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The End Of an Era

Fidel Castro, 90, who towered over his Caribbean island for nearly five decades, a shaggy-bearded figure in combat fatigues whose long shadow spread across Latin America and the world, has died. His brother Raul announced the death late Friday night.

Fidel Castro, exhaling cigar smoke, held a unique place among the world's leaders of the last century. Few have inspired such loyalty - and such a feeling of betrayal.
Fidel Castro, exhaling cigar smoke, held a unique place among the world's leaders of the last century. Few have inspired such loyalty - and such a feeling of betrayal.Read moreAssociated Press File

Fidel Castro, 90, who towered over his Caribbean island for nearly five decades, a shaggy-bearded figure in combat fatigues whose long shadow spread across Latin America and the world, has died. His brother Raul announced the death late Friday night.

Few national leaders have inspired such intense loyalty - or such a wrenching feeling of betrayal. Few fired the hearts of the world's restless youth as Castro did when he was young, and few seemed so irrelevant as Castro when he was old - the last Communist, railing on the empty, decrepit street corner that Cuba became under his rule.

He held a unique place among the world's leaders of the past century. Others had greater impact or won more respect. But none combined his dynamic personality, his decades in power, his profound effect on his own country, and his provocative role in international affairs.

On Jan. 1, 1959, the Cuban revolution led by Fidel Castro ended as dictator Fulgencio Batista fled the island.

As he changed the face of Cuba, he remapped South Florida as well, transforming it from the southernmost tip of the United States to the northernmost point of Latin America. The suffering of the refugees he sent pouring into Miami eventually turned to triumph as they forged economic and political success.

He was a spellbinding orator who was also a man of action. His tall and powerful build was matched by an outsized ego, boundless energy, and extraordinary luck that carried him to victory as a guerrilla leader against nearly impossible odds, then helped him survive countless plots hatched by his countless enemies.

He ended American domination of the island's economy, swept away the old political system and the traditional army, nationalized large and small land holdings, and brought reforms in 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. His alliance with the Soviet Union brought the world to the brink of nuclear war in 1962.

The Cuban Missile Crisis was neither Castro's first nor last confrontation with the United States, though it was certainly the most epic. No other individual has ever tormented Washington more or longer. At age 12, Castro wrote to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, congratulating him on his third inauguration as president and impudently asking for a dollar. By the time he was 35, two American presidents had devoted a considerable amount of time and effort to killing him.

Over and over, whether by arming Latin American revolutionaries or 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 as well. The U.S. political controversies that followed the 1980 Mariel boatlift and the 2000 custody battle over Elian Gonzalez played a large role in costing first Jimmy Carter 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 military machines.

But the guns pointed inward, too. He created a repressive state that rigidly controlled the arts, the press, the airwaves. An efficient secret police force was aided by neighborhood spies and pro-government mobs that attacked those who dared call for democratic change. Cultural enemies were vulnerable, too; well into the 1970s, Castro was imprisoning gays and long-haired young people in work camps.

Castro bragged that he would free his island of economic dependence on the United States, and 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. And when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Cuba's crippled economy imploded, bringing new hardships to a population that already had suffered decades under his mismanagement.

Hundreds of thousands fled the society Castro created. The exodus began early with the powerful and affluent and continued with former comrades who found themselves in opposition to his rule. Next to go were the middle class and professionals and, finally, just about anyone who had the courage to grab a boat or cobble together a raft for the perilous crossing of the Florida Straits.

Castro, although always controversial, once seemed to embody a fresh, youthful approach to his island's conflicts. Few moments in Cuban history 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 through streets filled with cheering throngs. Batista had fled a week earlier.

For millions of Cubans, hope turned to bitter feelings of betrayal as Castro quickly pushed aside former comrades in arms, jailed those who protested, ridiculed the idea of elections, and converted Cuba to a one-party Communist state and Soviet satellite. He then proclaimed that he had been a Marxist-Leninist all along.

If his open embrace of communism made him a pariah not only to Washington but to many of his own countrymen, Castro nonetheless became an icon to young leftists around the world disillusioned with the revolutionary sclerosis of the Soviet Union. Hundreds of thousands would give their lives in fruitless guerrilla movements he inspired in places like El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Colombia, Peru, Uruguay, Argentina, Chile, Namibia, Angola, and Zaire.

"As you may well know," Castro said during a 1993 speech, "my job is to talk." His orations were legendary. Without a text, but with a crowd of supporters cheering him on in Havana's Plaza de la Revolución, Castro could hold forth for hours. His record, in 1968, was a meandering discourse that lasted nearly 12 hours.

Castro was born Aug. 13, 1926, near the village of Birán on Cuba's northeastern coast.

His father, Angel Castro, a native of Galicia, Spain, started out laboring in sugar fields for the U.S.-owned United Fruit Co. but worked his way up until he owned a 10,000-acre farm with hundreds of workers.

One of Angel's servants, Lina Ruz, was the mother of Fidel and his six siblings - including Raul, who assumed power on July 31, 2006, after Fidel fell ill. Angel and Lina were married several years after Fidel was born, and Fidel was not legally recognized as a Castro until he was 17. Despite the household's rocky domestic issues, Fidel mostly enjoyed the privileged, outdoor childhood of a land baron's son, climbing hills, swimming in rivers, hunting with a shotgun.

