Fidel Castro, the Cuban revolutionary leader, died Friday, his brother Raul announced on state-run Cuban Television. He was 90.
When Fidel Castro paraded his victorious guerrillas through the streets of Havana in January 1959, everyone fell under his spell.
When he shut down Havana's notorious casinos and brothels and expelled the American Mafia, he was applauded at home and abroad for cleaning out the corrupt U.S-backed dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista.
Speaking in English he reassured Americans, "Sincerely, I have no ambition, for power, money, nothing. Only to serve my country."
He served 48 years, outlasting ten American presidents and every other political leader or head of government until his death on November 25, 2016.
Overnight he turned Cuba from an exotic tropical backwater, known for blackjack, brothels and boleros, into a dour communist state, and a strategic chess piece in the Cold War with the Soviet Union. In the process, he also changed the shape of South Florida as hundreds of thousands of emigres left the island.
While he was reviled by Cuban American exiles as the man who destroyed political freedom and economic prosperity on the island, he was equally revered by those who shared his socialist principles of egalitarianism. He inspired left-wing revolutionaries across the globe, especially in Latin America.
He also played a key role in Africa where the Cuban military, funded by the Soviet Union, intervened in wars in Ethiopia and Angola. Cuban troops were a factor ending South Africa's apartheid regime as well, according to some analysts.
When South Africa's former president, Nelson Mandela, was released from jail in 1990 after 27 years in captivity, he gave special thanks to Castro's solidarity against apartheid.
Castro was "a source of inspiration to all freedom-loving people," Mandela said.
Rebel with a cause
Born Fidel Castro Ruz on Aug. 16, 1926, his family lived in a sugar town in eastern Cuba run by the United Fruit Company, the American multinational giant that dominated the Cuban economy.
His father — Angel Castro — a tough, autocratic former soldier, was a self-made sugar plantation owner. Fidel was born as the result of an affair with the family maid, Lina Ruz. Fidel's father for years refused to legitimize his son, though he later relented and married Lina.
Athletic, and blessed with a near photographic memory, he was also possessed with a ferocious desire to win at everything. When he left school his yearbook entry read: "The book of his life will undoubtedly be filled with brilliant pages."
He displayed particular interest in the European fascist leaders Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. At Havana's prestigious Jesuit Belen College, he carried around a Spanish edition of Mein Kampf. Ideologically he was nofascist, but he admired their oratory, in particular Mussolini's passionate diatribes, a style he would later master himself.
He had no time for the idle pursuits of his contemporaries, save on the sports field, where his height and strong build made him a natural at basketball and baseball. He is said to have had a good pitcher's arm.
Instead, he liked to talk politics.
Growing up in a United Fruit town taught him that Cuba was a victim of U.S. economic exploitation. His nationalism grew more apparent at Havana University, a hotbed of student activism.
He married Mirta Diaz Balart in 1948. The marriage lasted seven years, producing a son, Fidel, or Fidelito (Little Fidel). Castro would father other children, including Alina Fernandez, whose mother was a Havana model.
Only later in life did his marriage to Dalia Soto del Valle emerge, (it is not clear if they were ever legally married) as well as the existence of five more children, Alexis, Alexander, Alejandro (Castro had a fascination with Alexander the Great), Antonio and Angel.
U.S. support for Gen. Fulgencio Batista, the military dictator who seized power in 1952, only fanned the flames of Castro's anti-Americanism.
They were turbulent times. Officially working as a lawyer, Castro was already involved in clandestine activity, traveling around the country in a beaten-up Chevrolet giving anti-Batista speeches. On July 26, 1953, he led a daring attack on the Moncada police barracks, his first armed act of political subversion. Though it was a dismal failure — most of his comrades died or were captured — it won Castro instant fame.
The anniversary of the Moncada attack is still celebrated every year as the official spark that ignited the Cuban revolution.
Castro's subsequent trial made him a national celebrity. At the trial he uttered the famous words: "History will absolve me." Sentenced to 15 years in prison, he served only 19 months before he was released under a general amnesty.
Castro went into exile, returning in late 1956 from Mexico aboard a small yacht, the Granma, with a rag-tag band of guerrillas, that included his younger brother, Raul, and a young Argentine doctor, Ernesto "Che" Guevara.
