Fidel Castro led the 1959 Cuban Revolution that overthrew Fulgencio Batista, a US-backed dictator who had taken power through a military coup in 1952.
Fidel and his brother Raul sailed from México to Cuba, landing with a force of only 82 men on December 2, 1956. They were routed in their first encounter with the Cuban army, but the survivors regrouped in the jungles of Sierra Maestra. From there, they gathered more fighters and weapons and relaunched a civil war that swept through the country — and the deeply unpopular Batista regime from power — in just two years.
Castro’s nationalization of assets owned by foreign businesses earned him powerful enemies and economic sanctions by the US. His alliance with the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War entrenched the enmity of Washington, while repressive policies toward opponents at home led to waves of emigration and condemnation for human rights abuses.
Here is his extraordinary life in his own words and those of others, from Reuters:
“Condemn me. It is of no importance. History will absolve me.” — Castro in 1953, when the young lawyer was defending himself at trial for his near — suicidal assault on the Moncada military barracks in Santiago de Cuba.
“On December 18, 1956, Fidel and I were in the foothills of the Sierra Maestra, in a place called Cinco Palmas. After our first hug his first question was: ‘How many rifles do you have?’ I answered five. And he said, ‘I have two. That makes seven. Now we can win the war.'” — Raul Castro, quoted in the 2009 book This is Fidel, by Luis Baez.
“I began the revolution with 82 men. If I had to do it again, I would do it with 10 or 15 and absolute faith. It does not matter how small you are if you have faith and a plan of action.” — Castro in 1959.
“I’m not thinking of cutting my beard, because I’m accustomed to my beard and my beard means many things to my country. When we fulfill our promise of good government I will cut my beard.” — Castro in a 1959 interview with CBS’s Edward Murrow, 30 days after the revolution.
“A revolution is not a bed of roses. A revolution is a struggle between the future and the past.” — Castro in 1959.
“Whatever we may think of him, he is going to be a great factor in the development of Cuba and very possibly in Latin American affairs generally. He seems to be sincere. He is either incredibly naive about communism or under communist discipline — my guess is the former, and as I have already implied his ideas as to how to run a government or an economy are less developed than those of almost any figure I have met in 50 countries.” — Richard Nixon, who was then the US vice president, in a memorandum following a three-hour meeting with Castro on April 19, 1959.
“Castro is not just another Latin American dictator, a petty tyrant bent merely on personal power and gain. His ambitions extend far beyond his own shores.” — Former US President John F. Kennedy, from The Quotable Mr. Kennedy, edited by Gerald C. Gardner, 1962.
“I never saw a contradiction between the ideas that sustain me and the ideas of that symbol, of that extraordinary figure.” — Castro on Jesus Christ in 1985.
“I remember Herbert Matthews’ reports on Castro before he came to power, calling him a democrat and the hope of Cuba. And to some of you who are really too young to remember this, even people around our country were calling him the George Washington of Cuba, and George rolled over in his grave.” — Former US President Ronald Reagan, on March 5, 1986.
“Just imagine what would happen in the world if the socialist community were to disappear … if this were possible and I don’t believe it is possible.” — Castro in 1989.
“A man of great charisma. He’s brave, Fidel Castro. A politician, with an iron fist. He stays strong. He put his close friend in front of the firing squad. I would have given him a life sentence or expelled him from the country, but he had him shot.” — Former Chilean military dictator General Augusto Pinochet, regarding Castro’s treatment of General Arnaldo Ochoa, executed for treason in July 1989.
“We do not know anything about this. We, gentlemen, to tell the truth, do not even know what to charge.” — Castro in 1990 on the development of international tourism In Cuba.
“We have to stick to the facts and, simply put, the socialist camp has collapsed.” — Castro in 1991.
“From its earliest days, the Cuban revolution has been a source of inspiration for all those who value freedom. We admire the sacrifices of the Cuban people in maintaining their independence and sovereignty in the face of the vicious imperialist and orchestrated campaign to destroy the awesome force of the Cuban revolution. Long live the Cuban Revolution! Long live comrade Fidel Castro!” — Former South African President Nelson Mandela, in a July 1991 speech.
