- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 26, 2016

Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, who dominated his island-nation for nearly a half-century and defied U.S. presidents from Dwight D. Eisenhower to Barack Obama, died late Friday evening in Havana at the age of 90.

The news, which was met with somber reflection in Cuba but honking horns and cheers by Cuban-Americans in the streets of Miami’s Little Havana, was announced by Mr. Castro’s younger brother and successor as president, Raul Castro, who declared a nine-day period of mourning for the man who loomed over his nation’s political life — for good or ill — for decades.

With his trademark olive-green military fatigues, flowing beard and marathon speeches, Mr. Castro was a pivotal figure in U.S.-Latin American relations from the moment he seized power in Havana in 1959. He nearly provoked a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union in the Cuban missile crisis of 1962.

A hero to many across Latin America and a ruthless tyrant to others, the “Maximum Leader” proved a polarizing figure in Cuba and then on the world stage for decades, outlasting most of his closest allies and most ardent foes. Even in “retirement,” he emerged periodically to greet foreign visitors or to pen an op-ed piece critical of the latest policy move toward Cuba by the United States.

Before stepping down in favor of his brother, he was after Queen Elizabeth II the world’s second-longest serving head of state. He survived CIA assassination attempts, a half-century of U.S. economic embargoes and the demise of the Soviet Union, Cuba’s main patron, at the end of the Cold War. But economic and political stagnation at home have tarnished many of the touted achievements of Mr. Castro’s revolution. Cuba’s international standing as a model of socialist justice and equality fell sharply in the later years of Mr. Castro’s rule.

Mr. Castro himself never expressed doubt that his one-man rule could transform his country.

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“The revolution is not a bed of roses,” he said in one of his most often-quoted remarks. “The revolution is a dictatorship of the exploited against the exploiters.”

In declining health, he handed power over to brother Raul, temporarily in 2006 and then permanently in 2008, retiring from the public spotlight as his health declined.

But Fidel Castro did live to see the U.S. make its first tentative steps toward ending the decades of hostility, as President Obama announced in December 2014 that the U.S. would restore diplomatic relations and start easing the embargo, a thaw that would lead to the once-unthinkable reopening of embassies in Washington and Havana. Trade and other restrictions continue to limit the bilateral relationship and it is unclear if President-elect Donald Trump plans to roll back Mr. Obama’s initiatives.

Cuba’s government announced Staurday morning that Castro’s remains will be interred in the eastern city of Santiago that was key to his early life and his revolution, according to the Associated Press.

State media say Cubans throughout the country will be invited to pay homage to Castro on Monday and Tuesday by signing a “solemn oath of complying with the concept of the revolution,” the AP reort said.

The government then plans a mass gathering at the capital’s Plaza of the Revolution, where Castro often delivered the epic, trademark stream-of-consciousness speeches that could last eight hours or more to the masses. His ashes will make a cross-country tour starting Wednesday from Havana to Santiago, retracing in reverse the route Castro took when the revolution triumphed in 1959. He’s to be interred in a Santiago cemetery on Dec. 4.

‘Indomitable impetuosity’

Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz was born Aug. 13, 1926, in the remote southeastern Cuban province of Oriente, the son of a relatively well-to-do landowner and his cook, who married only after Mr. Castro was born.

Although his father was prosperous, Mr. Castro himself would recall a childhood of some hardship and discrimination at the boarding schools to which he was sent.

Many of his early teachers were Jesuits, and one Jesuit instructor remarked early on of the boy’s “indomitable impetuosity.”

Known as a strong-willed and boisterous student, Mr. Castro once threatened to burn down his house unless he was sent to a school he wanted to attend.

Though never poor, Mr. Castro later recalled the sting of prejudice he felt as a provincial boy mixing with the sons of Cuba’s wealthiest families, first in the provincial city of Santiago and then in Havana.

He fought often with fellow students, and was not shy about criticizing teachers he did not respect.

“Fidel soon developed the underdog’s obsession with honor and dignity,” noted Mexican journalist Alma Guillermoprieto later wrote, “and also an obsession with the strategic first strike.”

Disgusted with Cuba’s corruption and poverty, he quickly became a leader of student protests at Havana University, at a time when the school was racked by gun-wielding battles between factions supporting and opposing the regime of strongman President Fulgencio Batista.

A star athlete and a charismatic and powerful public speaker, Mr. Castro quickly became involved in national politics after graduating with a law degree in 1950.

He got his very first taste of revolutionary violence while still in school, when he joined a failed expedition in 1947 to oust Gen. Rafael Trujillo, military dictator of the Dominican Republic.

While in law school, Mr. Castro married Mirta Diaz-Balart, the first of his two wives and the daughter of Batista’s personal lawyer.

