Former Cuban leader Fidel Castro, who led a rebel army to victory in Cuba, embraced Soviet communism and defied the power of 10 U.S. presidents during his half century rule, has died at age 90. Castro’s brother, current Cuban president Raul Castro, announced the death on state television late Friday night, The Associated Press reported.
"At 10.29 at night, the chief commander of the Cuban revolution, Fidel Castro Ruz, died," Raul Castro said. "Ever onward, to victory."
Fidel Castro, who overthrew the American-backed government of Fulgencio Batista government in January 1959, ruled Cuba as a one-party state for almost half a century before ill health forced him to relinquish his powers to Raul in 2008.
"He was a historic figure way out of proportion to the national base in which he operated," Cuba scholar Louis A. Perez Jr., author of more than 10 books on the island and its history, told CNN. "Cuba hadn't counted for much in the scale of politics and history until Castro," Wayne Smith, the top U.S. diplomat in Cuba from 1979 to 1982, told CNN. In Miami early Saturday, Cuban exiles took to the streets of Little Havana, honking car horns, banging utensils against pots and pans and cheering the death of the man who forced them to flee their homeland.
Orlando Guiterrez, founder of the Cuban Democratic Directorate in Miami, called Castro a "criminal," the BBC reported.
"I regret that this criminal never faced a tribunal for all the crimes he committed against his own people," he said. "This is a man who leaves a legacy of intolerance, of setting up a family-run dictatorship which had no tolerance for anyone who thought differently, who set up a vicious totalitarian regime where people were persecuted for the most slight deviation from official ideology."
Others, however, lauded the late Cuban leader.
"I am very upset. Whatever you want to say, he is public figure that the whole world respected and loved," Havana student Sariel Valdespino told Reuters.
"I lament the death of Fidel Castro Ruz, leader of the Cuban revolution and emblematic reference of the 20th century," Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto wrote on Twitter.
Former ally and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev paid tribute, saying:
"Fidel stood up and strengthened his country during the harshest American blockade, when there was colossal pressure on him and he still took his country out of this blockade to a path of independent development."
“I formed a very good opinion of him," Gorbachev told the BBC. "We became firm friends and remained friends until the end."
During his reign, Castro weathered the U.S.-backed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 and the Cuban Missile Crisis the following year, the latter incident bringing the world to the brink of nuclear war. He also survived many assassination plots — more than 630, according to Cuba — imprisonment at the hands of Batista and exile in Mexico.
His rebellion, which began in the Sierra Maestra mountains of eastern Cuba, began disastrously but picked up steam, culminating in Castro’s triumphant entrance into Havana on Jan. 8, 1959. At age 32, Castro became the youngest leader in Latin America. Interviewed in 1958, he said that "there is not Communism or Marxism in our ideas."
Castro’s commitment to socialism was unwavering — “Socialism or death” was his motto — and his defiant image weathered the terms of 10 U.S. presidents.
"He taunted, antagonized and irritated the United States for more than a half-century," Dan Erikson, a senior adviser for Western Hemisphere affairs at the U.S. State Department and author of The Cuba Wars: Fidel Castro, the United States and the Next Revolution, told CNN.
Castro survived long enough to see Raul Castro negotiate an opening with U.S. President Barack Obama on Dec. 17, 2014, when Washington and Havana announced they would move to restore diplomatic ties for the first time since they were severed in 1961.
Fidel Castro Ruz was born Aug. 13, 1926, in eastern Cuba's sugar country, where his Spanish immigrant father worked first recruiting labor for U.S. sugar companies and later built up a prosperous plantation of his own.
Castro’s reign as a rebel began in 1953 with an attack on the Moncada military barracks in Santiago. Most of his comrades were killed and Fidel and his brother Raul went to prison.
"History will absolve me," he declared during his trial for the attack.
He was sentenced to 15 years in prison but was pardoned in 1955. Castro fled to Mexico and organized a rebel band of 81 followers that returned in 1956, sailing across the Gulf of Mexico to Cuba on a yacht named Granma. After losing most of his group in a bungled landing — only 12 of the group survived, including Fidel, Raul and Ernesto "Che" Guevara — he rallied support in Cuba's eastern mountains.
Three years later, tens of thousands spilled into the streets of Havana to celebrate Batista's downfall and catch a glimpse of Castro as his rebel caravan arrived in the capital.
In 1964, Castro acknowledged holding 15,000 political prisoners. Hundreds of thousands of Cubans fled, including Castro's daughter Alina Fernandez Revuelta and his younger sister Juana.
Castro's speeches, lasting up to six hours, became the soundtrack of Cuban life and his 269-minute speech to the U.N. General Assembly in 1960 set the world body's record for length that still stood more than five decades later.
The biggest crisis of the Cold War between Washington and Moscow exploded on Oct. 22, 1962, when President John F. Kennedy announced there were Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba and imposed a naval blockade of the island. After a tense week of diplomacy, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev removed them.
Castro occasionally allowed Cubans to leave the island, with most going to the United States. More than 260,000 Cubans left in a U.S.-organized airlift between 1965 and 1973. In 1980, Castro let another 125,000 leave in the Mariel Boatlift. Among them were criminals released from Cuban jails who brought a violent crime wave to Florida. Some desperate Cubans fled the island nation in makeshift boats across the Florida Straits. Thousands died from drowning or exposure to the Caribbean sun.
President-elect Donald Trump weighed in on Twitter early Saturday with a one-sentence tweet.
Castro's ashes will be laid to rest in the Santa Ifigenia cemetery in the southeastern city of Santiago de Cuba, the BBC reported. It is the resting place of Cuban independence hero Jose Marti. After nine days of mourning, the ceremony at the cemetery will take place on Dec. 4.
Information from The Associated Press was used in this story.
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