For the next two years Castro's men waged a guerrilla war on Batista's army and police. Despite numerous setbacks, their forces grew. Castro showed his genius for propaganda, making regular broadcasts over a rebel radio station that became a beacon for the revolutionary cause.
He had not forgiven the United States for propping up Batista for so long. "The Americans will pay dearly for their actions," he wrote in a letter to his close confidant, Celia Sanchez. Penned six months before the Rebel Army marched into Havana, he added, "When this war is over a much longer and greater war will begin for me, the war I am going to wage against them. I realize this is my true destiny."
There were no signs of that when he made his first trip to Washington after the revolution in early 1959. He presented himself as a dedicated democrat, laying a wreath at the Lincoln Memorial, and paying homage to Thomas Jefferson. He told reporters he was no communist and that there would be press freedom in Cuba, as well as prompt elections.
Black-and-white television footage at the time recorded him saying in halting English, "The first thing that dictators do is finish free press, (and) establish censorship. There is no doubt a free press is the first enemy of dictatorship."
But back in Havana, Castro's ruthless and authoritarian side was soon evident. Batista's torturers and henchmen went on trial, but it was a mockery, more reminiscent of the excesses of the French Revolution. Scores, maybe hundreds, were sent to the firing squad.
Castro's true objectives were emerging. Cubans began arriving in Miami in droves, warning that Castro was preparing to turn the island over to the communists.
In February 1960 Castro flew to Moscow for military talks with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. Moscow offered to defend Cuba if it joined the communist bloc. The Soviet Union also agreed to buy 5-million tons of sugar from Cuba over five years, as well as supporting Cuba with oil, grain, and credit.
Castro later would blame U.S. aggression for forcing him into the arms of the Soviets. The United States was indeed training Cuban exiles and supporting sabotage missions. There were also CIA attempts to have him assassinated, including exploding cigars and poisons.
When local businesses went on strike and shut down Havana's main port, Castro struck back with a vengeance. He nationalized all U.S. banks and took over state control of key economic sectors from oil refining to the sugar industry.
In April 1961 the botched CIA-planned invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs sealed the future of U.S.-Cuban relations.
It also confirmed Castro as not just a hero in Cuba, but all over the Third World. To rub it in, Castro announced in a famous speech: "We will make this a socialist revolution under the very nose of the United States."
Castro saw the Soviet ties from a pragmatic point of view. After the United States slapped an economic embargo on Cuba in February 1962, Castro needed support from wherever he could get it.
He was gambling on the outcome of the Cold War. It was a bet he would finally lose 30 years later. Before then he would bring the world to the brink of nuclear war during the missile crisis of October 1962. The Russian decision to back down may have looked like a stunning defeat for Castro, but he did not come away empty-handed. In return for the Soviets removing their missiles, the United States pledged not to invade the island. Moscow would keep the Cuban economy afloat for the next three decades.
It also played well internationally.
The rest of the world saw Castro's communism as distinct from the grey, monolithic Marxism of Eastern Europe. Cuba's was Leninism to a Latin beat. Castro had been taught a lesson, they said, and it was time for the United States to lighten up.
After all, Cuban communism genuinely offered the opportunity of a better life for most poor Cubans. Literacy programs made Cuba the best-educated nation in Latin America; free medical care made it the healthiest country, too.
But it didn't come without a heavy dose of repression. "Within the revolution everything, outside the revolution nothing," said Castro. Artists, poets, homosexuals — practically anyone who dared defy the authority of the revolution's "commander-in-chief" — were denounced by neighborhood watchdogs, the feared CDRs, or Committees for the Defense of the Revolution. Even listening to the Beatles was considered a subversive act. Thousands went to jail, or fled to Miami.
Castro wasn't satisfied with putting Cuba on a revolutionary path. Camps were set up to train guerrillas to export the revolution throughout Central and South America.
The year 1979 was perhaps Castro's high point. The Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua toppled U.S.-backed dictator Anastasio Somoza, and Castro was made chairman of the Non-Aligned Movement, which met in Havana.
But it didn't last long. In January 1980, Celia Sanchez, his beloved adviser, died. Some say her death removed a moderating influence from his life. Still only in his early '50s, Castro's stubborn refusal to adapt to changing times would condemn Cuba to economic stagnation.
