The founder of the Cuban Revolution and president of Cuba for almost 50 years, Fidel Castro, died on the night of Friday, November 25, in Havana. He was 90 years old.
After Castro and the guerrilla movement he began forming in 1952 made several attempts at destabilizing the increasingly repressive Cuban government, “El Comandante” (The Commander), as he was called by many, stormed the presidential palace on New Year's Day in 1959, defeating longtime US-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista.
He ruled Cuba under a one-party system until he stepped away from power in 2008 allowing brother Raul Castro to succeed him as President of the Republic.
In Latin America and beyond, Fidel has held an almost mythical status for leftist revolutionary movements for over half a century. Since his 1959 inaugural speech in which a white dove perched upon his shoulder, parallels between Fidel and religious leaders have inspired believers and historians alike. He has become a figure of legend, arguably as much for those who revere him as for those who reject his legitimacy as a leader.
Under Fidel's rule, Cuba became the first country in post-colonial Latin America to refuse economic aid from the United States and unequivocally defy its political agenda in the region. In the 1960s and '70s, Cuba became a leader in universal education and healthcare systems, women's rights, and in providing medical relief in the aftermaths of natural disasters in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Under Fidel's command, Cuba also provided significant military support for anti-colonial and socialist uprisings in countries including Angola, Nicaragua and what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Simultaneous to the radical innovations of the Cuban revolution, the Castro government's endemic state censorship, jailing and persecution of dissidents, anti-LGBT policies and hypercentralized economic model were equally prominent features of his rule.
Castro was also known for his fiery, passionate and very long speeches. In one of his most famous addresses, he challenged his critics: “Condemn me, it does not matter, history will absolve me.”
All this scrapping over Castro is rooted in a conception of history where everyone has to either be a saint or a demon. No one is either.
— William J Richardson (@HoodAcademic) November 26, 2016
Cuba suffered the consequences of a punitive and controversial US-imposed economic embargo from the 1960s, a policy that became a prominent weapon in the political and ideological arsenals of both the US and Cuban governments. For decades, Cuban government and intelligence agencies have routinely thwarted US government efforts to infiltrate or overthrow the Castro government.
After the fall of Soviet Union in 1989 the island entered what was called “The Special Period in Times of Peace,” in which the sudden lack of support from the USSR brought severe economic hardship to the country. Economic reforms of the 1990s generated more opportunity for industries such as tourism to take hold. For some Cubans this represented a breach of the socialist contract of the Revolution; for others, it was a necessary step to preventing the country from going into a complete economic meltdown.
US President Barack Obama and Raúl Castro normalized diplomatic relations in 2014, but the embargo can only be officially ended by the US Congress where the Republican party controls a majority of seats.
The Cuban government has announced nine days of national mourning and a series of tributes.
Revered and despised in perhaps equal measure, what few would contest is Fidel Castro's status as a towering figure in modern world history.