WASHINGTON – In a video message, Cuban President Raul Castro
announced the Nov. 25 death of his 90-year-old brother and longtime Cuban
leader and Communist icon whom many in Latin America know by just one name:
"It is with great sorrow that I come before you to inform
our people, friends of our America and the world, that today, Nov. 25, 2016, at
10:29 p.m., the commander in chief of the Cuban Revolution Fidel Castro Ruz
passed away," said his brother Raul, who took over control of the island
in 2006, after Fidel Castro, became too sick to govern.
Until that year, Fidel Castro had ruled Cuba in some form since
1959, the year he led a revolution that toppled the government of Cuban
dictator Fulgencio Batista. Over the years, he survived attempts to be toppled
by others, including the United States. He gained fame throughout Latin
America, where many saw him as a David-against-Goliath figure each time he
denounced the commercial, "imperialist" interests of the U.S. as
attempts to rob the region of its riches.
But for others Castro was a menace and a dictator,
particularly those whose properties were seized when his regime
nationalized homes and businesses on the island nation without compensation.
Over the decades, he was accused of a range of wrongdoings,
from unjust imprisonment to executions to religious persecution. Others lauded
him and pointed to Cuba as a model for other Latin American countries to
emulate in the areas of education, medicine, and gender and racial equality.
Many also blamed the U.S. embargo against Cuba, not Castro's governance, for
the island's financial woes.
Recognizing the complexity of the different feelings the Cuban
leader evoked in life — and now in death — Archbishop Thomas G. Wenski of
Miami, where many Cuban exiles live, released a brief statement Nov. 26.
"His death provokes many emotions — both in and outside the
island. Nevertheless, beyond all possible emotions, the passing of this figure
should lead us to invoke the patroness of Cuba, the Virgin of Charity, asking
for peace for Cuba and its people," Archbishop Wenski said.
He repeated the words later that day during a Mass "for
peace in Cuba" at the Ermita de la Caridad in Miami, a shrine devoted to
the Virgin of Charity of El Cobre, the patron saint of Cuba, and a place, he said,
built by the sacrifices of Cubans in exile.
"On the eve of this first Sunday of Advent … we have learned
that Fidel Castro has died," Archbishop Wenski said during the homily.
"Each human being, each one of us, will die and we will all be judged one
day. And now it's his turn."
U.S. President Barack Obama, whose administration restored
diplomatic relations with the island in 2015, expressed "a hand of
friendship to the Cuban people" in a statement but also recognized the
range of feelings surrounding the leader's death.
"We know that this moment fills Cubans — in Cuba and in the
United States — with powerful emotions, recalling the countless ways in which
Fidel Castro altered the course of individual lives, families and of the Cuban
nation. History will record and judge the enormous impact of this singular
figure on the people and world around him," he said.
In an interview with Spanish radio COPE, the president of the
Cuban bishops' conference, Archbishop Dionisio Garcia Ibanez of Santiago, said
that each time there's a change of government, there's a change for
a country, but in this case, there hasn't been a change in the presidency.
"The figure of Fidel has been so significant, so
influential, that it will always have an impact on society," he said.
In a telegram in Spanish, Pope Francis extended his condolences
to Raul Castro on the "sad news" of "the death of your dear
brother." The pope, credited with the rapprochement between the U.S. and
Cuba, also expressed condolences to the government and to the Cuban people, and
said he was offering prayers.
Though Raul Castro has publicly expressed admiration for Pope
Francis, the relationship between the Catholic Church and the Cuban government
can be described as a work in progress.
Catholics, like other religious groups in the country, witnessed
the seizing of church properties, including schools, churches and other centers
used for religious gatherings, following the 1959 revolution. Some locales were
closed; others were put to nonreligious uses. Priests and religious suspected
of being against the revolution were jailed or expelled and practice of the
Catholic faith dwindled on the island, particularly when the nation, under
Soviet influence, was for a period an officially atheist country.
In recent years, however, the government allowed physical
reconstruction of church buildings and some properties were returned to the
care of the church. In 2015, the government granted permission for the
construction of a new Catholic church on the island, something it hadn't
allowed in more than five decades.
In 1998, then Pope John Paul II paid a visit to the island that
many credit with loosening religious limitations in Cuba. Since then, each pope
who has visited the island also met with Fidel Castro, even after he ceded
Fidel Castro was last seen in public Nov. 16 when he met with the
president of Vietnam. In the video announcing his death, his brother said Fidel
Castro's body was to be cremated, as he had wished.
Granma, the official newspaper of Cuba's Communist party,
announced nine days of national mourning from Nov. 26 until Dec. 4. His ashes,
the newspaper said in an online article, will travel through some parts of
Cuba, and mourners are expected to pay their respects during rallies that have
been organized in his honor. His ashes will ultimately be interred at St.
Ifigenia Cemetery in Santiago de Cuba, where Cuban national leader and Latin
American icon Jose Marti is buried.