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Fidel Castro, Revolutionary Firebrand, Dies at 90

Mr. Castro's relationship with Panama transformed from idealistic support for leftist students into illicit trades designed to skirt U.S. embargo.

Fidel Castro arrives at the MATS Station in Washington, D.C., in 1959. (U.S. Library of Congress / U.S. News & World Report)

Nov 26, 2016 | Americas

Fidel Castro, the former Cuban leader who led an unlikely group of revolutionaries against Gen. Batista, imposed his own brand of communism, crushed dissenters, and outlasted ten U.S. presidents, is dead. He was 90.

Cuba declared nine days of national mourning which ends on December 4 with the burial of Mr. Castro’s ashes. State radio and television outlets were ordered to “stick to informative, patriotic, and historical programming” during that time.

After overthrowing the U.S.-backed Batista regime in 1959, Mr. Castro ruled the Caribbean island nation until 2006 when ailing health forced his brother Raul to take on presidential duties. His unique blend of nationalist and Marxist-Leninist ideologies appealed to the poor and to leftist rebels and governments from the Caribbean and Latin America all the way to the Middle East and Africa.

In the 1960s, Mr. Castro’s growing alliances with the Soviet Union and leftist regimes and rebel forces around the world drew the ire of successive U.S. governments, which tried, and failed repeatedly, to foment dissent, destabilize the Cuban regime, and assassinate him. Suspected dissidents, under Mr. Castro’s rule, were jailed, tortured, and eliminated swiftly. And millions of Cubans left the country or died trying.

At the news of his death, Miami’s Cuban community erupted in celebration.

Rollercoaster Ride a Hallmark of Cuban-Panamanian Relations

In the early days of Mr. Castro’s ambitions for a regional Marxist revolution, he supported liberal candidates and student groups throughout the Caribbean and Latin America, including in Panama. On his way to Bogota, in the spring of 1948, to organize a Latin American Student Congress, a young Mr. Castro stopped in Panama City to meet with student groups and invite them to the student congress in Colombia.

The Panamanian Federation of Students, according to an account by Carlos Ivan Zuniga, declined the invitation due to lack of funds. This visit is believed to be Mr. Castro’s first to the isthmus.

In an article published in Colombian daily El Tiempo in November 1976, Mr. Castro recounted his time in Panama:

In Panama, we met with university students, who were buzzing with energy as a result of their fight for Panama’s rights to the canal,….

I admired the strong anti-imperialist sentiment at that university center, much more politically developed than our own University of Havana.

Fidel Castro meets a woman from Panama's Guna province in this undated file photo. (Courtesy: La Estrella de Panama, The Panama Star)

Fidel Castro meets a woman from Panama’s Guna province in this undated file photo. (Courtesy: La Estrella de Panama, The Panama Star)

Subsequent decades, however, were marked by suspicion and distrust. In April 1959, just months after he toppled the Batista regime, a hit squad of mostly Cubans landed in Panama in an alleged attempt to assassinate then-President Ernesto de la Guardia. Mr. Castro and the Cuban government denied involvement. They also denied ties to an alleged attempt on President Roberto Chiari’s life in 1962.

In the 1960s, the United States is widely believed to have trained anti-Castro operatives at Forts Gullick and Clayton in the former Canal Zone. Bilateral ties chilled during that time, as some Cuban dissidents used Panama as a base to launch attacks on Cuba.

Fidel Castro, Osvaldo Dorticos (president of Cuba), Ernesto Che Guevara march in Havana on March 5, 1960, the day after the explosion of French freighter La Coubre that brought 76 tons of Belgian munitions. (Author: Unknown)

Fidel Castro, Osvaldo Dorticos (president of Cuba), Ernesto Che Guevara march in Havana on March 5, 1960, the day after the explosion of French freighter La Coubre that brought 76 tons of Belgian munitions. (Author: Unknown)

RELATIONS WARM UNDER OMAR TORRIJOS

On December 15, 1971, the Cuban naval forces captured Panamanian-registered Johnny Express, a freighter owned by a prominent anti-Castro family in Miami, and arrested Captain Jose Villa, whom Mr. Castro personally labeled an agent of the Central Intelligence Agency. Then Panamanian military leader Omar Torrijos and his chief of military intelligence Lieutenant Colonel Manuel Antonio Noriega would play a critical role, at the behest of the U.S. State Department, in securing the release of Captain Villa in 1973.

Panama’s relationship with Cuba warmed significantly under Mr. Torrijos, who despite enjoying a practical relationship with Mr. Castro refrained from publicly endorsing the communist nation’s ideologies. Still Mr. Torrijos accepted, at least publicly, Mr. Castro’s advice to remain patient during the negotiation to re-establish Panamanian control over the Canal Zone.

Mr. Castro is believed to have first met the would-be Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega in the 1970s. After Mr. Noriega assumed power in 1983, Mr. Castro used Panama as “the main base for secret Cuban commercial activities, in particular the acquisition of American cipher equipment and computers,” Sir Leycester Coltman writes in The Real Fidel Castro (Yale University Press, 2013).

Fidel Castro and Panama’s Omar Torrijos in Havana in September 1979 During the Summit of the Non-Aligned Movement (Courtesy: Associated Press)

Castro ‘Felt Only Contempt’ for Noriega

“Castro felt only contempt for Noriega as a person,” Sir Coltman observes, yet Cuba needed Panama. Mr. Castro shipped large quantities of weapons to Panama and even advised Mr. Noriega to set up an armed volunteer militia to deter potential U.S. attacks. Still, the Panamanian Defense Force and the “Dignity Battalions” of the militia fell quickly when the U.S. invaded on December 20, 1989.

Cuba’s refusal to recognize the U.S.-backed President Guillermo Endara, installed the day of the U.S. invasion, led Panama to expel the Cuban ambassador in March 1990 and a majority of the Cuban diplomatic corps in July.

Castro Survives Alleged Assassination Attempt in Panama

Mr. Castro, who counted several hundred assassination attempts against him, returned to Panama City in 2000 to attend the 10th Ibero-American Summit of Latin American and European heads of state. Luis Posada Carriles, one of his most persistent archenemies and a former C.I.A. operative, was in town in an apparent attempt to take out Mr. Castro. Mr. Posada was 72 at the time.

Mr. Posada and three accomplices were arrested in Panama City with plastic explosives and sentenced to jail. Then-Panamanian President Mireya Moscoso pardoned the four men in August 2004 with just days left in her presidency, alleging that the incoming president, Martin Torrijos, was likely to extradite them to Cuba or Venezuela, where they would be tortured or killed.

Cuba promptly broke off diplomatic relations–again.

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