Vatican City, Nov 26, 2016 / 03:30 am (CNA/EWTN News).- In an unexpected televised statement, Fidel Castro’s brother and the current president of Cuba, Raul Castro, announced that the former president and leader of the Communist revolution in Cuba has died at age 90.
Fidel, who ruled the island nation as a one-party state for nearly 50 years before passing the reigns to his brother in 2008 due to health reasons, died Friday night local time in Havana, having been the longest serving non-royal leader of the 20th century. According to his Raul Castro’s statement, Fidel will be cremated Saturday, and his death will be followed by several days of national mourning on the island. Raul ended his address shouting his brother’s revolutionary slogan “towards victory, always!” BBC News reports.
Born in the southeastern Oriente province of Cuba in 1926, Fidel Castro went on to lead a large-scale rebellion in the country that eventually claimed victory, resulting in his election as Prime Minister and the adoption of Soviet-style communism throughout the island nation. After serving several years in prison for inciting an unsuccessful rebellion in 1953, Castro was released under amnesty in 1955, and in 1956 began a guerilla war against the government that ultimately led to the ousting of former dictator Fulgencio Batista, and his election as PM, making him the youngest leader in Latin America at the time at age 32.
Castro’s nearly 50 year reign was marked by stormy moments such as the U.S.-backed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 that severed ties between the U.S. and Cuba, and the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 that nearly started a global nuclear war when Castro agreed that USSR forces could deploy nuclear weapons in Cuba. Despite the fact that the majority of the world eventually adopted Western-style democracy and other formerly communist regimes such as China and Vietnam had embraced capitalism, Castro held tight to his commitment to socialism.
Accused of various human rights and religious freedom abuses, Castro was handed a crippling U.S. trade embargo following the Bay of Pigs invasion, and survived several assassination plots. He handed over power to his brother Raul in 2006 due to health reasons, and officially stood down as president in 2008.
However, despite the tensions under Castro’s leadership, his regime always maintained open communication and dialogue with the Vatican, making it the only communist nation with which the Holy See never broke ties. In fact, Fidel Castro met with three Pope’s during his lifetime: St. John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Pope Francis, who played a key role in helping to broker the restoration of diplomatic ties between the U.S. and Cuba.
In 1996, Fidel Castro was received by St. John Paul II in the Vatican, signaling a strengthening in dialogue between the two countries. This encounter eventually paved the way for John Paul II’s historic visit to Cuba in 1998, marking the first time a Pope ever set foot on the island. Benedict XVI followed in his predecessors’ footsteps, traveling to Cuba in 2012 in a move that signaled a new opening on the part of Cuba to the world. Throughout the visit, Raul Castro was frequently at the Pope's side in a show of his desire to update Cuba, and give importance to the visit.
Pope Francis himself followed suit in 2015, shortly after the U.S. and Cuba announced that they would be taking formal steps to restore diplomatic ties.
On Dec. 17, 2014, the U.S. and Cuba announced a prisoner exchange as well as the desire to lift the U.S. embargo on travel and trade. Although the Obama administration had made small changes to existing policy starting in 2009, including Cuban-Americans having a limited freedom to travel between the countries and send money to Cuba, in 2013 secret talks between diplomats began to open up relations, aided by the support of the Vatican.
Pope Francis made a personal phone call to both U.S. president Barack Obama and Cuban president Raul Castro to come to a deal, particularly regarding diplomacy and long-held prisoners. Full diplomatic relations were then officially restored as of midnight July 20, 2015, and embassies were re-opened and flags raised later in the day as an outward sign of the diplomatic thaw.
When he stepped foot in Havana Sept.19, 2015, for a brief visit to Cuba ahead of his trip to the United States, Pope Francis told officials that the recent normalization of relations between the two countries was a sign of hope and victory. “For some months now, we have witnessed an event which fills us with hope: the process of normalizing relations between two peoples following years of estrangement,” he said.
Quoting Cuban hero and tireless fighter for the country’s independence, José Martí, Francis said the restoration of ties “is a sign of the victory of the culture of encounter and dialogue, ‘the system of universal growth’ over ‘the forever-dead system of groups and dynasties.’” He urged political leaders continue down this path and to “develop all its potentialities” as a sign of the service they are called to on behalf of the “peace and well-being of their peoples, of all America, and as an example of reconciliation for the entire world.”
During his visit, Francis met briefly with Fidel Castro to talk about the problems of contemporary society and to exchange books. Raul Castro had visited the Vatican May 10, 2015, just a few months before Pope Francis’ visit, to speak about the Pope’s trip as well as his role in restoring relations between the U.S. and Cuba.
After their meeting, Raul thanked Francis for his active role in helping restore ties between the two nations, and suggested that he return to the Church in the future. “I will start praying again and return to the Church” if the Pope continues what he has been doing, he said.
The president’s admiration and appreciation for Pope Francis was made even clearer when earlier this month, in response to an appeal made by the Pope for governments to grant clemency to prisoners, he released 787 prisoners in Cuba. After celebrating Mass for prisoners in St. Peter’s Basilica Nov. 6, Pope Francis in his Angelus address asked that as part of the Jubilee of Mercy, competent global authorities would consider granting clemency to eligible inmates.
Legally speaking, clemency is a power given to a public official, such as a mayor, governor or the president, to in some way modify or lower the harshness of a punishment or sentence imposed on a prisoner. In response, Castro pardoned 787 inmates including women, young and sick prisoners who had committed minor crimes, but nothing “extremely dangerous” such as murder or rape, a statement on the front page of Granma said.
The statement noted clearly that the Council of State, led by President Raul Castro, issued the pardons “in response to the call by Pope Francis to heads of state in the Holy Year of Mercy.” In choosing the prisoners, the State took into account the crimes committed, the prisoners’ conduct and the time serves so far.