WASHINGTON -- What the CIA couldn't do with exploding seashells, poison cigars and chemicals to make his beard fall off, Fidel Castro has done alone. He removed himself from a world stage that he seemed to dominate for nearly 50 years.
So compelling was this 6-foot-3-inch, Jesuit-trained former lawyer that he inspired and drove revolutionary movements across Central America and Africa.
He twisted American policymakers into such awkward knots that the United States has maintained severe economic sanctions against Cuba, and at the same time a naval station on the island's southeastern tip, housing the most notorious alleged terrorists in captivity at Guantanamo Bay.
"He survived paramilitary invasions, assassination attempts, trade embargoes, travel bans, diplomatic isolation. He stood up to 10 American presidents, all of whom to some degree were dedicated to doing him in," said Peter Kornbluh, a Cuba specialist with the nonpartisan National Security Archive in Washington.
Castro has been at the center of some of the most notable U.S. adventures and misadventures of the past half-century: the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion fiasco and the Cuban Missile Crisis, which brought the world to the edge of nuclear war in 1962; proxy wars in Central America and Africa; the 1983 U.S. invasion of Grenada against Cuban defenders; the Iran-contra affair and the CIA's long and unsuccessful obsession with using underworld gangsters to assassinate him.
"Few issues have challenged ... our nation longer than the situation in Cuba," President Bush said in a speech last fall.
If there is an emblematic image of the Cold War, it might well be the beard, military cap and jaunty cigar of Castro.
"And the ego!" said Vicki Huddleston, a retired ambassador who led the U.S. Interests section in Havana from 1999 to 2002. Castro, she said, "is driven by ego and power. Everything he does is very calculated."
Seizing power from a tottering dictatorship in 1959, Castro initially was seen as a Robin Hood figure who sought to eradicate Cuba's extremes of wealth and poverty. But his socialist goals clashed with powerful U.S. economic interests in Cuba and the region.
"The American government became an obstacle to some of the changes he wanted to make," said Warren Cohen, professor of U.S. foreign relations at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
When Castro turned to Moscow for economic and military support, the Russians were at first suspicious. But Castro, who was master only of a small Caribbean island, played his hand well.
"Sure, Cuba's only a little island, but it's 90 miles off the Florida coast, a very important strategic position for the Soviets and a very dangerous position for the United States," said Mircea Munteanu, a Cold War scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington.
The Kremlin wasn't looking to stir things up in the early 1960s, but "they were dragged into it by Castro," said Munteanu. "The Russians were not necessarily looking for trouble, but the Cubans were saying, `If you don't want to help us, the Chinese will.'"
When it became clear that Castro was joining the Soviet orbit - and soliciting Soviet military support - the U.S. response "was pretty close to hysterical," Cohen said.
According to investigations led by Sen. Frank Church in 1975, the CIA launched at least eight plots between 1960 and 1965 to assassinate Castro.
Working through reputed mobsters Johnny Rosselli, Salvatore Giancana and Santos Trafficante, the CIA struck out on each attempt. These included the use of poison cigars, dusting Castro's shoes during a U.N. visit with a chemical that would cause his beard to fall out, sending a sniper with a high-powered rifle to Havana and contaminating Castro's diving gear with tuberculosis germs.
The CIA also schemed to rig an exotic seashell with explosives and place it on the sea floor where Castro was fond of diving, an idea that proved impractical, according to the 1975 report of the Senate investigations committee.
Undaunted, Castro launched an unprecedented series of foreign interventions in the 1970s and 1980s with major Soviet economic and military support.
Pressing the "people's revolution" agenda across the Third World, Castro dispatched Cuban tank battalions to Ethiopia and tens of thousands of troops, along with squadrons of doctors and teachers, to Angola and across Latin America.
In the mid-1980s, with the Reagan White House warning of major Soviet and Cuban inroads into Central America, Cuban support for Nicaragua's revolutionary Sandinista government prompted a series of U.S. missteps, including an ill-fated CIA effort to mine Nicaraguan harbors and the scheme to sell weapons to Iran to raise money for the anti-Sandinista insurgents known as the contras.
Although Castro is often portrayed as a major Cold War problem for the United States, diplomatic archives opened up after the collapse of the Soviet Union suggest that he was as much of a headache for Moscow.
"Castro ended up being more of a revolutionary than anyone in Moscow," said Cohen. "He really knew how to push buttons."
At no point was that more true than in 1962, when a U.S. spy plane photographed the construction of launch sites for Russian missiles in Cuba. The United States protested and imposed a naval quarantine on Cuba to prevent Soviet ships from carrying the missiles to Cuba.
Eventually, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev backed down, and the Russian ships turned back.