Following nearly five decades in power, Fidel Castro, the former Cuban president, has died at the age of 90. El Commandante, whose 1959 revolution overthrew the American-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista, survived some 638 attempts on his life devised by the CIA and Cuban exiles.
Despite the United States’ best efforts, Castro established a communist state fewer than 100 miles from the coast of Florida. Castro has receded from public life in the past decade, ceding power to his brother, Raúl, in the wake of an emergency intestinal surgery in July 2006. His impact on Cuban life, however, remains inestimable. From the Guardian:
His greatest legacy is free healthcare and education, which have given Cuba some of the region’s best human development statistics. But he is also responsible for the central planning blunders and stifling government controls that – along with the US embargo – have strangled the economy, leaving most Cubans scrabbling for decent food and desperate for better living standards.
The man who famously declared “history will absolve me” leaves a divided legacy. Older Cubans who remember brutal times under Batista tend to emphasise the revolution’s accomplishments. Younger Cubans are more likely to rail against gerontocracy, repression and lost opportunity. But even they refer to Castro by the more intimate name of Fidel.
Castro repeatedly outwitted his American counterparts, besting Kennedy in 1961, Carter in 1980, and Clinton in 2000. “No sober person in Latin America wants to adopt the Cuban system. But wherever he went in Latin America he received a raving ovation,” Wayne Smith, a veteran U.S. diplomat who worked in Havana, told the Los Angeles Times. “Why? Because he stood up to the United States, told us where to go, and got away with it.”
The collapse of the Soviet Union and the loss of the $6 billion in annual subsidies from Moscow, in conjunction with economic sanctions enforced by the United States, sent Cuba’s economy into a tailspin until Raúl Castro—who trained leftist guerrillas around the world in the 1970s and 80s—negotiated an easing of trade restrictions in December 2014.
“I’ll be 90 years old soon,” Castro said earlier this year, just before his birthday, at a Communist Party congress. “Soon I’ll be like all the others. The time will come for all of us, but the ideas of the Cuban Communists will remain as proof that on this planet, if one works with fervor and dignity, they can produce the material and cultural goods that human beings need and that need to be fought for without ever giving up.”