World

Cuba's Fidel Castro dead at 90

Cuban President Raul Castro announces death on state media

November 26, 2016

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Cuban communist revolutionary and politician Fidel Castro, seen in this 2012 photo, has died. Castro held tremendous sway in his country for decades, particularly during the Cuban missile crisis, when the U.S. and the Soviets inched closer to catastrophe. (Roberto Chile/AP)
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Leader of the 1959 Cuban revolution that swept him to power, Castro held the position of Prime Minister of Cuba from 1959 to 1976, and then President from 1976 to 2008. Here, Castro, centre, poses in 1953 with a group of revolutionaries ahead of their attack on the Moncada Garrison, a battle that would catalyze his rise to power. (AFP/Getty)
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Castro made changes to all aspects of Cuban life, from the political system to the way athletics were conducted. Here, Castro, centre, watches a 1962 gymnastics festival in which 80,000 participated. (Keystone/Getty)
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Communist Cuba’s top ally post-1959 was Russia. Here, Castro rides a toboggan during a 1964 diplomatic trip to Moscow. (AFP/Getty)
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Castro, left, welcomes Palestine Liberation Organization chair Yasser Arafat to Havana in 1969. (AFP/Getty)
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Castro’s love of baseball was well documented, and while Cuba has a small population it often beats baseball powerhouses like the U.S. and Japan in international competition. Here, Castro speaks with former U.S. President Jimmy Carter ahead of the 2002 Cuban all-star game in Havana. (Adalberto Roque/AFP/Getty)
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Castro was rumoured to have been a great baseball player himself, though several historians have cast doubt on that story. Here, Castro enjoys an at bat in his fatigues. (Keystone/Getty)
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Castro had been vilified by many in the U.S., and in turn he frequently slammed America and its perceived meddling in Cuba’s affairs. Here, Castro calls for Cubans to march in the streets after U.S. President George W. Bush called for reforms in the country. (Adalberto Roque/AFP/Getty)
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Castro has also been described as a bit of a charmer. Here, he’s presented with an invitation to the 1959 New York Press Photographer's Ball in New York City. (Hulton Archive/Getty)
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Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau formed a controversial relationship with the Cuban leader, maintaining friendly relations with Castro despite pressure to sever diplomatic ties. Here, Trudeau visits a Havana housing project in 1976. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)
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Castro pays his regards at the funeral of former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau in Montreal in 2000. Trudeau had been the first Canadian leader to visit Cuba. (Jeff Kowalsky/AFP/Getty)
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Castro was known for giving lengthy speeches, some which topped five hours. Here, he speaks in Havana’s Revolution Square during a military parade and rally on Jan. 12, 1965. (Keystone/Getty Images)
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Castro speaks with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev as Raul Roa, Castro’s foreign minister, left looks on. The trio met during a UN assembly in New York, two years before the Cuban Missile Crisis permanently soured relations between Cuba and the U.S. (Prensa Latina/AP)
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Senator and Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern takes a jeep ride with then-Premier Fidel Castro during a trip to Cuba in 1975. (Charles Tsnadi/AP)
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Castro gives one of his final, fiery public speeches in 2010, warning of the threat of nuclear war. (Desmond Boylan/Reuters)
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After years of false rumours about his death, Fidel Castro, the ailing former leader of Cuba, has died at the age of 90.

Cuban President Raul Castro announced the death of his brother on Cuban state media. He ended the announcement by shouting the revolutionary slogan: "Toward victory, always!"

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CBC's Paul Hunter takes a look at the life and legacy of the former Cuban leader  4:41

Castro was one of the most divisive figures of modern history. To some, he was a revolutionary icon defending a socialist ideal against the encroachment of capitalism and imperialism. To others, he was a totalitarian dictator who ran a repressive government that quashed individual rights and carried out political executions.

Castro's system of one-man and one-party rule kept him in power for 49 years, the longest of any head of government in the world. For most of that time, he was a thorn in the side of the U.S., which carried out several failed assassination attempts against him, as well as the infamous botched Bay of Pigs invasion.

The U.S. also put in place tough economic and travel sanctions against Cuba, barring U.S. citizens from travelling to or doing business with the country. The sanctions have remained in place for decades, but in December 2014 U.S. President Barack Obama announced his government would take steps to restore full diplomatic relations with Cuba.

