Former President Fidel Castro, who led a rebel army to an improbable victory in Cuba, embraced Soviet-style communism and defied the power of 10 US presidents during his half century rule, died in Havana on Saturday at the age of 90 years. With a shaking voice, his younger brother, Raul Castro, announced on state television that his brother died at 10.29 pm on Friday night (local time).
Castro’s reign over the island-nation 90 miles from Florida was marked by the US-backed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 and the Cuban Missile Crisis a year later that brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. The bearded revolutionary, who survived a crippling US trade embargo as well as dozens, possibly hundreds, of assassination plots, died eight years after ill health forced him to formally hand power over to Raul.
Castro overcame imprisonment at the hands of dictator Fulgencio Batista, exile in Mexico and a disastrous start to his rebellion before triumphantly riding into Havana in January 1959 to become, at 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. His commitment to socialism was unwavering, though his power finally began to fade in mid-2006 when a gastrointestinal ailment forced him to hand over the presidency to Raul in 2008, provisionally at first and then permanently. His defiant image lingered long after he gave up his trademark Cohiba cigars for health reasons and his tall frame grew stooped.
“Socialism or death” remained Castro’s rallying cry even as Western-style democracy swept the globe and other Communist regimes in China and Vietnam embraced capitalism, leaving this island of 11 million people an economically crippled Marxist curiosity.
He survived long enough to see Raul Castro negotiate an opening with US President Barack Obama on December 17, 2014, when Washington and Havana announced they would move to restore diplomatic ties for the first time since they were severed in 1961. He cautiously blessed the historic deal with his lifelong enemy in a letter published after a month-long silence.
Transforming Cuba from a playground for rich Americans into a symbol of resistance to Washington, Castro crossed swords with 10 US presidents while in power, and outlasted nine of them. His alliance with Moscow helped trigger the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, a 13-day showdown with the United States that brought the world the closest it has been to nuclear war.
Wearing green military fatigues and chomping on cigars for many of his years in power, Castro was famous for long, fist-pounding speeches filled with blistering rhetoric, often aimed at the United States.
At home, he swept away capitalism and won support for bringing schools and hospitals to the poor. But he also created legions of enemies and critics, concentrated among the exiles in Miami who fled his rule and saw him as a ruthless tyrant.
In his final years, Fidel Castro no longer held leadership posts. He wrote newspaper commentaries on world affairs and occasionally met foreign leaders but he lived in semi-seclusion.
Still, the passing of the man known to most Cubans as “El Comandante” — the commander — or simply “Fidel” leaves a huge void in the country he dominated for so long. It also underlines the generational change in Cuba’s communist leadership.
World leaders offered condolences and expressed their feelings over Fidel Castro’s death on Saturday morning. President Barack Obama issued a statement on Saturday morning: “Today, we offer condolences to Fidel Castro’s family, and our thoughts and prayers are with the Cuban people.”
Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, sent a telegram to Raul Castro, hailing Fidel Castro as a “symbol of a whole era of modern world history” saying he was “a wise and strong person” who was “an inspiring example for all countries and peoples” and a “sincere and reliable friend of Russia.”
Russia’s Prime Minister, Dimitry Medvedev, said, in part: “Without exaggeration, a whole era of history is gone with Fidel Castro.”
Chinese President Xi Jinping also sent a telegram to Cuba on Saturday, mourning the loss of a “dear comrade and true friend” of the Chinese people who made “immortal contributions to the development of socialism around the world.”
Prime Minister Narendra Modi called Castro one of the most iconic personalities of the 20th century.
The Left parties in Bengal took out a rally in Kolkata and decided to fly the red flag at half mast for three days at their respective offices across the state as a mark of respect to Castro.
Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto said his country mourns the passing of Fidel, a friend of Mexico.
Mikhail Gorbachev, the former Soviet leader, said in a statement: “Fidel stood up for and strengthened his country at the time of the toughest American blockade, at a time of colossal pressure on him, and all the same he led his county out of that blockade onto the road of independent development.”