Political Leaders

Fidel Castro: The life of a revolutionary

Fidel Castro: The life of a revolutionary

Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz (born August 13, 1926) is a communist Cuba politician. This photo is circa 1954.
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Fidel Castro, the iconic cigar-chomping communist who seized power in Cuba in 1959, survived a CIA-sponsored invasion and ruled with a repressive hand for five decades until poor health forced him out in 2008, died Friday. He was 90.

A bitter enemy of Washington, Castro remained silent after his successor, brother Raul, and President Barack Obama agreed in December 2014 to restore diplomatic and economic ties that had been severed for half a century. Finally, six weeks after the announcement, Fidel gave a lukewarm endorsement of the rapprochement.

"I don't trust the policy of the United States nor have I had an exchange with them, but this does not mean ... a rejection of a peaceful solution to conflicts or the dangers of war," he said in a statement published on the website of Cuba's Communist Party newspaper Granma. Full diplomatic relations were restored on July 20, 2015, the U.S. Embassy in Havana reopened a month later and in March 2016, Obama became the first U.S. president to visit to Cuba since Calvin Coolidge made the trip 88 years earlier.

Born out of wedlock, Castro was the son of Angel Castro, a wealthy sugar plantation owner. Fidel was born five years before Raul. Their mother, Lina Ruz Gonzalez, was the maid to Angel's first wife. Angel and Lina eventually married.

In 1945, Fidel entered the University of Havana law school and became involved in nationalistic and anti-imperialist politics. On July 26, 1953, he tried to overthrow the government of President Fulgencio Batista by leading an attack on the Moncada military barracks. The plot failed, and he was captured and eventually sentenced to 15 years in prison.

Castro was released in 1955 as part of an amnesty deal with the government. He went to Mexico, where he met Argentine revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara, plotting to wage a guerrilla campaign against the dictatorial Batista. On Dec. 2, 1956, Castro led another attack, near the eastern city of Manzanillo. It also failed, but the Castro brothers escaped and fled to the mountains. They were able to build support and eventually capture important parts of the country.

Batista's government collapsed on Jan. 1, 1959, and the dictator sought exile in the Dominican Republic. Castro became prime minister a month later, initiating economic reforms including factory nationalizations and land reform that targeted wealthy property owners.

Most of the rest of his life was synonymous with his country's history. Click ahead to see some of the important moments.

—By CNBC's Marty Steinberg

'The Old Man and the Sea'

American author Ernest Hemingway (1899 - 1961) (left) in conversation with Cuban Premier Fidel Castro, Cuba, late 1959. In 1960 Hemingway was forced out of his home in Cuba due to the escalating tensions surrounding the Castro regime and moved to Idaho.
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In the 1940s and '50s, Ernest Hemingway lived in Cuba. It's where he wrote seven books, including his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel "The Old Man and the Sea." As Washington and Havana drifted apart a year after this 1959 photo, Hemingway abandoned Cuba due to escalating tensions with the regime over American ownership of property. He moved to Idaho, committing suicide there in 1961.

Tilting East

A jovial greeting takes place between Cuba's Prime MInister Fidel Castro and Soviet Union's Premier Nikita Khrushchev when they met at the United Nations today, New York, New York, September 20, 1960.
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Castro pushed the country further to the left, signing an agrarian reform law that banned foreign ownership of land and limited the size of land holdings. In the midst of the Cold War, Castro looked East, establishing relations with the Soviet Union and signing a trade agreement with Moscow for oil. After U.S. oil companies in Cuba refused to refine the oil, Castro expropriated their Cuban operations. Washington responded by slapping an embargo on Cuban sugar.

During a September 1960 visit to the United Nations, Castro stayed at a hotel in Harlem, met with Malcolm X and other American radicals. In this photo, Castro and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev embraced each other at the U.N. on Sept. 20, 1960.

Fidel and Che

Photo taken in the 60's of then Cuban Prime Minister Fidel Castro(R) during a meeting next to Argentine guerrilla leader Ernesto Che Guevara.
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Castro and Guevara share a laugh in this photo, circa 1960.