​The revolutionary as a young man

Castro was born on Aug. 13, 1926, in what was then Oriente province in the eastern part of the island of Cuba.

Castro, seen in this 1961 photo, was born on Aug. 13, 1926, in what was then Oriente province in the eastern part of the island of Cuba. (The Associated Press)

The son of a sugar cane farmer, Castro attended Roman Catholic schools and established an early reputation as a gifted athlete.

He studied law at the University of Havana, where he became actively engaged in politics. At the age of 21, he joined a group of Cubans and exiles from the Dominican Republic intent on overthrowing the Dominican dictator Gen. Ralael Leonidas Trujillo Molina.

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Excerpt from interview Castro gave the CBC's Michael Maclear shortly after coming to power.  1:06

After completing his degree and becoming a lawyer, Castro joined the Cuban People's Party, a reformist movement.

Castro was only 27 when on July 26, 1953, he launched an attack on the Moncada army barracks in Santiago de Cuba, then under the control of Gen. Fulgencio Batista, who had seized power in Cuba in a military coup a year earlier. The attack failed, with Castro and most of his fighters captured or killed, but the date went on to become Cuba's most important holiday.

Castro was arrested and eventually sentenced to 15 years in prison but was pardoned after only two years. He went into exile in Mexico, where he assembled a group of revolutionaries dubbed the 26th of July Movement. A year later, in 1956, with the help of future rebel icon Ernesto (Che) Guevara and other opponents of the Batista regime, Castro returned to Cuba.

Castro formally stepped down in 2008, and public appearances became increasingly rare. In this 2016 photo, Castro is pictured at the Cuban Communist Party Congress in Havana. (Ismael Francisco/Cubadebate/Associated Press)

In January 1959, with a mere 800 guerrilla fighters, Castro and his troops managed to defeat Batista's professional army of 30,000 soldiers, forcing Batista to flee Havana under the cover of night.

Castro and his allies seized power and began implementing a series of socialist and Marxist reforms, including nationalizing land, businesses and private schools; redistributing land; implementing programs to raise literacy and education levels among the rural population; and creating a national health care system.

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'Fidel Castro is a father figure in Cuba, loved across the board by many people here,' says Radio Havana journalist Juan Jacomino  2:14

The reforms drove many Cubans and foreign investors, primarily those from the U.S., off the island and provoked the start of what was to be a long period of antagonism between Cuba and the U.S.

Many were also spooked by the public executions of Batista supporters that took place - without trial - in the initial months after the coup.

U.S. antagonist

After his overthrow of Batista's dictatorship, Castro enjoyed acclaim not only with the masses at home but also internationally. He was initially popular even in the U.S., but those relations quickly soured.

As part of its nationalization program, Castro's government began to confiscate private land and property, much of it owned by wealthy Americans, who controlled the bulk of Cuba's sugar industry and had wielded significant economic and political influence in the country in the first half of the 20th century.

In this Jan. 1959 file photo, Castro addresses a crowd in a park in front of the presidential palace in Havana. The bearded revolutionary survived a crippling U.S. trade embargo as well as multiple assassination plots. (Harold Valentine/Associated Press)

He further irritated and alarmed the U.S. by aligning Cuba with the Soviet Union. Cuba benefited from this arrangement by having a regular buyer for its sugar and a supply of vital economic and military aid.

Castro frequently denounced the U.S. as an imperialist, capitalist foe of the socialist revolution, accusing it of trying to undermine his new government.

Dwight Eisenhower, who was U.S. president when Castro seized power, ended sugar purchases from Cuba, then placed an embargo on all exports to Cuba, except food and medicine. One of Eisenhower's last legislative acts was to break diplomatic relations with Cuba in January 1961.

Bay of Pigs

When John F. Kennedy became president in 1961, he inherited a plan drafted by the CIA during the Eisenhower administration to have U.S.-trained Cuban exiles carry out an invasion of their home country. Kennedy decided to carry it out in April 1961, choosing to invade by way of a remote swamp region on Cuba's southern coast called the Bay of Pigs in an effort to disguise the U.S.'s role in the covert action.

