FIDEL CASTRO Circa 1950s
FIDEL CASTRO Circa 1950s

Fidel Castro, who took Cuba, the Caribbean island for nearly five decades died.  A shaggy-bearded figure in combat fatigues whose long shadow spread across Latin America and the world, is dead at age 90. His brother Raul announced the death late Friday night.

Millions cheered Fidel Castro on the day he entered Havana. Millions more fled the communist dictator’s repressive police state afterwards, leaving behind their possessions, their families, the island they loved and often many lost their very lives.

Few national leaders have inspired such intense loyalty or such a wrenching feeling of betrayal. Few fired the hearts of the world’s restless youth as Castro did when he was young, and few seemed so irrelevant as Castro when he was old. He was the last Communist standing so it seemed to many, railing on the empty, decrepit street corner that Cuba became under his rule.

He changed the face of Cuba, he remapped South Florida too, transforming it from the southernmost tip of the United States to the northernmost point of Latin America. The suffering of the refugees he sent pouring into Miami eventually turned to triumph as they forged economic and political success in a new country, America. ‘The land of the free and the home of the brave’ was never so fitting as it was when Cubans took Miami.

He was a spellbinding orator who was also a man of action; police action that it. His tall and powerful build was matched by an out sized ego, boundless energy and extraordinary luck that carried him to victory as a guerrilla leader in 1959 against nearly impossible odds, then helped him survive countless plots hatched by his many enemies.He was an evil man with a silver tongue, who promised much but drove his people to desperation.

He ended American domination of the island’s economy, swept away the old political system and the traditional army, nationalized large and small land holdings and brought reforms in education and healthcare.

He also was a ruthless dictator, the Maximum Leader who reneged on his promise of free elections, executed thousands of opponents, imprisoned tens of thousands, installed a Communist regime and made his island a pawn in the Cold War. His alliance with the Soviet Union brought the world to the brink of nuclear war in 1962. The Cuban Missile Crisis was neither Castro’s first nor last confrontation with the United States, though it was certainly the most epic. No other  has ever tormented Washington more or longer.

He created a repressive state that rigidly controlled the arts, the press, the airwaves. An efficient secret police force was aided by neighborhood spies and pro-government mobs that attacked those who dared to call for democratic change. Cultural enemies were vulnerable, too; in the 1970s, Castro was imprisoning gays and long-haired young people in work camps. I’m sure Michael Moore doesn’t know or won’t tell you about that.

Castro bragged that he would free his island of economic dependence on the United States, and he did, but only by becoming even more dependent on another foreign power based nearly 6,000 miles away in Moscow. Cuba ran up billions of dollars in debt for weapons, oil, machinery, food and other supplies. And when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Cuba’s crippled economy imploded, bringing new hardships to a population that already had suffered decades under his mismanagement.

In his final years, Castro seemed curiously unconcerned with his image, at times lurching dangerously close to self-parody. Miami Herald columnist Andres Oppenheimer, in his book Castro’s Final Hour, described a three-hour speech on Che Guevara’s application of dialectics that Castro delivered in 1991 to an audience of 6-year-olds.

Soon after, Castro allowed his photo be used in advertisements for the Benetton shops. The ember-eyed young man who vowed to destroy bourgeois decadence and the conspicuous consumption of capitalism had become one of its throw-away poster boys.

Perhaps it was the only way the world’s last, lonely Communist could get anyone’s attention. Castro died in Havana, Cuba at age 90. His death sparked celebrating in Miami.

H/T Miami Herald staff writers Mimi Whitefield and Sue Mullin contributed to this story, which also used reporting by former Herald staffers Jane Bussey, Elaine De Valle, Martin McReynolds and Elisabeth Donovan.

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