The son of a wealthy landowner, Fidel Castro turned his back on a life of privilege to lead a left-wing revolution in Cuba that endured for decades and was shaped by his political cunning, keen sense of destiny and boundless ego.
Castro, who has died at the age of 90, was at once idealistic and pragmatic, sharply intelligent and reckless, charismatic and intolerant.
Critics saw in him a stubborn bully who violated human rights, jailed his critics, banned opposition parties and wrecked Cuba’s economy.
Admirers saw a visionary who stood up to U.S. domination of Latin America, brought healthcare and education to the poor, and inspired socialist movements across the world.
Even before leading the 1959 revolution that propelled Cuba toward communism and onto the Cold War stage, Castro saw greatness in himself.
From an early age, he admired history’s boldest figures, particularly Alexander the Great, and believed he and his rebels were part of that tradition.
“Men do not shape destiny. Destiny produces the man for the moment,” he said in 1959.
Castro toppled the unpopular U.S.-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista by uniting a disparate opposition and outsmarting a bigger, better-equipped Cuban military.
His alliance with the Soviet Union put him at the center of the Cold War, most notably when the 1962 Cuban missile crisis took the world to the brink of nuclear war.
He was a global celebrity, his beard, military fatigues and big Cuban cigars making him instantly recognizable.
He owed his prominence in part to geography. Looking to bolster an ally just 90 miles (140 km) from Florida, Moscow helped him build socialism by giving him billions of dollars worth of aid and favorable trade, from oil to tractor parts.
But Castro also mined Cuban nationalism and Latin American pride, stirring resentment of U.S. power and influence.
He managed to preserve his revolution despite constant U.S. hostility even when Cuba reeled from the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, showing the vigor of a man who intended to die in office.
Instead, almost killed by a serious intestinal illness, he was forced to step aside in 2006 and he formally handed over to his younger brother, Raul Castro, in 2008.
In his final years, Castro wrote opinion columns for Cuba’s state media but was rarely seen. His famously long speeches gave way to silence, at least in public, and comfortable track suits replaced the stiff black boots and crisp military attire.
On Dec. 17, 2014, Raul Castro cut a deal to restore diplomatic ties with the United States. Six weeks later, Fidel Castro offered only lukewarm support, raising questions about whether he approved of ending hostilities with his longtime enemy.
Known by the militaristic title of “El Comandante,” in some ways Castro was always replaying the exhilaration of revolt, exhorting Cubans to fight one battle after another, from confronting U.S. hostility to boosting potato production.
He survived numerous assassination attempts and outlasted nine U.S. presidents in power, seizing control of Cuba while Dwight Eisenhower occupied the White House and stepping down during George W. Bush’s second term.
Throughout, Castro lectured Cubans.
A magnificent orator who instinctively altered his cadence to fit the moment, he re-trod history and delved deep into detail about Cuban independence heroes, plans to “perfect” the revolution and the declared evils of U.S. imperialism.
Tall and physically commanding, fastidious in his attire, he often built to a crescendo of indignation, gesturing firmly with long-fingered, well-manicured hands.
“We shall endeavor to be brief,” he told the United Nations General Assembly in 1960, then set a record for U.N. speeches by talking for nearly 4-1/2 hours.
Castro never allowed statues of him to be erected or streets to be named after him, saying he did not want a cult of personality. Nevertheless, the cult was everywhere. His image and words were posted on billboards and his name was invoked at every public event.
Most Cubans, whether for or against him, refer to him simply as “Fidel.”
He was a night owl. He would keep foreign guests waiting until late at night and then summon them for talks. Even his critics would sometimes find themselves oddly charmed by such encounters.
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