HAVANA: Juan Almeida Bosque, a comrade-in-arms of Fidel Castro since the start of his guerrilla struggle in Cuba more than a half-century ago, has died of a heart attack at age 82.
A statement read in government media said Almeida died Friday but will "live on forever in the hearts and minds of his compatriots."
Almeida had been among only three surviving Cuban rebel leaders who still bore the honorary title "Commander of the Revolution."
A bricklayer who began working at age 11, Almeida was once among the most important and decisive voices in the battle to overthrow Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista, as well as in the early years following the Jan. 1, 1959, triumph of the revolution.
Born Feb. 27, 1927, Almeida was often seen at public events in his uniform alongside the Cuban leader until Castro fell gravely ill in the summer of 2006 and finally resigned the presidency for good in February 2008. Almeida Bosque then became a mainstay beside Castro's younger brother and successor, President Raul Castro.
With his full head of white hair and mustache, Almeida was a highly visible member of Cuba's ruling elite, sitting on the Communist Party's politburo and serving as a vice presidents on the Council of State, the country's supreme governing body.
Along with Ramiro Valdes and Guillermo Garcia, he was distinguished as a "Commander of the Revolution" — a title reserved for top leaders of rebel troops under Fidel Castro's command in the 1950s.
Almeida joined the fight against Batista's dictatorship in March 1952 as a young law student at the University of Havana, where he met Fidel Castro, another aspiring attorney.
Almeida was at Castro's side a year later, on July 26, 1953, when Cuba's future president led an armed attack on a military barracks in the eastern city of Santiago. The attack failed, but launched the revolutionary battle that triumphed 5 1/2 years later.
Imprisoned with the Castro brothers and other survivors of the offensive, Almeida was freed in May 1955 under an amnesty granted to the young revolutionaries.
Almeida accompanied the Castros and other revolutionaries to Mexico, where they formed a guerrilla army. They returned to Cuba in December 1956 on the American yacht "Granma" and launched their battle from the island's eastern Sierra Maestra.
Almeida, the Castro brothers and Argentine-born Ernesto "Che" Guevara were among only 16 who survived the landing, in which most of the rebels were killed by government troops.
"No one here gives up!" Almeida shouted to Guevara at the time, giving the Cuban revolution one of its most lasting slogans and ensuring his place in Cuban communist history. As a guerrilla leader, Almeida later headed his own front of military operations in eastern Cuba.
After Batista fled Havana on New Year's Day 1959, Almeida served in various military posts, ranging from head of motorized units to chief of the Rebel Army's Air Force. He later was named a vice minister and chief of staff of the Revolutionary Armed Forces.
Almeida was a member of the Communist Party of Cuba's Central Committee since its creation in October 1965.
His duties included welcoming new foreign ambassadors to Cuba and greeting other visiting dignitaries. However, Almeida cut back on public activities in December 2003, announcing he was suffering from heart problems.
Almeida also composed traditional Cuban music and wrote about his years behind bars and in the mountains.