The "New Man"
Not content with his political role, Castro micromanaged every aspect of the country's affairs. His mission was to engineer a new nation, inhabited by the "New Man," a selfless breed of communist.
Unfortunately Castro was too much of a Don Quixote, the idealist with impractical notions. He was especially fond of breeding. Among his failed innovations was "White Udder," a madcap genetic scheme to cross-breed native cows with imported Swiss Holsteins to produce a higher milk yield. Castro refused to listen to the experts who said it couldn't be done. The cows all died. Then there were the giant strawberries (turned out watery and tasteless), and a Cuban Camembert cheese (which never could compete with the real thing).
In the end, Castro's grand economic plans — to increase farm production by 15 percent a year for 12 years, to double sugar production and to quadruple milk production in two years — all came to nothing.
By 1980 unrest was brewing across the Florida Straits. For years Cubans on the island had been fed communist propaganda about the harsh conditions in the United States. But many divided families were beginning to learn from their relatives in Miami that life there wasn't so bad after all.
The pressure became too much. In April 1980, South Florida was flooded with the Mariel exile exodus. When Castro opened the doors, more than 120,000 Cubans fled the island, including convicts released from Cuban jails.
For the first time the world was able to see the level of hardship and discontent in Cuba. The hard times bred corruption.
When U.S. officials started to detect signs that Colombian cocaine was moving through Cuban air space with top-level approval, Castro faced a new embarrassment. It was swiftly dealt with by the 1989 show trials that led to the imprisonment or execution of several senior army officers and ministry of interior officials.
Another dent in Castro's credibility came from the "Ochoa Affair," after the Cuban war hero, Gen. Arnaldo Ochoa. He was among those put before the firing squad. Were Ochoa and the others scapegoats? Some wondered about evidence that pointed to the involvement of higher officials.
Unwelcome winds of change
When glasnost and perestroika took hold in the Soviet Union. Castro was having none of it, banning pro-reform Russian newspapers that had once been welcomed on Havana newsstands. Castro even appeared to back the hard-line communists in the failed 1991 coup against Mikhail Gorbachev. Again, Castro backed the wrong horse.
With the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union, Cuba's economic lifeline was severed. Soviet ships had carried three-quarters of all Cuban imports and all its oil. Without subsidies and spare parts, agricultural production ground to a halt and factories closed.
Castro's speeches changed. Gone were the promises of prosperity under socialism. The language was now about sacrifice and saving the revolution, what Castro called the "special period in peacetime," a virtual wartime economy. Food rationing was introduced; prostitution flourished. Old Havana buildings literally crumbled from lack of upkeep, with many people forced to evacuate their unsafe homes.
In 1993, Castro ordered a modest opening up of Cuba's tightly controlled state-run economy. Foreign investors were courted for joint ventures with the state. Tourism replaced sugar as the new hard currency earner.
One major reform made the U.S. dollar legal tender on the island, fueling remittances sent by Miami exiles to their families. Unemployed Cubans were allowed to start their own small businesses in their homes, including mini-restaurants, bicycle repair shops and hairdressers.
But many still looked for a way out, prompting a second mini-Mariel in the summer of 1994. This time they came on makeshift rafts, another 30,000 Cubans absorbed into South Florida's bursting exile community.
Despite reports of failing health and reduced public appearances, Castro was still a master of political survival.
In February 1996, when two small civilian planes approached the Cuban coast piloted by Cuban-American exiles, Castro didn't hesitate to shoot them down, sparking a new crisis with the United States, and harsher economic sanctions. Again the incident had a dual interpretation. For some, shooting down unarmed planes that posed no serious risk to Cuban national security and was an example of how Castro often fueled the conflict with Washington to distract from internal problems.
But the outside world was just as ready to blame the pesky exile pilots who should have known better than to flout Cuban airspace. President Bill Clinton responded by signing a decades-old U.S. embargo against Cuba into law, effectively placing control of economic relations with Cuba into Congress’ hands.
Castro deftly played that to his advantage. Despite widespread disdain for Cuba’s one party system, the U.S. embargo would provide Castro with lasting ammunition to counter his critics.
Castro continued to show his mastery of international diplomacy. In one of his boldest gestures, he invited the Pope John Paul II to visit Cuba in 1998 to heal old wounds with the Roman Catholic Church. The Pope had a message for both Castro and his enemies. "Cuba must open to the world; the world must open to Cuba," he said.