Bay of Pigs

Bay of Pigs, April 24, 1961. Anti-aircraft unit of the Cuban militia defending the Havana shore.
Sovfoto | UIG | Getty Images

In one of his last acts as president, Dwight Eisenhower broke off diplomatic relations with Havana in January 1961. Three months later, on April 16, Castro declared Cuba a socialist state.

A day later, the island nation 90 miles off Florida came under yet another seaborne attack, this time by hundreds of Cuban exiles trying to land in the swampy south through the Bay of Pigs. Plans for the U.S.-backed invasion were hatched during the Eisenhower administration, and President John F. Kennedy authorized it only weeks after inauguration.

Two nights before the planned landing, eight B-26 bombers missed their targets on the Cuban air force, and on landing day, the exile force was overwhelmed by Castro's army. Nearly all 1,400 CIA-backed invaders surrendered or were killed. Months later, Castro declared himself a Marxist-Leninist and announced the government was adopting communist policies. The Kennedy administration imposed a full economic embargo on Cuba in early 1962.

In this April 24, 1961, photo, an anti-aircraft unit of the Cuban militia defends the Havana shore.

To the brink...and beyond

Prime Minister Fidel CASTRO giving a radio and televised speech during wh
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In October 1962, a U.S. spy plane found evidence that the Soviets were building nuclear missile sites on Cuba. After days of deliberations, Kennedy imposed a naval "quarantine" of Cuba and demanded destruction of the sites. (In this photo, Castro addresses his nation in a radio-television speech on Oct. 22, 1962.)

With the world on the brink of nuclear war, Khrushchev blinked, agreeing to remove the sites in exchange for a U.S. pledge not to invade Cuba. Washington also secretly agreed to remove nuclear missiles from Turkey, near the Soviet Union.

The Cuban missile crisis gave birth to improved relations between Washington and Moscow. In 1963, the original "hotline" was set up between the White House and Kremlin to be used during crises, and the countries signed the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty that summer.

The anti-imperialist leader

Picture dated September 1973 of Cuban leader Fidel Castro (R) looking at a rifle during a visit in North Vietnam during the Vietnam war.
STR | AFP | Getty Images

There was no thaw in U.S.-Cuban relations, however. Castro continued to back anti-Western groups in the Third World, providing military support for pro-Soviet forces in Africa and the Middle East. In this September 1973 photo, Castro inspects a rifle during a visit to North Vietnam.

Mariel boatlift

A boat arrives in Key West, Florida with more Cuban refugees April, 1980 from Mariel Harbor after crossing the Florida Straits.
Tim Chapman | Miami Herald | Getty Images

Back home, Cuba's economy continued to suffer under the strain of the U.S. embargo. Cubans also lost civil liberties and the right to dissent as newspapers came under Castro's control. After thousands of Cubans sought asylum in the Peruvian Embassy, the government announced that anyone who wanted to leave Cuba could do so. During the subsequent Mariel boatlift from April to October 1980, up to 125,000 Cubans flooded into Florida, including a sizable number of criminals and mental patients.

In this photo, a boat arrives in Key West, Florida, in April 1980 with Cuban refugees from Mariel harbor.

Fidel the orator

Fidel castro, first secretary of the communist party of cuba, speaks to delegates at the 27th congress of the CPSU, in Moscow, USSR, 1986.
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Castro was known for his speeches: Five-hour orations were not uncommon. This photo shows Castro addressing delegates to the 27th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1986. After a speech on Oct. 20, 2004, the then-78-year-old leader accidentally fell down, shattering his left kneecap, breaking his right arm.

After he left office in 2008, Castro wrote occasional columns for the Cuban media. Some of his "Reflections from Comrade Fidel" were as short as 51 words, The Associated Press reported in 2012.

Fidel's fatigues

Fidel Castro, Cuban statesman. Havana (Cuba), in June, 1988.
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Although Castro was the civilian leader, he loved to dress in his trademark green military uniform, as he did in this 1988 photo in Havana. By now, he had given up cigars. In later life, he often wore a blue and white running jacket in his public appearances.