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It wasn't until 1977 that Castro first spoke to U.S. media, sitting down with American journalist Barbara Walters. Here's a short clip of that exchange.  0:56

Several U.S. bombers, disguised to look like Cuban air force planes and piloted by Cuban exiles, began the invasion by first launching a series of air strikes against air bases in Cuba, but they missed many of the targets and were unmasked as U.S. aircraft.

The invasion force of about 1,400 Cuban exiles, trained by the CIA at camps in Guatemala, didn't fare much better. They attempted to gain a beachhead at the Bay of Pigs but came under heavy fire - from the air and from the several thousand troops Castro dispatched to the region.

In the end, more than 100 invading troops were killed and almost 1,200 captured. Castro eventually allowed the captured Cuban exiles to return to the U.S. in exchange for about $53 million worth of food and medicine.

The Bay of Pigs invasion was a total failure for the U.S. and solidified support for Castro in Cuba and throughout Latin America.

Missile crisis

A little over a year later, Cuba was at the centre of another international incident after the U.S. discovered in October 1962 that the Soviet Union was building missile installations on the island equipped with missiles that could reach the U.S.

In October 1979, Castro addressed the audience as president of the Non-Aligned Movement at the United Nations in New York. (Prensa Latina/Reuters )

A tense standoff ensued that lasted several days and had the world fearing a nuclear war. It was defused after the Soviets agreed to dismantle the missiles if the Americans lifted their naval blockade of Cuba and agreed not to invade Cuba.

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the subsequent disintegration of the Soviet Union was a blow to Cuba's economic fortunes and diminished Castro's stature on the international scene.

 

Cuba ended the 20th century a much poorer nation than when Castro's revolutionary period began, experiencing food and fuel shortages throughout the early 2000s.

Rumours of death

There have been many attempts to assassinate Castro over the years, with one particularly clumsy attempt centered on presenting him with the gift of an exploding cigar. There have also been numerous reports of Castro's death or his incapacitation by illness.

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CBC's Adrienne Arsenault takes us on a tour of Fidel Castro's childhood home  1:32

In 1994, he was said to have died from a stroke. In 1996, the report was he had severe lung cancer. Another rumour had him suffering either from Alzheimer's or a mysterious fatal disease that turns the brain to mush.

When he was reported to have died in 1997, Castro, known for making meandering speeches of epic length, dispelled the rumours by giving a seven-hour speech at the opening session of the Communist Party congress.

"Every once in a while, they kill me off," Castro has quipped to reporters. "The day I die, no one will believe it."

Castro relinquishes power

However, illness eventually did force the Cuban revolutionary to step away from power.

In an official proclamation released on July 31, 2006, Castro provisionally delegated most of his official duties to his brother Raul — including the positions of president and head of the Communist Party.