The visit a marked dramatic softening of Castro’s stance toward the Catholic church. Baptized as Roman Catholics and educated by Jesuits, Fidel and Raul Castro had turned the island against the Church after taking power, declaring Cuba an atheist state, closing religious schools and forcing out many priests.
Instead, after 1998 the Church regained some of its traditional influence, and would later play a major role in helping secure a rapprochement between Cuba and the United States.
It was also in 1998 that Venezuela elected a staunch Castro ally, Hugo Chavez, as president of oil-rich Venezuela, offering Cuba a vital new economic life line. The arrival of Chavez, along with new leftist allies in Bolivia, Argentina and Ecuador, allowed Castro more political breathing room as well. For a while it appeared the continent was going his way as a commodities boom helped fuel the socialist cause in the hemisphere.
In 1999 Castro’s astuteness at manipulating American politics was again on display when a six-year-old Cuban rafter boy, Elian Gonzalez, was rescued at sea by two recreational fishermen. The boy's Miami relatives refused to let him return to his father in Cuba. A political tug-of-war ensued, ending in victory for the father — and Castro.
Despite tougher economic sanctions under president George W. Bush, including limitations on Cuban exile remittances and family visits to the island, Castro's grip on power never showed any signs of slipping.
Under a joint trade agreement with Venezuela, Chavez began sending 90,000 barrels per day of refined petroleum products to the island. When oil prices rose dramatically in 2005, the value of Cuba's donated oil was estimated at $2-billion a year.
Cuba even began to start registering modest economic growth. To most observers, and the great majority of Cubans on the island, it became increasingly clear that the only threat to Castro's continued rule would be biological.
By now well into his 70s Castro’s normally robust health began to fail him, at first a noticeable trembling in his hands, a weakened voice, and then a very public fall. In late July 2006, shortly before his 80th birthday he collapsed after attending the annual July 26 anniversary.
Details of his condition were kept a state secret. He disappeared from public view, vowing to return in December. Periodic reports of his gradual recovery from unspecified abdominal surgery, were never very convincing. Photographs of him in track suits rather than his classic olive military fatigues showed him looking frail. The Cuban government denied he was suffering from diverticulitis. But the surgery took its toll.
It was not until four years later that he reappeared in public. While he would continue to make occasional public appearances, as well as writing ‘Reflections’ published in the communist party newspaper, Granma, he gradually relinquished all his political responsibilities.
Raul Castro succeeded him as his president in 2008 confirming his brother's effective retirement from politics. Fidel Castro officially stepped down as communist party leader in 2011.
He spent his last years receiving dignitaries, including two more popes, Benedict in 2012 and Francis in 2015.
Francis spoke of the dangers of ideology at a Mass in Havana’s Revolution Square, next to massive portraits of revolutionary leader Ernesto "Che" Guevara and a giant poster of Jesus Christ. "Service is never ideological for we do not serve ideas, we serve people," he said.
When the breakthrough with the United States finally came in December 2014, Castro did not seem all that pleased with the prospect of re-establishing normal relations with his old foe. Nor perhaps the influx of western culture that came with it, cruise ships, the Kardashians and the Rolling Stones.
After so many years at loggerheads with Washington, Castro remained mistrustful, as if ending the enmity might end his raison d’etre.
When Barack Obama visited Havana in March 2016 he held out an olive branch offering to bury the past. Castro wasn’t having any of it.
In a full page column titled "Brother Obama," published in the Cuban communist-party newspaper Granma, the former Cuban president bristled at Obama's words of reconciliation.
"We don't need the empire to give us anything," Castro wrote, referring to the United States.
One of his last public appearances came a few days later in April, closing a congress of the Cuban Communist Party. He used the occasion to deliver a valedictory speech, telling party members he would soon be dead and urging them to keep communism, alive.
"I'll be 90 years old soon," Castro said, looking frail and with a raspy voice. "Soon I'll be like all the others. The time will come for all of us, but the ideas of the Cuban Communists will endure."
Admirers and critics alike will say the Castro’s lasting legacy was his stubborn refusal to abandon his ideology. Whether history will absolve him, as he predicted, remains to be seen.