HAVANA, Nov 26 (Reuters) – Fidel Castro, the Cuban revolutionary leader who built a communist state on the doorstep of the United States and for five decades defied U.S. efforts to topple him, died on Friday. He was 90.
A towering figure of the second half of the 20th Century, Castro stuck to his ideology beyond the collapse of Soviet communism and remained widely respected in parts of the world that had struggled against colonial rule.
He had been in poor health since an intestinal ailment nearly killed him in 2006. He formally ceded power to his younger brother Raul Castro two years later.
Wearing a green military uniform, a somber Raul Castro, 85, appeared on state television on Friday night to announce his brother’s death.
“At 10.29 at night, the chief commander of the Cuban revolution, Fidel Castro Ruz, died,” he said, without giving a cause of death.
“Ever onward, to victory,” he said, using the slogan of the Cuban revolution.
Tributes came in from allies, including Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Venezuela’s socialist President Nicolas Maduro, who said “revolutionaries of the world must follow his legacy.”
Although Raul Castro always glorified his older brother, he has changed Cuba since taking over by introducing market-style economic reforms and agreeing with the United States in December 2014 to re-establish diplomatic ties and end decades of hostility.
Fidel Castro offered only lukewarm support for the deal, raising questions about whether he approved of ending hostilities with his longtime enemy. Some analysts believed his mere presence kept Raul from moving further and faster, while others saw him as either quietly supportive or increasingly irrelevant.
He did not meet Barack Obama when he visited Havana earlier this year, the first time a U.S. president had stepped foot on Cuban soil since 1928.
Days later, Castro wrote a scathing newspaper column condemning Obama’s “honey-coated” words and reminding Cubans of the many U.S. efforts to overthrow and weaken the Communist government.
The news of Castro’s death spread slowly among Friday night revelers on the streets of Havana. One famous club that was still open when word came in quickly closed.
Some residents reacted with sadness to the news.
“I’m very upset. Whatever you want to say, he is a public figure that the whole world respected and loved,” said Havana student Sariel Valdespino.
But in Miami, where many exiles from Castro’s Communist government live, a large crowd waving Cuban flags cheered, danced and banged on pots and pans.
Castro’s body will be cremated, according to his wishes. Cuba declared nine days of mourning, during which time the ashes will be taken to different parts of the country. A burial ceremony will be held on Dec. 4.
The bearded Fidel Castro took power in a 1959 revolution and ruled Cuba for 49 years with a mix of charisma and iron will, creating a one-party state and becoming a central figure in the Cold War.
He was demonized by the United States and its allies but admired by many leftists around the world, especially socialist revolutionaries in Latin America and Africa.
Nelson Mandela, once freed from prison in 1990, repeatedly thanked Castro for his firm efforts in helping to weaken apartheid.
The father of communist Cuba, Fidel Castro, died on Nov. 25, 2016, at the age of 90. The controversial and divisive world figure received several international awards and is recognized as a champion of socialism, anti-imperialism, and humanitarianism. Let’s take a look at the life of the revolutionary who ruled Cuba for almost five decades.
1945: Early Life
Castro was born in Cuba in 1926, the illegitimate son of Ángel Castro, a rich farmer. At school, he was an intelligent but not exceptional student — although his main passion was for sport, at which he excelled. But it was when he went to study law at the University of Havana that Castro began to develop his political awareness, becoming involved with a variety of left-wing activist groups. In 1947, he joined a military expedition to try and overthrow the right-wing dictator of the Dominican Republic but when that failed, he returned to Cuba. In 1948, Castro married Mirta Díaz Balart, who came from a wealthy Cuban family. One of the wedding gifts he received was $1,000 from Cuban general Fulgencio Batista, a friend of Balart’s family. (Pictured) Castro after he was chosen as the best athlete of Belen High School in 1945.
1952: Batista coup
Castro was working as a lawyer in 1952 when Batista — who had already served once as a left-leaning president of Cuba — staged a military coup three months before the elections were due. Unlike his legitimate first term as president, the U.S.-backed Batista (C) ruled as a dictator in the interests of the wealthy, with both American business and American organized crime enriching themselves while ordinary Cubans became increasingly impoverished.
