Fidel Castro, the controversial revolutionary leader and former head of state of Cuba, has died at the age of 90, Cuban state television announced.
One of the world’s longest-serving political leaders, Castro ruled Cuba for 49 years after playing a central role in the Cuban Revolution in the 1950s. He cut a divisive figure during his lifetime, transforming Cuba into the Western Hemisphere’s first communist country and becoming a thorn in the side of the United States during the Cold War.
Hailed by supporters as a hero who fought for socialist ideals by standing up to the U.S. and the world’s other political giants, Castro was seen by critics as a ruthless dictator guilty of subjecting his people to countless human rights abuses, devastating Cuba’s economy and forcing more than a million Cubans to flee the island.
The university was a hotbed of political activity at the time, and Castro became interested in politics and activism. Influenced by the ideology of Cuban nationalism, he became a vocal student activist. He frequently organized strikes and demonstrations and spoke out against then-President Ramón Grau and his government.
“Fidel’s generation had a terrible sense of frustration,” veteran American journalist Georgie Anna Geyer said in a 2005 PBS documentary on Castro. “Cuba was supposed to be one of the three wealthiest countries in the hemisphere, with the United States and Argentina, and yet they couldn’t put themselves together politically. … They saw leader after leader either be corrupt, killed, replaced by the United States ― fail, fail, fail.”
Castro showed signs of brilliance as a college student, but he was also rumored to have been involved in acts of violence. His reputation at the time was such that when a young woman named Mirta Díaz Balart (whom Castro would marry in 1948) fell in love with him, her brother gave her the following warning: “You know he’s crazy, he’s paranoid and a psychopath who’d just as soon throw you off the 10th floor as buy you a mink coat.”
But in March 1952, Castro’s political ambitions ― and Cuba’s democracy ― were derailed when General Fulgencio Batista led a coup d’etat, ousting the sitting president. As a dictator, Batista became increasingly ruthless, and his government grew ever more corrupt.
Castro, together with his brother Raúl and more than 100 other rebels, organized an attack against the Batista regime. Their target: the Moncada Barracks, one of the largest military garrisons in the country. Usually regarded as the beginning of the Cuban Revolution, the July 26, 1953, offensive was a total disaster. Dozens of rebels either were killed or were captured, tortured and later executed. Castro and his brother were caught and sentenced to 15 years behind bars.
“Condemn me, it does not matter. History will absolve me,” Castro, who argued in his own defense, famously said during his trial.