Made in the shade

Cuban president Fidel Castro tries on a pair of sunglasses as he talks to the media 16 November 1999 in Havana, during the IX Iberoamerican Summit. The Summit is the biggest international gathering hosted by Cuba since 1979.
Chrisophe Simon | AFP | Getty Images

Castro tries on a pair of sunglasses as he talks to the media during the November 1999 IX Ibero-American Summit in Havana. The leaders of 21 countries attended what was the largest international gathering hosted by Cuba in 20 years.

Castro and Catholicism

Pope John Paul II shakes hands with Cuban President Fidel Castro 21 January after Castro gave his welcoming speech at Jose Marti International Airport. During the flight to Cuba, the Pope told the press travelling with him that he would urge the United States to lift the 36-year-old embargo on Cuba. 'I will tell them: change, change,' he said.
Michel Gangne | AFP | Getty Images

Castro was baptized and educated by Jesuits, but after the Cuban communist leader cracked down on the Roman Catholic Church, Pope John XXIII excommunicated him in 1962. In 1969, the Communist Party abolished Christmas Day as a public holiday. Within three decades, Castro relaxed the suppression of the church, and in 1996 he visited with Pope John Paul II at the Vatican. Two years later, John Paul became the first pontiff to visit Cuba.

In this photo, Castro welcomes Pope John Paul II at Jose Marti International Airport on Jan. 21, 1998. During the flight to Cuba, the pope told the reporters traveling with him that he would urge the United States to lift the 36-year-old embargo on Cuba. "I will tell them: change, change," he said. Sixteen years later, Pope Francis helped broker the deal to normalize relations between Washington and Havana.

Francis & Fidel

Alex Castro | AP

Pope Francis visited with the then-89-year-old Castro during the pontiff's visit to Cuba in September 2015. A Vatican official said the pope gave Castro copies of his two encyclicals and two books written by priests. Castro in turn gave Francis a book titled "Fidel and Religion," according to NBC News.

All in the family

Raul Castro and his brother Cuba Head of State and Party Fidel Castro (R) attend the 100 Anniversary celebrations for the death of Cuban hero Antonio Maceo in this undated photograph in Cacajual, Havana, Cuba.
Sven Creutzmann | Mamba Photography | Getty Images

The aging Castro faced up to his mortality as his health declined. In accepting a sixth term as president in March 2003, he said: "I promise that I will be with you, if you so wish, for as long as I feel that I can be useful — and if it is not decided by nature before. Not a minute less and not a second more." On July 31, 2006, he temporarily handed power to his brother Raul (left) after undergoing an operation for gastrointestinal bleeding.

Fidel's exit

Cuban former President Fidel Castro gives a speech, on September 03, 2010, at Havana's University. Castro talked to the students about the possibility of a nuclear war.
Adalberto Roque | AFP | Getty Images

Two years later, on Feb. 19, 2008, the 81-year-old Fidel resigned from the presidency after 49 years in power.

"My wishes have always been to discharge my duties to my last breath," Castro wrote in his resignation letter. "To my dearest compatriots, who have recently honored me so much by electing me a member of the Parliament where so many agreements should be adopted of utmost importance to the destiny of our Revolution, I am saying that I will neither aspire to nor accept, I repeat, I will neither aspire to nor accept the positions of president of the state council and commander in chief."

Fidel's farewell

Fidel Castro attends the last day of the 7th Cuban Communist Party Congress in Havana, Cuba, Tuesday, April 19, 2016.
Ismael Francisco | Cubadebate | AP

During his visit to Cuba, Obama did not meet with the former Cuban president. A month later, Castro bade farewell to his comrades at the Communist Party congress, which takes place every five years.

"I'll be 90 years old soon. ... This may be one of the last times I speak in this room," Castro told the congress. "We must tell our brothers in Latin America and the world that the Cuban people will be victorious."