Fidel Castro, whose Cuban revolution turned his Caribbean island into a potent symbol of the world’s greatest ideological and economic divides of the 20th century, has died, Cuban state media announced early Saturday. He was 90.
The death was announced on Cuban state TV by Castro’s younger brother, Raul, who succeeded his brother years ago as the country’s leader.
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.
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.
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.
Through the intercession of a bishop who was a friend of his father, he was spared immediate execution and put on trial. Although the court proceeding was held in secret, it gave Mr. Castro, who acted as his own attorney, the chance to make what became the most famous speech of his life. Smuggled out of prison, it concluded with the words that became known to generations of Cuban schoolchildren: “Condemn me, it does not matter. History will absolve me.”
Mr. Castro was sentenced to 15 years but was released after less than two under an amnesty declared by Batista. He then moved to Mexico City, where he continued his work with a group calling itself the 26th of July Movement, commemorating what became known as the opening salvo of the Cuban revolution.
The Moncada debacle and its aftermath also ended Mr. Castro’s first marriage. In October 1948, he had married Mirta Diaz-Balart, the daughter of a well-to-do family with close ties to Batista and U.S. business interests. In 1949, they had a son — Fidel Felix Castro Diaz-Balart, known as Fidelito.
On Dec. 2, 1956, Mr. Castro and 81 followers returned to Cuba from Mexico aboard a second-hand yacht called “Granma,” whose name was later adopted by the Communist Party newspaper in Cuba. All but 12 in the landing party were killed or captured almost immediately. Mr. Castro, his brother Raúl and an Argentine physician, Ernesto “Che” Guevara, escaped into the mountains and began organizing a guerrilla army.
In the summer of 1958, Batista launched a major offensive against Mr. Castro’s ragtag group. When it failed, it was clear that Batista’s days in power were numbered. But his announcement to a few close colleagues at a New Year’s Eve party in 1958 that he was leaving the country came as a complete surprise. Mr. Castro and his followers took control of Cuba on Jan. 1, 1959.
He drew support from many intellectuals during the early years of his rule. Among them were Ernest Hemingway, a Castro hero and longtime resident of Cuba; authors Jean-Paul Sartre and Gabriel Garcia Márquez; and Bob Dylan, the troubadour of the American counterculture.
When Mr. Castro took power, he preached democracy and reform. He sought to assuage his critics, insisting that he was not a communist. A wary United States cautiously offered economic aid, which Mr. Castro refused. Economic and political relations grew increasingly more difficult, particularly as his executions of opponents came to light. And within two years, Mr. Castro had expropriated $1.8 billion in U.S. property without compensation and turned Cuba into a bastion of Marxism-Leninism.
In May 1960, Cuba established diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union, which was soon supplying most of the island’s petroleum needs (and a constant flow of weapons and other military hardware). The government nationalized U.S. and British oil refineries and U.S.-owned banks. In October, the U.S. government imposed an embargo on all trade with the island except for food and medicine.
On Jan. 3, 1961, diplomatic relations with the United States were broken. This set the stage for one of Mr. Castro’s greatest triumphs, the defeat of the CIA-organized invasion by Cuban exiles at the Bay of Pigs, which U.S. intelligence officials thought would set off a popular revolt against Castro.
The invasion by about 1,350 CIA-trained fighters was put down by Mr. Castro’s forces, and about 1,200 of the invaders were captured.
The following year, Mr. Castro abetted the nuclear confrontation between Washington and Moscow, which ended when Khrushchev agreed to withdraw his missiles and promised not to use Cuba as a base for offensive weapons. In return, the United States pledged not to invade Cuba and to remove missiles it had stationed in Turkey.
The U.S. promise to forgo force after the Cuban Missile Crisis was a major victory for Mr. Castro, but for years he lived under the threat of various CIA assassination plots.
Mr. Castro cited U.S. threats to justify a massive military buildup, and he tried to export his revolution to countries across Latin America, including Nicaragua, El Salvador, Panama, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Venezuela, Peru and Bolivia (Guevara was killed leading an uprising in Bolivia in 1967).
