Fidel Castro, who defied US for 50 years, dies at 90

MIAMI (AP) — Fidel Castro, who led a rebel army to improbable victory, embraced Soviet-style communism and defied the power of 10 U.S. presidents during his half century rule of Cuba, has died at age 90.

With a shaking voice, President Raul Castro said on state television that his older brother died at 10:29 p.m. Friday. He ended the announcement by shouting the revolutionary slogan: “Toward victory, always!”

Castro’s reign over the island-nation 90 miles from Florida was marked by the U.S.-backed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 and the Cuban Missile Crisis a year later that brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. The bearded revolutionary, who survived a crippling U.S. trade embargo as well as dozens, possibly hundreds, of assassination plots, died 10 years after ill health forced him to hand power over to Raul.

Castro overcame imprisonment at the hands of dictator Fulgencio Batista, exile in Mexico and a disastrous start to his rebellion before triumphantly riding into Havana in January 1959 to become, at age 32, the youngest leader in Latin America. For decades, he served as an inspiration and source of support to revolutionaries from Latin America to Africa.

In this Oct. 12, 1979 file photo, Cuban President, Fidel Castro, points during his lengthy speech before the United Nations General Assembly, in New York. (AP Photo/Marty Lederhandler, File)
In this Oct. 12, 1979 file photo, Cuban President, Fidel Castro, points during his lengthy speech before the United Nations General Assembly, in New York. (AP Photo/Marty Lederhandler, File)

His commitment to socialism was unwavering, though his power finally began to fade in mid-2006 when a gastrointestinal ailment forced him to hand over the presidency to Raul in 2008, provisionally at first and then permanently. His defiant image lingered long after he gave up his trademark Cohiba cigars for health reasons and his tall frame grew stooped.

“Socialism or death” remained Castro’s rallying cry even as Western-style democracy swept the globe and other communist regimes in China and Vietnam embraced capitalism, leaving this island of 11 million people an economically crippled Marxist curiosity.

He survived long enough to see Raul Castro negotiate an opening with U.S. President Barack Obama on Dec. 17, 2014, when Washington and Havana announced they would move to restore diplomatic ties for the first time since they were severed in 1961. He cautiously blessed the historic deal with his lifelong enemy in a letter published after a monthlong silence. Obama made a historic visit to Havana in March 2016.

Carlos Rodriguez, 15, was sitting in Havana’s Miramar neighborhood when he heard that Fidel Castro had died.

“Fidel? Fidel?” he said, slapping his head in shock. “That’s not what I was expecting. One always thought that he would last forever. It doesn’t seem true.”

“It’s a tragedy,” said 22-year-old nurse Dayan Montalvo. “We all grew up with him. I feel really hurt by the news that we just heard.”

But the news cheered the community of Cuban exiles in Florida who had fled Castro’s government. Thousands gathered in the streets in Miami’s Little Havana to cheer and wave Cuban flags.

Fidel Castro Ruz was born Aug. 13, 1926, in eastern Cuba’s sugar country, where his Spanish immigrant father worked first recruiting labor for U.S. sugar companies and later built up a prosperous plantation of his own.

Castro attended Jesuit schools, then the University of Havana, where he received law and social science degrees. His life as a rebel began in 1953 with a reckless attack on the Moncada military barracks in the eastern city of Santiago. Most of his comrades were killed and Fidel and his brother Raul went to prison.

In this April 19, 2011 file photo, Fidel Castro, left, raises his brother's hand, Cuba's President Raul Castro, center, as they sing the anthem of international socialism during the 6th Communist Party Congress in Havana, Cuba. (AP Photo/Javier Galeano, File)
In this April 19, 2011 file photo, Fidel Castro, left, raises his brother’s hand, Cuba’s President Raul Castro, center, as they sing the anthem of international socialism during the 6th Communist Party Congress in Havana, Cuba. (AP Photo/Javier Galeano, File)

Fidel turned his trial defense into a manifesto that he smuggled out of jail, famously declaring, “History will absolve me.”

Freed under a pardon, Castro fled to Mexico and organized a rebel band that returned in 1956, sailing across the Gulf of Mexico to Cuba on a yacht named Granma. After losing most of his group in a bungled landing, he rallied support in Cuba’s eastern Sierra Maestra mountains.

Three years later, tens of thousands spilled into the streets of Havana to celebrate Batista’s downfall and catch a glimpse of Castro as his rebel caravan arrived in the capital on Jan. 8, 1959.

The U.S. was among the first to formally recognize his government, cautiously trusting Castro’s early assurances he merely wanted to restore democracy, not install socialism.

Within months, Castro was imposing radical economic reforms. Members of the old government went before summary courts, and at least 582 were shot by firing squads over two years. Independent newspapers were closed and in the early years, homosexuals were herded into camps for “re-education.”

In 1964, Castro acknowledged holding 15,000 political prisoners. Hundreds of thousands of Cubans fled, including Castro’s daughter Alina Fernandez Revuelta and his younger sister Juana.