1953: Attempted uprising and jail
In response to the Batista coup, a number of revolutionary organisations in Cuba were formed with the intention of opposing the regime — one of which, known simply as “The Movement,” was formed by Castro. In 1953, Castro led a group of over 100 rebels — including his brother Raúl — in an attack on a military garrison, the Moncada Barracks. Despite careful planning, the attempt to start an uprising was a disaster as the rebels were heavily outnumbered, and were quickly forced to retreat, with many of them captured or killed. Castro retreated to the mountains but over the next few days, the remaining rebels were rounded up and either executed or, like Castro, put on trial. Castro is pictured on the left, giving his deposition to military and police chiefs at the Vivac in Santiago de Cuba in July 1953. On Oct. 16, Castro was sentenced to 15 years imprisonment; although in the end, he would serve less than two years. At his trial, he said: “Condemn me. It does not matter. History will absolve me.”
1956: Mexico and Che
Despite being sentenced for 15 years, Castro was released in 1955 as the newly confident Batista regime — bolstered by support from the U.S. — believed the rebels to be no threat to them. During his time in jail, Castro and his wife began divorce proceedings after she began working for Batista’s Ministry of the Interior. A few months after his release, in July 1955, Fidel followed his brother Raúl to Mexico, where the latter introduced him to a young Argentinian doctor called Ernesto Guevara, commonly known as Che. Guevara was committed to helping spread revolutionary activities and fighting the U.S. influence across Latin America. (Pictured) Fidel (L) and Che are seen in jail in Mexico City after being arrested in June 1956, quite possibly the first picture of them together.
Guevara (R) and Castro (L) would become profoundly influential in each other’s lives, as the Argentinian joined Fidel in his fight against the Batista regime. In December 1956, a group of revolutionaries — including Fidel and Raúl Castro, and Che Guevara — traveled back to Cuba, where they set up a camp in the Sierra Maestra mountains, and began a grueling, years-long campaign of guerrilla warfare.
1957: Guerrilla warfare
Throughout 1957, Castro and his allies led repeated attacks on military outposts of the Batista regime across the Sierra Maestra region while building support among locals and attracting new recruits from the cities. By 1958, the attacks had proven so successful that the Batista government withdrew its forces from the mountain area entirely, giving Castro’s rebels control of virtually all of Oriente Province. Seeing the tide turning against Batista, the U.S. withdrew its support for Batista and hoped to replace him with a right-wing, military-led regime better placed to thwart Castro. Out of allies, Batista resigned on the New Year’s Eve of 1958, and subsequently fled the country, taking a fortune estimated to be at $300 million with him.
1959: Revolution achieved
After Batista’s resignation, the U.S.-backed military — led by General Eulogio Cantillo — attempted to take control of the country. But the massive swell of support behind Castro was too great. On Jan. 1, Castro supporters took to the streets of the capital Havana to celebrate Batista’s fall, burning casinos and other symbols of the old regime’s power (pictured). On Jan. 2, Guevara-led revolutionary forces entered Havana, while Castro’s forces took the second city of Santiago. A week later, on Jan. 8, Castro finally entered Havana to a hero’s welcome.
1959: Becomes prime minister
With the fall of the Batista regime and the arrest of General Cantillo, a liberal lawyer named Manuel Urrutia Lleó — who had defended rebels in trials established by the Batista regime, and had been strongly backed by Castro — was declared president. But Castro and Urrutia quickly fell out; Urrutia and his prime minister José Miró wanted to establish democratic elections and restore the rule of law. Castro, however, opposed elections and was quick to oversee the execution of former Batista regime officials without proper trials. In mid-February, Miró unexpectedly resigned — leading to Castro being sworn in as prime minister, and leaving Urrutia isolated. A few months later, in July, Castro briefly resigned as prime minister and denounced Urrutia — who, out of allies, offered his resignation. Castro then resumed his duties as prime minister having appointed a replacement president of his own choosing.
1960: Nationalization and purges
Unlike Che Guevara and his brother Raúl, during his time as a revolutionary, Castro had always refused to identify himself as a communist, in the hope of building a broader coalition. But once in power, he began a widespread program of nationalization of property and business, socialization of healthcare and collectivization of agriculture and other means of production — winning him widespread support among the country’s poor. Simultaneously, he also set about purging Cuban society of opponents — not just backers of the Batista regime, but moderates and liberals as well. Opposition newspapers were closed, a surveillance network (the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution) was established to report on counter-revolutionary activities, and many opponents of his rule were arrested and imprisoned. Other groups who Castro disliked were also targeted — notably homosexuals, who were imprisoned on a large scale.
