HAVANA: Cuba’s socialist icon and father of his country’s revolution Fidel Castro died Friday (Saturday in Manila) aged 90, after defying the United States during a half-century of ironclad rule and surviving the eclipse of global communism.
One of the world’s longest-serving rulers and modern history’s most singular characters, he defied 11 US administrations and numerous assassination attempts.
His younger brother, President Raul Castro, announced the news shortly after midnight but gave no details of the cause of death.
During half a century in power, Fidel Castro crushed opposition at home to lead the communist Caribbean island through the Cold War before stepping aside in 2006 after intestinal surgery.
For defenders of the revolution, he was a hero who defended the ordinary people against domination.
For his opponents, including thousands of Cubans resident in the United States, he was a cruel tyrant.
He eventually lived to see the historic restoration of diplomatic ties with Washington last year.
“The commander in chief of the Cuban revolution died at 22:29 hours this evening,” the president announced on national television just after midnight Friday (0500 GMT Saturday).
“In compliance with Comrade Fidel’s expressed will, his remains will be cremated early in the morning” on Saturday, said Raul Castro, who took power after his elder brother Fidel was hospitalized in 2006.
Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev hailed Castro for “strengthening” his island nation.
“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,” Interfax news agency quoted Gorbachev as saying.
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, Cuba’s main ally in the region, said on Twitter: “It is up to us to continue his legacy and carry his flag of independence.”
The leaders of Mexico and El Salvador hailed Castro in messages on Twitter in the hours after the announcement.
Car washer Marco Antonio Diez, 20, said he was out at a party in Havana when the music stopped and he heard the news.
“I went home and woke up everyone, saying: ‘Fidel has died.’ My mother was astonished,” he told AFP.
The bearded, cigar-puffing leader, renowned for trademark army fatigues and hours-long public tirades, grabbed power in a January 1, 1959 revolution.
Living by the slogan “socialism or death,” he kept the faith to the end, even as the Cold War came and went.
He endured hundreds of assassination attempts, according to his aides, and the disastrous US-backed Bay of Pigs invasion attempt in 1961.
“If I am considered a myth, the United States deserves the credit,” he said in 1988.
Castro was at the center of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, as the world stood on the brink of nuclear war until the Soviet Union blinked in its bid to station strategic missiles on Cuban soil.
Well into his old age, Castro unleashed furious diatribes against Washington until he was slowed by surgery in July 2006.
An energetic symbol of defiance for developing countries and a driving force behind the Non-Aligned Movement, Castro proved even a small sovereign nation could thumb its nose at the world’s biggest superpower.
Born August 13, 1926 to a prosperous Spanish immigrant landowner and a Cuban mother of humble background, Castro was a quick learner and a keen baseball player.
His political path was set when he formed a guerrilla opposition to the US-backed government of Fulgencio Batista, who seized power in a 1952 coup.
In 1953 Castro led a small rebel force that attacked a major military base, the Moncada Barracks, in a bid to oust Batista. The drive failed. Castro was put on trial, and in a long, now famous closing self-defense speech said he did not care if was convicted.
“History will absolve me,” he said.
After he was jailed for two years by the Batista regime, he went into exile in Mexico and organized followers for their ultimately triumphant uprising.
It was launched when, on December 2, 1956 they sailed to southeastern Cuba on the ship Granma. Twenty-five months later, they ousted Batista and Castro was named prime minister.
His power undisputed in 1959, the Jesuit-schooled lawyer threw Cuba’s lot in with the Soviet Union, which bankrolled his regime until 1989, when the Eastern Bloc’s collapse sent Cuba’s economy plunging.
He ceded power to Raul, 85, in July 2006 when Fidel underwent intestinal surgery and disappeared from public view.
Castro’s private life was just that. He married three times and is known to have fathered eight children.
He met Celia Sanchez, said to have been the love of his life, in 1957 and remained with her until her death in 1980.
Since the 1980s, Castro’s partner has been Dalia Soto del Valle.
The most recent photographs of him were published last week, showing him in the trademark white tracksuit that he wore in later years after hanging up his green military fatigues.