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Fidel Castro, Cuba's revolutionary leader, dies aged 90

Cuba's former president Fidel Castro, who led a rebel army to victory to become one of the world's longest serving leaders, has died at the age of 90.

President Raul Castro said on state television that his older brother died at 10.29pm on Friday. He ended the announcement by shouting the revolutionary slogan: "Toward victory, always!"

News of Castro's death prompted both celebrations and condolences. The Cuban government declared nine days of national mourning, ending when Castro's remains are interred on December 4 in the eastern city of Santiago - the birthplace of his revolution.

World leaders hailed Castro as a "figure of enormous historical importance" whose life was "a lighthouse to all revolutionaries around the world".

He had seized power after toppling the government in 1959, introducing a Communist revolution. He defied the US for decades, surviving many assassination plots.

His supporters said he had given Cuba back to the people. Critics saw him as a dictator.

President Barack Obama said: "History will record and judge the enormous impact of this singular figure on the people and world around him."

President-elect Donald Trump was more outspoken branding him "a brutal dictator who oppressed his own people for nearly six decades".

He said Castro leaves a legacy of "firing squads, theft, unimaginable suffering, poverty and the denial of fundamental human rights".

Russian President Vladimir Putin said in a telegram to Raul Castro: "Free and independent Cuba, which he (Fidel Castro) and his allies built, became an influential member of the international community and became an inspiring example for many countries and nations. Fidel Castro was a sincere and reliable friend of Russia."

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras tweeted: "Goodbye, commandante. Until the peoples' eternal victory."

But in Miami's Little Havana, Cuban exiles poured onto the streets to celebrate news of his death.

Thousands banged pots with spoons, waved Cuban flags and whooped in jubilation.

Cubans fled their homeland after Castro took power. Some were loyalists of Fulgencio Batista, the president prior to Castro, while others left with the hope they would be able to return soon, after Castro was toppled. He never was.

The bearded revolutionary, who survived a crippling US 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 Batista, exile in Mexico and a disastrous start to his rebellion before triumphantly riding into Havana in January 1959 to become, at the age of 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.

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 the island of 11 million people an economically-crippled Marxist curiosity.

He survived long enough to see Raul Castro negotiate an opening with Mr Obama on December 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 month-long silence. Mr Obama made a historic visit to Havana in March 2016.

Fidel Castro Ruz was born on August 13 1926, in eastern Cuba's sugar country, where his Spanish immigrant father worked first recruiting labour for US sugar companies and later built up a prosperous plantation of his own.

He 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.

Fidel turned his trial defence into a manifesto that he smuggled out of jail, famously declaring: "History will absolve me."

Freed under a pardon, Castro fled to Mexico and organised 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 January 8 1959.

The US was among the first to formally recognise 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.

Castro's speeches, lasting up to six hours, became the soundtrack of Cuban life and his 269-minute speech to the UN 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 US purchases of sugar, the island's economic mainstay. Castro, in turn, confiscated US assets.

The American government imposed a trade embargo, banning virtually all US exports to the island except for food and medicine, and it severed diplomatic ties on January 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 US to give up on the idea of invading Cuba.

The biggest crisis of the Cold War between Washington and Moscow exploded on October 22 1962, when president John F. Kennedy announced there were Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba and imposed a naval blockade of the island.

After a tense week of diplomacy, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev removed them.

Castro cobbled revolutionary groups together into the new Cuban Communist Party, with him as first secretary. Unions lost the right to strike. The Catholic Church and other religious institutions were harassed. Neighbourhood "revolutionary defence committees" kept an eye on everyone.

But the collapse of the Soviet bloc ended billions in preferential trade and subsidies for Cuba, sending its economy into a tailspin.

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.

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. 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 fervour 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."

AP

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