fisherman. After the Cuban Revolution, Hemingway was forced to flee Cuba and return to Ketchum, Idaho where he lived out the last years of his life. (Cuban Council of State Photo Archive) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Fidel Castro talks with Ed Sullivan, television variety show host and N.Y. Daily News columnist, January 6, 1959, days after the Cuban revolution ousted the Batista regime. The United States was the first nation to recognize Castro as Cuba's leader, but his radical economic reforms quickly rattled American leaders. (Harold Valentine / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Castro visits the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. in 1959. Castro visited the U.S. in April of 1959 as part of a charm offensive for his new government, but was refused a meeting with President Eisenhower. (Cuban Council of State Photo Archive) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Castro speaking before a huge gathering of people in Cuba in 1960. (Cuban Council of State Photo Archive) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Castro and Ricardo Alarcón on national TV on April 9, 1961, a few days before the failed U.S. invasion of Cuba on April 15, 1961 known as the Bay of Pigs. Alarcón, head of the Cuban parliament since 1993, is still a close Castro confidante and his main point person on U.S. relations. (Cuban Council of State Photo Archive) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Cuban Revolution leaders Fidel Castro and Che Guevara shown during a meeting Havana in the early '60s. Castro declared his revolution to be a socialist movement on April 16, 1961. The failed U.S. invasion of Cuba, known as the Bay of Pigs, happened the next day, on April 17, 1961. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Castro sits inside a tank near Playa Giron, Cuba, during the Bay of Pigs invasion on April 17, 1961. About 1,500 Cuban exiles, supported by the CIA, landed in Cuba in the Bay of Pigs on April 17, 1961 with the purpose of sparking a popular uprising and ousting Castro's government. Most rebels were quickly captured or killed by the Cuban armed forces, marking a major defeat in the U.S. effort to dislodge Castro from power. (Raul Corrales / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Castro cuts sugar cane in a Cuban field in October, 1962. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Castro learning to ski during a trip to Russia in 1962. The Soviet Union was a major source of military and economic aid for Cuba until its collapse in 1991. (Cuban Council of State Photo Archive) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Prime Minister Fidel Castro gives a radio and televised speech on Oct. 22, 1962 during which he talked about the measures taken by the United States regarding Cuba and the annoucement by President John F. Kennedy of a U.S. blockade of the island. The tense 13-day standoff over Soviet nuclear-armed missile installed on the island, brought the world to the brink of a nuclear war. It was resolved after Nikita Khrushchev offered to remove the missiles. (Keystone-France via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Castro, his bother Raul, and Che Guevara in 1963. (Cuban Council of State Photo Archive) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Castro holds the hand of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev during an official visit to Moscow in May 1963. Taking advantage of the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, Cuba relied on billions of dollars in Soviet subsidies for decades. The disappearance of Soviet aid after the collapse of the Soviet Union created hard times in Cuba known as the "Special Period" because of the tight rationing of food, fuel, and consumer goods. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Castro, a star pitcher at the University of Havana and longtime baseball fan, gets set to fire a ball as he pitches for Camaguey Province against Pinar Del Rio Province at Cuba's Veradero Beach in July 1964. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Cuba Leader Fidel Castro sits with Moammar Gadhafi in Tripoli on March 8, 1977. In 2011, Castro criticized the United States involvement in Libya calling NATO's actions "genocide." (Arna / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Castro, once a passionate cigar smoker, is seen here exhaling cigar smoke during an interview in March, 1985 at his presidential palace in Havana. He gave up the habit in 1986 citing health concerns. Cuba has long been known as the world's foremost producer of cigars and the industry generates over $200 million annually for the country's economy. Bans on smoking in public places were introduced in Cuba in 2005. (Charles Tasnadi / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Castro took to the streets of Havana during the Aug. 5, 1994 riots, the largest anti-government riots since he had assumed power, that sparked the rafters crisis. Five years after the fall of the Soviet Union the Cuban economy was in disarray and tens of thousands of Cubans cast out in homemade rafts to make the risky journey to the U.S. creating a migration crisis. (Cuban Council of State Photo Archive) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Castro visiting the Great Wall of China during a state visit in December, 1995. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Cuba looked towards China more as a Communist ally. (Cuban Council of State Photo Archive) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Pope John Paul II shakes hands with Castro at the Jose Marti International Airport in Havana on Jan. 21, 1998 after the Pope arrived for his landmark visit to the communist nation. (Michel Gangne / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Castro talks with Elian Gonzalez during the inauguration of the "Museo a la Batalla de Ideas" in Cardenas, Cuba on July 14, 2001.

