Cuban dictator Fidel Castro was born near Birán, Cuba, on August 13, 1926. In 1959, Castro used guerilla warfare to successfully overthrow Cuban leader Batista, and was sworn in as prime minister of Cuba. As Cuban prime minister, Castro’s government established covert military and economic relations with the Soviet Union, leading to the Cuban Missile Crisis. He served as prime minister until 1976, when he became president of Cuba.
Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz was born on August 13, 1926 (though some say he was born a year later), near Birán, in Cuba’s eastern Oriente Province. Fidel Castro was the third of six children, including his two brothers, Raul and Ramon; and three sisters, Angelita, Emma and Augustina. His father, Angel, was a wealthy sugar plantation owner originally from Spain. His mother, Lina Ruz Gonzalez, had been a maid to Angel’s first wife, Maria Luisa Argota, at the time of Fidel’s birth. By the time Fidel was 15, his father dissolved his first marriage and wed Fidel’s mother. At age 17, Fidel was formally recognized by his father and his name was changed from Ruz to Castro.
Educated in private Jesuit boarding schools, Castro grew up in wealthy circumstances amid the poverty of Cuba’s people. He was intellectually gifted, but more interested in sports than studies. He attended El Colegio de Belen and pitched for the school’s baseball team. After his graduation in late 1945, Castro entered law school at the University of Havana and became immersed in the political climate of Cuban nationalism, anti-imperialism and socialism.
Early Political Insurrections and Arrests
In 1947, Castro became increasingly passionate about social justice. He traveled to the Dominican Republic to join an expedition attempting the overthrow of the dictator Rafael Trujillo. The coup failed before it got started, but the incident didn’t dampen Castro’s passion for reform.
Soon after his return to the university in Havana, Castro joined the Partido Ortodoxo, an anticommunist political party founded to reform government corruption in Cuba. Its goals were nationalism, economic independence, and social reforms. Its founder, Cuban presidential candidate Eduardo Chibas, lost the 1948 election. Despite the loss, Chibas inspired Castro to be an ardent disciple. Chibas considered another run for president again in 1951. He hoped to expose the government’s corruption and warn the people about General Fulgencio Batista, a former president who was planning a return to power. But the presidential hopeful’s effort was cut short after supposed allies refused to provide evidence of government wrongdoing. Chibas shot himself during a radio broadcast after his inability to keep his promise.
In 1948, Castro married Mirta Diaz Balart, who was from a wealthy family in Cuba. They had one child, Fidelito. The marriage exposed Castro to a wealthier lifestyle and political connections. Castro pursued his political ambitions as a candidate for a seat in the Cuban parliament, but a coup led by General Fulgencio Batista successfully overthrew the government and cancelled the election. Castro found himself without a legitimate political platform and little income with which to support the family. His marriage to Mirta eventually ended in 1955.
Batista set himself up as dictator, solidified his power with the military and Cuba’s economic elite, and got his government recognized by the United States. Castro, along with fellow members of the Ortodoxo party who expected to win in the 1952 election, organized an insurrection. On July 26, 1953, Castro and approximately 150 supporters attacked the Moncada military barracks in an attempt to overthrow Batista. The attack failed and Castro was captured, tried, convicted and sentenced to 15 years in prison. However, the incident fostered an ongoing opposition to the government and made Castro famous throughout Cuba.
Guerilla War Against Batista
Castro was released in 1955 under an amnesty deal with the Batista government. He went to Mexico, where he met Ernesto “Che” Guevara. There, he devised a new strategy to overthrow the Batista regime based on guerrilla warfare. Guevara believed that the plight of Latin America’s poor could be rectified only through violent revolution. He joined Castro’s group and became an important confidante, shaping Castro’s political beliefs.
On December 2, 1956, Castro returned to Cuba with a boatload of 81 insurgents near the eastern city of Manzanillo. In short order, Batista’s forces killed or captured most of the attackers. Castro, his brother Raul, and Guevara were able to escape into the Sierra Maestra mountain range along the island’s southeastern coast. Over the course of the next two years, Castro’s forces waged a guerrilla war against the Batista government, organizing resistance groups in cities and small towns across Cuba. He was also able to organize a parallel government, carry out some agrarian reform, and control provinces with agricultural and manufacturing production.
Beginning in 1958, Castro and his forces mounted a series of successful military campaigns throughout Cuba to capture and hold key areas of the country. Along with the loss of popular support and massive desertions in the military, Batista’s government collapsed due to Castro’s efforts. In January of 1959, Batista fled to the Dominican Republic. At the age of 32, Castro successfully concluded a classic guerrilla campaign to take control of Cuba.
