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Fidel Castro is Longest Serving Leader in Western Hemisphere

Fidel Castro has retired as Cuba's president, ending his 49-year rule of the Caribbean nation. After taking power in a coup in 1959, Mr. Castro built a Communist government that survived a U.S.-backed invasion, a Cold War-era missile crisis and more than 40 years of economic sanctions by Washington. VOA's Brian Wagner reports some people see him as a revolutionary hero, and by others as a cruel dictator.

Born on a sugar plantation in eastern Cuba on August 13, 1926, Fidel Castro Ruz was the son of a Spanish immigrant landholder and a household servant. After attending Jesuit schools, he graduated from the University of Havana with a law degree and became active in politics. Mr. Castro quickly gained attention through his rousing speeches. He emerged as a key leader in the growing movement against dictator Fulgencio Batista.

In the early 1950's, Mr. Castro and his brother, Raul, began organizing a militant group to oppose the Batista government. The group launched the failed take-over of a military base in 1953, and Mr. Castro was captured, tried and sentenced to prison. Two years later, the Cuban government issued an amnesty, freeing him and many others. The young revolutionary fled to Mexico where he met Argentine Marxist, Ernesto Che Guevara, and plotted a new attack on the Cuban government.

Victory over Batista's forces finally came in January, 1959, and his triumphant guerrillas marched into Havana. Many of the fighters were bearded and wearing green fatigues - a style that would come to define Mr. Castro's appearance.

Many Cubans welcomed the fall of the Batista government. And, Mr. Castro promised the new government would strive to serve the island's people.

"What I have said is that I have no ambition at all. I feel myself sincerely, I don't have ambition for power, money, nothing, only to serve my country," Castro said.

But concern spread when his government began organizing collective farms and nationalizing banks and industries, including more than $1 billion worth of American-owned property. Political liberties were suspended and government critics jailed. Frank Calzon, a Cuban pro-democracy activist, says many of Mr. Castro's one-time supporters became disillusioned and fled the island.

"He is a man who made a lot of promises to the Cuban people," Calzon said. "Cubans were going to have freedom. They were going to have honest government. They were going to have a return to the constitution. Instead, what he gave them was a Stalinist type of government."

Mr. Castro also fostered a close alliance with the Soviet Union -- a move that alienated the United States. Washington imposed a trade embargo against Cuba in 1960 and broke off diplomatic relations some months later.

In April of that year, the United States armed and directed a poorly planned invasion by Cuban exiles, which was easily defeated at the Bay of Pigs. One year later, Cuba was at the center of a confrontation between Washington and Moscow over the placement of Soviet nuclear missiles on the island. A nuclear war was narrowly averted.

With Soviet help, Mr. Castro lent military troops and political backing to help spread Communism in Africa and Latin America. Former U.S. diplomat and Cuba expert Wayne Smith says Mr. Castro's actions turned Cuba into an international player.

"I think he will be remembered as the leader who put Cuba on the world map. Before Castro, Cuba was considered something of a banana republic. It did not count for anything in world politics. Castro certainly changed all that and, suddenly, Cuba was playing a major role on the world stage, in Africa as an ally of the Soviet Union, in Asia, and certainly in Latin America," Smith said.

At the same time, Mr. Castro imposed social reforms that produced high literacy rates and low mortality rates, rivaling those in many developed nations. These programs succeeded, in large part, because of financial support from Moscow, totaling $6 billion a year in the early 1990's.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, in the early 1990's, and the end of subsidies, Cuba faced a serious financial crisis. The government was forced to enact some reforms, such as legalizing the use of the U.S. dollar. But Mr. Castro resisted further changes to his Communist system and often blamed the U.S. trade embargo for the nation's economic problems. At the 2006 anniversary of his military take-over, Mr. Castro vowed to keep fighting what he called American imperialism.

"I will fight my whole life, until the last moment, he said, to do something good, something useful. He said we have all learned to improve ourselves each year, all of us revolutionaries," he said.

In his later years, Mr. Castro became the role model to a new generation of leftist leaders in Latin America. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez built an alliance with the Cuban leader and offered economic assistance to help bolster the government in Havana. Mr. Chavez also made several trips to visit the ailing leader, after Mr. Castro underwent stomach surgery in 2006.

Because of the operation, Mr. Castro handed power to his brother, Raul and has disappeared from the public scene, ever since. Still, Cuba expert Wayne Smith says his influence in the region will endure.

"He survived for almost 50 years, through great cataclysmic changes in the world: the collapse of his principal supporter and patron, the Soviet Union....Survived all that, came through it, and, at the end of his days, was playing a role in Latin America, probably a more significant role than he had played in years and years. Incredible," said Smith.

Few world leaders have served as long as Mr. Castro. But like other revolutionary leaders, his memory is sure to generate conflict for years to come, says Thomas Paterson of the University of Connecticut.

"I think he will be remembered much as Mao Tse Tung is remembered in China as one who overthrew a corrupt, dictatorial system, who embodied the identity of his nation, who pushed out foreigners," Paterson said. "At the same time, as is the case of the Chinese critique of Mao today, there will be a criticism of him as authoritarian, repressive and having imposed incredible sacrifices on the Cuban people."

Tyrant or revolutionary hero, Fidel Castro remains at the center of the world's media spotlight - an object of fascination for some and repudiation for others.