    Gonzalez was aboard an overcrowded motorboat that capsized en route from Cuba to Florida, killing his mother and others seeking to enter the United States illegally. He was rescued off Florida on Nov. 25, 1999, and then was at the center of a seven-month custody tug-of-war that culminated in US federal agents seizing him by force from Miami-based relatives. (Adalberto Roque / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Former South African President Nelson Mandela and Cuban leader Fidel Castro embrace during a visit by Castro on Sept. 2, 2001 in Johannesburg, South Africa where the two leaders were participating in the World Conference Against Racism. In power since the Cuban revolution in January 1959, Castro was one of the world's longest ruling leaders. Only Queen Elizabeth, crowned in 1952, has been head of state longer. (Jose Goitia / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Cuban President Fidel Castro and former U.S. President Jimmy Carter talk after a friendly game of baseball at the Latinoamericano Stadium on May 14, 2002 in Havana, Cuba. This is the first visit by a former or sitting U.S. President since Castro came to power in 1959. (Jorge Rey / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Castro speaks with his brother Raul Castro during a meeting of the Cuban Parliament during December 2003.

    Raul Castro, who has been running Cuba since his brother Fidel was sidelined by illness in 2006, became his official successor in February 2008. (Adalberto Roque / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. Two women hold up the latest edition of Granma newspaper bearing the headline "Message from the Commander in Chief," on Feb. 19, 2008, in Havana. Castro stepped down that morning as the president of Cuba after a long illness, according to Granma, the official publication of the Cuban Communist Party. (Jose Goitia / Redux Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. Fidel Castro is seen on June 18, 2008 in Havana during a meeting with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, left, and his brother Cuban President Raul Castro, right. Castro, 81, has not been seen in public since he fell during an appearance in July 2006, but the state-run media occassionally releases official photos of the ailing former leader. (Estudios Revolucion / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. Fidel Castro speaks during a meeting with students at Havana's University on Sept. 3, 2010. Castro warned of the dangers of nuclear war in his first speech to the Cuban public since falling ill in 2006. (Desmond Boylan / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. Fidel Castro makes a surprise appearance at the 6th Communist Party Congress in Havana, Cuba, on April 19, 2011. Raul Castro, right, was named first secretary of Cuba's Communist Party, with his aging brother Fidel not included in the leadership for the first time since the party's creation. (Javier Galeano / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  33. Castro looks at the camera during a rare public appearance to attend the inauguration of an art gallery on Jan. 8, 2014 in Havana. The gallery Castro visited is run by Cuban artist Alexis Leyva, aka Kcho. (Sven Creutzmann / Mambo Photo via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  34. Castro speaks with China's President Xi Jinping in Havana, on July 22, 2014. Xi Jinping said that his state visit to Cuba is aimed at carrying forward the traditional friendship between the two countries jointly built by Castro and the older generations of Chinese leaders, so as to inject new impetus into bilateral cooperation. (Alex Castro / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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NBC News
updated 2/26/2007 9:23:52 AM ET 2007-02-26T14:23:52

Retired U.S. Ambassador Vicki J. Huddleston recalls her days as the principal officer in the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, Cuba, and the “dog days” sparring with Fidel Castro.

As former President Jimmy Carter disembarked from his private plane at Havana’s Jose Marti airport on May 13, 2002, Fidel Castro walked along the red carpet shaking hands.

As Castro approached me, I was concerned. After all, only a few days before he had threatened to throw me out of the country, and when I offered him my hand I feared it might become a “diplomatic incident."

But the handshake passed without any sort of flurry. In fact, he looked relieved that I didn’t give him one of the little radios I had been passing out all over the country.

Only one ‘director of Cuban affairs’
Such a lack of interpersonal fireworks had not been typical of our interactions.

The first time I met Castro was in the earlier 1990s at a follow-up meeting to the Tripartite Accords that gave Namibia its independence and removed Cuban and South African troops from Angola. As the new director of Cuban affairs at the State Department, I was one of only two women — the Soviet ambassador’s wife was the other — attending a gala celebration in Havana’s Revolutionary Palace.