1960 onwards: Embrace of communism and US embargo
In 1961, Castro officially announced that Cuba was a socialist state, and formally allied the country with the Soviet Union, which in return established new trade deals and provided arms. Castro embraced the Soviet Union partly in response to a growing trade war with the U.S.; when the Cuban government had nationalized the properties of the U.S. companies, the U.S. imposed a tight quota on its sugar imports from Cuba, something that could severely damage the island’s economy. Castro is pictured here greeting the Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev at the UN General Assembly in New York, U.S., in September 1960. Over the following years, the U.S. trade restrictions were tightened to a full-on embargo, preventing any trade with and travel to Cuba on the part of Americans, and even attempting to prevent any firm that did business with Cuba also doing business with the U.S. Shortly before President Kennedy formalized the trade embargo in 1962, he reportedly asked that 1,000 Cuban cigars be bought for him for his future enjoyment.
1961: Bay of Pigs
In addition to the trade war, since 1960 the U.S. had been actively trying to undermine and disrupt the new Cuban regime. This culminated in the disastrous April 1961 attempt by CIA-organised Cuban exiles to invade the island. On April 17, 1961, around 1,400 Cuban exiles, under the command of U.S. soldiers and CIA operatives, landed at the Bay of Pigs on Cuba’s south coast. But Castro’s government — which knew they were coming thanks to its intelligence network — easily defeated the invaders after three days of fighting. Castro himself was present at the battleground to oversee the military operations (pictured). The botched invasion was a huge embarrassment to the new Kennedy administration.
1962: Cuban missile crisis
Following the Bay of Pigs invasion attempt, Castro moved to strengthen Cuba’s military ties to the Soviet Union — including secretly agreeing to build bases that would hold Soviet R-12 MRBM nuclear missiles, enabling the Soviets to target the U.S. in the same way American nuclear bases in Europe could target the USSR. In October 1962, a U.S. surveillance flight obtained photographic proof of the missile bases (pictured), sparking an international incident that brought the world the closest it has ever been to a nuclear war. After 13 incredibly tense days in which it looked likely that the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. would go to war, the stand-off was resolved when Soviet Premier Khrushchev agreed to dismantle the Cuban bases and withdraw its missiles. In return, the U.S. secretly agreed to do the same with its Italian and Turkish missile bases, and publicly pledged never to invade Cuba.
1960s: Assassination attempts
Since before the Bay of Pigs incident and for many years following it, in addition to invasion attempts, the CIA had repeatedly plotted to assassinate Castro — at least eight separate plots are known of, while Cuban sources estimate they made hundreds of attempts. Notoriously, one of the reported assassination methods supposedly would have involved an exploding cigar — although it’s not clear if this was ever seriously considered by the agency. What is known that several real plots did involve attempts to poison Castro, including one that recruited his ex-lover and another ongoing collaboration between the CIA and American gangsters from Al Capone’s former criminal gang. Needless to say, all the assassination attempts failed.
1970s and 1980s: Decades of rule
With Cuba sat in the middle of the Cold War’s stand-off between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., Castro continued to rule for decades with little change. Cuba was cut off from much of the world by the U.S. embargo, severely limiting the civil rights of its citizens at home but supported economically thanks to trade with the Soviet Union. During this time, Castro supported other Marxist revolutionary movements across both Latin America and parts of Africa, such as Angola and Ethiopia — the former winning him the admiration of the then-jailed Nelson Mandela (L).
1991: Fall of Soviet Union
Cuba’s decades of relative — if tense — stability started to change at the end of the 1980s, as Castro grew disillusioned with Mikhail Gorbachev’s (R) reformist leadership of the Soviet Union and the decline of communism across Eastern Europe. In 1991, the collapse of the Soviet Union proved a devastating blow for Castro’s Cuba. Losing its major trading partner, responsible for 80 percent of its imports and exports, while still being under economic embargo from its superpower neighbor, saw the country plunged into an economic crisis.
1989-1994: Economic collapse
The economic crisis, which had started in 1989, was exacerbated following the collapse of the Soviet Union. By 1992, the country’s GDP had shrunk by over 40%. Castro declared sweeping austerity measures known as the ‘Special Period in Time of Peace,’ closing all non-essential factories, rationing petrol and electricity and even using oxen to replace tractors on some farms. In 1994, Castro lifted restrictions on Cubans wishing to leave the country. The number of Cubans fleeing the country to seek refuge in the U.S., often on ramshackle rafts, grew significantly — around 30,000 made for the Florida coast. Faced with a wave of immigration, the U.S. Government of Bill Clinton stopped accepting the refugees, returning them to Guantanamo Bay, the U.S. naval base in Cuba. (Pictured) Cuban refugees stranded in the open sea halfway between Key West and Cuba in August 1994.
