Photo by Jorge Rey/Getty Images(HAVANA) — Fidel Castro, whose rise as a revolutionary made him the face of socialist rebellion for more than half a century, died Friday at age 90. His brother, Cuban president Raul Castro, made the announcement on Cuban state TV.
“Today, November 25, at 10:29 p.m., the Commander in Chief of the Cuban Revolution Fidel Castro Ruz passed away,” Raul Castro said in an address during the 11 o’clock news on Cuban TV. “In compliance with the expressed will of Companion Fidel, his remains will be cremated. In the early hours of Saturday 26, the funeral organizing committee will provide our people with detailed information on the organization of the posthumous Homage to the founder of the Cuban Revolution. Ever onward to victory!”
Castro rose to power as leader of a guerrilla army that overthrew Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959. He remained in office for almost 50 years, until health problems and intestinal surgery forced him to hand over control to his younger brother, Raul, in 2006. He officially resigned as president two years later.
His public appearances from then on were rare, but he was seen in the summer of 2010, looking frail, going on TV and addressing Parliament, warning about rising tensions between the U.S. and Iran.
He also was photographed in March 2012 meeting with Pope Benedict XVI during the pontiff’s visit to Cuba.
Rebel With a Cause
Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz was born Aug. 13, 1926, on his family’s sugar plantation. His father had come to Cuba from Spain as an immigrant laborer, but eventually became a landowner. Castro attended Catholic schools, and studied law at the University of Havana, where he became president of the University Students’ Federation.
In 1947, when he was 21, Castro joined a group that was plotting to overthrow the dictator of the Dominican Republic. Cuban authorities found out and broke up the group, but it seemed to fuel Castro’s desire for action and revolution.
A year later, he participated in a violent uprising in Colombia while he was attending a student congress there.
After becoming a lawyer, Castro focused on social causes and defending the poor. As a member of the liberal Partido del Pueblo Cubano, Castro ran for Parliament. But three months before the elections, Gen. Fulgencio Batista overthrew the government and established a military dictatorship.
Castro protested the coup, accusing the dictator of violating the Cuban constitution.
When his petition was rejected, the defeated Castro pursued his cause by leading a small rebel force with the hope of provoking a popular uprising. The plan failed and half of the rebels were killed, and Castro and his brother were captured.
During his trial, Castro defended himself by giving a speech that came to be known for his phrase, “History will absolve me.” Despite his rallying cry, Castro was found guilty and sentenced to 15 years in prison, but was granted amnesty and released three years later.
Seeing that the political climate had not changed, Castro went to Mexico, where he organized a movement with other Cuban exiles, all with a single goal: to overthrow the Batista dictatorship.
Rise to Power
On Dec. 2, 1956, the group launched its plan. Castro, his brother Raul Castro, Ernesto “Che” Guevara (an Argentinean doctor whom they met in Mexico), and a force of about 82 men landed by boat on the northern coast of Cuba.
Most of the rebel group was killed by Batista’s forces, but a few of the survivors, including the Castro brothers and Che Guevara, escaped into the mountains. They regrouped and began recruiting new members. By early 1958, the rebels were gaining on the Batista forces.
Meanwhile, tensions between the U.S. and Cuba were rising. President Eisenhower accused Batista of using weapons not for national defense but to fight the opposition, and suspended U.S. arms shipments to Cuba. The move increased public pressure on Batista.
On New Year’s Day 1959, Batista accepted defeat and fled, going into exile in the Dominican Republic. The next day, Castro and his fellow rebels marched into Havana and took control of Cuba.
Ruling With an Iron Fist
Castro quickly consolidated power within Cuba, and early on had widespread support not only from his fellow countrymen, but also from many Americans who’d been opposed to Batista’s dictatorship. The U.S. recognized the new Cuban government within days.
Castro began sweeping action to nationalize most businesses, and began distancing himself from the United States. His policies soon became unpopular with many Cubans, who began fleeing the island.
Castro’s intentions to align himself with the Soviet Union were crystallized when, in early 1960, he signed an agreement to purchase Soviet oil in exchange for Cuban sugar. Soon afterward, the United States broke relations with Cuba.
In April of 1961, just three months after President John F. Kennedy was inaugurated, Kennedy gave the go-ahead to a U.S.-sponsored force of about 1,300 Cuban exiles to land on Cuba’s southern coast, known as the Bay of Pigs. Their mission was to overthrow Castro.
The invading forces had no chance against Cuban forces and the defeat proved to be a major embarrassment for the Kennedy administration. After the botched invasion, Castro consolidated his power. At the end of 1961, he declared Cuba to be a communist state with a Marxist-Leninist program.
In October 1962, the tension between Cuba and the United States reached a crisis point when Soviet missiles with nuclear warheads capable of reaching the United States were discovered in Cuba. A U.S.-imposed naval blockade led to several days of international anxiety, with growing fears of a nuclear war until the Soviet Union agreed to withdraw its missiles.
The Cuban missile crisis further hardened Castro’s anti-U.S. stance. In 1964, Cuba remained the sole communist nation in the Western Hemisphere, surrounded by countries that imposed strict sanctions on the island state.
Under Castro, Cuba’s economy was transformed from a capitalist system dependent on U.S. investment to a socialist economy where the state owned almost all the businesses.
But in the early 1990s, Cuba started suffered a severe economic decline triggered by the collapse of the Soviet Union.
To deal with the crisis, Castro was forced to soften many of his hard-line socialist principles and move toward a more market-based economy. The “commandante,” as he was called, still offered his people free education and health care, but Cubans were plagued by a housing crunch, a crumbling infrastructure and high unemployment.
Hundreds of thousands of Cubans fled the regime, with many settling in Miami, Fla. The biggest influx happened in 1980, when Castro allowed the relatives of Cuban exiles to leave via the port of Mariel, where he also corralled prisoners and metal patients onto the boats.
By the turn of the century, speculation was growing about Castro’s health, and there were rumors he was near death when he fell off a stage after giving a speech at a rally in October 2004. A government statement at the time said, “His general health is good, and spirits are excellent.”
But the real downward spiral began with the surgery for intestinal bleeding in July 2006, when he temporarily handed power to his brother, Raul. In February 2008, he permanently resigned as president, and the Cuban National Assembly officially elected Raul Castro, who had been his brother’s closest confidante for decades.
Fidel Castro had a large family, and was one of six siblings. He married twice and had nine children. He kept his trademark fatigues and beard to the end, though after handing over power he also was photographed wearing sweat suits.
Of that iconic beard, he was quoted in 2009 as saying, “The story of our beard is very simple: It arose out of the difficult conditions we were living and fighting under as guerrillas. We didn’t have any razor blade. … Everybody just let their beards and hair grow, and that turned into a kind of badge of identity.”
That identity as a revolutionary who helped bring the world to the brink of a nuclear nightmare made Fidel Castro one of the most important political figures of our lifetime.
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