With a shaking voice, his younger brother, Cuban President Raul Castro, announced on state television that his brother died at 10:29 pm on Friday night.
The bearded revolutionary died eight years after ill health forced him to formally hand power over to Raul.
Fidel Castro held onto power as 11 US presidents took office and each after the other sought to pressure his regime over the decades following his 1959 revolution, which closed a long era of Washington`s dominance over Cuba dating to the 1989 Spanish-American War.
For decades, he served as an inspiration and source of support to revolutionaries from Latin America to Africa. He is famed for his rumpled olive fatigues, straggly beard and the cigars he reluctantly gave up for health reasons.
Born August 13, 1926 in eastern Cuba’s sugar country to a prosperous Spanish immigrant landowner and a Cuban mother who was the family housekeeper, young Fidel Castro Ruz was a quick study and a baseball fanatic who dreamed of a golden future playing in the US big leagues.
Castro attended Jesuit schools, then the University of Havana, where he received law and social science degrees.
His life as a rebel began in 1953 with a reckless attack on the Moncada military barracks in the eastern city of Santiago. Most of his comrades were killed and Fidel and his brother Raul went to prison.
Fidel turned his trial defence into a manifesto that he smuggled out of jail, famously declaring, “History will absolve me.”
Freed under a pardon, Castro fled to Mexico and organised a rebel band that returned in 1956, sailing across the Gulf of Mexico to Cuba on a yacht named Granma. After losing most of his group in a bungled landing, he rallied support in Cuba’s eastern Sierra Maestra mountains.
Three years later, tens of thousands spilled into the streets of Havana to celebrate dictator Fulgencio Batista’s downfall and catch a glimpse of Castro as his rebel caravan arrived in the capital on January 8, 1959. At age 32, Castro was the youngest leader in Latin America.
The US was among the first to formally recognise his government, cautiously trusting Castro’s early assurances he merely wanted to restore democracy, not install socialism.
Within months, Castro was imposing radical economic reforms. Members of the old government went before summary courts, and at least 582 were shot by firing squads over two years. Independent newspapers were closed and in the early years, homosexuals were herded into camps for “re-education.”
In 1964, Castro acknowledged holding 15,000 political prisoners. Hundreds of thousands of Cubans fled, including Castro’s daughter Alina Fernandez Revuelta and his younger sister Juana.
Still, the revolution thrilled millions in Cuba and across Latin America who saw it as an example of how the seemingly arrogant Yankees could be defied. And many on the island were happy to see the seizure of property of the landed class, the expulsion of American gangsters and the closure of their casinos.
Castro’s speeches, lasting up to six hours, became the soundtrack of Cuban life and his 269-minute speech to the UN General Assembly in 1960 set the world body’s record for length that still stood more than five decades later.
As Castro moved into the Soviet bloc, Washington began working to oust him, cutting US purchases of sugar, the island’s economic mainstay. Castro, in turn, confiscated USD 1 billion in US assets.
The American government imposed a trade embargo, banning virtually all US exports to the island except for food and medicine, and it severed diplomatic ties on January 3, 1961.
On April 16 of that year, Castro declared his revolution to be socialist, and the next day, about 1,400 Cuban exiles stormed the beach at the Bay of Pigs on Cuba’s south coast. But the CIA-backed invasion failed.
The debacle forced the US to give up on the idea of invading Cuba, but that didn’t stop Washington and Castro’s exiled enemies from trying to do him in. A great survivor and a firebrand, if windy orator, Castro dodged all his enemies could throw at him in nearly half a century in power. By Cuban count, he was the target of more than 630 assassination plots by militant Cuban exiles or the US government.
The biggest crisis of the Cold War between Washington and Moscow exploded on October 22, 1962, when President John F Kennedy announced there were Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba and imposed a naval blockade of the island.
Humankind held its breath, and after a tense week of diplomacy, Soviet leader Nikita Krushchev removed them. Never had the world felt so close to nuclear war.
Castro cobbled revolutionary groups together into the new Cuban Communist Party, with him as first secretary. Labor unions lost the right to strike. The Catholic Church and other religious institutions were harassed. Neighborhood “revolutionary defence committees” kept an eye on everyone.
Castro exported revolution to Latin American countries in the 1960s, and dispatched 15,000 Cuban soldiers to help Soviet-backed troops in Angola in 1975 and dispatched forces to Ethiopia in 1977. Over the decades, he sent Cuban doctors abroad to tend to the poor, and gave sanctuary to fugitive Black Panther leaders from the US.
But the collapse of the Soviet bloc ended billions in preferential trade and subsidies for Cuba, sending its economy into a tailspin. Castro briefly experimented with an opening to foreign capitalists and limited private enterprise.
As the end of the Cold War eased global tensions, many Latin American and European countries re-established relations with Cuba. In January 1998, Pope John Paul II visited a nation that had been officially atheist until the early 1990s.
Aided by a tourism boom, the economy slowly recovered and Castro steadily reasserted government control, stifling much of the limited free enterprise tolerated during harder times.
As flamboyant as he was in public, Castro tried to lead a discreet private life. In 1948, he married Mirta Diaz-Balart, who gave birth to their first son, Fidelito. The couple later divorced. In 1952, Castro met Naty Revuelta, a socialite married to a doctor, and they had a daughter, Alina, in 1956. He met Celia Sanchez, said to have been his main life partner, in 1957 and remained with her until her death in 1980. In the 1980s, Castro reportedly married Dalia Soto del Valle, with whom he had five children: Angel, Antonio, Alejandro, Alexis and Alex.
A gastrointestinal ailment forced Fidel Castro to hand over the presidency to brother Raul Castro in 2008, provisionally at first and then permanently.
By the time Castro resigned 49 years after his triumphant arrival in Havana, he was the world’s longest ruling head of government, aside from monarchs.
In retirement, Castro voiced unwavering support as Raul slowly but deliberately enacted sweeping changes to the Marxist system he had built.
His longevity allowed the younger brother to consolidate control, perhaps lengthening the revolution well past both men’s lives. In February 2013, Raul announced that he would retire as president in 2018 and named newly minted Vice President Miguel Diaz-Canel as his successor.
Fidel Castro survived long enough to see Raul Castro negotiate an opening with US President Barack Obama on December 17, 2014, when Washington and Havana announced they would move to restore diplomatic ties for the first time since they were severed in 1961.
“I’ll be 90 years old soon,” Castro said at an April 2016 communist party congress where he made his most extensive public appearance in years. “Soon I’ll be like all the others.
The time will come for all of us, but the ideas of the Cuban Communists will remain as proof that on this planet, if one works with fervor and dignity, they can produce the material and cultural goods that human beings need and that need to be fought for without ever giving up.”