Still, the revolution thrilled millions in Cuba and across Latin America who saw it as an example of how the seemingly arrogant Yankees could be defied. And many on the island were happy to see the seizure of property of the landed class, the expulsion of American gangsters and the closure of their casinos.

In in this Feb. 6, 1959 file photo, Cuba's leader Fidel Castro speaks to a crowd during his triumphant march to Havana after the fall of the Batista regime. (AP Photo/File)
In in this Feb. 6, 1959 file photo, Cuba’s leader Fidel Castro speaks to a crowd during his triumphant march to Havana after the fall of the Batista regime. (AP Photo/File)

Castro’s speeches, lasting up to six hours, became the soundtrack of Cuban life and his 269-minute speech to the U.N. General Assembly in 1960 set the world body’s record for length that still stood more than five decades later.

As Castro moved into the Soviet bloc, Washington began working to oust him, cutting U.S. purchases of sugar, the island’s economic mainstay. Castro, in turn, confiscated $1 billion in U.S. assets.

The American government imposed a trade embargo, banning virtually all U.S. exports to the island except for food and medicine, and it severed diplomatic ties on Jan. 3, 1961.

On April 16 of that year, Castro declared his revolution to be socialist, and the next day, about 1,400 Cuban exiles stormed the beach at the Bay of Pigs on Cuba’s south coast. But the CIA-backed invasion failed.

The debacle forced the U.S. to give up on the idea of invading Cuba, but that didn’t stop Washington and Castro’s exiled enemies from trying to do him in. By Cuban count, he was the target of more than 630 assassination plots by militant Cuban exiles or the U.S. government.

The biggest crisis of the Cold War between Washington and Moscow exploded on Oct. 22, 1962, when President John F. Kennedy announced there were Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba and imposed a naval blockade of the island. Humankind held its breath, and after a tense week of diplomacy, Soviet leader Nikita Krushchev removed them. Never had the world felt so close to nuclear war.

Castro cobbled revolutionary groups together into the new Cuban Communist Party, with him as first secretary. Labor unions lost the right to strike. The Catholic Church and other religious institutions were harassed. Neighborhood “revolutionary defense committees” kept an eye on everyone.

In this April 19, 2016 file photo, Fidel Castro attends the last day of the 7th Cuban Communist Party Congress in Havana, Cuba. (Ismael Francisco/Cubadebate via AP, File)
In this April 19, 2016 file photo, Fidel Castro attends the last day of the 7th Cuban Communist Party Congress in Havana, Cuba. (Ismael Francisco/Cubadebate via AP, File)

Castro exported revolution to Latin American countries in the 1960s, and dispatched Cuban troops to Africa to fight Western-backed regimes in the 1970s. Over the decades, he sent Cuban doctors abroad to tend to the poor, and gave sanctuary to fugitive Black Panther leaders from the U.S.

But the collapse of the Soviet bloc ended billions in preferential trade and subsidies for Cuba, sending its economy into a tailspin. Castro briefly experimented with an opening to foreign capitalists and limited private enterprise.

As the end of the Cold War eased global tensions, many Latin American and European countries re-established relations with Cuba. In January 1998, Pope John Paul II visited a nation that had been officially atheist until the early 1990s.

Aided by a tourism boom, the economy slowly recovered and Castro steadily reasserted government control, stifling much of the limited free enterprise tolerated during harder times.

As flamboyant as he was in public, Castro tried to lead a discreet private life. He and his first wife, Mirta Diaz Balart, had one son before divorcing in 1956. Then, for more than four decades, Castro had a relationship with Dalia Soto del Valle. They had five sons together and were said to have married quietly in 1980.

In this April 20, 1959 file photo, Cuba's leader Fidel Castro addresses a National Press Club luncheon in Washington, D.C. Former President Fidel Castro, who led a rebel army to improbable victory in Cuba, embraced Soviet-style communism and defied the power of 10 U.S. presidents during his half century rule, has died at age 90. (AP Photo/John Rous, File)
In this April 20, 1959 file photo, Cuba’s leader Fidel Castro addresses a National Press Club luncheon in Washington, D.C. Former President Fidel Castro, who led a rebel army to improbable victory in Cuba, embraced Soviet-style communism and defied the power of 10 U.S. presidents during his half century rule, has died at age 90. (AP Photo/John Rous, File)

By the time Castro resigned 49 years after his triumphant arrival in Havana, he was the world’s longest ruling head of government, aside from monarchs.

In retirement, Castro voiced unwavering support as Raul slowly but deliberately enacted sweeping changes to the Marxist system he had built.

His longevity allowed the younger brother to consolidate control, perhaps lengthening the revolution well past both men’s lives. In February 2013, Raul announced that he would retire as president in 2018 and named newly minted Vice President Miguel Diaz-Canel as his successor.

“I’ll be 90 years old soon,” Castro said at an April 2016 Communist Party congress where he made his most extensive public appearance in years. “Soon I’ll be like all the others. The time will come for all of us, but the ideas of the Cuban Communists will remain as proof that on this planet, if one works with fervor and dignity, they can produce the material and cultural goods that human beings need and that need to be fought for without ever giving up.”

