MIDWAY: In his element

When the Soviet Union and the socialist camp disappeared,” Fidel Castro tells Ignacio Ramonet, editor of what is in effect both Castro’s autobiography and political testament, “no one would have wagered one cent on the survival of the Cuban revolution.” Even the Cuban president’s fiercest critics would find it hard to disagree with that. The catastrophic withdrawal of Soviet support in the 1990s and the overnight loss of Cuba’s main markets and suppliers plunged the Caribbean island into a grim period of retrenchment, known euphemistically as the “special period”.

In Miami, the heirs of the grisly US-backed dictator Fugencio Batista prepared to return in triumph to reclaim the farms, factories and bordellos that Castro, Che Guevara and their followers closed or expropriated after they fought their way to power in 1959. The US government tightened the screws on their economic blockade and around the world both sympathisers and enemies waited for the Cuban regime to follow the example of its east European counterparts, bow to the global triumph of capitalism and embrace the end of history.

More than 15 years later, they’re still waiting. In defiance of the laws of political gravity, Cuba has rebuilt its shattered economy, held on to its independence, stepped back from the most damaging social compromises it had been forced to make and used Castro’s illness to begin the leadership handover outsiders assumed would never happen or would lead to precipitate collapse.

Meanwhile, the leftward tide across Latin America and the consolidation of the Chavez government in Venezuela has thrown Cuba a political and economic lifeline, as has the growing economic muscle of China.

In the light of such a remarkable comeback — and given Castro’s history of survival against ridiculous odds, from the attack on the Moncada barracks in 1953 and the ensuing guerrilla campaign in the Sierra Maestrato the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 — perhaps it’s not surprising that the world’s longest-serving pre-sident places such emphasis on “subjective factors” in revolutionary politics. If ever there were a case of triumph of the will over objective adversity, the Cuban experience epitomises it.