For 35 years, Castro played a big man in a little country tweaking a giant's nose

IN the spring of 1959, shortly after he had seized power in Havana, Fidel Castro Ruz visited the United States to give speeches and meet with United States government officials. In general, he made a good impression. The American Society of Newspaper Editors perceived moderation in his remarks; then-Vice President Richard Nixon clapped him on the back and judged him a man that could be dealt with.

But in hindsight it was Castro's brief visit to the Bronx Zoo that hinted at his future US relationship. Astonishing onlookers, the bearded revolutionary vaulted a protective rail around the zoo's Bengal tiger cage, stuck his hands between the bars, and nonchalantly petted the powerful cats.

``They didn't do anything,'' Castro observed.

And so it has gone ever since with Cuba and its giant Northern neighbor. Castro has spent decades poking and prodding a nation large enough to crush him within days.

The US has responded largely with half-hearted swipes, such as the Bay of Pigs fiasco and a series of ludicrous assassination schemes.

Cold War concerns were a big reason the US stayed its hand, of course. But Castro also appears to understand the limits imposed on a President by domestic politics and to know how to play his often-weak hands accordingly.

The result has been a relationship of simmering animosity, with only brief periods of promise over the last thirty-odd years. Much of the American governing establishment - and not just Cuban-Americans - have subsequently developed something of a Castro fixation, according to some scholars.

``Essentially what they want is revenge over Cuba,'' claims Piero Gleijeses, a professor of Latin American Studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

Not that Castro hasn't sometimes given them reason to feel that way. Just about every US leader since Eisenhower has had some kind of major run-in with the fatigue-clad Cuban Maximum Leader. Kennedy had the Cuban Missile Crisis, of course. Johnson faced the first major refugee boatlift, from the port of Camarioca. The Ford administration was roiled by the dispatch of Cuban troops to Africa. Carter had the Mariel boatlift; Reagan had Cuban assistance to the Sandinistas.

Whenever a US President appeared ready to open a wider dialogue with Castro, as Carter was early in his term, bad timing, hard-line US opposition, or a clumsy decision on Cuba's part closed the opening.

The US, for its part, has made major mistakes in its reading of Cuba along the way. At the time of the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion, for instance, US planners thought the Cuban population would quickly rise to the support of attacking forces. They were sadly mistaken. Hair-brained CIA schemes followed, including poison cigars for Castro and plots to make his beard-hair fall out, so he would appear less manly.

Castro has maintained power over the years because he has genuine charisma, says Gleijeses. He long represented the nationalism of a Cuban people that remembered ham-fisted US occupations of their island. His social reforms, such as expanded health care and educational opportunities, were real - at least until Cuba's economy fell apart.

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