Speed Reads

Havana Mights

In 1959, Fidel Castro promised 'free elections' within a year. He never delivered.

Fidel Castro, whose death was announced Saturday, will not be remembered as a great believer in democracy. When Castro and his rebels overthrew longtime dictator Fulgencio Batista's government on New Year's Day 1959, Cuba was largely a gambling and nightlife mecca for wealthy Americans run by Batista and the U.S. mafia — events partially fictionalized in The Godfather Part II.

Castro crushed dissent, did not allow a free press or fair and open elections, and ruled Cuba until handing power to his brother Raul in 2008. He did not believe in American-style democracy, he told Barbara Walters in 1977, and his government outlasted 10 U.S. presidential administrations. But in February 1959, in an interview where Ed Sullivan hailed Castro as Cuba's George Washington, Castro said Cuba would have no more dictators. In a BBC News interview from January 1959 unearthed in a 2011 documentary, Castro said, "I would think that in 18 months, about, we will have free elections — less than one year."

Castro also said that he wouldn't shave his beard to please the American tourists the American interviewer said would flock to Castro's Cuba, and said "of course" he wanted to see gambling stopped altogether, and there would be "no casinos for the Cuban people" and "only for tourists if the government agrees with that." Castro's government has not agreed, and gambling is illegal in Cuba. President-elect Donald Trump, who had nothing nice to say about Castro upon his death, sent representatives from his Trump Hotels & Casino Resorts business to Havana to see about developing some sort of resort during a brief thawing of ties in 1998, Newsweek reports, possibly breaking U.S. law to do so. In March, Trump said he would like to open a hotel in Cuba "at the right time, when we're allowed to do it."