Fidel Castro, the controversial revolutionary leader and former head of state of Cuba, has died at the age of 90, Cuban state television announced.
Castro ruled Cuba for 49 years after playing a central role in the Cuban Revolution in the 1950s. 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. Castro was seen by critics as a ruthless dictator guilty of subjecting his people to countless human rights abuses, devastating Cuba’s economy and forcing more than a million Cubans to flee the island.
While the international community criticized Castro’s government for its brutal campaign of retribution against Batista supporters, the Cuban people were firmly on Castro’s side. Hundreds of thousands of Cubans would gather and cheer as he delivered long, rousing speeches ― some of them lasting hours ― about the revolution.
The Cuban people “turned their good will, their faith and their judgment over to Fidel Castro,” Marifeli Pérez-Stable, a Cuban-born scholar and professor who now lives in the United States, told PBS in 2005, “and that was huge political capital, political capital that allowed him to centralize power.”
Castro graduated from the University of Havana in 1950 with a doctorate in law, and he started a small law practice. Politics, however, remained his primary passion, and he began campaigning with the Ortodoxo party for a place in congress.
But in March 1952, Castro’s political ambitions ― and Cuba’s democracy ― were derailed when General Fulgencio Batista led a coup d’etat, ousting the sitting president. As a dictator, Batista became increasingly ruthless, and his government grew ever more corrupt.
Castro, together with his brother Raúl and more than 100 other rebels, organized an attack against the Batista regime. Their target: the Moncada Barracks, one of the largest military garrisons in the country. Usually regarded as the beginning of the Cuban Revolution, the July 26, 1953, offensive was a total disaster. Dozens of rebels either were killed or were captured, tortured and later executed. Castro and his brother were caught and sentenced to 15 years behind bars.
“Condemn me, it does not matter. History will absolve me,” Castro, who argued in his own defense, famously said during his trial.
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.
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.
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.