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The Survivor

They considered slipping him tainted cigars. Or putting chemicals in his food to make his beard fall out. They thought about spraying an LSD-like substance into the air near a radio station he used. They sent an exile army back to try to overthrow him and they blocked all commerce with him.

Yet, Fidel Castro is still there. As firmly in control as ever, he celebrates his 75th birthday Monday.

Sam Halpern, who served briefly with the CIA task force that in the 1960s led efforts against Castro, says no one would have bet back then that "El Comandante" would last this long.

"I don't think even Castro figured on that," Halpern said. "Nobody expected him to survive ten presidents—All ten presidents were trying not to have to deal with the guy."

Those who have watched or fought against him point to a myriad of factors that might account for Castro's resilience — the complexities of Cuban culture, the impact of geography and the intrigue of diplomacy.

But they also credit Castro's own unique ability to survive, a skill honed in his fight with the dictator who preceded him.

"Get Rid Of Castro"
CIA documents show the covert U.S. campaign against Castro building in 1960 and 1961, accelerating up to the Bay of Pigs and then slowly collapsing.

"We cannot overemphasize," read a CIA report on the plots released in 1967, "the extent to which responsible Agency officers felt themselves subject to the Kennedy administration's severe pressures to do something about Castro and his regime. The fruitless and, in retrospect, often unrealistic plotting should be viewed in that light."

That report indicates the U.S. intelligence employed some crazy schemes and some shady people in futile attempts to "get rid of Castro."

In 1961 and 1962, the agency gave poison pills to members of a gambling syndicate working on the CIA's behalf who were supposed to poison Castro. In 1963, a CIA officer met a Cuban operative in Paris and gave him a hypodermic needle described as a ball-point pen that was supposed to be used to kill Castro.

There was a plot, never executed, to drug Castro by using a plane to spray the air near a radio station where he delivered weekly addresses. Contaminated cigars were produced but never delivered to Castro. There was an idea to slip him Thallium salts to make his beard fall out.

Halpern described one effort to destabilize the Castro government that began with Roland Cubella, a Cuban major who sought help fomenting a coup. The operation was initially designed as a political action rather than an assassination. But the CIA ended up burying a sniper rifle for Cubella, an apparent shift to a more direct attack on Castro.

"Whether Cubella ever picked up the rifle I don’t know," Halpern said.

Castro was a young lawyer planning to run for parliament when Fulgencio Batista took power in a coup.

He went to court to challenge Batista's claim to authority, but Batista ran the courts and quashed his case. Then Castro's best friend and fellow dissident killed himself on the air at a radio station. That led Castro to abandon the system and take up arms. A failed attempt at an uprising landed him in jail, where he stayed for two years.

In 1956, he launched another failed rebellion, but was able to escape to the hills and build an insurgent army there. When he successfully led the Cuban revolution in 1959, Castro was a far different man: He had learned a lesson of leadership, and Batista was his teacher.

In charge in Batista's place, Castro knew that if he was not careful, he too would have to deal with rebels in the hills.

"The first and foremost answer to his longevity is his control," says Pamela Falk, an author and CBS News consultant.

Castro learned that a tight security structure was essential to his survival, so he constructed one that allowed him to survive at least eight U.S.-backed assassination attempts.

"He's very adept and crafty at - literally - survival, so that people can point to five or six homes but they can't point to where he sleeps at night. Plans are always fairly last-minute," Falk said. "He has a very close circle of friends and confidants around him and has not expanded that circle much over 42 years."

He honed his protectors by sending them to Angola and Ethiopia to get combat experience. He shipped off boatloads of dissidents or criminals when their numbers threatened his iron grip.

Other dissidents left under their own power, and that also is credited for sustaining the regime.

"Those who most opposed him left the country willingly or otherwise, or they were killed or imprisoned," said Robert E. Quirk, a biographer of the Cuban leader. "The kind of people who would make trouble for Castro ultimately left."

Castro and his comrades "learned the hard way, living and learning under Batista," said the former CIA man, Halpern. "They did a fine job of rounding up what they would call subversives. As a result, we had very great difficulty finding 'assets,' as we call them."

