Fidel Castro, Cuban dictator, dies at 90 – Washington Post

 In World
Fidel Castro, who led a Cuban revolution that made his Caribbean island a potent symbol of the 20th-century ideological and economic divisions, and whose alliance with communism and the former Soviet Union put the world at peril of nuclear war, died Nov. 25. He was 90.

His death was announced on Cuban state TV by his younger brother, Raúl Castro, who succeeded Fidel 10 years ago as the country’s leader. The cause of death was not immediately disclosed, but Mr. Castro had been in failing health for several years.

The son of a prosperous sugar planter, Mr. Castro took power in Cuba on New Year’s Day 1959, promising to share his nation’s wealth with its poorest citizens, who had suffered under the corrupt quarter-century dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista.

Mr. Castro, a romantic figure in olive-drab fatigues and combat boots, chomping monstrous cigars through a bushy black beard, became a spiritual beacon for the world’s political far left.

Fidel Castro, bearded Cuban leader, has a shipboard conference with Capt. Alfred Boerum, skipper of the mercy ship African Pilot, and E. Barrett Prettyman Jr., right, after the boat docked in Havana Dec. 27, 1962. (Joe McGowan Jr./AP)

To his legion of followers, Mr. Castro was a hero who demanded a fair deal for the world’s poor and wasn’t afraid to point his pistol at the powerful to get it. His admirers said he educated, fed and provided health care to his own people, as well as to the poor in other countries, more fairly and generously than the world’s wealthy nations, most notably what he called the “Colossus to the North.”

But one of the world’s longest-serving heads of state was as loathed as he was loved. He was among the world’s most repressive leaders, a self-appointed president-for-life who banned free speech, freedom of assembly and a free press and executed or jailed thousands of political opponents.

He abolished Christmas as an official holiday for nearly 30 years. While he dispatched Cuban-educated doctors and Cuban-developed vaccines to the poorest corners of Latin America, Cubans in central Havana found pharmacy shelves empty of medicine, and many lived in apartments in which they used buckets in their kitchens as toilets.

Mr. Castro’s long reign began to unravel July 31, 2006, when he temporarily transferred power to his 75-year-old brother, Raúl, after undergoing what he described as intestinal surgery (the precise nature of Mr. Castro’s health problems was an official state secret). The transfer of power came just weeks before Mr. Castro’s 80th birthday on Aug. 13, and Mr. Castro was not seen in public again for nearly four years.

He formally resigned on Feb. 19, 2008, in a statement read on national television by a spokesman, ending his 49-year reign and giving George W. Bush the distinction of being the first U.S. president to outlast Mr. Castro in power.

The National Assembly officially — and unanimously — named Raúl Castro, the longtime head of the Cuban armed forces, as Cuba’s new president. The move was seen as deeply anti-climactic, an Earth-shaking political transition that registered barely a tremor, since Mr. Castro had gently stage-managed the shift to his brother for almost two years.

With almost theatrical relish, Mr. Castro taunted 10 successive U.S. presidents, who viewed the Cuban leader variously as a potential courier of Armageddon, a blow-hard nuisance, a dangerous dictator, a fomenter of revolution around Latin America, a serial human rights abuser or an irrelevant sideshow who somehow hung on after the collapse of communism almost everywhere else.

All of them maintained a strict trade embargo against the island nation, which Bush, in particular, vigorously tightened and enforced.

By the time President Obama, the first U.S. leader elected in the post-Fidel era, announced efforts to re-establish full diplomatic relations with Havana in December 2014, Fidel Castro had virtually vanished from public life. U.S. officials said he played no role in the behind-the scenes negotiations with the Obama administration. As Raúl Castro announced his new deal with Washington to the Cuban people, his older brother was apparently too ill to make any public appearances or statements.

Tweaking the “imperialists” was always a Fidel Castro passion. He built an enormous public demonstration space — complete with stage lighting and sound — outside the U.S. diplomatic mission on the Malecon, Havana’s main seaside boulevard. There, he regularly led anti-American rallies and delivered the lengthy speeches for which he was famous.

He was a particular thorn to President John F. Kennedy, whose clumsy Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in April 1961 by a ragtag group of CIA-trained fighters was a humiliating low point of his presidency.

