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Castro: Cubans mourn revolutionary hero, ruthless dictator

Fidel Castro: agree with his views or not, condone his methods or dispute them, he fought tremendous odds throughout his political life – and achieved astonishing influence across the globe.

Castro: Cubans mourn revolutionary hero, ruthless dictator

Fidel Castro defied the US and inspired freedom fighters; but he was also a dictator and persecutor of those who challenged him

Castro: Cubans mourn revolutionary hero, ruthless dictator

As Cuba begins nine days of mourning for Fidel Castro, huge rallies are planned in the capital Havana and the eastern city of Santiago to honour the revolutionary leader.

Alcohol sales are suspended, flags fly at half-mast, shows and concerts are cancelled after his younger brother and successor, Raul Castro, told the country that the 90-year-old “El Commandante” had died.

Cubans will be able to pay homage to Castro’s ashes in Havana today and tomorrow, while a mass rally will be held in the capital tomorrow evening.

Next day his ashes will begin their journey across the country, along a route that commemorates his victory over the corrupt, US-imposed dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959.

On 4 December his ashes will be interred at the Santa Ifigenia cemetery – resting-place of 19th-century independence hero José Martí and other leading figures in the country’s history.

With his wild beard, olive-green military fatigues, dark good looks and trademark cigars, Castro was the glamorous face of left-wing totalitarianism.

Behind the image, there was deadly serious intent. During the cynical, paranoid years of the post-World War II era, Castro brought the passion of a true believer to the ideological contest between east and west.

He defied the all-powerful US and encouraged Soviet dreams of world domination. He became a symbol of resistance and an inspirational figure to left-wing insurgents across Africa and Latin America, aiding and abetting their anti-colonial independence movements.

Isolated, abused and furiously plotted against, he played the part of political underdog to perfection, an eternal martyr to the cause of global liberation.

Yet Castro was also a manipulative demagogue, an oppressor and a relentless persecutor of those who dared challenge his will.

Once in power in Cuba, he brooked no opposition. Violent abuses of accepted legal standards and human rights, initially excused as a revolutionary necessity, became the regime-sustaining norm.

Over more than 50 years following his successful coup, he proved inflexible, quick to anger and long-winded. He was unwilling to learn from mistakes that turned Cuba into a relatively impoverished, illiberal and closed society – although there were significant achievements, notably in healthcare and education.

In 1960 he nationalised all US-owned businesses; the response from Washington was swift and brutal: a vicious trade embargo that isolated the island and its bumptious leader.

The infamous attempt to overthrow him – the US-financed and planned 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion by right-wing Cuban exiles – came soon after, and was followed by a string of CIA assassination plots. At one point, even Castro’s cigars were targeted.

Castro maintained that US actions drove him into Moscow’s arms. But there was no denying his ideological attraction to the communist system.

This dependence came at a price, and the debt was collected in 1961-62 when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev began a secret deployment of nuclear missiles in Cuba. When President John Kennedy became aware of the Cuban missile crisis, the world stood on the brink of nuclear Armageddon.

The crisis was defused, partly by the secret withdrawal of US missiles from Turkey. But the affair caused lasting damage to Castro’s Cuba; even sympathetic Americans who opposed the blockade were appalled he should have collaborated with such a dangerous Soviet operation.

This fear-filled view of Castro as international bogeyman was heightened by his self-appointed role as a prime exporter of revolution, champion of the oppressed and advocate for the countries of the developing world. He espoused the cause of the African National Congress in South Africa in fighting apartheid and seeking to achieve majority rule, and became a close friend of Nelson Mandela.

Castro also proved an inspiration for left-wing liberation movements across central and Latin America.

Even when President Barack Obama admitted that ostracism and isolation were not working, and moved to re-open diplomatic relations and ease aspects of the embargo in 2014, Castro remained deeply suspicious. He vowed that “a ruthless blockade that has now lasted for almost 60 years” and half a century of US aggression, including the 1976 bombing of a Cuban airliner by anti-Castro exiles that killed 73 people, could not be forgotten.

Castro’s life may be summed up in this way: agree with his views or not, condone his methods or fiercely dispute them, he fought indefatigably against tremendous odds throughout his political life – and achieved an astonishing degree of influence across the globe. For the most part Castro, iconic hero of the left, was on the right side of history.

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