Cuba’s government announced that Castro’s ashes would be interred on Dec. 4 in the eastern city of Santiago that was a birthplace of his revolution. That will follow more than a week of honors, including a nearly nationwide caravan retracing, in reverse, his tour from Santiago to Havana with the triumph of the revolution in 1959.

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Associated Press writer Anita Snow in Mexico City and AP news researcher Rhonda Shafner in New York contributed to this report.

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8 COMMENTS

  1. I have no symthy for anyone that treated the people of a country like what he did . I am very happy for the people that lived under his dictatorship and is free from him . I hope and pray that the good people of Cuba would be able to stay in their own country and not have to venture loosing their life .
    I wish the good people of Cuba all the best from here on .

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  2. After many years of dictatorship and communist hardline rule, Castro is dead and gone. Some people are happy and some are sad. Fidel ruled Cuba with an iron hand, embraced Russia which could not continue its economic support of the island nation indefinitely and the deprivations and suffering of the Cuban people continued. Castro is gone, Cuba remains.

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  3. A vicious dictator who lived in luxury on his private island off the Bay of Pigs and relentlessly suppressed free speech.

    A Cuban taxi driver explained that we are a capitalist people living under a communist government.

    He was the illegitimate son of a wealthy land owner and hated the USA with venom. During the Cuban missile crisis he wanted to start a nuclear war that would have killed millions of his own people.

    Hundreds of Cuban people celebrated his death by honking their horns. The noise was deafening.

    So no, he won’t be greatly mourned.

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  4. Don’t put so much blame on one person. Dictators don’t act alone. They have support of ordinary people to carry out their directives. Fidel Castro was a product of Cuban society, not the other way around.
    As for Cuban-American celebrating Fidel’s death, it is silly to say the least.

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  5. The Castro’s has led a communist government for 56 years. Do we really think that we can change the minds of the people living there. It would like trying to turn a big limb on a tree pointing west to grow up-right. That is impossible without breaking it.
    What the outside world do not understand including people who have visited Cuba for a week or two; is that Cubans love Cuba. They want what they have, but also want what we have, but they want it in Cuba. You will find many living in USA will tell you that the want to go back to Cuba, and many have returned. You have to live there with them to know how they really think, and you cannot find that out by a visit and communicating online.
    Truly speaking, from a person who has lived there, Cuba need to remain unspoiled. What Cuba has to offer is beholding and not seen in the outside world. The outside world only want to get in there and change everything their way, how they want it to be, want to remove their old cars, change their old building sights copy their art and so many other things. Even the way they make pizza and fresh bread. Cuba need to remain Cuba with little changes. I support people being able to have small businesses. The people could be offered a better salary and be in a position to buy private medical insurance and send their children to schools to learn English.
    Yes, the education and medical is free for Cubans, but you have to be there to see how they still suffer under this program. If they go to doctor and a prescription is written for three medications, they are lucky if they can get one out of the three. So the pain will go but the illness will not. Of course there are private pharmacies but they cannot afford to buy from them. The education standard is good and the children are fed with meager rations in schools. The bottom dollar is, every body is hungry unless you have family sending money from abroad. Cubans in Cuba dress well and want the best like anyone else, however if I was Donald Trump, I would change what Obama did. He offered an olive branch and got NOTHING in return. That is because the Government of Cuba stands up for what they believe in and is not licky licky. Many mixed feelings with the Cuban people over Fidel’s death, but they who knows it feels it.

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    • I agree with Twyla on many points about Cuba. There is a documentary available on internet that everyone must watch: “Cuba: The Accidental Eden.” to understand what American influence may bring to Cuba.
      I have a friend (not Cuban born) living there for over 25 years. She curses Cuba, yet she loves it and calls it home. She has no intentions to leave. This is hard to understand for those who want to insert their values and believes in Cuban reality. We don’t get to choose the way their wellbeing comes to them, everyone gets to chose for themselves. Some head toward Florida beaches, the others are content with their lives as it is, in Cuba.

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    • I mostly agree with Twyla.

      I think it was some wag in the London Daily Telegraph who described Cuba as being like North Korea with palm trees.

      Certainly the pre-Castro government of Batista was corrupt and gangster-ridden. Supported by the USA by the way. Hence his initial support.

      But when you are still locking up people for criticizing the government then one has to wonder if people there supported him just because they didn’t know any better or because they were too scared to speak out.

      Even Khrushchev backed away from supporting him over his plans to foment a nuclear war.

      And yes, he did live on a private island while his people went hungry.

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  6. Bell, yes one dictator like him can and should be blamed for what he did to the people of Cuba . He was the dictator / leader / President with his Army of people who had to do what him Castro said to do , or you would be killed .

    I think that he outsmarted the people of Cuba how he was able to take over the Country , this is why we should always watch , listen , and see what one is saying and doing to lead the Country .

    Again I say that I am happy for the people of Cuba to be free of him , and wish them the best .

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