Fidel Castro dead at 90; changed Cuba and triggered an exodus

On April 19, 2016, Fidel Castro attended the last day of the 7th Cuban Communist Party Congress in Havana, Cuba. Cuban President Raul Castro has announced the death of his brother at age 90 on Cuban state media.
On April 19, 2016, Fidel Castro attended the last day of the 7th Cuban Communist Party Congress in Havana, Cuba. Cuban President Raul Castro has announced the death of his brother at age 90 on Cuban state media. AP

Fidel Castro, the bearded dictator who towered over Cuba for more than half a century, died Friday at the age of 90, the Cuban government announced.

No details of his death were made public. He was to be cremated Saturday, his brother, Raul, Cuba’s current president, said. Hundreds gathered in Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood early Saturday to celebrate his death.

A shaggy-bearded figure in combat fatigues whose long shadow spread across Latin America and the world had spent the last decade in ill health. Other world leaders may have had greater impact or won more respect, none combined Castro”s dynamic personality, his decades in power, his profound impact on his country and his provocative role in world affairs.

Millions cheered Castro on the day he entered Havana in 1959, at the head of a victorious rebel army, and millions fled the communist dictator’s repressive police state later, leaving behind their possessions, their families and the island they loved.

It’s part of the paradox of Castro that many people belonged to both groups.

Few inspired such intense loyalty – or such wrenching feelings of betrayal. Few fired the hearts of the world’s restless youth as Castro once did, and few seemed so irrelevant as Castro became, one of the world’s last communists, railing on the empty, decrepit street corner that his Cuba had became.

He was a spellbinding orator who was also a man of action. He had an enormous ego, boundless energy and extraordinary luck that carried him to victory as a guerrilla leader in 1959 against nearly impossible odds, then helped him survive countless plots hatched by countless enemies.

As a ruler, he transformed Cuba. He ended American domination of the island’s economy, swept away the old political system and the traditional army, nationalized land holdings and reformed education and health care.

He also was a ruthless dictator, the Maximum Leader who reneged on his promise of free elections, executed thousands of opponents, imprisoned tens of thousands, installed a communist regime and made his island a pawn in the Cold War.

And who in the end, forced by ill health, he ceded power to his brother Raul, then became an occasional curiosity who still was thought to stand in the way of efforts to open his island’s economy.

His alliance with the Soviet Union brought the world to the brink of nuclear war in 1962 in the Cuban missile crisis.

Over and over again, whether by arming Latin American revolutionaries, sheltering fugitives from U.S. justice or unleashing great waves of refugees, Castro enraged his great enemy to the north – and often threw it into domestic disarray.

The 1980 Mariel boatlift and the 2000 custody battle over Elian Gonzalez played a large role in costing first Jimmy Carter and then Al Gore the presidency.

Faced with hostility from the United States, which sponsored an invasion by Cuban exiles in 1961 and relentlessly, if sometimes comically, plotted his assassination, Castro turned the island into a fortress guarded by one of the region’s most powerful militaries.

But the guns pointed inward, too. Castro created a repressive state that rigidly controlled the arts, the press, radio and television. An efficient secret police force was aided by neighborhood spies and pro-government mobs that attacked those who dared to call for change.

Castro bragged that he would free his island of economic dependence on the United States. He did, but only by becoming even more dependent on another foreign power based nearly 6,000 miles away in Moscow.

Cuba ran up billions of dollars in debt for weapons, oil, machinery, food and other supplies. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Cuba’s crippled economy imploded, bringing new hardships to people who had already suffered for decades.

Nearly 3 million people fled the society that Castro created. The exodus began early with the powerful and affluent, continued with former comrades who found themselves in opposition to his rule, then the middle class, and, finally, just about anyone with the courage to put together a raft for the perilous crossing of the Florida Straits.

Castro, though always controversial, once seemed to embody a fresh, youthful approach to his island’s conflicts. Few moments in Cuban history can rival the euphoria of Jan. 8, 1959, when the black-bearded comandante rode a tank into Havana with his swaggering rebel fighters, making their way slowly through streets filled with cheering throngs. President Fulgencio Batista had fled a week earlier.

