Cuba -- the largest island in the Caribbean, which is only two hours from the U.S. physically but light years away mentally -- has a long history of struggle against colonialism.
Some nations only want to get out of poverty, but Cubans put their freedom above anything else.
In Cuba, people have never given up on their dream of freedom in the face of colonial invasions or imperial blockades.
Fidel Castro, the longest-serving leader of Cuba and world’s longest-serving non-royal head of state in the 20th and 21st Centuries, drove the march for independence started by national hero Jose Marti in the 19th century.
Born in 1926 as the illegitimate child of a wealthy sugarcane farmer who emigrated to Cuba from Spain, Fidel grew up to become one of the world's most legitimate leaders through his relentless fight against dictatorship and imperialism.
On New Year’s Day in 1959, rebel fighters led by Fidel Castro, his brothers Raul and Ramon and also Ernesto “Che” Guevara succeeded in defeating the dictatorial regime of army general turned president Fulgencio Batista, who seized power in a military coup in 1952. Fidel's war tactics enervated Batista's army of 35,000 over years and it eventually collapsed from within.
Batista was the first indigenous leader of Cuba and was very popular in the beginning. But over the years, he evolved into an authoritarian dictator and friend of the U.S. and international mafia that ran the island’s hotels and casinos at the expense of poor Cubans.
Any opposition to Batista’s police state was brutally silenced through imprisonment and extrajudicial killings.
Arrested by the regime in 1953 following his failed attempt to capture the Moncada military barracks, Fidel appeared in court in October, and as a graduate of law from the University of Havana, he chose to testify in his own defense. Nevertheless, the court sentenced him to 15 years in prison.
When Batista declared a general amnesty less than two years into his imprisonment, Fidel was a free man again. Rumor has it that the only thing that saved him from execution was his influential father-in-law, who was a minister in the Batista government.
He went into exile in Mexico, where he met iconic revolutionary Che Guevara, who was more close to Raul. Che, an Argentinian doctor, initially joined the Fidel’s 26th of July Movement to help the wounded but was soon on the front line of the fight in the Sierra Maestra mountains of eastern Cuba in 1956.
When he was working to bring the same revolution to Bolivia, Che was captured and summarily executed by CIA-backed Bolivian regime in 1967.
Fidel made a martyr of him in Cuba, urging all Cuban children to be like Che.
Fidel, Raul, Guevara, Huber Matos, Camilo Cienfuegos and a handful of other rebels arrived in Cuba in Granma, a boat purchased in Miami through donations of Cuban exiles who opposed Batista’s tyranny.
Fidel masterfully used radio channel Radio Rebelde launched in 1958 to communicate with the world and to convince Cubans to join the revolutionary cause.
At the helm of Cuba, he nationalized U.S.-owned farms and companies in line with his promise to hundreds of thousands of Cubans at an historic speech in Havana in 1959 and later began to court the Soviet Union to sustain his socialist agenda.
Losing the puppet Batista government in Cuba and defied by the cadre of Fidel, Washington imposed economic sanctions and launched a failed coup attempt in 1961 through Cuban exiles at the Bay of Pigs.
Fidel responded to threats by intensifying his anti-U.S. stance and allowing the Soviet Union to station nuclear missiles in Cuba, a risky move that almost resulted in a nuclear war. So began the “daggers drawn” feud between Cuba and the U.S.
Cuba benefited from significant amounts of Soviet aid, allowing the country to build well-regarded health and education systems.
But opponents of Fidel claimed the centrally controlled economy performed poorly and Cubans had no real freedom. He was also criticized for imprisoning and killing thousands of dissidents, including some of his revolutionary comrades like Cienfuegos and Matos during the consolidation period of the revolution.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, everyone thought Cuba was next in line. But in the words of Cuba’s ambassador to Turkey, Luis Alberto Amaros Nunez, the Caribbean nation survived “because Cuba was socialist in a Cuban way and never became a satellite state for the Soviets.”
“We never deny Soviet help in the survival of the revolution, but Cuba has always been an independent country,” he said.
Regarding rumors about the fate of Fidel and Che’s friendship, Amaros said “they were always good friends who supported each other’s cause till the end.”
Despite economic problems, many of Fidel’s social reforms remained popular, with the population largely supportive of the "Achievements of the Revolution" in education, medical care and road construction, as well as the government's policy of "direct democracy."
His bond with cigars, one of Cuba’s main exports, was like that of the cartoon character Popeye’s bond with spinach.
He was a cigar aficionado until he finally quit smoking when he was 59.
“I decided to stop it. No one made me,” he said in his book ‘My Life’.
He was so passionate about his cause that he never allowed others to write his speeches.
He married Diaz-Balart married in 1948, honeymooned in New York City, and divorced seven years later while in exile in Mexico.
They had one child, a son, Fidel Angel "Fidelito", whose custody was granted to his mother.
His ideas and charm inspired millions of revolutionaries and a good number of women were infatuated with Fidel.
He reportedly fathered around 10 children with various women.
No leader’s life was so full of extremes and ups and downs, uniting and polarizing all at the same time.
Fidel’s fight and the Cuban revolution inspired many anti-imperialist movements to mobilize against British, French and U.S. designs in the Middle East and elsewhere.
The adherence of the army and people of Cuba to Fidel remains strong in the 21st Century and the revolutionary pride is still like it was on the first day.
He wasn't wrong when he said "history would absolve me" during his trial in 1953.
Fidel risked his life for the liberation of Cuba from foreign domination on numerous occasions and died of natural causes at the age of 90 on November 25, 2016.
He died as he lived, just as the lyrics of his famous song by Silvia Rodriguez, 'El Necio', the 'stubborn'.
Yo me muero como vivi, I will die as I lived...
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