Oct. 11, 2002 — -- 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.
Barbara Walters also interviewed Elian's father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, who said his son is growing fast and has earned his green belt in karate. Gonzalez said Elian remembers the wonderful people he shared time with in America, but "he doesn't see the fact that he was taken away from his family in Cuba as something which was good for him."
He said he and Elian are very grateful for the help Americans gave them, and he wants America to know that after three years of being in Cuba with his family, Elian is very happy.
A great deal of the debate surrounding Elian's return centered on the quality of life he would have if he returned to Cuba, where commodities are rationed and Cuba's cash-starved government feeds its people a spartan, but sufficient, diet.
The U.S. Congress is considering softening the U.S. trade embargo, and lifting travel restrictions so that Americans can visit Cuba, but President Bush has said he will veto any easing of sanctions unless Castro allows opposition parties to organize and to speak, releases political prisoners, and permits free elections monitored by outside observers.
Castro calls the trade sanctions "all politics," and says his country will advance regardless of U.S. trade policy. "Even if the embargo is not lifted," Castro said, "Cuba will continue to advance." Castro said the sanctions have taught Cubans to become a hardworking, austere people. "We have learned how to tighten our belts."
He said he believes that the American people are an idealistic people, and are only supporting the embargo against his nation because they are being misled. "I think that the president is very powerful, but sooner or later this president or another president will need to adopt measures more in accordance … with the feelings of the American people."
Castro has also made it clear he will not budge on political reforms. A little more than a year ago petitions calling for democratic reforms began circulating as part of the Varela Project. Under Cuba's constitution, a minimum of 10,000 signatures is required to force a referendum. The group gathered 11,000 signatures, petitioning for human rights and electoral reforms. Castro said the petitioners would have their response from the National Assembly "in due course." However, just this past June the legislature approved reforms to the constitution, making the country's socialist system "irrevocable."
Although Cuba is still struggling to recover from the collapse of the Soviet Union, Castro insists socialism is working. But things are changing. The U.S. dollar is no longer illegal, and some Americans are defying the U.S. travel ban to enjoy the dollar's power here. Private restaurants are now allowed. Budding capitalists are opening shops and bars.
Education is Castro's mantra for the new Cuba. For Castro, freedom starts with education. If literacy alone were the yardstick, Cuba would be among the most liberated nations on Earth. Cuba's literacy rate hovers around an impressive 96 percent, and university students pay no tuition.
Education, particularly his love of history, was essential in Castro's own development. He said his love of history came to him early. "I always loved the stories. You know, first the sacred history and the creation of the universe, Adam and Eve and the forbidden apple."
Castro questions whether people who are poorly educated can be truly free, whether they live in an industrialized nation or an underdeveloped country. "Can they think freely? Don't you need some education to do that? Don't you need some knowledge about the issues in order to be able to discuss and to sustain your arguments?"
Castro said Cuban society is advancing quickly "to be not only the most just society in the world but the more cultivated, the one with the most knowledge." Citing Cuban independence leader José Marti, Castro said, "The only way to be free is to be learned."