To his admirers, Castro offered a vision of liberation, morality and enlightenment.

For millions of Cubans, hope turned to bitter feelings of betrayal as Castro quickly converted Cuba to a one-party Soviet satellite. He then proclaimed that he had been a Marxist-Leninist all along, becoming an icon to young leftists disillusioned with the revolutionary sclerosis of the Soviet Union. Hundreds of thousands gave their lives in fruitless guerrilla movements he inspired in places such as El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Colombia, Peru, Uruguay, Argentina, Chile, Namibia, Angola and Zaire.

Castro was born Aug. 13, 1926, near the village of Biran on Cuba’s northeastern coast. His father, Angel Castro, was a prosperous landowner who ran a lumber mill, leased sugar lands from the U.S.-owned United Fruit Co. and employed hundreds.

One of Angel’s servants, Lina Ruz, was the mother of Fidel and his six siblings. Angel and Lina were married after Fidel was born.

When Fidel was 15, his father sent him to Havana’s Colegio Belen, an exclusive

Jesuit prep school. There, Castro was remembered as an imposing figure – a good-natured, talented student and a star in basketball and baseball.

In October 1945, Castro enrolled at Havana University’s law school. He immediately plunged into student politics at a time of gangsterismo _ battles between armed rival gangs. Castro carried a gun and was accused, though never convicted, of involvement in two murders and another attempt.

As a student, Castro twice became enmeshed in violent international incidents that marked his developing obsession for revolutionary politics.

In 1947, he joined a group plotting to overthrow dictator Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic. Cuban police crushed the expedition before it left the island; Castro escaped by swimming across a bay.

In April 1948, as diplomats gathered in Bogota, Colombia, to found the Organization of American States, Castro and other young Cubans traveled there to organize a student anti-imperialist movement. He was on his way to see Colombian populist politician Jorge Eliecer Gaitan when Gaitan was assassinated on the street, a killing that set off two days of rioting later known as the Bogotazo. Castro, then 21, joined in the street fighting, seizing a rifle at a police station stormed by a mob.

On Oct. 12, 1948, while still in law school, Castro married Mirta Diaz-Balart, a philosophy student. The couple honeymooned in the United States, and a son, Fidelito, was born the next year. But Castro’s frenetic political activity and his voracious appetite for women ended the marriage in 1955.

It was only in 1999 that it was publicly acknowledged in Cuba that Castro had been living since the 1960s with schoolteacher Dalia Sotodelvalle. Their five sons are among the eight children Castro is known to have fathered by four different women.

Perhaps the closest relationship Castro ever had with a woman was with Celia Sanchez, who joined him at his guerrilla hideout in the Sierra Maestra in 1957 and later became his personal secretary. He declared a national day of mourning when Sanchez died in 1980.

After Castro graduated from law school in 1950, he became a lawyer-politician, representing poor clients and investigating government corruption. But his dreams of traditional politics ended abruptly in 1952, when Fulgencio Batista, a onetime populist reformer who had grown fond of power, seized the government in a coup.

While older politicians pondered how to respond, Castro, 25, declared personal war on the new dictatorship. Over 16 months, he built a clandestine, armed revolutionary organization from the ranks of the Ortodoxo Party.

He opened his war July 26, 1953, leading a dawn attack by 111 poorly armed young rebels on Cuba’s second-largest army base, the 400-man Moncada Barracks in Santiago de Cuba. The idea was to take control of a strategic portion of the island and call for a nationwide uprising.

But things went wrong from the beginning. Sixty-nine of the rebels were killed –most tortured to death or executed after capture. The army and police lost 19 men.

Castro escaped into the hills, only to be captured several days later.

The disastrous attack made Castro the top anti-Batista leader overnight. He turned his trial in Santiago into an indictment of the dictatorship. In his final courtroom speech, he concluded: “Condemn me, it does not matter! History will absolve me!’’

Though Castro was convicted, Batista released him 18 months into his sentence as part of a general amnesty.

Castro promptly went to Mexico, where he rebuilt his tiny revolutionary band and organized an invasion. There, Castro met and recruited Ernesto “Che’’ Guevara, a 27-year-old Argentine physician with Marxist ideas who had been expelled from Guatemala after a CIA-backed coup there the previous year.