Their son, Fidel Castro Jr., was born in 1949 and from 1980 to 1992 was in charge of Cuba’s nuclear programs. The couple divorced in 1955.

Mr. Castro was active in anti-Batista circles, but his plans to run for political office were short-circuited when Batista overthrew Cuba’s constitutional government in a bloodless coup in March 1952.

Just over a year later, Mr. Castro led a failed assault on the Moncada military barracks and was imprisoned by the regime for two years. The attack raised Mr. Castro’s profile among regime opponents, and he went into exile in Mexico after Batista granted him amnesty in May 1955.

In December 1956, Mr. Castro, his brother, Raul, and a young Argentine doctor and leftist revolutionary named Ernesto “Che” Guevara led a guerrilla force that returned to Cuba and, just two years later, seized power in Havana and forced Batista to flee.

Soviet ties

The U.S. government, which had withdrawn its support for Batista, initially was not hostile to the Castro government, and Mr. Castro himself declared in 1959, “I am not a communist, and neither is the revolutionary movement.”

But the new government’s land and commercial reforms included the seizure of American oil refineries and other businesses, and many Cubans fled Mr. Castro’s increasingly harsh rule.

Cuba’s ties to the Soviet Union quickly grew close, with Soviet Deputy Prime Minister Anastas Mikoyan’s signing an accord in 1960 to buy Cuban sugar at subsidized prices - an arrangement that was to become economically vital to the regime.

Reversing himself, Mr. Castro declared in 1961, “I am a Marxist-Leninist, and I will be one until the last day of my life.”

That same year, more than 1,200 U.S.-based Cuban exiles supported by the CIA staged a disastrous invasion at Cuba’s Bay of Pigs, an event that would loom large both for the regime’s mythology and for the course of Cuban exile politics in the United States.

By February 1962, the United States banned all Cuban exports, a total embargo that persists to this day.

Cuba also was suspended from the Organization of American States, and Mr. Castro declared a policy of support for Marxist revolutions across Latin America.

Eight months later, Mr. Castro’s Cuba became the unlikely focus for one of the gravest superpower confrontations of the Cold War. U.S. reconnaissance planes in October 1962 confirmed plans to install Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba, and President Kennedy demanded their removal.

Over Mr. Castro’s objections, Mr. Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita S. Khrushchev negotiated an end to the crisis with the removal of the Soviet missiles. Mr. Castro was said to have urged Mr. Khrushchev to launch a nuclear strike on the United States and was furious that a deal was reached without his participation.

Surviving repeated attempts by the Kennedy administration to assassinate him, Mr. Castro embarked on a foreign policy to promote and export his socialist revolutionary model across the hemisphere.

Mr. Guevara was killed by government troops in Bolivia in 1967, but other leftist movements, including Nicaragua’s Sandinistas, would look to Mr. Castro’s Cuba for military and political support.

Mr. Castro also dispatched Cuban troops to support Marxist allies in a number of African wars, including civil struggles in Angola and Mozambique in the 1970s.

Despite Havana’s close ties to Moscow, Mr. Castro also tried to position Cuba as a leader of the Non-Aligned Movement of nations seeking to steer an independent course between the Soviet or Western blocs.

Iron rule

At home, Mr. Castro could highlight a number of early successes in improving public health, infant mortality, literacy and other social indicators, but the regime’s economic reforms failed to produce lasting prosperity, a failure symbolized by Mr. Castro’s disastrous 1970 crash program to mobilize the entire country to produce a record sugar harvest.

Mr. Castro also repeatedly demonstrated his ability to insert himself into U.S. domestic and foreign policy.

President Carter tried some modest moves to improve bilateral relations, and President Reagan took a much more hard-nosed approach, but Mr. Castro would cite U.S. hostility and the economic embargo to rally support at home.

In 1980, Mr. Castro suddenly permitted a mass exodus of dissidents and other “undesirables” to the United States. About 125,000 refugees swamped Florida and strained social services.

At home, Mr. Castro brooked no opposition to his rule, jailed dissidents, forbade criticism in the press and railed against the United States and anti-Castro Cuban exiles centered just 90 miles away in Florida.

Mr. Castro’s iron grip was evident most dramatically in the arrest, conviction and execution of Gen. Arnaldo Ochoa Sanchez in 1989. The popular Gen. Ochoa had been one of Castro’s oldest comrades, fighting beside him in the Cuban mountains in 1957, helping to repel the Bay of Pigs invasion and commanding Cuban deployments across Africa.

