Fidel Castro, the leader and face of Cuba’s revolution, died Friday at age 90. The iconic leader who for years was not seen without a Cohiba cigar was as beloved as he was despised. One of his greatest legacies was his fierce resistance of 50 years of U.S. attempts to topple him.
Raúl Castro, Fidel’s brother and current president of Cuba, announced his death on state television in Havana early Saturday morning, his voice shaking. The Associated Press reports that he ended his announcement by shouting the revolutionary slogan, “Toward victory, always!”
Castro led the Cuban revolution, which overthrew the U.S.-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista. After imprisonment in Cuba and exile in Mexico, he led a rebel army that triumphantly rode into Havana in January 1959 to become, at age 32, the youngest leader in Latin America. For decades he served as an inspiration and source of support to revolutionaries from Latin America to Africa.
In 2006 a reported gastrointestinal illness led him to cede power to his brother Raúl, 84. Fidel lived the rest of his life in relative seclusion, emerging sporadically to host foreign dignitaries.
Castro was esteemed by many African Americans as a symbol of resistance to oppression. The fact that the Cuban leader always came to black communities such as Harlem when he visited the United States, funded anti-apartheid forces in South Africa and gave black political prisoners such as Assata Shakur refuge gave him a special place in the heart of the black community. He was, to many, a defiant defender of the poor and fierce supporter of the so-called Third World.
Many white Cubans, who fled the country after Batista’s ouster, celebrated Castro’s death in the streets of Miami’s Little Havana. Videos posted on social media showed people opening bottles of champagne, honking their car horns, and banging on pots and pans.
Because Castro was a fierce defender of socialism and Cuba is about 90 miles from the United States, the U.S. has always viewed Castro and the country as a threat, beginning with the ill-fated invasion at the Bay of Pigs in 1961.
Al-Jazeera reports that the U.S. government spent more than $1 billion trying to kill, undermine or otherwise force Castro from power. The outlet notes that the CIA plotted to assassinate Castro for decades, using everything from exploding seashells to lethal fungus, yet he endured, dying of old age and disease. American officials cut off almost all trade to Cuba and financed dissidents and pro-democracy activists, and yet he remained strong, holding on to the island nation for 11 successive administrations, from Dwight Eisenhower to Barack Obama.
On Dec. 17, 2014, President Obama announced that the U.S. planned to renew diplomatic ties with Cuba and loosen some trade and travel restrictions. AP reports that Castro cautiously blessed the historic deal with the U.S. in a letter published after a monthlong silence. Obama made a historic visit to Havana in March 2016.
Although critics say that Castro drove the country into economic ruin and denied basic freedoms to 11 million Cubans at home, defenders point to the fact that Castro’s government produced tens of thousands of doctors and teachers and achieved some of the lowest infant-mortality and illiteracy rates in the Western Hemisphere.
Cuba’s government announced that Castro’s ashes would be interred Dec. 4 in the eastern city of Santiago, which was a birthplace of his revolution. That will follow more than a week of honors, including a nearly nationwide caravan retracing, in reverse, his tour from Santiago to Havana with the triumph of the revolution in 1959.