Fidel Castro, Cuba’s fiery Communist leader, dead at 90

Fidel Castro, the revolutionary leader who put Cuba on the world stage and made himself a world player, died on Friday, his brother Raul Castro announced on state-run television. He was 90.

The communist adversary for 10 U.S. presidents, Castro wore his trademark beard and army fatigues for nearly five decades, giving fiery speeches against what he called the evils of imperialism.

In the 1950s, Castro led the overthrow of Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista. After victory in 1959, he appeared on Edward R Murrow’s “Person to Person” – a rebel in pajamas.

“Mr. Castro, are you concerned at all about the communist influence in Cuba?” Murrow asked.

“No,” answered Castro. “I no worry, there is not a threat of communism in Cuba.”

Castro later executed former Batista officials and began to nationalize American-owned property.

Castro was a defiant demagogue, a dictator, a charismatic leader and, for decades, a Soviet puppet, all rolled into one, CBS News’ Pamela Falk, author of Cuban Foreign Policy, said. Having seized power after years of fighting from the Sierra Maestra mountains, Castro was among the longest serving heads of state. He successfully gave Cuba outsized prominence in wold affairs. He eliminated illiteracy, but failed to bring prosperity. Fidel achieved a low infant mortality rate and a national health care system but at a price. He had no tolerance for dissent. Counter-revolutionaries were jailed by the thousands. He nationalized private real estate and many fled the island or were forced out.

The U.S. broke off relations and imposed a trade embargo, one that has lasted to this day, though President Obama and current Cuban President Raul Castro, Fidel’s brother, restored diplomatic relations in July 2015.

By opening diplomatic relations and expanding travel opportunities for Americans in 2015, President Obama hoped to put the hostility of a half century of tense U.S.–Cuban relations aside, but there are still many hurdles: the largest one is the state of human rights under Raul Castro – who will retire in 2018 – and the position of incoming President-elect Donald Trump is still unknown, reports Falk.

In 1961, President Kennedy authorized a force of CIA-trained Cuban exiles to try to overthrow Castro. The invaders were crushed as they waded ashore at the Bay of Pigs.

Castro embraced communism and moved closer to the Soviet Union.

In 1962, the U.S. found evidence of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba. “I have directed the armed forces to prepare for any eventuality,” President Kennedy announced.

The showdown between Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev and President John Kennedy was  the moment of Castro’s greatest relevance on the world stage. The nuclear clock ticked down and then stopped. The Soviets agreed to remove the missiles. In exchange, the U.S. promised not to invade Cuba.

Castro’s Cuba has been a land of contradictions. It has free medical care and its literacy rate is among the world’s highest. But political opposition is suppressed, and the economy is a disaster. Those antique cars on shabby roads became as much a symbol of Cuban life as cigars or music.

Castro’s legacy is one of five decades of isolation and revolutionary change: he had contentious relations with the U.S. and held a tight rein on his people, jailing dissidents and twice unleashing a mass exodus of Cubans to U.S. shores.

After almost five decades in power, Falk reports, few Cubans knew much about Fidel Castro’s personal life, including his seven children, many of whom remained in Cuba. They include Fidelito, Castro’s first born son from an early marriage: Alina, his daughter from an affair during the days of the revolution and who left for Miami; and the five children who lived with him and his wife, Dalia Soto del Valle, in Cuba.

Scapegoating the U.S. embargo played well within Cuba, but from a strict economic view, the failure of the economy was largely the fault of the Cuban leadership, Falk added. The seizure of private property, maintaining one of the region’s largest military forces, and a centralized controlled economy were the cause of the stagnation of Cuba’s economy and the same root cause for the failure of the Soviet system.

And with the decline of the Soviet Union and its support, Cuba faced economic ruin in the ‘90s, forcing Castro to encourage tourism and foreign investment.

In 1998, Castro invited Pope John Paul II to visit Cuba and reinstated Christmas as an official holiday.

Castro once told CBS News how he would want to be remembered.

“That Castro wanted a more egalitarian society,” he said, “A society as many other men have dreamed of in the past – Jesus among them.”

In July 2006, Castro had intestinal surgery and announced a temporary transfer of power to his brother Raul. The transition became permanent as Castro’s health declined, and the fiery revolutionary faded from public view.

In March 2012, Pope Benedict XVI visited Cuba and conducted a huge public Mass. And he delivered a private message, telling Fidel Castro that his political experiment no longer corresponded to reality, and that it was past time for authentic freedom to finally come ashore in Castro’s Cuba.

Today the last historic political figure of the Cold War is gone.