Critics saw in him a stubborn bully who violated human rights, jailed his critics, banned opposition parties and wrecked Cuba's economy. Admirers saw a visionary who stood up to U.S. domination of Latin America, brought healthcare and education to the poor, and inspired socialist movements across the world.

Fidel Castro was a man who divided opinion since he came to power in Cuba in 1959 and was iconic for his decades-long defiance of the United States. 

Here's a quick guide to the Cuban president who will remain iconic long after his passing: 

  • Born on August 13, 1926, Castro grew up as a privileged son on his father's plantation in the eastern village of Biran, where his playmates were children of impoverished workers living in thatched huts with dirt floors. He said the economic injustice he witnessed there inspired a life-long sympathy for the poor.
  • He attended the Jesuit-run Belen School in the capital and then studied law at the University of Havana, plunging into the violent politics of the time and starting his drift leftward. Long-winded, intolerant and – unusually for a Cuban - awkward on the dance floor, he was not embraced by his fellow students at first but eventually emerged as a leader.
  • He took part in an aborted 1947 plan to overthrow Dominican Republic dictator Rafael Leonidas Trujillo and was at a youth conference in Colombia when riots broke out and some 2,000 people died.
Castro (left) with Che Guevara | Source: Reuters 

 

  • After law school, he decided to run for Congress in 1952. When Batista staged a coup and halted the elections, Castro began plotting armed rebellion.
  • From an early age, he admired history's boldest figures, particularly Alexander the Great, and believed he and his rebels were part of that tradition.
  • In 1953, he led a raid on the Moncada barracks in the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba. Dozens of followers died and he, Raul Castro and others were captured and imprisoned. "History will absolve me," he declared at his trial.
Fidel Castro (extreme left) with Raul Castro (extreme right) | Source: AFP

 

  • Pardoned in 1955, he went into exile in Mexico where he met Argentine revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara. Together with Raul, they trained a rebel band that in 1956 returned to Cuba aboard an overcrowded yacht called Granma.
  • Ambushed at landing by government troops, only 12 of the 82 rebels on board made it to the rugged Sierra Maestra mountains.
  • In 1959, Castro toppled the unpopular U.S.-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista by uniting a disparate opposition and outsmarting a bigger, better-equipped Cuban military.

 

  • In April 1961, when his military crushed a CIA-backed invasion by Cuban exiles at the Bay of Pigs, he declared Cuba socialist and allied himself with the Soviet Union.
  • Moscow put nuclear missiles on the island in 1962, touching off a 13-day superpower showdown between US and the USSR, known as the Cuban missile crisis.
  • In a cable to Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, Castro seemed convinced the Americans would invade Cuba and suggested the Soviets "eliminate this danger" with an act of "legitimate self defense."
  • Khrushchev felt Castro was advocating a pre-emptive nuclear strike and rejected it, telling him he was satisfied with US President John F. Kennedy's pledge not to invade. The Soviets withdrew the missiles and Washington secretly agreed to remove its nuclear missiles from Turkey, ending the crisis.
Fidel Castro (L) is shown in file photo dated May 1963 holding the hand of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev | Source: AFP

 

  • The CIA admitted trying to kill Castro in the early years of his rule. Plots or plot ideas included trying to get Castro to smoke a poisoned cigar and taking advantage of his love of diving with an exploding seashell, or poisoning a diving suit.
  • Castro helped Marxist guerrillas and revolutionary governments around the world, sending troops to Angola in the 1970s to support a left-wing government over the initial objections of Moscow.Cuba helped defeat South African insurgents in Angola and win Namibia's independence from South Africa in 1990, adding pressure on the apartheid regime.
  • After Nelson Mandela was freed from prison in 1990, he repeatedly thanked Castro. The Cuban leader was also a hero to Sandinista rebels who took power in Nicaragua in 1979.
Fidel Castro (left) with Nelson Mandela | Source: Reuters

 

  • Little was known about Castro's personal life but even among his critics, few accused him of using power for personal gain. His tastes tended toward the ascetic.
  • He was a night owl. He would keep foreign guests waiting until late at night and then summon them for talks. Even his critics would sometimes find themselves oddly charmed by such encounters.
  • He lived in a compound in western Havana and had nine children with five women including five sons with his common-law wife Dalia Soto del Valle, who lived with Castro at the end.

 Fidel Castro's family house in Biran, province of Holguin, 750km east of Havana | Source: AFP

 

  • His eldest son Fidel Castro Diaz-Balart is a Soviet-trained nuclear scientist from the Cuban leader's only acknowledged marriage. Daughter Alina Fernandez, whose mother was a Havana socialite who Castro had an affair with while underground in the 1950s, escaped from Cuba disguised as a tourist in 1993 and is a vocal critic of her father. 
  • "We shall endeavor to be brief," he told the United Nations General Assembly in 1960, then set a record for U.N. speeches by talking for nearly 4-1/2 hours.

 

  • Known by the militaristic title of "El Comandante," in some ways Castro was always replaying the exhilaration of revolt, exhorting Cubans to fight one battle after another, from confronting U.S. hostility to boosting potato production.
  •  Dissent was stifled in a one-party state with no free press, and the state's long arm reached deep into Cuban lives. 
  • He once let the most disgruntled Cubans leave in a chaotic exodus of makeshift boats that forced US President Bill Clinton to agree to more orderly migration.
  • In his final years, Castro wrote opinion columns for Cuba's state media but was rarely seen. His famously long speeches gave way to silence, at least in public, and comfortable track suits replaced the stiff black boots and crisp military attire.

 

 with inputs from Reuters