In the mid-1970s, Mr. Castro sent thousands of troops to wars in Angola and Ethiopia. In addition, Cuban military training missions and thousands of physicians and teachers operated in more than a dozen other countries, from West Africa to North Korea.
In the early 1980s, he gave economic and military assistance to the leftist government of Grenada. President Ronald Reagan argued that an airport under construction on the island would be used to support communists in Central America and, in 1983, ordered an invasion. Nineteen Americans and 24 Cuban soldiers were killed, the only time that U.S. and Cuban troops fought each other.
One of Mr. Castro’s first economic acts in 1959 was to start an industrialization program. Cubans would make their own steel, and the country would end its dependence on sugar and tobacco. He promised that the standard of living would rise faster than anywhere else in the world. The plans failed. Food rationing began in 1961.
In 1968, Mr. Castro ordered a “revolutionary offensive” in which 50,000 small businesses were nationalized and the economy ground to a virtual halt. He abolished Christmas as a national holiday in 1969, saying it interfered with the sugar harvest.
Mr. Castro’s Cuba enjoyed better times in the 1980s thanks to huge subsidies from Moscow, which sent cars, food, fuel and fertilizer to keep the island’s economy afloat. But the Soviet Union’s eventual collapse meant calamity for Cuba.
In 1990, Mr. Castro called for austerity measures he described as a “special period in time of peace.” Rationing was increased. As industrial enterprises cut back or shut down, workers were shifted to agriculture.
At the same time, Mr. Castro opened the door a crack to private enterprise. He legalized the use of U.S. dollars in Cuba. Small businesses flourished on the streets of Havana, with merchants selling car parts, cigars and more. While technically illegal, private businesses gave unemployed Cubans a bit of income. Faced with grim economic times, Mr. Castro appeared to tolerate a certain level of rule-bending.
But in 1995, Mr. Castro said that although he was willing to include “unquestionable elements of capitalism” in the Cuban system, that didn’t mean giving up state control of the economy or socialist ideology.
Later Mr. Castro started rolling back economic reforms. By 2006, the government was arresting people who used their cars or bicycles as taxis and even shutting down some of Havana’s most popular restaurants, eateries in private homes known as paladares, that had begun in the early 1990s with approval of the government.
The successes of Mr. Castro’s Cuba included universal health care and the near-eradication of illiteracy. He built thousands of classrooms in rural areas and increased the literacy rate to more than 95 percent. There were more physicians and hospital beds per capita in Cuba than in the United States.
But Mr. Castro’s Cuba remained a place of repression and fear. AIDS patients were confined to sanitariums. Artists and writers were forced to join an official union and told that their work must support the revolution.
The government conducted surveillance on anyone suspected of dissent. In 1965, Mr. Castro admitted to holding 20,000 political prisoners. Some foreign observers thought the number might be twice that. Numerous historians and human rights groups have concluded that Mr. Castro’s government carried out thousands of political executions.
Hundreds of thousands of Cubans simply left, most of them for the United States, flooding mainly into Florida and creating a politically influential bloc of anti-Castro Cuban-Americans in Miami. At first, travel was legal, but Mr. Castro soon imposed restrictions.
In April 1980, Mr. Castro opened the port of Mariel to any Cuban wishing to leave. More than 125,000 people, branded as “worms” and “scum” by Mr. Castro’s government, took advantage of the highly publicized “boatlift” before it was closed in October. Among those encouraged to leave were convicts, the mentally ill and other “antisocial” elements.
By 1994, economic conditions were so bad that riots in Havana were followed by another exodus. Thousands fled from Cuba’s beaches on makeshift rafts; many were intercepted by the U.S. Coast Guard.
In February 1996, the Cuban air force shot down two light planes belonging to an exile group in Miami that Havana claimed violated Cuban airspace. President Bill Clinton retaliated by signing the Helms-Burton Act, which tightened the embargo further.
