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Fidel Castro (1926 - 2016)

Getty / David Hume Kennerly

Fidel Castro (1926 - 2016)

Fidel Castro, the longtime Communist leader of the Republic of Cuba, died Nov. 25, 2016. He was 90.

Born Aug. 13, 1926, Castro grew up on a sugar cane farm and became involved in politics early, as a young law student at the University of Havana. He began a law career while engaging in action, sometimes violent, against the government and against U.S. intervention in the Caribbean. When General Fulgencio Batista rose to power in a 1952 coup, Castro undertook to oust him, leading a series of uprisings. After several years of guerrilla warfare, Castro and his followers overthrew Batista, and Castro became prime minister of Cuba.

He held this position from 1959 to 1976, a time of great turmoil between Cuba and the U.S. that saw Castro forming ties with Communist leaders in the Soviet Union and the U.S. responding with a trade embargo against Cuba. During this period, U.S. officials attempted to overthrow the leader they saw as a dangerous Communist threat, in actions including the failed Bay of Pigs invasion – a failure that brought Castro closer to the Soviet leaders the U.S. feared. He authorized the placement of Soviet nuclear weapons in Cuba, terrifying the U.S. at the prospects of nukes just 90 miles away. The Cuban Missile Crisis escalated the Cold War and is considered the closest the U.S. and the Soviet Union ever came to all-out nuclear war.

In 1975, Cuba's governmental structure was changed, abolishing the dual positions of president and prime minister. Castro took on the single leadership role of president, establishing himself in a position he would hold until his retirement in 2008. Though the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union fell during this period, U.S. relations with Castro and Cuba remained tense, and the embargo continued. When Castro stepped down from the presidency in 2008 after a period of poor health, turning the reins over to his brother, Raul Castro, those relations remained chilly. It was not until 2015 that President Barack Obama began to negotiate the lifting of the embargo. Castro’s legacy is a divisive one: While his political supporters saw him as a bold revolutionary, his detractors considered him just as dangerous a dictator as the one he overthrew. The group Human Rights Watch assessed his reign as a repressive one, full of human rights abuses. After his retirement, the leader who’d brought nuclear weapons to Cuba nonetheless spoke of the importance of avoiding nuclear conflict between the U.S. and the Middle East or North Korea.

 Castro is survived by his wife, Dalia Soto del Valle; his children, Fidel, Alexis, Alexander, Antonio, Alejandro, Angel, Alina, Jorge and Francisca; and several grandchildren.