A new government was created, with Jose Miro Cardona as prime minister, and it quickly gained the recognition of the United States. Castro arrived in Havana to cheering crowds and assumed the post of commander-in-chief of the military. In February 1959, Miro suddenly resigned, and Castro was sworn in as prime minister.
Turn to Communism
Castro implemented far-reaching reforms by nationalizing factories and plantations in an attempt to end U.S. economic dominance on the island. Major American companies felt the negative effects of the reforms, causing friction between Cuba and the United States. For example, the Castro government announced it was going to base compensation to foreign companies on the artificially low property values that the companies themselves had negotiated with past Cuban governments in order to keep their taxes low.
During this time, Castro repeatedly denied being a Communist, but to many Americans, his policies looked like Soviet-style control of the economy and government. In April 1959, Castro and a delegation visited the United States as guests of the National Press Club. Castro hired a renowned public relations firm to help promote his tour. President Dwight Eisenhower, however, refused a meeting with him.
That May, Castro signed the First Agrarian Reform Law, which limited the size of land holdings and forbade foreign property ownership. The intent was to develop a class of independent farmers. In reality, this program led to state land control with the farmers becoming mere government employees. By the end of 1959, Castro’s revolution had become radicalized, with purges of military leaders and the suppression of any media critical of Castro’s policies.
Castro’s government also began to establish relations with the Soviet Union. The USSR sent more than 100 Spanish-speaking advisers to help organize Cuba’s defense committee. In February 1960, Cuba signed a trade agreement to buy oil from the Soviet Union and established diplomatic relations. U.S.-owned refineries in Cuba refused to process the oil, so Castro expropriated the refineries. The United States retaliated by cutting Cuba’s import quota on sugar. This began a decades-long contentious relationship between the two countries.
Cuban Missile Crisis
The year 1961 proved to be pivotal in Castro’s relationship with the United States. On January 3, 1961, outgoing president Dwight Eisenhower broke off diplomatic relations with the Cuban government. On April 16, Castro formally declared Cuba a socialist state. The following day, 1,400 Cuban exiles invaded Cuba at the Bay of Pigs in an attempt to overthrow the Castro regime. The incursion ended in disaster; hundreds of the insurgents were killed and nearly 1,000 were captured. Though the United States denied any involvement, it was revealed that the Cuban exiles were trained by the Central Intelligence Agency and armed with U.S. weapons. Decades later, the National Security Archive revealed that the United States had begun planning an overthrow of the Castro government as early as October 1959. The invasion was conceived during the Eisenhower administration and inherited by President John F. Kennedy, who reluctantly approved its action but denied the invaders air support in hopes of hiding any U.S. participation.
Castro was able to capitalize on the incident to consolidate his power and further promote his agenda. On May 1, he announced an end to democratic elections in Cuba and denounced American imperialism. Then at year’s end, Castro declared himself a Marxist-Leninist and announced the Cuban government was adopting communist economic and political policies. On February 7, 1962, the United States imposed a full economic embargo on Cuba, a policy that continues to this day.
Castro intensified his relations with the Soviet Union by accepting further economic and military aid. In October 1962, his increasing reliance on Soviet aid brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. Wanting to deter another U.S. invasion of Cuba, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev conceived an idea of placing nuclear missiles in Cuba, just 90 miles off the coast of Florida. He justified the move as a response to U.S. Jupiter missiles deployed in Turkey. An American U2 reconnaissance plane discovered the missile base construction before the missiles were installed. President Kennedy responded by demanding the removal of the missiles with orders for the U.S. Navy to search any vessels headed for the island.
Over the course of several anxious days of secret communications between Khrushchev, Kennedy and their agents, Khrushchev agreed to remove the missiles in exchange for the United States’ public agreement not to invade Cuba. The Kennedy administration also agreed to secretly remove the Jupiter missiles from Turkey. Both leaders saved face and gained some admiration for restraint. Castro, on the other hand, was humiliated: Both superpowers completely left him out of the negotiations. Furthermore, the United States was able to persuade the Organization of American States to end diplomatic relations with Cuba, in response to Castro’s “shameful” actions.
Cuba Under Castro
But Castro wasn’t shamed for long. In 1965, he merged Cuba’s Communist Party with his revolutionary organizations, placing himself as head of the party. Within a few years, he began a campaign of supporting armed struggle against imperialism in Latin American and African countries. In 1966, Castro founded the Asia-Africa-Latin America People’s Solidarity Organization to promote revolution on three continents. In 1967, he formed the Latin America Solidarity Organization to foster revolution in select Latin-American countries.