Another key attribute was an ability to adjust to the times. When he thought he could foment revolutions similar to his own, Castro spread his influence throughout South America; when the revolutions failed, he pulled out. After the Soviet Union fell, Castro sought support from China, and when that failed, he tried Western Europe.

He aintained strict socialism until the end of Soviet sponsorship, but then of necessity began to open the economy to Western money and products and allowed limited domestic markets. Now, as America spurns the Aristede regime in Port au Prince, Castro is sending doctors to Haiti, trying to score another friend in the region.

Indeed, American policy is sometimes thought of as Castro's best friend.

"To understand Cuba, and to understand Castro, is to understand a fundamental nationalism in Cuba that doesn't only begin with Fidel Castro," Falk said. Honed under three imperial powers — Spain, the United States and the Soviet Union — that nationalism reflects "a very historic sense in which there's always a sense of Goliath and Cuba is the David fighting the Goliath."

Castro has used this historical identity to make the United States a villain. He used the fear that "that Cubans in Miami will come back and say that was my house, the Bush administration might say that oil refinery was ours" to maintain loyalty, says biographer and Indiana University professor Robert Quirk.

Castro's abilities as a leader were likely what scared the U.S. government into launching a series of attempts to dispatch him (see box).

"The U.S. was desperate in terms of doing something about Castro," Halpern recalled of the early 1960s. "The message from the White House was 'Get Rid of Castro and the Castro regime.' When it comes from the White House, the tendency was to do something. I don't think anyone figured out what to do afterwards."

But Jose Basulto, leader of the Cuban exile foundation Brothers to the Rescue, believes the U.S. hasn't seriously sought Castro's downfall since the Cuban Missile Crisis, when it, to his thinking, bargained with the Soviet Union to get rid of the missiles in return for keeping its hands off Cuba.

Go In-Depth
" Condemn me. It does not matter. History will absolve me."
-Fidel Castro, 1953

Click on these links for more on:

  • Castro's Speeches… go here to read a selection, or
    to search the texts of his better known addresses.
  • U.S.-Cuba Relations… the State Department explains the policy.
  • The Covert Ops…Read internal memos obtained by the Federation of American Scientists, or a report by the inspector general on CIA attempts to oust or kill Castro.
  • The U.S. then worked to impede the Cuban American exiles who "became the enemies of that status quo which was to have stability and predictability at any price," Basulto said.

    Despite the assassination attempts detailed in declassified government reports, Basulto feels there "were no serious attempts to overthrow Castro." The CIA "was kind of giving entertainment to the aspirations of the Cuban people."

    Basulto also points to Castro's ruthlessness as the secret to his staying power, as well as the fact that Cuba is an island, therefore harder to infiltrate. The Soviet Union's sponsorship of his regime also created, in Basulto's words, "inertia in power."

    There is some reason to believe that Castro survived because he delivered, at least in a few key areas. Cuba's literacy is high; its health-care programs are comprehensive. Castro gained popularity among darker-skinned Cubans by establishing more racial equality.

    And while the country is poorer now than before the revolution, "the disparity of income was so great that what he has done over the years was appeal to the sense that the revolution gave people what they have today," Falk said.

    "I think he's anything but inept. I think he's a very capable person," said Quirk. "He's overreaching in a way — he has to make all decisions. He might make decisions about cattle or oil wells or anything. It might not be the right one because he should have delegated."

    That inability to delegate, to trust, probably helped Castro survive, even if it didn’t help Cuba. It's an instinct that will probably keep Castro in office as long as his physical health allows, but leave Cuba hard-pressed for leadership afterwards.

    "My opinion is unless he's incapacitated or dead, I don’t see any changes, not willingly by Castro," said Quirk.

    Ironically, the lengths Castro went to survive could make it hard for Cuba to survive without him. His clinging to power means that little young talent has been cultivated in the government. And it means that the Cubans who still believe in the socialist experiment really only believe in him. That will leave a large void in his wake.

    "There are no examples of a system under such a personalistic leader surviving after the person leaves," said Falk.

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