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

  • ASSOCIATED PRESS

    Cuban President Raul Castro has announced the death of his brother Fidel Castro at age 90 on Cuban state media on Friday, Nov. 25, 2016.

  • ASSOCIATED PRESS / 1979

    Fidel Castro pointed during his lengthy speech before the United Nations General Assembly in New York. Cuban President Raul Castro announced the death of his brother, Fidel, on Cuban state media.

HAVANA » 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 (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. 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.

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.

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. 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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  • I wouldn’t be surprised if Obama goes to Fidel’s funeral to kiss okole. I’m sure he’d love to play a round at the Varadero Golf Club while he’s there.

  • Yes! Freedom takes a fresh breath today. What an economic idiot who loved control. And this is a great example of how to id Econ idiots, if they want control, and not Liberty they are Econ Idiots. I love Liberty, don’t let life’s door hit you in the okole lil punk.

      • No, I realize Trump won the electoral vote. The unprecedented win is an interesting phenomenon in itself. He’s the POTUS-elect.

        Just his twisted self-promotion, like taking credit for “putting [the birther theory] to rest” is rather nauseating. What’s frightening is that about half the voters in this country actually went along with that distortion.

        The rest of the world is laughing at our once-great country. Doh!

  • Cuba was one of the earlier failed U.S. foreign policies. It’s amazing that a small island nation 90 miles off the U.S. coast managed to survive in spite of U.S. hostility and sanctions.

    • Soviet support kept them free of the US.

      But we fought back. We refused to give up Guantanamo Bay US military base. Suspect that it is one of the touchy points in normalizing relations with Cuba.

      Negotiation wont be easy.

    • Let’s face the bitter truth: but for JFK’s cowardice and lousy judgment, the Soviet Union would not have been given permanent basing rights 90 miles offshore and the Soviet lackey, Fidel Castro, would not have fared nearly so well for so long.

      In his wretched thousand days in office (during which we almost got incinerated in a full up arsenal exchange with the USSR) he cast is legacy in stone: the worst president we ever had.

    • NATO and US forces have bases right up to the border of the Soviet Union and Russia. We didn’t respect them and why should they respect our border? Tit for Tat. That’s how the game is played.

  • No difference between bureaucracy and communism. Control everything by regulation, especially the economy. Both citizens are duped into believing the government is all giving and will provide and share the resources.fbthe nation.only difference there is a measure of freedoms which placate the masses. The other restrict free thinking?

  • Well, HitLIARy now has a chance to run for president again given she loves socialism aka communism so much she’ll fit right in to take over! “I’m with her” in support for HitLIARy to be the next Cuban president!

  • Had not JFK acted the way he did in the Cuban missile crisis we would have had started a nuclear war. Solid evidence supports that the soviets had nukes on the island and many more troops than had been believed. JFK went against the war mongering joint chiefs who wanted to start a war. But that’s ok, don’t let the facts get in the way of your ignorant and ill-informed comments.

    • Mike174 says: Had not JFK acted the way he did in the Cuban missile crisis we would have had started a nuclear war. Solid evidence supports that the soviets had nukes on the island

      Amazing as it may be, there actually are credulous dupes who have uncritically swallowed all the ‘Camelot’ propaganda, but the truth is otherwise, so let’s recap a bit:

      Not even three months after all that inaugural hooey about support any friend, oppose any foe on that cold January morning in 1961, the worst president we ever turned cur, put tail between legs and ran away from a bunch of Cubans at Bay of Pigs and thereby left in the lurch those forces to whom we had promised air support.

      Soviet Premier Krushchev was electrified to learn so suddenly that after 8 years of struggle against a committed cold warrior (Ike) the presidency had been foolishly handed to the spoiled, degenerate, cowardly son of a rich bootlegger – – a loud mouth punk kid in WAY over his head. This impression was confirmed when the two met face to face in Vienna later that same year.

      That was the basis for the decision to put USSR nuclear tipped MRBMs into Cuba, a move that would dramatically increase Soviet target coverage of continental US.

      There is a Life magazine picture at the height of the crisis that followed which shows the tormented face of JFK in a completely strung out panic: his bluff had been called by Krushchev and, thanks to Kennedy cowardice and lousy judgment, we were within an ace of being incinerated in a full up arsenal exchange with the USSR.

      In desperation he had the Attorney General (his brother!) go begging hat in hand in a behind closed door deal with the Soviets: If they would refrain from publicly gloating over our surrender and make an UNVERIFIED offer to remove their missiles, we would PUBLICLY announce the removal of all OUR missiles from Italy and Turkey AND we would give them unlimited basing rights ninety miles off shore to do as they pleased with impunity for as long as they pleased. To no one’s surprise Krushchev accepted and allowed our so called “news” media to trumpet the lie that “the other guy blinked” to keep the Camelot legend intact. Even to this day we have no proof that all of the Soviet missiles were in fact removed, because JKF lacked the clankers that Reagan had when he would later demand of the Soviets, “Trust but Verify”.

      Result: we meekly ceded the Cuban people to a dictator for the next half century.

      • An excellent encapsulation of the entire Camelot charade. With a Nixon presidency we may not have had a Vietnam or Cuba. Bautista era Cubanos had the highest standard of living in central America.

    • But the Cuban nukes were defensive and not strategic weapons. They were there to defend against US ships who also had nuclear defensive weapons that could reach into Havana.

      We had Pershing missiles at the Russian borders. Even from Turkey the missiles could reach Russia.

      We were a direct threat to Russia. It’s a credit to both Kennedy and Khruschef that a nuclear holocaust was averted. This is Kennedy’s great accomplishment. Of course, Republicans don’t want to acknowledge that Kennedy saved their necks as well.

      • Maybe not, according to http://blog.nuclearsecrecy.com/2012/10/25/about-those-nukes-in-cuba/

        “Now, to be fair, most of them were tactical nuclear warheads to be used against U.S. forces in case of invasion (which, by American estimates, would have cost 18,500 American casualties, even if nukes didn’t go flying), and “only” 95 to 100 of those were ready to be used. “Only.” But six to eight SS-4 medium-range ballistic missiles were also there, and also at “operational” status. Those SS-4s could have reached as far north as Washington, D.C., with explosive yields of a little over a megaton each.”

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