Alternatively described as a savior and dictator, Fidel Castro, who ruled revolutionary Cuba uninterrupted for over 50 years as leader of the country’s communist party, died in Havana on Friday.
The Cold War era leader was known for his iconic cigar and for once addressing the UN General Assembly with a pistol on his hip was 90 and had been in failing health for the last decade.
Born to a wealthy land owner of Spanish descent on Aug. 13, 1926, Castro attended Catholic schools and earned a law degree from the University of Havana. Becoming active in student politics, Castro became virulently anti-American and later ran for a seat in the Cuban House of Representatives in elections declared invalid by Fulgencio Batista, who had seized power in Havana.
Embracing the works of Marx and Lenin and a passionate opponent of Batista’s close ties to the U.S., Castro embarked on revolutionary politics, set up a dissident newspaper, formed loose links to communist groups and a organized a revolutionary group determined to break the yoke of American influence over the island.
Skillfully manipulating rival groups from his base in Cuba’s Sierra Maestra mountains, Castro’s leadership eventually crushed Batista’s army, leading to his exile in Portugal.
Initially choosing a non-aligned path, Castro set forth on a series of land reforms, work projects and visited the United States. Returning home empty handed after requesting American aid for Latin America, Castro appointed an increasing number of known Marxists to key government positions and began ruling more often by decree.
As the Cold War raged between Washington and the Kremlin, Castro received Soviet and Soviet-bloc leaders, negotiated economic agreements with Moscow and nationalized American property.
The U.S. retaliated by implementing an economic embargo in late 1960.
Surviving several attempts to overthrow his rule, including the American-backed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, Castro strengthened ties to the East and embarked on the exportation of global revolution, sending troops and advisers to Asia, Central and South America and Africa.
Relations with America would remain at ebb for the next 50 years.
As Cuba tended to lean on its Eastern patrons, Soviet Russia and East Germany, in addition to the frequency of high unemployment and skyrocketing inflation, the crushing weight of the American embargo began to take its toll. Roiled by American intransigence, Castro repeatedly declared the American embargo illegal and immoral and retaliated against Washington, frequently harboring fugitives from American justice.
Faced with an increasing number of Cuban nationals desperate to escape the island nation, the U.S. announced a willingness to accept 3,500 asylum seekers. Taking advantage of American compassion, Castro emptied his mental hospitals and prisons and allowed thousands to flee Cuba. Eventually, over 130,000 Cubans, mentally ill, criminal and those persecuted by Castro’s henchmen reached America’s shores.
Although economic conditions improved marginally, the economic paradise Castro promised never became reality, particularly after the dissolution of the Soviet empire in 1991. No longer the recipient of Soviet largess, by the early 1990s, another economic downturn befell Cuba. With food and gasoline rationed and tourism slow, Castro resorted to show trials and instituted small economic reforms, all of which mirrored capitalism.
Continuing to strengthen ties with Central and South American nations and began extending a hand to the West, often hosting Western European leaders.
Continuing to cling to power despite his frail health, Castro never abandoned his fight against the U.S. and never relinquishing communism’s grip over the island.
By 2008, suffering from intestinal disease, Castro sought treatment and stepped away from his official duties, handing power to brother, Raul, his chief executioner during the revolution.
Continuing his decline, by 2011, Castro resigned his position within the party and appointed Raul as his successor. Rarely seen in public after 2012, Castro’s final visits from foreign dignitaries were Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Portuguese president, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa.
Married twice, Castro had several children, two of whom, Alina Fernández and Francisca Pupo, fled Cuba during his rule and became critics of his regime. Castro’s sister, Juanita, left Cuba in the early 1960s and campaigned against her brothers rule. Castro’s nephew, Lincoln Rafael Díaz-Balart, held a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1993–2011.
Editor’s note: The first paragraph has been corrected as to the date of Castro’s death
[Reuters] [Photo courtesy AP via Politico]