With other countries, relations were on the upswing. When the United Nations convened for its 50th anniversary in 1995, the Cuban leader was a much-anticipated speaker.
In his address to the U.N. General Assembly, Mr. Castro made no mention of the United States but called for “a world without ruthless blockades that cause the death of men, women and children, youths and elders, like noiseless atom bombs.”
The speech lasted seven minutes and received more applause than Clinton’s.
Mr. Castro’s difficult relationship with the Catholic Church improved over the years. A former altar boy educated by Jesuits, Mr. Castro reinstated Christmas as an official holiday when Pope John Paul II visited in 1998. And he met with Pope Benedict XVI when he visited Havana in March 2012.
Mr. Castro also seemed energized by sparring with Washington over Elian Gonzalez, a young Cuban boy rescued at sea in 1999 after his mother and her boyfriend drowned trying to reach the United States. U.S. courts eventually ruled that the boy should be returned from Florida to his father in Cuba. The case became an embarrassing spectacle, but its conclusion handed Mr. Castro a huge symbolic victory.
The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States marked the beginning of new lows in U.S.-Cuba relations. Mr. Castro’s initial response to the attacks was remarkably conciliatory, and he expressed his “profound grief and sadness for the American people.” Cuban musicians donated blood for the attack victims, and Mr. Castro offered other humanitarian aid, which was ignored by the George W. Bush administration.
After Bush addressed Congress in late September and announced his “war on terrorism,” Mr. Castro changed tone. He said Bush’s call to arms could turn into a “struggle against ghosts they don’t know where to find.”
Mr. Castro’s anger at Bush and Washington grew as his years advanced, and so did his fury at his domestic critics. In 2003, he ordered the arrests of 75 human rights activists, independent journalists and other dissidents who were later convicted on charges of collaborating with U.S. diplomats to subvert the government. They were sentenced to terms of six to 28 years in prison. Many of the dissidents were in their 50s and 60s, and some were in poor health. The dissidents were freed in 2010 and 2011 through the intervention of the Catholic Church.
The arrests were denounced at the time by Oswaldo Paya, leader of the Varela Project , which gathered tens of thousands of petition signatures demanding a national referendum on free elections and other democratic openings in Cuba.
“This is a war against peace and against pacifists,” he said. Paya, who was routinely harassed by Castro’s police at his tiny Havana home, said in an April 2003 interview that Castro was using KGB-like tactics to silence dissent at a moment when the world was focused on the imminent U.S. war in Iraq.
Paya and a young activist were killed in a July 2012 car crash that Paya’s family and human rights groups allege was caused by Cuban government agents. In one of his last public comments, Mr. Castro wrote in Granma, the state-run newspaper, that questions raised about Paya’s death in a New York Times editorial were “slanderous and [a] cheap accusation.”
Mr. Castro obsessively guarded details of his private life. The names and photos of his family rarely appeared in the media, and Cubans were generally not even aware of where Mr. Castro lived.
Rumors about his private life abounded. From the 1980s until his death, he was reportedly married to Dalia Soto del Valle, with whom he had five children. But many accounts say the closest partner in his life was Celia Sanchez, who was with him from his days as a guerrilla in the mountains and died in 1980.
Mr. Castro was so secretive about his female companions that for decades Vilma Espin de Castro, a fellow revolutionary and Raúl’s wife, acted as his de-facto first lady.
In addition to his son Fidel, survivors include a daughter, Alina Fernandez Revuelta, who defected to the United States, and a granddaughter, Alina Maria, whom Mr. Castro permitted to join her. Alina Fernandez Revuelta was the daughter of Naty Revuelta, a society beauty and former Castro mistress. None of his immediate offspring are involved in politics.
Two nephews of Mr. Castro’s ex-wife became Republican U.S. congressmen from Florida. Lincoln Diaz-Balart served from 1993 until his retirement in 2011, when he was succeeded by his younger brother, Mario Diaz-Balart.