To his benefactors in the Kremlin during the height of the Cold War, Mr. Castro was the useful commander of a communist citadel 90 miles south of the United States. That point was drawn in terrifyingly stark terms during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, when Mr. Castro allowed the Soviets to base on his soil missiles that could carry nuclear warheads to Washington or New York in minutes. The resulting showdown between Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was the closest the world has ever come to nuclear war.

Unlike the world’s few remaining communist leaders, Mr. Castro did not create monuments to himself or lend his name to streets and buildings. Instead, he erected billboards carrying patriotic slogans of the revolution: “We will overcome!” “Motherland or death!”

Under Mr. Castro, Havana became something of a Marxist Disneyland — a shiny, happy veneer over something much uglier.

Mr. Castro personally ordered the restoration of Old Havana, an architectural gem where tourists can savor $300 boxes of Cuban cigars, some of the world’s best music and sweet Havana Club rum — the proceeds of which went to Mr. Castro’s revolution. But just a block behind the restored facades, impoverished Cubans lived in crumbling homes on rationed food. Teenage prostitutes in tight spandex openly offered their services to tourists.

Fidel Castro, the Cuban dictator who led the country’s communist revolution in the late 1950s, died on Nov. 25. (Jason Aldag/The Washington Post)

While many Cubans expressed genuine and deep loyalty to Fidel — he was never called “Castro” in his homeland — others clearly feared a leader who imprisoned tens of thousands of his enemies over the years, often on little more than a whim.

Many Cubans wouldn’t criticize him for fear of being overheard by government informants, who lived on practically every block. To indicate Mr. Castro, they would tug on an imaginary beard. Still more accepted Mr. Castro as a simple fact, like the tropical humidity — what good would it do to complain?

The most striking condemnation came from Cubans who fled Mr. Castro’s rule by the thousands every year. The wealthier paid for speed-boat trips across the Florida Straits, while the poorest attempted the dangerous trip in rickety boats — and, on a couple of occasions, one of Cuba’s vintage 1950s American-made cars and trucks, refitted to float by Cubans who had become highly skilled at making do with materials at hand.

In the later years of his presidency, and his life, Mr. Castro enjoyed a resurgence in popularity across much of Latin America, fueled in part by the election of several leaders who were inspired by Castro’s staunch anti-Americanism.

In particular, President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela viewed Mr. Castro as a political beacon and father figure to the Latin American left. Sweetheart oil deals from Chávez, until his death in March 2013, were key to Cuba’s ability to survive in Castro’s last years as its state-dominated economy sputtered.

Toward the end of his time in office, Mr. Castro acted more like a man intent on purifying his legacy, returning his revolution to its ideological core, reversing economic openings and stepping up attacks on political dissent. He imprisoned Cubans whose crimes were as simple as passing out books on democracy.

Raúl Castro embarked on a plan of economic liberalization that, to date, has been more symbolic than substantial, with private enterprise permitted in a few small areas, such as food service and repair shops. But the military-led government still controls as much as 80 percent of the economy.

The inauguration of President Obama in January 2009 seemed to portend a shift in relations with Cuba. Two weeks after the inauguration, Mr. Castro, who had barely been seen in public since his surgery in 2006, surfaced in one of his newer incarnations — blogger — to deliver a generally welcoming message to Obama.

He held out what appeared to be at least a grudging olive branch, telling Obama that, “being born of a Kenyan Muslim father and a white American Christian deserves special merit in the context of U.S. society and I am the first to recognize that.”

Obama promised a “new beginning” with Cuba and eased some restrictions on remittances to Cuba from family members, as well as academic and cultural exchanges. But U.S. relations with Cuba did not change substantially until the December 2014 announcement of renewed diplomatic ties.

Mr. Castro slowed noticeably in his final years. He had long ago given up cigars and rum, and his beard faded from thick and black to scraggly and thunderstorm gray. In June 2001, he appeared to faint while giving one of his weekly Saturday speeches; then, in October 2004, he fell and broke a kneecap and an arm. Those events were the first time most Cubans had seen physical weakness from Mr. Castro. From that point on, his public appearances became more infrequent and stopped altogether in 2006.