When Fidel was 15, in 1941, his father sent him to Colegio Belén in Havana, an exclusive Jesuit prep school for rich boys. At Belén, Castro was remembered as an imposing figure - good-natured, a talented student and a star of the basketball and baseball teams. He maintained an interest in sports in later life, making Cuba a regional power in amateur athletics. But, contrary to a report widely circulated in the American press, he never tried out for the U.S. major leagues.

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 pistol and was accused, though never convicted, of involvement in two murders and another attempt.

There were Communist groups at the university, but Castro didn't join. He remained independent for a time, then in 1947 aligned himself with the Ortodoxos, a party led by liberal reformer Eduardo Chibas. Castro served as a top aide until Chibas fatally shot himself in 1951 during a dramatic radio broadcast, attempting to awaken Cubans to what he called social injustice.

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 the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic. Cuban police crushed the expedition before it could leave the island; Castro escaped by swimming across a bay.

In April 1948, as diplomats gathered in Bogota to found the Organization of American States, Castro and other young Cubans traveled there to help organize a student anti-imperialist movement. He met Colombian populist politician Jorge Eliecer Gaitan and was on his way to see him again 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 that had been stormed by a mob. His activities in Bogota prompted a cable to Washington from the U.S. Embassy in Havana on April 26, 1948, the first of what eventually would be hundreds of thousands of official U.S. documents pondering Castro's intentions.

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 owing to Castro's frenetic political activity and his voracious appetite for women, the marriage was doomed. They were divorced in 1955. Mirta Diaz-Balart remarried and moved to Spain. The estrangement, both social and political, extended to the rest of the Diaz-Balart family - most of which moved to Miami, where several Castro nephews eventually would become powerful politicians and journalists.

Castro is known to have fathered as many as 11 children by four women. There were rumors of others by his many mistresses.

His relations with his children were distant and sometimes strained. His only daughter, Alina Fernandez, aligned herself with Cuba's dissident movement and tried for years to leave the island before she escaped in 1993 with a false passport. Now living in Miami, Fernandez is a harsh critic of her father.

After Castro graduated from law school in 1950, he became a lawyer-politician, representing poor clients and investigating government corruption. In 1951, he launched a vigorous campaign for a seat in Cuba's congress. But his dreams of traditional politics ended abruptly in 1952, when Batista - a one-time populist reformer who had grown fond of power - seized the government in a coup and canceled the election.

While older politicians pondered how to respond, Castro, 25, declared personal war on the new dictatorship. Over the next 16 months, he built a clandestine, armed revolutionary organization, recruiting 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 on the eastern end of the island. The idea was to seize weapons, take control of a strategic portion of Cuba, and call for a nationwide uprising.

But everything went wrong from the beginning. Shooting started prematurely, only three rebels actually fought their way into the base, and Castro's fighters made a disorderly retreat.

Sixty-nine rebels were killed - most of them tortured to death or executed after capture. The army and police lost 19 men. Castro escaped, only to be captured a few days later.

In prison, Castro wrote furiously, converting his trial speech into a formal document smuggled out for publication. It became his platform during the struggle against Batista.

Batista released Castro on May 15, 1955, as part of a general amnesty, 18 months into his sentence.

Castro traveled briefly that year to Miami. Then he 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 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, wretchedly seasick after a seven-day voyage. The men leaped into hip-deep mud and struggled through a mangrove swamp to reach land. Most were killed or captured in the first hours.

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.

Castro's force, however, slowly began to grow. He recruited peasants as guerrilla fighters and organized intellectuals and middle-class followers into an urban underground railroad of funds and supplies.

After Batista's ouster, Castro installed a government with a democratic cast under President Manuel Urrutia, a former judge, and Prime Minister Jose Miro Cardona, a leading lawyer. Within weeks, however, Castro had taken Miro Cardona's place as prime minister. On July 17, Urrutia resigned, accusing Castro of leading Cuba toward communism.

A steady stream of Cubans began leaving the island for Miami. By the end of the century, an estimated three million of its citizens, more than a fifth of the population, would be living outside Cuba.

By 1994, Castro's government was in its most perilous state since the days of the Bay of Pigs. Several small riots erupted. Cornered, Castro loosened some of the strings on the economy. For the first time, 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.

If Castro could accept all of that, though, there was still one thing he couldn't swallow: political liberalization.

By the time Castro left the presidency, the country's rapidly aging population was the second-oldest in Latin America. The workers weren't the only thing geriatric about the Cuban economy: Its industrial underpinning of ancient Soviet factories and machinery was crumbling.

Iin August 2006, Castro said an abdominal illness would require surgery and he was placing the reins of government in the hands of his brother Raul. The illness was never precisely identified, though it was widely speculated to be some form of gastrointestinal cancer.

Whatever it was, it took an abrupt and catastrophic toll. Castro was rarely seen again in public for the rest of his life, though he occasionally appeared in photos or videos released by the government - a slow and shaky man, dozens of pounds wasted from his once imposing frame.