Fidel Castro made many enemies when he set out to free Cuba from the ironclad rule of Batista and U.S. imperialism.
But he also made a lot of friends—among them some of the world’s leading thinkers, activists and sporting icons.
teleSUR looks at these valuable friendships—some more unlikely than others—and what they say about the revolutionary leader.
1. Nelson Mandela
Fidel Castro and South African leader Nelson Mandela enjoyed a long and close relationship, forged by a joint struggle against inequality and oppression.
When Mandela began a South African resistance militia to end racial oppression he looked to the Cuban Revolution for inspiration.
Fidel Castro and Nelson Mandela. | Photo: Reuters
In his autobiography “Long Walk to Freedom,” South Africa’s iconic leader described how the philosophy and success of the Cuban Revolution influenced his politics and ideology.
“I read the report of Blas Roca, the general secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba, about their years as an illegal organization during the Batista regime,” he wrote. “I read works by and about Che Guevara, Mao Tse-tung, Fidel Castro.”
“Any and every source was of interest to me.”
After Mandela was released from prison in 1990, the two leaders grew closer.
Mandela traveled to Cuba to meet his friend in person and thank him for sending soldiers to Angola during the 1970s and 1980s to fight apartheid regimes.
“We have come here today recognizing our great debt to the Cuban people. What other country has such a history of selfless behavior as Cuba has shown for the people of Africa?” he said in his speech.
In 1994, Mandela was elected the first Black president of South Africa—an historic moment marking the end of over 40 years of segregation, oppression and discrimination.
Fidel was there to cheer him on.
2. Muhammad Ali
Fidel Castro jokes with Muhammad Ali | Photo: Hazel Hankin
Boxing icon Muhammad Ali had a special relationship with Cuba and its revolutionary leader, Fidel Castro.
As a humanitarian and vocal activist against racial inequality in the United States, Ali considered Fidel a comrade.
Fidel Castro: A Latin American Legend
In 1996, Ali traveled to Cuba as part of a Red Cross mission to deliver medical supplies. He spent five days in Cuba and led the delegation to hand over US$500,000 worth of medical aid.
To thank him for his efforts, Fidel invited Ali and his companions to a private meeting.
According to photojournalist Hazel Hankin, the two exchanged jokes and jabs, with Fidel telling Ali, “Hit me here,” and pointing to his face.
The moment was captured by Hankin and remains to this day a symbol of the unlikely friendship between two champions of two different arenas.
Ali would continue his commitment to Cuba, returning in 1998 to deliver a donation of US$1.2 million in medical aid.
3. Jesse Jackson
The Rev. Jesse Jackson visits Fidel Castro in 1993. | Photo: Reuters
In 1984, Rev. Jesse Jackson traveled to Cuba to oversee the freedom of U.S. prisoners. At the time, the move was described by the New York Times as a “dramatic exercise in personal diplomacy with President Fidel Castro of Cuba.”
Castro later said he had released the prisoners ''as a result of Rev. Jackson's visit. I did it for him and for the people of the United States.''
Jackson likewise praised Castro’s integrity and leadership, describing him as "the most honest and courageous politician I've ever met!”
At an event in Havana, Rev. Jackson bellowed “Viva Fidel!” to an audience of over 300 people at the University of Havana. The two left the stage arm in arm.
4. Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Fidel Castro and Garcia Marquez | Photo: Reuters
One of the world’s greatest literary figures, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, was a longtime friend of Fidel.
He stood by his Cuban friend despite harsh criticism and never betrayed their friendship.
The two first met on Jan. 19, 1959, when Marquez arrived in Cuba to observe the trials of Fulgencio Batista. He was warmly met by Castro and from that moment on the two would build a strong and important relationship.
Marquez joined Prensa Latina, a news service founded by Che Guevara to counter the power of U.S. media. Working as a journalist, the Nobel laureate helped shape the representation of Cuba in the international press.
But while politics connected them, there was also a kinship for the arts.
“Ours is an intellectual friendship,” he said in an interview with Claudia Dreifus in 1982.
“It may not be widely known that Fidel is a very cultured man. When we’re together, we talk a great deal about literature.”
While Marquez left Prensa Latina and began to focus on his literary career, he never forgot about his friend.
In 1996, Marquez “dined with President Clinton and told him, ‘If you and Fidel could sit face to face, there wouldn’t be any problem left,” according to Mexican author Enrique Krauze.
5. Diego Maradona
Diego Maradona and Fidel Castro | Photo: Reuters
Argentine soccer legend Diego Maradona holds Fidel Castro in such high esteem that he tattooed his face on his leg.
"For me he is a god," Maradona said of the Cuban leader.
Maradona and Castro have known each other from when Maradona first visited Cuba in 1986. Since then, the two have grown close, coming together through a shared love of football and radical politics.
When the soccer star was struggling with a cocaine addiction, he turned to Cuba for help, making several visits to the island for treatment.
And to dispel rumors of his death, Castro turned to Maradona, writing that he was well.
Maradona read the letter out live on teleSUR, describing Castro as a “second father to me, because he has always cared for me and helped me get by. The truth is I only have appreciation for him.”
6. And Of Course… Hugo Chavez
Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez | Photo: Reuters
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez looked to Fidel Castro as a mentor and father figure.
Their unprecedented 18-year friendship began in 1994 when Chavez visited Cuba after being released from prison following a 1992 coup attempt against the corrupt Punto Fijo government.
The two formed an instant connection, bonding over baseball and a shared mission to end U.S. hegemony in Latin America.
With Fidel’s guidance and encouragement, Chavez honed his political ideology and grew to be one of the most important socialist leaders in Latin American history.
The strong bond between Chavez and Fidel brought their two countries closer. Since Chavez became president in 1999, Cuba and Venezuela have signed over 300 trade and cooperation deals.
And when Cuba was crippled by the U.S. blockade, it was Venezuela which came to the country’s aid. Between 2007 and 2013, Venezuela provided more than US$10 billion a year in economic relief.
Upon Chavez’ death, Fidel penned a letter describing the Venezuelan leader as “the best friend the Cuban people have had in its long history.”