2001: Hurricane Michelle
In 2001, the category 4 Hurricane Michelle struck Cuba. Thanks to an efficient evacuation process, only four people died but it caused an estimated US $1.8 billion of damage, severely hurting the country’s recovering-but-still-fragile economy. Castro is seen here as he inspects a citrus grove damaged by the hurricane. Although Castro refused the offer of aid from the U.S., he did agree to a one-off purchase of food from the latter, the first shipment of food since the embargo was imposed.
2001 onwards: Health rumors
In 2001, Castro fainted in public while in the middle of giving a seven-hour-long speech in the hot sun (above). It sparked rumors about the leader’s failing health and speculation about who would succeed him if he became too ill to govern.
2006: Handover to Raúl
At the end of July 2006, after undergoing a major surgery, Castro officially handed over his presidential duties to his brother Raúl (R), marking the end of over 45 years as Cuba’s de facto leader, both as prime minister and president (although he retained his official position). Over the following years, he was rarely seen in public, and rumors about his ill health continued to circulate.
Almost two years after handing over his duties, in February 2008, Castro officially retired as Cuban president, with Raúl taking over the role — although he remained as the leader of the Communist Party until 2011. In his retirement, and with his health apparently improved, Castro remained active in Cuban political life — writing a weekly column for the official Communist Party newspaper Granma and giving interviews with foreign journalists. He also spoke of some of the mistakes and regrets over his decades of rule — admitting economic blunders during the “special period,” and (among other things) describing his regime’s persecution of homosexuals as a “great injustice” for which he took responsibility.
2009 onwards: Legacy
Castro’s influence can still be seen across the island, including in the many pictures and murals of him still publicly displayed. In December 2014, U.S. President Barack Obama announced that the U.S. would restore diplomatic relations with Cuba, ending 50 years of hostility. Rumors had again begun to swirl about the former Cuban leader’s health as he hadn’t appeared in public since January. In March 2016, Obama and his family made a historic trip to the island nation, though there was no meeting between the two.
On Nov. 25, Raúl announced Castro’s death to the public and said: “The commander in chief of the Cuban revolution died at 22:29 hours this evening.” Before his 90th birthday in August, he had told his supporters that he didn’t expect to live long.
In April, in a rare public appearance at the Communist Party conference, Fidel Castro shocked party apparatchiks by referring to his own imminent mortality.
“Soon I will be like all the rest. Our turn comes to all of us, but the ideas of the Cuban communists will remain,” he said.
Castro was last seen by ordinary Cubans in photos showing him engaged in conversation with Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang earlier this month.
Transforming Cuba from a playground for rich Americans into a symbol of resistance to Washington, Castro crossed swords with 10 U.S. presidents while in power, and outlasted nine of them.
He fended off a CIA-backed invasion at the Bay of Pigs in 1961 as well as countless assassination attempts.
His alliance with Moscow helped trigger the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, a 13-day showdown with the United States that brought the world the closest it has been to nuclear war.
Wearing green military fatigues and chomping on cigars for many of his years in power, Castro was famous for long, fist-pounding speeches filled with blistering rhetoric, often aimed at the United States.
At home, he swept away capitalism and won support for bringing schools and hospitals to the poor. But he also created legions of enemies and critics, concentrated among the exiles in Miami who fled his rule and saw him as a ruthless tyrant.
“With Castro’s passing, some of the heat may go out of the antagonism between Cuba and the United States, and between Cuba and Miami, which would be good for everyone,” said William M. LeoGrande, co-author of a book on U.S.-Cuba relations.
However, it is not clear if U.S. President-Elect Donald Trump will continue to normalize relations with Cuba or revive tensions and fulfill a campaign promise to close the U.S. embassy in Havana once again.
Castro’s death – which would once have thrown a question mark over Cuba’s future – seems unlikely to trigger a crisis as Raul Castro is firmly ensconced in power.
In his final years, Fidel Castro no longer held leadership posts. He wrote newspaper commentaries on world affairs and occasionally met with foreign leaders but he lived in semi-seclusion.
Still, the passing of the man known to most Cubans as “El Comandante” – the commander – or simply “Fidel” leaves a huge void in the country he dominated for so long. It also underlines the generational change in Cuba’s communist leadership.
Raul Castro vows to step down when his term ends in 2018 and the Communist Party has elevated younger leaders to its Politburo, including 56-year-old Miguel Diaz-Canel, who is first vice-president and the heir apparent.
Others in their 50s include Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez and economic reform czar Marino Murillo.