In the 1970s, Castro promoted himself as the leading spokesperson for Third World countries by providing military support to pro-Soviet forces in Angola, Ethiopia and Yemen. Though Cuba was heavily subsidized by the Soviet government, those expeditions ultimately proved unsuccessful and put a strain on the Cuban economy.
The U.S. agreement not to invade Cuba didn’t preclude toppling the Castro regime in other ways. Castro was the target of CIA assassination attempts (an estimated 638 in all, according to Cuban intelligence) over the years. These ranged from exploding cigars, to a fungus-infected scuba-diving suit, to a mafia-style shooting. He took great delight in the fact that none of the attempts ever succeeded. Castro was reported as saying that if avoiding assassination attempts was an Olympic sport, he would have won gold medals.
Castro’s regime has been credited with opening 10,000 new schools and increasing literacy to 98 percent. Cubans enjoy a universal health-care system, which has decreased infant mortality to 11 deaths in 1,000 (1.1 percent). But civil liberties have been whittled away, as labor unions lost the right to strike, independent newspapers were shut down and religious institutions were harassed. Castro removed opposition to his rule though executions and imprisonments, as well as through forced emigration.
Hundreds of thousands of Cubans have fled Castro’s rule, many settling just across the Florida Straits in Miami. The largest of these occurred in 1980, when Castro opened up the port of Mariel to allow exiled Cubans living in Miami to come claim their relatives. Castro also loaded the ships with Cuban prison inmates, mental patients and other social undesirables. In all, nearly 120,000 Cubans left their homeland in 1980 to find sanctuary in the United States.
Collapse of the Soviet Union
After the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union sent Cuba’s economy into a tailspin, Castro’s revolution began to lose momentum. Without cheap oil imports and an eager Soviet market for Cuban sugar and a few other goods, Cuban unemployment and inflation grew. The contraction of the Cuban economy resulted in 85 percent of its markets disappearing.
Yet Castro has been very adept, in recent years, at keeping control of the government during dire economic times. He pressed the United States to lift the economic embargo, but it refused. Castro then adopted a quasi-free market economy and encouraged international investment. He legalized the U.S. dollar and encouraged tourism. He visited the United States in 1996, and invited Cuban exiles living in there to return to Cuba to start businesses.
In 2001, after massive damage was caused by Hurricane Michelle, Castro declined U.S. humanitarian aid, but proposed a one-time cash purchase of food from the United States. George W. Bush’s administration complied, authorizing the shipment of food. With the fuel supply running dangerously low, Castro ordered 118 factories to be closed, and sent thousands of Cuban doctors to Venezuela in exchange for oil imports.
Decline in Health
In the late 1990s, speculation began to arise over Castro’s age and well-being. Numerous health problems have been reported over the years, the most significant occurring in July 2006, when Castro underwent surgery for gastrointestinal bleeding. In a dramatic announcement, Castro designated his brother Raul as the country’s temporary leader. Raul served as Castro’s second in command for decades, and was officially selected as his successor in 1997. Since his surgery, the public has only seen Castro in photographs and video meetings.
On February 19, 2008, 81-year-old Fidel Castro permanently gave up the Cuban presidency due to his deteriorating physical condition. He handed over power to his brother, Raul, who was 76 years old at the time. The Cuban National Assembly officially elected Raul Castro as president of Cuba the same month, although Fidel Castro reportedly remained First Secretary of the Communist Party.
In April 2011, news broke that Fidel Castro officially stepped down from his role within Cuba’s Communist Party. Raul Castro easily won election as the party’s new first secretary, taking over for his brother and picking famed revolutionary Jose Ramon Machado Venture to serve as the party’s second in command. Fidel Castro claimed that he had actually resigned the post five years earlier.
In his retirement, Castro has taken to writing a column about his experiences and opinions, called “Reflections of Fidel.” From mid-November to early January of 2012, however, Castro failed to publish any columns. This sudden silence sparked rumors that Castro had taken a turn for the worse. But these stories soon proved to be unfounded, as Castro put out a flurry of articles later that January.
While he may not be involved in the day-to-day affairs of running Cuba, Castro wields enormous political power at home and abroad. He continues to meet with foreign leaders, such as Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2012, during their visits to Cuba. Even Pope Benedict arranged a special audience with Castro at the end of his trip in March 2012, seeking to obtain greater religious freedom for Catholics living in the communist nation.