His personal magnetism is still powerful, his presence is still commanding. Fidel Castro at 76 is a force to be reckoned with: the leader of Cuba for 43 years, he is one of the longest-reigning heads of government in the world.
Osama bin Laden may be America's current "Enemy No. 1," but four decades ago Castro was the villain at our doorstep. Ten U.S. presidents later, Fidel Castro is still ruling the only communist country in the Western Hemisphere.
He has survived a botched U.S.-backed invasion, trade sanctions, CIA assassination plots, the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Cuba's longtime patron, even an international custody battle over Cuban refugee Elian Gonzalez.
Recalling the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 - 13 days in which the United States and the Soviet Union were locked in a terrifying nuclear showdown — Castro told ABCNEWS' Barbara Walters that Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev lied to both President John F. Kennedy and Cuba, heightening the crisis.
In an exclusive interview to be broadcast on 20/20, Castro comments on documents being newly released this week at a conference marking the 40th anniversary of the missile crisis.
In retrospect, Castro said, "We were very close to nuclear war."
In the 25 years since Walters last interviewed him, Castro has lost a bit of his bravado and swagger — Castro said it's been 17 years since he's smoked his trademark Cohiba cigars. But his commitment to a socialist system of government is as passionate as it was in 1956 when he launched his guerrilla war against the regime of Gen. Fulgencio Batista y Zaldivar from Cuba's Sierra Maestra Mountains. After a bloody three-year campaign, Castro was victorious. He became Cuba's leader in January 1959 and has been at the helm ever since. He has no plans to step down, unless he is incapacitated by illness.
Surprisingly little is known about the personal life of Fidel Castro. He prefers it that way. We know that he was a child of privilege, who turned his back on the establishment after law school. His current wife occasionally appears in public, but rarely at Castro's side. By some accounts, Castro has eight children and many grandchildren, but he refuses to discuss his family life, saying, "It's my human right to defend my privacy."
For many young Americans, the 1999-2000 custody battle over Cuban refugee Elian Gonzalez was their first introduction to Cuba. Gonzalez, then just 6 years old, was picked up off the coast of Florida after the boat in which his mother, stepfather and several others had escaped from Cuba capsized.
Miami-based Cuban exiles rallied around the boy, who was taken in by relatives there. For months, the boy was at the center of a political firestorm. The exile community joined with Elian's Miami relatives, who refused to allow U.S. immigration officials to return the boy to his father in Cuba. Justice Department officials eventually raided the Miami home where Gonzalez was being cared for, and the boy was reunited with his father.
Castro said the Elian Gonzalez saga improved Cubans' perceptions of Americans and bolstered his own good feelings towards the American people. "Perhaps that situation gave rise to the possibility of Americans knowing a little bit better about Cuba."
Castro said Gonzalez, now in fourth grade, is doing well. "He's very active, very intelligent. … He's an excellent boy. His family is also an excellent family," Castro said.