When 10,000 disgruntled Cubans stormed the Peruvian embassy in Havana last spring demanding asylum, Castro let them—and anyone else who cared to—leave the island. Within days the chaotic "freedom flotilla" was under way, bringing more than 125,000 refugees to the U.S. before Castro shut the gates again in September.
Portraying the fleeing hordes as criminals and misfits (indeed, Cuban officials forced some 1,600 prisoners and mental patients aboard the boats), Castro rallied his beleaguered people and diverted attention from his nation's economic woes: The tobacco crop had been nearly wiped out by mold, and the price of Cuban sugar on the world market had fallen to six cents a pound. In this country, the Carter administration struggled to house, feed and ultimately relocate the Cubans, amid charges that the President had been hornswoggled.
Castro may yet pay a price. The refugee morass benefited Ronald Reagan's candidacy, and the October release of 33 Americans held in Cuban jails was too little too late to help Carter politically. The new Administration Castro helped elect is likely to support anti-Cuban rightists in volatile Central American nations.
Castro has other problems too. His friend and ally Michael Manley, the prime minister of Jamaica, was defeated for reelection last fall by Edward Seaga, a Harvard-educated businessman. Closer to home, Castro lost his longtime confidante and reputed mistress, Celia Sánchez, 57, who died in January of what officials called "a painful illness." Flags throughout the country flew at half-staff as her body lay in state. Meanwhile, at the U.N. Cuba's obligatory defense of the Afghanistan invasion (Cuba receives $8 million a day in Soviet subsidies) damaged Castro's credibility and dashed his hopes for a seat on the Security Council.
Yet 21 years after his takeover, Castro remains the most charismatic force in Latin America. An imposing man in his familiar fatigues and zippered boots, he nurtures Third World solidarity around the globe and miniature vegetables in his garden at the Government Palace. A robust 53, Castro recently boasted of making a nine-mile ocean swim—but that is three-tenths of a mile less than Chairman Mao's legendary dip in the Yangtze at age 72.