HAVANA (Reuters) - One of the original leaders of the Cuban revolution and current vice president Juan Almeida has died of heart failure at the age of 82, state-run press reported on Saturday.
Almeida was at the side of Fidel and Raul Castro from the earliest days of the revolution and was the only black commander in the leadership.
Fidel Castro took power after the rebels toppled dictator Fulgencio Batista on Jan. 1, 1959, and ruled until Raul Castro succeeded him as president last year.
Almeida, who had been in ill health in recent years, died late on Friday, Communist Party newspaper Granma said.
Many of Cuba’s top leaders are about the same age as Almeida, which has raised questions about who will succeed the Castros. Raul Castro is 78, while Fidel Castro is 83.
Almeida served in top positions from the beginning of the revolutionary government and at his death was one of several vice presidents in the Council of State under Raul Castro and a member of the powerful political bureau of the ruling Communist Party.
The construction worker from a humble Havana neighborhood participated in the ill-fated July 26, 1953 attack on the Moncada military barracks in the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba that began the uprising.
He and the Castros were imprisoned after the attack. Following a pardon by Batista in 1955, they were released and went to Mexico to regroup and train.
He was on the yacht Granma when it carried the small rebel fighting force from Mexico to Cuba in late 1956 and he fought in the Sierra Maestra mountains that were the rebel base. Fidel Castro named him a commander, in charge of the third rebel front.
During an early encounter with government troops, he gained fame for running to the front of the outnumbered rebels and shouting, “Here, nobody surrenders.”
A black and white photo from those days, published alongside the story of his death, showed a bearded and smiling Almeida, wearing a wide-brimmed hat.
“Commander Almeida was always in the first line of combat with the Head of the Revolution, valiant, decisive and loyal to the ultimate consequences,” the political bureau said in a note published in Granma.
He met Fidel Castro in 1952 and became an enduring admirer.
“I‘m honored to have met him personally in 1952 and since then to have shared with him all these years where I have seen him grow as the unchallenged leader,” Almeida wrote in his book “Absolved by History,” dedicated to Fidel.
Fidel Castro named him a “Hero of the Republic of Cuba” in 1998.
Apart from his military and political accomplishments, Almeida was a writer of songs and books. His “Dame un traguito” (Give me a Sip) or “La Lupe” was for years a popular song on the island.
The government declared Sunday a day of national mourning for Almeida. He was to be buried in the Sierra Maestra, the political bureau said.
“The name of Commander of the Revolution Juan Almeida Bosque will remain always in the hearts and minds of his compatriots,” it said.
Additional reporting by Rosa Tania Valdes and Esteban Israel