Castro, looking pleased that the rather long and boring signing ceremony was over, headed straight for the American delegation. Ignoring the greeting of our delegation’s chief, who was a good head taller than he — Castro, at over six feet tall, is used to being the center of attention and one of the tallest people in a room — he walked up to me and boomed out, “Who are you, someone’s spouse?” Every one of the 200 guests from six countries around the world turned in our direction. I had been warned that Castro loved to tease and embarrass delegation members. Why did it have to be me?

Determined not to be intimidated by this still handsome but overbearing legend, I stood up to my full 5 feet 5 inches and defiantly responded, “No, I am the director of Cuban affairs.” Castro looked at me thoughtfully, smiled, and replied in English for all to hear, “Oh, I thought I was.” 

But it wasn’t over yet.  As I reached the entrance to the dining room, Castro was waiting.  He offered me his arm, and when I took it, I could hear the gasps. “Oh, my God,” everyone was thinking, “there’s been a thaw in U.S.-Cuban relations.” Our delegation was undoubtedly wondering if I would still have a job when I got back to Washington.

As we approached the long table crammed with every imaginable delicacy, Castro moved away. I filled my plate with lobster and shrimp, wondering briefly if Cubans fishing from inner tubes in Havana Bay the bay is off limits to small boats for security reasons — had caught them.

Before I could take a mouthful, Castro, pointing his finger at me, demanded, “Why does your government blockade Cuba?”

“It’s not a blockade, it’s an embargo,” I shot back. 

Rafael Perez  /  Reuters file
The author, with dog “Havana,” at her residence in the Cuban capital on Feb. 14, 2001.

“Well, if it’s an embargo, why can’t we even buy an aspirin?” he countered. Balancing my plate and silverware, I looked around for support, but I was alone.So, I pointed out that we allowed essential medicines to be shipped to Cuba. Therefore, the embargo was not a blockade.

As Castro assured me that all he wanted were normal relations, I took stock of the situation. His aides had discreetly moved the guests, including the U.S. delegation, to the other side of the room where they couldn’t hear the exchange. And as far as I know, this was the last one-on-one, in-person conversation between Castro and an American official. That was 15 years ago!

Forty-five minutes later, it was over. Castro plucked an oversized martini off a nearby tray (but no cigar — after more than 40 years of smoking, he had given them up). I was exhausted. I had managed to talk about a third of the time, but only by interrupting his monologue. I was still wondering about my job tenure when the Defense Department member of our group said, “Congratulations, they took you seriously.”

To this day I don’t know what he wanted from our talk — perhaps an opening? If so, the State Department wasn’t interested. Normal relations would have to wait. Castro wasn’t about to accept our conditions.

As for me, I learned a lesson I never forgot, namely, that Fidel Castro is the director of Cuban affairs. We could try to influence Cuba’s leaders and its people, but the man who makes the decisions is Castro.

Avoid ‘Hoodlestone’
Yearslater, in the fall of 1999, when I proudly walked through the gates of the United States Interests Section in Havana as its new leader, I already I knew that I could influence, but not change, Cuba. Change only comes from Castro. But maybe — just maybe — I could make a difference by helping the Cuban people.

Things started off pretty badly when a furious Castro appeared on television to warn the Cuban people to beware of the new chief of the Interests Section.

During a two- or three-hour television appearance Castro explained how the SINA — the Spanish initials for the Interests Section, which somehow come out sounding like CIA —and I had disrupted the visit of then-Illinois Gov. George Ryan by arranging a meeting with Cuban dissidents.

“This woman, Hoodlestone, is making a lot of trouble,” complained Castro. Someone offstage whispered, “Huddleston,” prompting Castro to spell my name out slowly, letter-by-letter, “H-U-D-D-L-E-S-T-O-N. Just as I said,” he proudly continued, “Hoodlestone.”  I thought this was all pretty ridiculous until I began traveling around the island, and understood. Every hotel clerk, maid, and casual acquaintance knew who I was, and that I was to be avoided.

Then Elian Gonzales, the 5-year-old boy rescued from an inner tube after his mother and her companions drowned in the Florida Straits, changed the dynamic. I was to become the go-between.

Elian becomes a a cause célèbre
Castro had just the issue he needed to torment Cuban Americans. As one fiery exile explained, “We know we are being had, but we just can’t help ourselves.”

As for me, I believed — as did the Clinton administration — that Elian should be returned to his father. But how? Little Elian had quickly become the repository of all the longings and frustrations of Miami’s Cuban American community. How could our government return him to the communist island they had escaped and give Castro yet another victory?

