Former Cuban leader Fidel Castro has died at the age of 90. The lawyer-turned revolutionary who overthrew the Batista regime and helped make Che Guevara a leftist icon was an enduring, but divisive and controversial figure. He assumed power on the island nation New Year’s Day, 1959 and would see his rule outlast 10 presidents.
Hailed as a hero by some and as the top of an oppressive, totalitarian cult of personality by others, he was reviled by U.S.-aligned capitalist countries, anticommunist politicians, and by the influential Cuban-American community of Florida, many members of which fled Cuba after the revolution and continue to wield a sizable political influence in the Sunshine State.
Castro ultimately stepped down as president in 2006 (he did not relinquish the title until 2008), handing over power to his brother, Raul. He lived long enough to see the demise of the Soviet Union, Cuba’s sponsor nation and chief ally during the Cold War, as well as the cooling of tensions between Cuba and the U.S. in recent years, with President Barack Obama announcing last year that the U.S. would re-establish diplomatic relations with Cuba. As such, Obama urged Congress to lift a 52-year-old economic embargo.
Born in 1926, Castro was the son of wealthy parents but came of age under a succession of right wing dictatorships in Cuba. Turning to leftist politics while still in college, he founded, alongside Raul and Ernesto “Che” Guevara, the revolutionary movement that would eventually prevail. However, in doing so he forged close ties with the Soviet Union, prompting the U.S. government to enact a trade embargo beginning in 1962 that continues in slightly reduced form to this day.
Castro was the subject of three separate documentaries by director Oliver Stone: 2003’s Fidel Castro: Comandante, 2004’s Looking for Fidel, and Castro in Winter in 2012. Comandante was particularly controversial as it presented a somewhat glowing portrait of the aging dictator, a portrait Castro undermined – to put it mildly – by a widely condemned crackdown on dissidents that included the execution of three people who ferried Cubans to the United States. HBO, which had intended to air the documentary, shelved it instead.
Anthony D’Allesandro contributed to this report.