FIDEL CASTRO, CUBAN LEADER WHO DEFIED U.S., DIES AT 90

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Fidel Castro, with his trademark cigar, during an interview in 1964.
Credit Jack Manning/The New York Times

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Fidel Castro, the fiery apostle of revolution who brought the Cold War to the Western Hemisphere in 1959 and then defied the United States for nearly half a century as Cuba’s maximum leader, bedeviling 11 American presidents and briefly pushing the world to the brink of nuclear war, died Friday. He was 90.

His death was announced by Cuban state television.

In declining health for several years, Mr. Castro had orchestrated what he hoped would be the continuation of his Communist revolution, stepping aside in 2006 when he was felled by a serious illness. He provisionally ceded much of his power to his younger brother Raúl, now 85, and two years later formally resigned as president. Raúl Castro, who had fought alongside Fidel Castro from the earliest days of the insurrection and remained minister of defense and his brother’s closest confidant, has ruled Cuba since then, although he has told the Cuban people he intends to resign in 2018.

Fidel Castro had held on to power longer than any other living national leader except Queen Elizabeth II. He became a towering international figure whose importance in the 20th century far exceeded what might have been expected from the head of state of a Caribbean island nation of 11 million people.

He dominated his country with strength and symbolism from the day he triumphantly entered Havana on Jan. 8, 1959, and completed his overthrow of Fulgencio Batista by delivering his first major speech in the capital before tens of thousands of admirers at the vanquished dictator’s military headquarters.

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A banner filled with images of Fidel Castro on a government building in Havana on Saturday morning. Credit Ramon Espinosa/Associated Press..

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HAVANA — The nightclubs shut down early and the young people, dressed for a night out, spilled into the darkened streets.

Some had already been told the news, called by loved ones watching state television at home. Some were just finding out, their cellphones pressed to their ears as they absorbed what happened.

Others still did not know — Fidel Castro had died.

Outside the Salon Rojo, one of Havana’s most popular nightspots, where the reggaeton usually blares into the early-morning hours, the music stopped abruptly. The crowd poured out, the police waving along women in miniskirts and men with gelled mohawks, a popular style in Cuba.

No one was weeping. No one was chanting. Some said the country would be better off, freer now, though they said it quietly, wary that someone might overhear such hopes. A hearse, repurposed as a taxi, happened to drive by.

“Take him with you,” one of the young men shouted with a smile as a friend cheered him on. The young women with them looked embarrassed, but not angry.

A few feet away from one crowd of partygoers, three neighbors, each in their 50s and consoling one another, stood in their apartment building’s doorway facing the iconic Hotel Nacional.

Concepcion Garcia, 55, looked at the young people around her with disappointment.

“What a rich experience we have had, to live the two periods of Cuba — capitalism and socialism,” she said. “Imagine how we Cubans feel. The most precious thing we have just died.”

She removed her glasses and pointed at her eyes.

“I have the revolution and Fidel to thank for this cataract surgery,” she said, adding that she would not have been able to afford the procedure without Cuba’s socialized medical care. It did not cost her a cent, she said.

“He put Cuba on the map,” Ms. Garcia added, “and the world has recognized that.”

Her neighbor Josue Carmon Arramo, 57, chimed in: “His life may be over, but his work will live on.”

“This story will not die, because we are followers of his ideas of nationalism and solidarity of the Cuban people,” he said. “That’s who we are.”

The enormous disparity in the reactions of the young clubgoers and the middled-aged neighbors is not a surprise, said Elaine Díaz, an independent blogger in Cuba.

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~~  WATCH  ~~

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Former Cuban leader Fidel Castro has died at age 90, according to Cuban state media, confirms NPR.

After undergoing intestinal surgery, Castro had ceded power in July 2006, to his younger brother Raul, who announced his death late Friday on Cuban state television.

Under Fidel Castro’s direction, Cuba became the one and only communist state in the Western Hemisphere.

One of the most prominent international figures in the last half of the 20th century, Castro inspired both passionate love and hate. Many who later lost faith in him can remember how they once admired the man who needed just a dozen men to launch the Cuban revolution.

“He was not a corrupt politician as in the past we used to have,” says Domingo Amuchastegui, who was a diplomat in Castro’s government until he fled Cuba in 1994. “He was a very promising, courageous, dedicated, intelligent kind of people — an excellent fighter, a man willing to risk his life for his ideas.”

Fidel Castro got involved in revolutionary politics while still a teenager. In his 20s, as a young lawyer, he began organizing a movement to overthrow Fulgencio Batista, Cuba’s military dictator.

After leading a foolhardy effort to take over a military barracks, Castro captured the imagination of the Cuban people, and by the time Batista fled the country on Jan. 1, 1959, the charismatic 32-year-old rebel had much of the country behind him, rich and poor alike.

“Most of the upper classes in Cuba supported the revolution and right after 1959 helped it out — paid their taxes, which they never paid,” and made financial contributions, says Alfredo Duran, who was a college student from a prosperous Havana family. Society women even volunteered as nurses, he says.

Even the U.S. government, long Batista’s key ally, had turned against him at the end and cautiously welcomed Castro as Cuba’s new leader.

On a visit to Washington in April 1959, Castro presented himself as a political moderate. A highlight of his trip was a guest appearance on NBC’s Meet the Press, where he reassured those who feared he might be a communist and made a promise he would never fulfill.

“Democracy is my idea,” he said. “I [do] not agree with communists… What we want is to get as soon as possible the condition for free election,” he said, adding that the process would not take more than four years.

If Castro wanted to make a good impression on his American hosts, however, he also wanted to show he had come to the United States on his own terms.

Castro did not get invited to the White House on that 1959 trip — and that was just fine with him, according to the late Ernesto Betancourt, who accompanied Castro to Washington as his first foreign trade director.

“A lot has been said that Fidel was hurt because [President] Eisenhower went to play golf and didn’t have lunch with him … that’s nonsense,” Betancourt recalled in a 2003 interview with NPR. “Fidel, even when he was told by the ambassador that the meeting was arranged with Vice President Nixon at the time, Fidel got very annoyed because he didn’t want any official meetings.”

In fact, that 1959 trip would be the only one Castro ever made to Washington. Like many Cuban nationalists, Castro was deeply distrustful of the United States, which had dominated Cuba ever since the country gained its independence from Spain.

In 1958, Castro had told a confidante that his rebellion against Batista would be followed by “a longer and bigger war” against the Americans. That, Castro said, will be my “true destiny.”

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