Javier Galeano/Associated Press/File
In this May 1, 2006 file photo, Cuba's leader Fidel Castro speaks on International Workers Day in Revolution Plaza in Havana, Cuba. Former President Castro, who led a rebel army to improbable victory in Cuba, embraced Soviet-style communism and defied the power of 10 US presidents during his half century rule, has died at age 90.

Fidel Castro: An iconic revolutionary and longtime American nemesis

Former Cuban leader Fidel Castro died Friday. He became a global icon of both anti-imperialism and repression, but also lived to see his country normalize ties with the US.

He was a revolutionary and a liberator: delivering his island nation from the colonial powers and mafia dons that ruled over it from the 16th century halfway into the 20th, and inspiring other independence movements in Latin America and Africa.

He was a dictator and a despot: delivering basic needs but denying basic rights, ultimately turning his nation of 10 million people into what some considered a collective gulag where the individual with a differing political vision was shown the door – to prison or to exile, or even to the firing squad. 

Fidel Castro Ruz, who died late Friday night after nearly a half-century of rule over Cuba, leaves the world stage a larger-than-life icon of nationalism and collective struggle. His brother, President Raul Castro, dressed in military uniform, somberly announced the news on state television, concluding with Fidel Castro's revolutionary rallying cry: "To victory, always!"

Simply “Fidel” to a world that across much of its southern half was for decades drawn to his vision of third-world freedom and social liberation, Mr. Castro loved to brag that he had outlasted six – then seven, eight, nine, and ultimately 10 – US presidents, all of whom had sought his demise. But that only underscored the degree to which the Castro mystique and legitimacy depended on a belligerent imperialist power only 90 miles across the Florida Straits.

During his long tenure, Mr. Castro ushered communism into Cuba and brought the US and Cuba to the brink of war during the Cuban Missile Crisis. But he lived to see diplomatic ties with the US restored in 2015, and President Obama visit the isolated island earlier this year. He served as an inspiration to revolutionary figures in Latin America and Africa, and set the stage for leftist leaders who swept to power across the region in the late 1990s and early 2000s, most notably Venezuela’s former President Hugo Chávez, who referred to Castro as his mentor and father. But he also watched his influence wane as democracy and capitalism gained ground. 

Whether Cuba is one of the longest-running experiments in social equality or a state ruined under a dictatorship, it’s indissoluble from the man known by many as simply “Fidel.” His mixed legacy will be debated for years to come. His power on the world stage, while largely symbolic at the time of his death, was emblematic enough that it continues to inspire long after the close of the cold war. 

How Castro is remembered “depends on where you stand,” says Riordan Roett, director of Latin America studies at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. “The left will always hold Castro in high regard as someone who overthrew a dictatorship” and who embodies Cuban nationalism. “But if you’re on the right, you see repression of the press and of opposition voices.” 

To many, his legacy encompasses both elements.

Another Castro

Castro stepped down in February 2008, just months before the 50th anniversary of the Cuban revolution, handing power to his younger brother, Raul Castro. While still under Castro rule, Cuba has undertaken economic reforms and most recently normalized relations with the United States – a move for which the elder Castro offered his carefully hedged support of in a letter.

“I do not trust the politics of the United States, nor have I exchanged a word with them, but this is not, in any way, a rejection of a peaceful solution to conflicts,” Fidel wrote in a letter that was read to a student group marking the 70th anniversary of his graduation from the University of Havana. 

He added that Raul had “taken the relevant steps in line with the prerogatives and authorities awarded to him by the National Assembly and the Cuban Communist Party.” 

Official ties between the US and Cuba long seemed unfathomable – from the heady day a bearded, fatigue-clad, air-punching revolutionary descended from the Sierra Muestra and entered Havana in 1959 to overthrow Fulgencio Batista.

“Before Castro, Cuba was a banana republic,” says Wayne Smith, a former chief of the US interests section in Havana and now a senior fellow of the Cuba program at the Center for International Policy in Washington. “He turned it into a player on the world stage.”

After taking power, Castro quickly moved to redistribute property and make access to health care a human right. When Castro’s guerrilla forces triumphed in 1959, one-quarter of Cubans could not read or write. Today, the literacy rate is near universal – a model shipped to other developing countries – and Cuba’s infant mortality rate is one of the lowest in the world. Racism persists, but not nearly as palpably as in other Latin American nations.

At the same time, Castro showed little tolerance for those who did not support his regime, executing his most vociferous foes and jailing thousands of political dissidents. He shut down media outlets, replacing them with a state voice. Elections were merely rubber-stamp events. He set up neighborhood groups that created a level of paranoia that could hang over every transaction in Cuba, and instituted a feared secret police.