I told Castro’s point man, Ricardo Alarcon, that we were committed to returning Elian; but that didn’t stop Castro from using him to reinvigorate and renew the revolution. Castro had an issue, and, for once, every Cuban in Cuba agreed with him. Through Elian he would show the world just how foolish the exiles were, and how foolish the U.S. government was for listening to them.

At first, hundreds, then thousands, and then hundreds of thousands of Cubans marched outside the Interests Section. During a particularly large demonstration led by Castro, I put a large Haitian papier-mâché lion’s head on the balcony of my fifth floor office. After all, Castro’s a Leo. 

When he looked up, he seemed to stumble in surprise. Raul Castro, his brother, for his part, just glared. Soon thereafter the Communist Party newspaper Granma published photos — not of the lion, but of my staff and I watching events from what Castro had dubbed the “Glass Palace.”

No more radios!
Eventually, of course, Elian was returned to Cuba.  Castro may have emerged the victor in that little battle, but he was to have another fight on his hands — in the form of my little radios.

I began distributing AM/FM/shortwave portable radios, along with the sayings of Jose Marti, the 19th century Cuban revolutionary, at the annual Fourth of July reception at my home, in better days the residence of our ambassadors.  

After mojitos made with imported Bacardi rum, a Marine color guard ceremony and a stirring rendition of the “Star Spangled Banner,” we handed each departing guest a radio in a clear plastic bag tied with red, white and blue ribbon.

Castro didn’t pay much attention — until I began to distribute the radios around the country. I’ll always remember a woman I picked up along the road, who with tears streaming down her cheeks said, “Now I’ll have a birthday present for my son.” Castro was not amused. He threatened to sever relations.

I couldn’t back down. Cubans loved the radios. They connected them to the world, and they were free. I continued to hand them out, even increasing the distribution. 

Castro responded by calling for a “Tribuna Abierta,” or open court, to denounce my subversive activities. When I turned up along with 20,000 residents from Havana’s Miramar suburb, Castro decided not to speak. 

Cuban-Americans were delighted, but then one dissident whom I greatly respected reminded me that an important part of my job was to make sure there was a line of communication between the Cuban government and mine. I lowered my profile.

But there was to be one more showdown — over a show dog.

Dog days
I was reminded of the doggy brouhaha after I left Cuba in September of 2002.  (I would have loved to stay longer but my three-year tour was complete.)

Some months later I encountered a journalist friend who was still in Havana. She made me feel a little better when she said, “You know, Fidel is just not the same, I think he misses you. He has no one to spar with any more.”

Apart from the incidents related above, I suspected she also was referring to a certain Afghan hound called Havana — aka my diplomatic “pooch” — and the little dogfight of which he was the center.

It all started when the president of Cuba’s National Association of Afghan Hounds, Amalia Castro (no relation to Fidel), sent me a letter saying that because of my government’s unfriendly policies and my own activities on behalf of dissidents, I was expelled from the club. 

I was shocked! Surely that was just diplomatic doublespeak — the real reason was that my beautiful hound was winning too many ribbons!

The main reason, of course, was those little radios. But now that my beautiful dog was being dissed, I wasn’t about to back off with my tail between my legs. Instead, I didn’t hesitate to take a page from Castro’s book, and told the media about the “diplomat in the doghouse.”

There is nothing like a story about man’s best friend to get the public’s sympathy. TV, radio, and newspapers across the United States, Europe and Latin America wanted to know why Havana and I were on such a “short leash.”

The Dallas Morning News, commenting on the incident, wrote, “She’s the top U.S. diplomat in Cuba. But there was a time, some people joke, when her dog, a prizewinning Afghan, was getting more headlines.”

It worked. Castro finally relented, telling a visiting group of Americans that he was going to give “my husband’s dog a pardon.” The next day NBC, CBS and CNN all received telephone calls from the Cuban government informing them that Havana was back in the dog club — and it was only her owner who had been thrown out. Fidel, master media maven that he is, had put an end to a story that put his beleaguered country in an even worse light over something comparatively petty.

And for that, you have to give him some grudging admiration. In fact, I wouldn’t mind just one more chat with Fidel before he’s gone.

Retired U.S.Ambassador Vicki J. Huddleston is an NBC News analyst on Latin American and African affairs. She was the principal officer at the United States Interests Section in Havana, Cuba, from 1999 to 2002 and the director and deputy director of the Office of Cuban Affairs at the Department of State from 1989 to 1993.


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