Fidel Castro, lion of the 20th century, dead at 90

Fidel Castro, the son of a wealthy landowner, turned his back on a life of privilege to lead the Cuban revolution and earn a place in history that was glorious to some, notorious to others, but finally the product of prodigious talents and boundless ego.

SIERRA MAESTRA MOUNTAINS, CUBA (CUBAN GOVERNMENT TV) – Fidel Castro, the Cuban revolutionary leader who built a communist state on the doorstep of the United States and for five decades defied U.S. efforts to topple him, died on Friday (November 26), his younger brother announced to the nation. He was 90.

A towering figure of the second half of the 20th Century, Castro stayed true to his ideology beyond the collapse of Soviet communism, and retained an aura in parts of the world that had struggled against colonial rule and exploitation.

He had been in poor health since an intestinal ailment nearly killed him in 2006. He formally ceded power to his younger brother two years later.

Throughout his legacy, he had a fierce ambition that led him to take over Cuba at the age of 32 and, against long odds, transform it into a communist state his enemies thought would never last.

Despite many problems, it endures, a tribute to his outsized will and to his willingness to subjugate the lives of millions of Cubans to his vision of how the world should be.

From his small island nation, the bearded rebel who smoked big Cuban cigars inspired sympathizers around the world with his fiery rhetoric exhorting Cubans first to revolution, then resistance to the nearby United States.

The determined Fidel Castro first won international fame by leading a guerrilla campaign that, with popular support, ousted right-wing Cuban dictator Flugencio Batista on January 1, 1959.

“Another time he (Batista) said that there is no problem in the Sierra Maestra, but he won’t let anyone come here to Sierra Maestra and when surely they are killed in battle, he says they were killed in an accident,” Castro said while still hunkered down in the hills with his rebel army.

But Batista couldn’t deny there was a problem when Castro, standing tall in a Jeep, led unkempt guerrillas down from the Sierra Maestra hills into Havana to claim his victory.

From the beginning, Castro had a clear, almost mathematical vision of his socialist revolution and the benefits it would have for Cuba.

“The comments will disappear more and more over time- as time passes. The strength of the revolution can be seen, the stability, the unshakeable backing of the people, the straight and just course. The unwavering policy that always looks for justice, fixes the mistakes and the bad things of the past and provides the maximum number of benefits for the people. Summing up, people will get used to the happiness of freedom,” he said in 1959, shortly before becoming president.

He and fellow revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara transformed a country known as the “brothel of the Caribbean”, banishing gambling and prostitution and giving Cubans some of the best access to health and education in the developing world.

Whether for it or against it, the transformation captured the world’s imagination, including that of the press and iconic figures like renowned author Ernest Hemingway.

The burly, bearded Castro’s near-mythic status was sealed by his constant strife with the United States. His belligerently anti-U.S. stance made him the target of a series of attempts by Washington to remove him, including an aborted invasion attempt at Cuba’s southern Bay of Pigs in 1961 by more than 1,000 Cuban exiles trained and financed by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, an organization that later resorted to bizarre plots to kill him.

When the U.S. cut diplomatic ties with Havana, Castro aligned himself with Moscow, which for three decades supplied Cuba everything from guns to butter.

The alliance would prove to be a dangerous one and further alienate Cuba from the United States.

On October 16, 1962, then U.S. President John F. Kennedy was told that the Soviet Union had placed nuclear missiles in Cuba, barely 90 miles (145 km) off the Florida coast.

On Oct. 28, after 13 tense days with the world on the verge of nuclear war, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev agreed to withdraw the missiles in exchange for Kennedy’s promise that the United States would never invade the island.

Tributes poured in from world leaders including Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Venezuela’s socialist President Nicolas Maduro, who said “revolutionaries of the world must follow his legacy.”

The streets were quiet in Havana, but some residents reacted with sadness to the news, while in Miami, where many exiles from the Communist government live, a large crowd waving Cuban flags cheered, danced and banged on pots and pans, a video on social media showed.

In his final years, Fidel Castro no longer held leadership posts. He wrote newspaper commentaries on world affairs and occasionally met with foreign leaders but he lived in semi-seclusion.

His death – which would once have thrown a question mark over Cuba’s future – seems unlikely to trigger a crisis as Raul Castro, 85, is firmly ensconced in power.

Still, the passing of the man known to most Cubans as “El Comandante” or simply “Fidel” leaves a huge void in the country he dominated for so long.