On Dec. 2, 1956, Castro, Guevara and 80 followers reached the shore of Cuba’s Oriente province in a battered American cabin cruiser, the Granma, many of them seasick after a seven-day crossing from Mexico. The men leaped into hip-deep mud and struggled through a mangrove swamp to reach land.

Only 16 made it safely to the 4,500-foot ridges of the Sierra Maestra. There they began a guerrilla campaign to oust Batista, who was backed by a 40,000-strong security force equipped with tanks, artillery and U.S.-supplied warplanes. The bombardment did not stop Castro’s force from growing, but it did deepen his anti-American feelings.

In the first months after Batista’s ouster, Castro cut rents, lowered telephone rates, reformed the income tax system, and passed a land reform law that nationalized estates larger than 1,000 acres, benefiting thousands of peasants.

Along with the popular economic measures were disquieting signs that Castro’s intentions were anything but democratic. Among the more disturbing was the March 1959 trial of 44 members of Batista’s air force. A revolutionary tribunal acquitted them of crimes against Castro’s guerrillas. An enraged Castro instantly created a right of appeal for prosecutors. Told Cuban law did not permit it, he replied: “Revolutionary justice is not based on legal precepts, but on moral conviction.’’

A second tribunal compliantly convicted the men and sentenced them to 30 years in prison. At that, the airmen were lucky. Though Cuban law did not permit capital punishment, the revolutionary tribunals were sending a steady stream of men to the firing squad.

Castro’s radical domestic policies appeared likely to sour Cuba’s relations with the United States, but he didn’t wait to find out. He moved almost immediately to confront Washington, while courting surprised Soviet leaders.

He brushed aside U.S. offers of economic aid, then began a new wave of confiscations. Between August and October 1960, Castro’s government expropriated the Texaco, Esso and Shell oil refineries, plus more than 150 other U.S. firms, and all privately owned sugar mills, banks, large industries and commercial real estate.

President Dwight Eisenhower responded by slapping an embargo on all U.S. exports to Cuba and killing Cuba’s sugar quota. He broke diplomatic relations with Cuba in January 1961.

Three months later, about 1,400 CIA-trained exiles invaded Cuba at the Bay of Pigs on the southwestern coast. Castro turned the greatest threat to his political career into his greatest success, defeating the outgunned, outmanned invasion force in three days.

Enraged at their humiliation on the world stage, President John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert, the attorney general, redoubled their efforts against Castro. CIA officials would later complain that from 1961 to 1963, they were under almost constant pressure to come up with new ways to destabilize Castro – or kill him.

On Dec. 2, 1961, in a dramatic late-night speech, Castro announced to the nation: “Do I believe in Marxism? I believe absolutely in Marxism! Did I believe on Jan. 1? I believed on Jan. 1! Did I believe on July 26 (1953)? I believed on July 26!’’

But had Castro really been a communist all along? In his past, there were no clear indications of Marxism, although his brother Raul and Che Guevara were both Marxists. That question intrigued scholars throughout his life. In the end, though, there was no doubt about Castro’s embrace of Marxism.

His impact on communist ideology extended far outside Cuba.

Before Castro, the world’s Communist parties were fairly conservative, arguing that revolutions required years of political organizing. But Castro, backed by the force of his own victory over Batista, argued that armed struggle itself was the best way to create the proper conditions for revolution.

It was an argument that fueled nascent guerrilla movements everywhere from Argentina to Zaire. The front lines of the confrontation between communism and theWest shifted from Europe to the jungles of the Third World.

Between July and September 1962, the Soviet Union began to ship missiles, nuclear-capable bombers and 40,000 soldiers to the island.

In October, Kennedy cited intelligence detailing the presence of the weapons in Cuba, demanded their removal and ordered U.S. ships to blockade the island. The crisis escalated when Soviet troops in Cuba shot down an American U-2 spy plane over the island.

The United States prepared to invade Cuba. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev blinked. Without consulting Castro, he worked out an agreement with the Kennedy administration to withdraw the missiles. The deal included a U.S. commitment not to invade the island.