But Gen. Ochoa openly criticized Mr. Castro’s tactics in Angola and Mr. Castro’s treatment of Cuban soldiers returning from the African missions. As a result, the dictator saw Gen. Ochoa’s popularity in the military as a rising threat to his own power. Mr. Castro himself presided over the televised court-martial, in which the general was charged with drug trafficking and corruption.

Miss Guillermoprieto, the Mexican journalist, calls the Ochoa trial a “watershed case” that, coupled with the nearly simultaneous collapse of the Soviet Union, led to widespread disillusionment and cynicism even among Mr. Castro’s most fervent supporters.

An even greater crisis for Mr. Castro and the regime, however, was the 1989 decision by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to cut off about $6 billion in annual subsidies, military and technical aid to Cuba, dealing a massive body blow to the economy. The Cuban GDP fell by more than a third in the next five years, exports collapsed and the 1990s became known in Cuba as the “special period” of bread lines, shortages, rising crime and black markets.

Mr. Castro faced growing dissent and was forced into a series of humiliating policy reversals: He experimented with limited free-market reforms, permitted “dollar stores” that sold goods to tourists for U.S. dollars that were unavailable to ordinary Cubans and opened the economy to limited foreign investment.

The hard times sparked another exodus of Cubans attempting the dangerous ocean passage to Florida in the mid-1990s. Mr. Castro responded with increased repression at home, targeting a younger generation of Cubans who had no memories of the 1959 revolution and the changes it had brought to the island.

The cynicism of the time was expressed in a growing number of jokes about the aging dictator, jokes that would never have been heard on Cuban streets in Mr. Castro’s prime.

In one joke, a Cuban compared life under the former dictator Batista to life under Mr. Castro:

“Before the revolution, everyone in Cuba was living on the edge of a high cliff,” the Cuban said. “After the revolution, we all took a big step forward.”

Cuba’s one-party socialist regime also proved increasingly out of step with trends in Central and South America, where authoritarian regimes of both the left and the right were replaced by democratic governments favoring pro-market reforms and better relations with the United States.

But a 1997 party congress reaffirmed Mr. Castro’s power and designated his younger brother and defense minister, Raul, as his official successor. A year later, Mr. Castro hosted Pope John-Paul II for a four-day visit that made headlines around the world.

Despite continuing economic hardship, political repression and U.S. hostility, Mr. Castro managed to retain his grip on power and his ability to seize the limelight into the new century.

The 2000 custody case of Elian Gonzalez, a 5-year-old Cuban boy who survived a boat crossing from Cuba in which his mother and other refugees perished, sparked bitter debates in the United States and proved a major political headache for the Clinton administration.

Elian’s eventual return to his father in Cuba was judged as a major propaganda coup for the regime, and Mr. Castro personally greeted the boy after his return to Havana.

Cuba’s political isolation also was eased by the election of a new generation of leftist leaders in the region, notably Venezuelan populist Hugo Chavez. The fiercely anti-American Mr. Chavez openly cited Mr. Castro as his role model, calling him “a father, a companion, a master of perfect strategy.”

A bilateral friendship accord signed in 2000 cleared the way for the shipment of subsidized Venezuelan oil to Cuba and provided a crucial economic boost for the regime, even as the new Bush administration was stepping up ways to pressure the regime and plan for the post-Castro era.

Guarded private life

Despite his decades in the public eye and his penchant for six-hour speeches, Mr. Castro’s private life has been guarded and the source of vast gossip and speculation inside Cuba. He reportedly lives in a simple two-house compound in Havana and gave up his one obvious luxury - Cuban cigars, yet another trademark - in the mid-1980s for health reasons.

But Forbes magazine in 2006 enraged the Cuban dictator by listing him among the world’s richest people, with a net worth of $550 million based on the value of nationalized enterprises controlled by the regime.

After divorcing his first wife Mirta Diaz-Balart in 1955, Mr. Castro had an affair with Havana socialite Naty Revuelta. Their daughter, Alina Fernandez-Revuelta, left Cuba in 1993 and later wrote a memoir highly critical of her father.

Mr. Castro also was said to be close to Celia Sanchez, a member of his guerrilla group that brought down Batista’s government.

For more than 40 years, Mr. Castro’s companion has been Dalia Soto del Valle, although accounts differ on whether the two ever formally married.

The couple had five sons: Alexis, Alexander, Alejandro, Antonio and Angel, none of whom are considered a potential national leader.

To the end, Mr. Castro proved a domineering and divisive figure, hated and loved in equal measure.

As Castro biographer Clive Foss put it: “History may view him as a revolutionary hero who spread the idea of liberation through the world or as an ossified despot who has transformed one of the richest countries of Latin American into one of the poorest. Most likely, he combines elements of both.”

• David R. Sands can be reached at dsands@washingtontimes.com.

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