Fidel Castro was not destined for a life of leftist politics and revolution.
The long time Cuban leader, whose death was announced today by Vice President Nicolás Maduro, had an upbringing that looked more like that of a businessman or a conservative politician.
Castro was born in a sugar cane estate in Biran, Cuba in 1926. His Father Angel Castro, was an immigrant from Spain who had accumulated considerable wealth, but also insisted that the young Fidel spend time with the farm's labor force.
However Fidel was sent away to the city of Santiago at age six to begin his education. He was educated at the best Catholic schools in Cuba, and as a teenager devoted much of his time to sports.
Castro began to get involved in politics as a law student at the University of Havana, where he got involved in groups like the leftist, Orthodox Party. He ran for Cuba's house of representatives in 1952. But before elections took place, former president Fulgencio Batista staged a coup, took power and cancelled the elections, frustrating Castro's political aspirations.
Castro filed several lawsuits against Batista, alledging that the new president had violated Cuba's constitution. While he did this, he also founded a new political movement and planned an attack on the Moncada military barracks near the town of Santiago. The attack was staged on July 20th 1952, its objective was to steal weapons from the barracks, and distribute them to peasants, who would start a revolution in the south of Cuba.
The attack failed and Castro was eventually arrested along with dozens of his colleagues. He was put in trial for treason, and chose to carry out his own defense, in which he claimed that his attack had been inspired on the actions of Cuban independence hero Jose Marti.
"History will absolve me," Castro told prosecutors, who condemned him to 15 year in jail. In less than two years Castro was released as part of an amnesty awarded to dissidents by the Batista government.
He settled in Mexico in 1955, where he began to plan an invasion of Cuba, along with his brother Raul, and Argentine revolutionary Ernesto 'Che' Guevara.
Castro sailed back to Cuba in December of 1956, with 80 men under his command. He landed in Cuba's Oriente province and launched a guerrilla war that slowly began to liberate the island from the grip of the Batista regime. Castro and his guerrillas entered Havana on January 1st 1959, where they were welcomed by the local residents.
The United States immediately recognized the new government. But the honeymoon between both countries was rather brief. Castro began to nationalize U.S. firms on the island, and re-established diplomatic relationships with the Soviet Union. The U.S. cut off diplomatic ties with Cuba in 1960, and attempted to provoke regime change on the island by sponsoring an invasion of Cuban exiles, who landed at the Bay of Pigs on April 17th 1961.
But Castro's forces easily defeated the invaders, handing Cuba's new leader a political boost. Later that year, Castro proclaimed that he "had always been" a socialist, and he sealed his alliance with the Soviet Union, allowing it to build a military base on the island, which was meant to hold nuclear missiles.
This decision led to the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, during which the United States staged a naval blockade of the Island. The crisis ended when the Soviet Union cancelled plans to place missiles on Cuban soil, and in exchange secured a promise from the U.S. to not invade the island.
In the following years Castro consolidated his power over Cuba, defeating local guerilla groups who opposed his revolution. He established alliances with regional leaders, and backed communist guerrilla movements in Africa and Latin America, that had varying degrees of success.
The lack of political freedoms in Cuba, and economic problems on the island forced thousands to emigrate nevertheless. In 1980, ten thousand Cubans sought refuge at the Peruvian embassy in Havana. Castro opened the port of Mariel to boats wanting to leave the island, and in less than four months more than 125 thousand people left through that port on ships headed to Florida.
The economic situation on the island became even more difficult in the early 90s following the collapse of the Soviet Union. The socialist country had supplied Cuba with oil at prices below the world market price, and bought most of the island's agricultural products.
The dissolution of the socialist block forced Castro to seek new trading partners and moderate his politics. He gave up support for insurgent groups in Latin America, and invited global leaders of all political tendencies to visit him in Cuba. He allowed foreign firms to develop Cuba's tourism sector, and allowed Cubans living abroad, to send cash to their relatives on the island.
The Castro regime received a new lifeline in 1998, when Hugo Chavez was elected President of Venezuela. Chavez, a fellow socialist who has also nationalized several industries, struck a deal with Castro in 2000, through which Venezuela sent cheap oil to Cuba, in exchange for Cuban doctors who would staff social programs in the South American country. The deal helped the Cuban economy to recover from a long period of decline. As the economy recovered Castro also struck his enemies at home. In March and April of 2003, his government detained 75 dissidents, who were accused of being U.S. agents. The group included more than 20 journalists, as well as members of the influential Christian Liberation Movement. They were released over a period of five years, due to pressure from the international community.
In those years Castro's health also became more frail, and in 2006 he was forced to retire from power, after he suffered a serious intestinal hemorrhage. His brother, Raul, was appointed President of Cuba, in February 2008, by the country's 31-member Council of State.
Despite having retired from power, Fidel Castro continued to be a strong reference point for leftist leaders in Latin America, who lauded his lifelong struggle against imperialism, and visited him in his Havana home. Castro spent the last years of his life mostly away from the public eye. But he occasionally appeared in pictures with regional leaders, wearing a blue tracksuit, and wrote feisty columns on world affairs in Granma, Cuba's state-run newspaper.
The revolutionary leader leaves a mixed legacy. He is praised by leftist leaders in Latin America for standing up to U.S. imperialism, and for improving health services and education for poor Cubans.
But he is despised by many Cubans who were forced to leave the island due to political repression and economic difficulties. His tight control over the Cuban economy, and lack of tolerance for free speech, means that the island has developed in a very different way from Latin American countries that have shifted towards democratic governments and free market economies over the past three decades.
Fidel Castro is survived by at least eight children and two former wives. One of his Chidlren, Alina Fernandez, fled to Miami in 1993, disguised as a Spanish tourist.