The reforms have led to more private enterprise and the lifting of some restrictions on personal freedoms but they aim to strengthen Communist Party rule, not weaken it.
A Jesuit-educated lawyer, Fidel Castro led the revolution that ousted U.S.-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista on Jan 1, 1959. Aged 32, he quickly took control of Cuba and sought to transform it into an egalitarian society.
His government improved the living conditions of the very poor, achieved health and literacy levels on a par with rich countries and rid Cuba of a powerful Mafia presence.
But he also tolerated little dissent, jailed opponents, seized private businesses and monopolized the media.
Castro’s opponents labeled him a dictator and hundreds of thousands fled the island.
“The dictator Fidel Castro has died, the cause of many deaths in Cuba, Latin American and Africa,” Jose Daniel Ferrer, leader of the island’s largest dissident group, the Patriotic Union of Cuba, said on Twitter.
Many dissidents settled in Florida, influencing U.S. policy toward Cuba and plotting Castro’s demise. Some even trained in the Florida swamps for the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion.
But they could never dislodge him.
Castro claimed he survived or evaded hundreds of assassination attempts, including some conjured up by the CIA.
In 1962, the United States imposed a damaging trade embargo that Castro blamed for most of Cuba’s ills, using it to his advantage to rally patriotic fury.
Over the years, he expanded his influence by sending Cuban troops into far-away wars, including 350,000 to fight in Africa. They provided critical support to a left-wing government in Angola and contributed to the independence of Namibia in a war that helped end apartheid in South Africa.
He also won friends by sending tens of thousands of Cuban doctors abroad to treat the poor and bringing young people from developing countries to train them as physicians
‘HISTORY WILL ABSOLVE ME’
Born on August 13, 1926, in Biran in eastern Cuba, Castro was the son of a Spanish immigrant who became a wealthy landowner.
Angry at social conditions and Batista’s dictatorship, Castro launched his revolution on July 26, 1953, with a failed assault on the Moncada barracks in the eastern city of Santiago.
“History will absolve me,” he declared during his trial for the attack.
He was sentenced to 15 years in prison but was released in 1955 after a pardon that would come back to haunt Batista.
Castro went into exile in Mexico and prepared a small rebel army to fight Batista. It included Argentine revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara, who became his comrade-in-arms.
In December 1956, Castro and a rag-tag band of 81 followers sailed to Cuba aboard a badly overloaded yacht called “Granma.”
Only 12, including him, his brother and Guevara, escaped a government ambush when they landed in eastern Cuba.
Taking refuge in the rugged Sierra Maestra mountains, they built a guerrilla force of several thousand fighters who, along with urban rebel groups, defeated Batista’s military in just over two years.
Early in his rule, at the height of the Cold War, Castro allied Cuba to the Soviet Union, which protected the Caribbean island and was its principal benefactor for three decades.
The alliance brought in $4 billion worth of aid annually, including everything from oil to guns, but also provoked the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis when the United States discovered Soviet missiles on the island.
Convinced that the United States was about to invade Cuba, Castro urged the Soviets to launch a nuclear attack.
Cooler heads prevailed. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and U.S. President John F. Kennedy agreed the Soviets would withdraw the missiles in return for a U.S. promise never to invade Cuba. The United States also secretly agreed to remove its nuclear missiles from Turkey.
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, an isolated Cuba fell into an economic crisis that lasted for years and was known as the “special period.” Food, transport and basics such as soap were scarce and energy shortages led to frequent and long blackouts.
Castro undertook a series of tentative economic reforms to get through the crisis, including opening up to foreign tourism.
The economy improved when Venezuela’s late socialist leader Hugo Chavez, who looked up to Castro as a hero, came to the rescue with cheap oil. Aid from communist-run China also helped, but Venezuelan support for Cuba has been scaled down since Chavez’s death in 2013.
Plagued by chronic economic problems, Cuba’s population of 11 million has endured years of hardship, although not the deep poverty, violent crime and government neglect of many other developing countries.
Cubans earn on average the equivalent of $20 a month and struggle to make ends meet even in an economy where education and health care are free and many basic goods and services are heavily subsidized.
For most Cubans, Castro has been the ubiquitous figure of their entire life.
Many still love him and share his faith in a communist future, and even some who abandoned their political belief still view him with respect.
“For everyone in Cuba and outside his death is very sad,” said Havana resident Luis Martinez. “It is very painful news.”
(Reporting by Daniel Trotta and Marc Frank; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel, Kieran Murray and Hugh Lawson)