Mariel boat lift

But his ideals, in the end, were hardly sustainable. All Cubans get food supplies, but food has been rationed since 1962, and the nation failed to support industry. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 came the collapse of Cuba. In 1980, when the government announced that anyone who wished to leave the island could, tens of thousands left in an exodus for Miami, in what is now known as the Mariel boat lift. Today roughly 2 million Cuban-Americans live in the United States, more than 1 million in southern Florida. 

“The fact that he survived the loss of the Soviet subsidy and then the pressures of a globalizing economy is one of the more remarkable parts of his legacy,” says Mr. Smith. “What Castro is, basically, is an egalitarian, and it may be that egalitarianism won’t be part of the 21st century. But, then again, the failings of the current direction suggest it may not be dead.”

Revolutionary exports

Castro exported his ideals, and manpower, to revolutionaries around the world seeking to emulate his struggles in their own countries.

He was hailed for standing up to the US, through the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and most defiantly in the face of trade restrictions slapped on by President Eisenhower in 1960 and a full trade embargo and stringent travel restrictions imposed by President John F. Kennedy in 1962. Cuba was on the US list of state-supported terrorism until April 2015.

Castro continues to inspire many in the region. Even if communism is not the ideal, the push for a more just Latin America with wealth redistributed to the poor has been behind a slew of elections, from Venezuela’s ex-President Chávez to Evo Morales in Bolivia to the resurgence of Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua.

“Latin America creates these larger than life characters: Juan Peron, Salvador Allende, Hugo Chavez,” says Roett from Johns Hopkins. “They all have their own little following and important place in Latin American history, but as time goes on … there aren’t a lot of people talking about them in the longer term.”

But that’s not likely to be the case for Castro, he says.

“He really transformed how we look at the left in Latin America,” Roett says. “US foreign policy became reactive to Castro and eventually to others in the region.”

It’s a lasting legacy, a point underscored by just how much US-Latin American relations have changed since Castro’s time in power. Over the past decade-plus, the region has asserted its autonomy – both diplomatically and economically – from the US, creating regional organizations that don’t include the US or Canada, and threatening to boycott the 2009 Summit of the Americas if Cuba wasn’t allowed to attend.

“Fidel changed the way the game was played,” says Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs. “He symbolizes standing up for a Latin America that is authentically free … [and] Latin America’s relationship with the US is no longer defined by deference to the north. It’s now working among equals in the region,” something Mr. Birns attributes to Castro’s legacy.

Castro’s resolute anti-Americanism became a jumping-off point for many others, from overt “anti-imperialist” name-calling by Chávez, to more subtle messages of independence like Brazil’s move to cancel a US state visit after it was revealed the National Security Agency had snooped in the president’s emails and text messages.

“Castro defined Cuban nationalism as the antithesis of the United States,” Robert Pastor, who under President Carter was the first US official to meet with Castro after diplomatic relations were broken off in 1961, told The Christian Science Monitor in 2007. “But that was not sustainable for a small island off the US,” said Mr. Pastor, who died in 2014. 

Few appearances

Castro had made few public appearances since falling ill in 2006, but had appeared on television and maintained his most public profile through penning reflections in the communist daily Granma.

Now pent-up expectations are likely to be unleashed. Raul Castro was behind reforms in the 1990s – called the “special period” – triggered by the collapse of Soviet Union subsidies. The US dollar was legalized, and the economy was opened to tourism and some joint ventures from abroad.

But Fidel Castro pushed back on some of those things, with taxes that made private restaurants, for example, harder to operate. Instead, he relied on largesse from other nations – most notably Venezuela, which at one point was sending it some 90,000 barrels of subsidized oil each day.

Lately, Cuba has taken even bigger steps toward reform, and Raul Castro has called for the modernization of the Cuban revolution.

“There have been changes in the areas of paternalism, idealism, and egalitarianism,” says Brian Latell, a former CIA analyst and senior researcher at the Institute for Cuban and Cuban American Studies at the University of Miami.

“I can’t think of any three words or concepts that better summarize Fidel Castro’s dogma through all the years,” he says, noting cuts in food rations and health care since Raul came to power. “Those were articles of faith for Fidel…. The recognition among Cuban leadership today is that Fidel’s doctrines didn’t work, and need to change,” says Mr. Latell, who wrote the book, “After Fidel: Raul Castro and the Future of Cuba's Revolution.”

Mr. Pastor once recalled that during his first meeting with Castro in December 1979, it dawned on him that the bearded leader was talking as if he were the country of Cuba. “It was like Louis XIV’s ‘I am the state,’ ” Pastor said.

Indeed, Castro’s uniqueness is one point on which both his supporters and detractors agree.

As his brother Raul told Cuba’s parliament in 2006, “Fidel is irreplaceable – save that we all replace him together, each one in his place.”

– Sara Miller Llana contributed reporting.

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