Mr. Castro’s low profile intensified speculation about the “biological solution” that many Cuban exiles in Miami and other Castro foes had so long hoped for. But as pundits and Cuba experts repeatedly and wrongly predicted his imminent demise, Mr. Castro would answer by appearing in photographs with visiting heads of state, or with blog posts, essays or other messages reminding his people that his detractors had it wrong again.

David Scott Palmer, a Cuba scholar and professor at Boston University, said in a 2009 interview that Mr. Castro seemed to be preparing his country for his eventual death and “skillfully managing his own departure.”

Mr. Castro returned to the public eye in July 2010. His trademark fatigues now traded for an old-man’s track-suit, he appeared on live Cuban television, looking thinner and weak. Rather than address Cuba’s deepening economic woes, he gave what amounted to a lecture to the United States on the dangers of nuclear confrontation with Iran and on the Korean Peninsula. His address, aimed at world leaders more than ordinary Cubans, seemed designed to mainly to burnish his legacy and cement his status as elder statesman.

He was clearly entering his twilight, speaking haltingly and wandering. In The Washington Post, the Cuban writer Yoani Sánchez described the reaction of Cubans at seeing the once-invincible Mr. Castro as a “stuttering old man with quivering hands.”

“We had already started to remember him as something from the past, which was a noble way to forget him,” she wrote in August 2010. “In recent weeks, he who was once called The One, the Horse or simply He, has been presented to us stripped of his captivating charisma. Although he is once again in the news, it has been confirmed: Fidel Castro, fortunately, will never return.”

Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz was born at Las Manacas, his family’s plantation in the village of Biran in eastern Cuba’s Oriente province, on Aug. 13, 1926.

His father, Angel Castro, was born in Spain and went to Cuba as a soldier in the Spanish army. He became a laborer on a railway owned by the United Fruit Co. Soon he was clearing land for himself in the wilds of Oriente and growing sugar cane, which he sold to the fruit company. In time, Las Manacas comprised 26,000 acres, of which almost 2,000 were owned by the elder Castro.

His son Fidel was well off, but nowhere near as wealthy as some of the boys at the schools to which he was sent, including the prestigious Colegio de Belen, a Jesuit school in Havana.

Behind his back, he was sometimes called guajiro, or peasant. In his authoritative 1986 biography of Mr. Castro, author Tad Szulc quotes this assessment from Enrique Ovares, an old Castro friend: “I think that the worst damage Fidel’s parents did him was to put him in a school of wealthy boys without Fidel being really rich . . . and more than that without having a social position. . . . I think that this influenced him and he had hatred against society people and moneyed people.”

In 1945, Fidel Castro entered the University of Havana. Apparently applying his first-hand experience of social and economic inequality, he immersed himself in the legacy of Cuba’s bygone revolutionaries.

In a country that had often tumultuous relations with the United States since the 1898 sinking of the USS Maine in Havana Harbor sparked the Spanish-American War, Mr. Castro concluded that casting off the hegemony of the United States was more important than mere prosperity.

He joined the Insurrectional Revolutionary Union, and carried a pistol. In 1947, he signed up for an aborted expedition to free the Dominican Republic from the dictatorship of Rafael Leonidas Trujillo. In 1948, he went to Colombia to protest a meeting of the Pan-American Union, which was reorganizing into the Organization of American States.

Mr. Castro earned his law degree at the University of Havana and set up a practice in the city in 1950. Two years later, he ran for a seat in the Cuban congress on the ticket of the Ortodoxo Party, a reform group. Mr. Castro’s campaign was cut short on March 10, 1952, when Batista staged a coup and retook the presidency.

Even as a young man, Mr. Castro showed a remarkable ability to persuade people to join him in seemingly impossible tasks — such as his wild scheme to take over the army’s Moncada barracks in Santiago de Cuba.

Mr. Castro’s plan was to distribute arms from the barracks to the people and overthrow Batista. Mr. Castro was not deterred by the fact that the garrison numbered more than 1,000 soldiers and that he fielded only about 120 followers.

The July 26, 1953, assault went off with almost comic mismanagement. The contingent with most of the arms got lost in the city’s old quarter, and Mr. Castro’s men rushed into what they thought was an arsenal, only to discover that it was a barbershop. Having fired not a single shot himself, Mr. Castro called a retreat. He and most of the others were captured.

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