Meanwhile, Castro’s attempts to bend the laws of economics to his personal will generally ended in disaster.

To fulfill his decree that the 1970 sugar cane crop would be 10 million tons, twice that of the year before, the Cuban government diverted nearly all its resources into the harvest. Vast sectors of the Cuban economy were paralyzed by the herculean effort, and the harvest still fell short by 1.5 million tons. The economic distortions reverberated for years.

The pent-up desperation on the island was never more apparent than in April 1980, when six Cubans broke into the grounds of the Peruvian embassy and were promptly granted political asylum. Enraged, Castro ordered all guards removed from the embassy, only to see nearly 11,000 asylum seekers crowd into the compound in 28 hours.

Whether in embarrassment or crafty calculation – it was never clear which – Castro then announced that anyone who wanted to leave Cuba could go. That launched the astonishing Mariel boatlift, a flotilla of yachts and fishing boats shuttling back and forth between Key West and the port of Mariel. When Castro closed it five months later, more than 120,000 people had fled Cuba.

The direct face-off between Castro and Washington had eased after Kennedy’s presidency, and military tension dropped further after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

But relations between Castro and Cuban exiles in Miami remained heated to the end.

Cuban exiles, taking up where the CIA left off 30 years earlier, launched several botched attempts to assassinate Castro, who in turn sent spies to South Florida with instructions not only to infiltrate U.S. military installations, but to worm their way inside exile politics.

Documents introduced at a 2001 spy trial that resulted in convictions of five men showed that they were ordered to spread lies about exile leaders, foment dissent within their groups, ruin Cuban-American politicians and sabotage the airplanes of the group Brothers to the Rescue, which patrolled the Florida Straits, looking for rafters fleeing Cuba.

One spy was also convicted of a murder conspiracy charge after the jury decided he had helped lure two planes flown by an exile group, Brothers to the Rescue, into a 1996 ambush by Cuban MiGs that ended with the death of four Brothers pilots.

But nothing demonstrated the extent to which Castro and Miami exiles had become blood enemies like the saga of Elian Gonzalez, a little boy who washed ashore in South Florida in November 1999 after his mother and nine others died while bolting Cuba on a raft.

The boy’s custody – whether he should stay with relatives in Miami, or be returned to his father in Cuba – immediately turned into a political death struggle between the exiles and Castro.

Exiles said returning Elian to Cuba would be like sending a runaway slave back to the plantation; Castro referred to the exiles as “the Miami mafiosi’’ and accused them of “kidnapping’’ the boy.

Outside Miami, American public opinion swung in favor of returning the child to Cuba, and the Clinton administration did just that.

If the Elian affair was a victory for Castro, it was one of the few after the Soviet bloc began to crumble in 1989. The loss of $4 billion a year in Moscow aid touched off an economic holocaust in Cuba; by 1993, the economy had shrunk nearly 40 percent.

By 1994, Castro’s government was in its most perilous state since the Bay of Pigs. Small riots erupted, and thousands of Cubans hurled themselves lemming-like into the sea on flimsy rafts of plywood and inner-tubes, praying to catch a lucky current to Miami.

Cornered, Castro loosened some of the strings on the economy. He tried to develop a tourist industry, opening several luxury hotels in joint ventures with foreign partners. Small businesses like mom-and-pop restaurants were permitted, and possession of U.S. dollars was legalized.

But the opening was short lived, pushed closed by hardliners, including Fidel himself, who feared empowering independent businesses on the island.

When Castro fell ill in 2008, from a still largely unexplained intestinal ailment, he ceded power to Raul, his brother and longtime aide.

But even the end of the long diplomatic estrangement from the United States in 2014 did not bring a political opening to the island, though President Barack Obama visited in March of 2016, and the U.S. government began to lift its long efforts to isolate the island, allowing cruise ships and airlines to begin regular service.

Still, the opening with the United States remained tenuous, with some Cuban-American leaders in Miami hoping that the newly elected administration of Donald Trump would end the opening that had only just begun.

The death of Fidel was unlikely to end that push.

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