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 largescale 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.
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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.