“There’s nothing strange about it. I wish I had as many opportunities to welcome personalities as important as this one.” — Castro in 1994, explaining the reception, usually reserved for heads of state, given to Hugo Chavez upon his arrival in Havana a few months after he was released from prison for leading a failed 1992 coup. Five years later, Chavez was elected president of Venezuela and became Castro’s closest ally.
“Fidel Castro had Americans murdered illegally, and that was wrong, too. And I’m proud that we have a blockade against people who kill innocent Americans.” — Former US President Bill Clinton, in 1996, after Cuba killed four US citizens when it shot down two civilian planes belonging to a Cuban-American group that had agitated against the Castro government and had repeatedly flown into Cuban air space.
“He would tell us to place a canon here, move a tank over there. Where to attack, how to do it, with how many men, et cetera. He had it all at his fingertips. And most of the time he was right.” — Defense Minister Leopoldo Cintra Frias, regarding Fidel’s instructions in the Angola war, in Havana, 1996.
“These changes (the opening to international tourism, foreign investment, some small business and family remittances) have their social cost, because we lived in a glass case, pure asepsis, and now we are surrounded by viruses, bacteria to the point of distraction and the egoism created by the capitalist system of production.” — Castro in 1998.
“One of the greatest benefits of the revolution is that even our prostitutes are college graduates.” — Castro to director Oliver Stone in 2003 documentary Comandante.
“I realized that my true destiny would be the war that I was going to have with the United States.” — Castro’s opening quote in “Looking for Fidel,” Stone’s second documentary on the Cuban leader from 2004.
“Here is a conclusion I’ve come to after many years: among all the errors we may have committed, the greatest of them all was that we believed that someone … actually knew how to build socialism. … Whenever they said. ‘That’s the formula,’ we thought they knew. Just as if someone is a physician.” Castro in 2005.
“I’m really happy to reach 80. I never expected it, not least having a neighbor, the greatest power in the world, trying to kill me every day,” Castro said on July 21, 2006 while attending a summit of Latin American presidents in Argentina.
“At a time when almost the entire communist world marches towards democracy, Fidel Castro has gone against public opinion and refuses to accept any kind of change or anything that suggests perestroika or democracy … A profound philosopher, he has made it clear that material things are transient, to such a degree that there are virtually no material things in Cuba.” — Cuban dissident writer Reinaldo Arenas, in an essay written before his death in 1990 and published by Spanish newspaper El Pais in 2006.
“Fidel, for me, is a grand master. A wise man should never die; a man like Fidel will never die, because he will always be part of the people.” — Former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, in a January 2007 speech.
“Fidel Castro is there to win. His attitude in the face of defeat, even in the most minimal actions of everyday life, would seem to obey a private logic: he does not even admit it, and does not have a minute’s peace until he succeeds in inverting the terms and converting it into victory.” — Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez, writing in Granma on the eve of Castro’s 80th birthday.
“I will neither aspire to nor accept … the positions of President of the State Council and Commander in Chief … It would be a betrayal of my conscience to accept a responsibility requiring more mobility and dedication than I am physically able to offer.” Castro, in February 2008, announcing his resignation as president.
“We are not a developed capitalist country in crisis, whose leaders are going crazy looking for solutions amidst depression, inflation, a lack of markets and unemployment; we are and we must be socialists.” — Castro writing in one of his “reflections,” or newspaper columns in 2008.
“The Cuban model doesn’t even work for us anymore.” — Castro in 2010 during an interview with US journalist Jeffrey Goldberg. Castro later said his comment was taken out of context.
“The best thing that Fidel Castro left us is the lesson that we don’t want any more Fidel Castros in Cuba. The lesson is that a man like that ends up absorbing the whole nation, ends up seeing himself as the embodiment of the homeland, and ends up simply taking away our nationality. The lesson of Fidel Castro is no more Fidel Castros. Some people admire him, but they admire him for what they think he was, not for who he really was. Staying in power that long is no merit.” — Dissident blogger Yoani Sanchez, to Reuters in May 2014.