Fidel Castro, the fiery apostle of revolution who brought the Cold War to the Western Hemisphere in 1959 and then defied the United States for nearly half a century as Cuba’s maximum leader, bedeviling 11 U.S. presidents and briefly pushing the world to the brink of nuclear war, died Friday. He was 90.
His death was announced by Cuban state television.
In declining health for several years, Castro had orchestrated what he hoped would be the continuation of his Communist revolution, stepping aside in 2006 when he was felled by a serious illness. He provisionally ceded much of his power to his younger brother Raúl, now 85, and two years later formally resigned as president. Raúl Castro, who had fought alongside Fidel Castro from the earliest days of the insurrection and remained minister of defense and his brother’s closest confidant, has ruled Cuba since then, although he has told the Cuban people he intends to resign in 2018.
Fidel Castro had held onto power longer than any other living national leader except Queen Elizabeth II. He became a towering international figure whose importance in the 20th century far exceeded what might have been expected from the head of state of a Caribbean island nation of 11 million people.
He dominated his country with strength and symbolism from the day he triumphantly entered Havana on Jan. 8, 1959, and completed his overthrow of Fulgencio Batista by delivering his first major speech in the capital before tens of thousands of admirers at the vanquished dictator’s military headquarters.
A spotlight shone on him as he swaggered and spoke with passion until dawn. Finally, white doves were released to signal Cuba’s new peace. When one landed on Castro, perching on a shoulder, the crowd erupted, chanting “Fidel! Fidel!” To the war-weary Cubans gathered there and those watching on television, it was an electrifying sign that their young, bearded guerrilla leader was destined to be their savior.
Castro wielded power like a tyrant, controlling every aspect of the island’s existence. He was Cuba’s “Máximo Lider.” From atop a Cuban army tank, he directed his country’s defense at the Bay of Pigs. Countless details fell to him, from selecting the color of uniforms that Cuban soldiers wore in Angola to overseeing a program to produce a superbreed of milk cows. He personally set the goals for sugar harvests. He personally sent countless men to prison.
But it was more than repression and fear that kept him and his totalitarian government in power for so long. He had both admirers and detractors in Cuba and around the world. Some saw him as a ruthless despot who trampled rights and freedoms; many others hailed him as the crowds did that first night, as a revolutionary hero for the ages.
Even when he fell ill and was hospitalized with diverticulitis in the summer of 2006, giving up most of his powers for the first time, Castro tried to dictate the details of his own medical care and orchestrate the continuation of his Communist revolution, engaging a plan as old as the revolution itself.
By handing power to his brother, Castro once more raised the ire of his enemies in Washington. U.S. officials condemned the transition, saying it prolonged a dictatorship and again denied the long-suffering Cuban people a chance to control their own lives.
But in December 2014, President Barack Obama used his executive powers to dial down the decades of antagonism between Washington and Havana by moving to exchange prisoners and normalize diplomatic relations between the two countries, a deal worked out with the help of Pope Francis and after 18 months of secret talks between representatives of both governments.
Although increasingly frail and rarely seen in public, Castro even then made clear his enduring mistrust of the United States. A few days after Obama’s highly publicized visit to Cuba this year — the first by a sitting U.S. president in 88 years — Castro penned a cranky response denigrating Obama’s overtures of peace and insisting that Cuba did not need anything the United States was offering.
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