Tap to see caption
Cuban communist revolutionary and politician Fidel Castro, seen in this 2012 photo, has died. Castro held tremendous sway in his country for decades, particularly during the Cuban missile crisis, when the U.S. and the Soviets inched closer to catastrophe. (Roberto Chile/AP)
Tap to see caption
Leader of the 1959 Cuban revolution that swept him to power, Castro held the position of Prime Minister of Cuba from 1959 to 1976, and then President from 1976 to 2008. Here, Castro, centre, poses in 1953 with a group of revolutionaries ahead of their attack on the Moncada Garrison, a battle that would catalyze his rise to power. (AFP/Getty)
Tap to see caption
Castro made changes to all aspects of Cuban life, from the political system to the way athletics were conducted. Here, Castro, centre, watches a 1962 gymnastics festival in which 80,000 participated. (Keystone/Getty)
Tap to see caption
Communist Cuba’s top ally post-1959 was Russia. Here, Castro rides a toboggan during a 1964 diplomatic trip to Moscow. (AFP/Getty)
Tap to see caption
Castro, left, welcomes Palestine Liberation Organization chair Yasser Arafat to Havana in 1969. (AFP/Getty)
Tap to see caption
Castro’s love of baseball was well documented, and while Cuba has a small population it often beats baseball powerhouses like the U.S. and Japan in international competition. Here, Castro speaks with former U.S. President Jimmy Carter ahead of the 2002 Cuban all-star game in Havana. (Adalberto Roque/AFP/Getty)
Tap to see caption
Castro was rumoured to have been a great baseball player himself, though several historians have cast doubt on that story. Here, Castro enjoys an at bat in his fatigues. (Keystone/Getty)
Tap to see caption
Castro had been vilified by many in the U.S., and in turn he frequently slammed America and its perceived meddling in Cuba’s affairs. Here, Castro calls for Cubans to march in the streets after U.S. President George W. Bush called for reforms in the country. (Adalberto Roque/AFP/Getty)
Tap to see caption
Castro has also been described as a bit of a charmer. Here, he’s presented with an invitation to the 1959 New York Press Photographer's Ball in New York City. (Hulton Archive/Getty)
Tap to see caption
Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau formed a controversial relationship with the Cuban leader, maintaining friendly relations with Castro despite pressure to sever diplomatic ties. Here, Trudeau visits a Havana housing project in 1976. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)
Tap to see caption
Castro pays his regards at the funeral of former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau in Montreal in 2000. Trudeau had been the first Canadian leader to visit Cuba. (Jeff Kowalsky/AFP/Getty)
Tap to see caption
Castro was known for giving lengthy speeches, some which topped five hours. Here, he speaks in Havana’s Revolution Square during a military parade and rally on Jan. 12, 1965. (Keystone/Getty Images)
Tap to see caption
Castro speaks with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev as Raul Roa, Castro’s foreign minister, left looks on. The trio met during a UN assembly in New York, two years before the Cuban Missile Crisis permanently soured relations between Cuba and the U.S. (Prensa Latina/AP)
Tap to see caption
Senator and Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern takes a jeep ride with then-Premier Fidel Castro during a trip to Cuba in 1975. (Charles Tsnadi/AP)
Tap to see caption
Castro gives one of his final, fiery public speeches in 2010, warning of the threat of nuclear war. (Desmond Boylan/Reuters)

In February 2008, Castro announced he was officially stepping down as president, and Raul was formally picked to succeed him by the country's parliament a few days later.

The tireless revolutionary continued to appear in public as much as he could and even took the occasional meeting with a head of state or dignitary.

He visited frequently with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in 2011 and 2012 when the latter was in Cuba for cancer treatment.

Raul Castro took over from his brother Fidel in 2006 and officially became Cuba's president and head of its Communist party in 2008. (Claudia Daut/Reuters)
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A member of the Cuban community gets out of his car and chants anti-Castro slogans as he reacts to the death of Fidel Castro on Saturday in the Little Havana area in Miami. His T-shirt in Spanish reads "Damn Revolution." (Alan Diaz/Associated Press)
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The celebrations in Little Havana started early Saturday morning and went well into the day. (Javier Galeano/Reuters)
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Castro, who led a rebel army to improbable victory in Cuba, embraced Soviet-style communism and defied the power of 10 U.S. presidents during his half-century rule. (Alan Diaz/Associated Press)
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People sang, danced and blasted salsa music blasted from car stereos while they honked horns in Little Havana. (Javier Galeano/Reuters)
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A man holds a Cuban flag to celebrate Castro's death. Miami Mayor Tomas Regalado joined the revellers on Saturday afternoon. (Javier Galeano/Reuters)
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The celebrations in Miami began shortly after Castro's death was announced. Within a half an hour, there were already people out on the street cheering. (Michael Laughlin/South Florida Sun-Sentinel via Associated Press)
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A masked 'Donald Trump' was among those celebrating. Several Trump-Pence election signs were spotted in the crowd. The actual president-elect put out a statement about Castro on Saturday, calling him 'a brutal dictator who oppressed his own people for nearly six decades.' (Javier Galeano/Reuters)
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Many brought pots and pans to the celebrations in Miami's Little Havana, including this driver. (Javier Galeano/Reuters)
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Little Havana teemed with life and cheers after the news broke. Here, members of the Cuban community gather in front of La Carreta Restaurant early Saturday morning. (David Santiago/El Nuevo Herald via Associated Press)
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This skeleton that took part in Saturday's celebration in Miami sported a cigar, a trademark of Castro's. (Javier Galeano/Reuters)

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