Ex-Cuban leader Fidel Cas­tro dies at 90

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - FRONT PAGE - By Michael Weis­senstein and Peter Orsi

HA­VANA >> Fidel Cas­tro, who led his bearded rebels to vic­to­ri­ous rev­o­lu­tion in 1959, em­braced Soviet-style com­mu­nism and de­fied the power of 10 U.S. pres­i­dents dur­ing his half-cen­tury of rule in 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 (145 kilo­me­ters) 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. Cas­tro, who out­lasted a crip­pling U.S. trade em­bargo as well as dozens, pos­si­bly hun­dreds, of as­sas­si­na­tion plots, died 10 years af­ter a life-threat­en­ing ill­ness led him to turn over power to his brother.

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 was a source of in­spi­ra­tion and sup­port to rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies from Latin Amer­ica to Africa, even as Cubans who fled to ex­ile loathed him with equal mea­sure.

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. Cas­tro’s 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 his brother 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.

Raul has an­nounced plans to re­tire as pres­i­dent when his cur­rent term ends on Feb. 24, 2018. Vice Pres­i­dent Miguel Diaz-Canel, a rel­a­tively younger leader, is seen as a pos­si­ble suc­ces­sor, although Raul has said he would stay on as head of the Com­mu­nist Party.

In the Cuban cap­i­tal, flags flew at half-staff at pub­lic build­ings and some foreign em­bassies across the city Satur­day. By mid­day, the U.S. Em­bassy’s flag had not been low­ered.

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 whoop, wave Cuban flags, and bang on pots with spoons. Cars honked horns, and po­lice blocked off streets.

Alex Fer­ran, 21, headed to­ward the gath­er­ing in front of ex­ile hang­out Cafe Ver­sailles with three friends early Satur­day morn­ing af­ter his mother and grand­mother called him with the news. He was be­side him­self with ex­cite­ment.

“We’re here to cel­e­brate. This is his­tory in the mak­ing,” Fer­ran said. “This is in­sane, dude. Some­one died and there’s a pa­rade. This could only hap­pen here.”

Obama said that the United States ex­tended “a hand of friend­ship to the Cuban peo­ple” and that “his­tory will record and judge the enor­mous im­pact of this sin­gu­lar fig­ure on the peo­ple and world around him.”

Obama said that in the com­ing days, Cubans “will re­call the past and also look to the fu­ture. As they do, the Cuban peo­ple must know that they have a friend and part­ner” in Amer­ica.

Pres­i­dent-elect Don­ald Trump called Cas­tro “a bru­tal dic­ta­tor who op­pressed his own peo­ple for nearly six decades.” He said he hoped the death would clear the way “to­ward a fu­ture in which the won­der­ful Cuban peo­ple fi­nally live in the free­dom they so richly de­serve.”

He said his ad­min­is­tra­tion will do all it can to help Cubans “be­gin their jour­ney to­ward pros­per­ity and lib­erty.”

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

Cas­tro at­tended Je­suit schools and 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

“I’ll be 90 years old soon,” Fidel 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.

AP PHOTO

In this Feb. 6, 1959, photo, Cuba’s leader Fidel Cas­tro speaks to a crowd dur­ing his tri­umphant march to Ha­vana af­ter the fall of the Batista regime.

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