Fidel Castro

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Cuban President Fidel Castro
Cuban President Fidel Castro

Fidel Castro Ruz (born August 13, 1926), has led Cuba since 1959, when, leading the 26th of July Movement, he overthrew the regime of Fulgencio Batista, and transformed Cuba into the first Communist Party-led State in the Western Hemisphere. During his more than 40-year rule, he has emerged as one of the most controversial political figures in the world. Internationally, his leadership has been marked by tensions with the United States that peaked in the Cuban Missile Crisis and a close partnership with the Soviet Union. Domestically, he has overseen the implementation of radical land reforms, uncompensated nationalization of leading Cuban industries, programs that greatly increased the nation's literacy rate and provided universal healthcare. Castro initially won the support of poorer Cubans but disillusioned and alienated many people in the middle and upper classes, many of whom fled the country for the nearby city of Miami in the United States. Castro has indicated that his brother, Ral Castro, would assume authority over Cuba should he become ill (url (


Early life

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University student Fidel Castro (3rd from the left, standing) talking to fellow students during a protest on November 11, 1947

Castro was born in Birn, near Mayar, in the modern-day province of Holgun (then a part of the now-defunct Oriente province), into a wealthy farming family. The son of ngel Castro y Argiz, an immigrant from Galicia, Spain, and his cook Lina Ruiz Gonzlez, Castro was educated at Jesuit schools, including the La Salle private school and the preparatory school Colegio Beln, both in Havana, graduating in 1945, before going to the University of Havana to study law.

At university, Castro became involved in the often violent political disputes engaged in by the students as a part of the Insurrectional Revolutionary Union (UIR). In the summer of 1947, he was apart of a group who attempted a sea journey to the Dominican Republic in order to overthrow the dictatorship of that country, but they were prevented from succeeding by the intervention of the Cuban police. He also became known through local radio, and through the Alerta newspaper.

In 1948, Castro traveled to Bogot in Colombia as a delegate of the University Student Federation (FEU) at the IX Interamerican Conference. During his visit, the famous liberal leader Jorge Eliecer Gaitn was assassinated, and he had to flee the country as a suspected collaborator of the Colombian Communist party in the killing. That same year, Castro married Mirta Daz Balart, a philosophy student from another wealthy Cuban family. During this period he became known for his nationalist views and his opposition to the United States' influence in Cuba.

In 1950, Castro graduated and began practicing law in a small partnership. He intended to stand for parliament in June 1952 for the "Orthodox Party", of which he had become leader in 1951 after the suicide of its founder Eduardo Chibs, but a coup d'tat on March 10, led by General Fulgencio Batista, overthrew the government of Carlos Pro Socarrs and the elections were cancelled. Castro broke with the Orthodox party and charged Batista with violating the Constitution in court, but his petition was refused.

Attack on Moncada Barracks

A member of the group Radical Action (AR), Castro responded to Batista's moves by organizing an armed attack on the Moncada Barracks in Oriente province on July 26, 1953. During the ill-fated attack, more than sixty of the one hundred thirty-five militants were killed. In a coordinated attack 150 kilometers away in Bayamo, twelve of the twenty-two assailants were killed. A widely held belief by many Cuban historians is that although Castro's group took part in the Moncada attack, Castro himself was not involved in the fighting. Instead, Castro and his inner circle safely hid themselves at a nearby location to avoid the actual bloodshed. While attacking the barracks, Castro's unit also committed a plethora of atrocities like killing members of Batista's military who where sleeping or incapacitated in the Moncada's infirmary.

Castro escaped into the mountains but on August 1 was taken prisoner along with his brother Ral Castro and various other members of the group. Due to the intervention of the Archbishop of Havana they avoided being executed. During the trial, Castro used the closing arguments in the case to deliver a impassioned speech, "History Will Absolve Me" (url (, in which he defended his actions and explaining his political views, but was sentenced to fifteen years in prison. In 1954, while still in prison, he divorced Daz Balart, with whom he had a child called Fidelito. He was released in a general amnesty in May 1955 and went into exile in Mexico on July 7.

The road to power

Once in Mexico, Castro reunited with other exiles and founded the 26th of July Movement. They went to the United States, where they gathered funds from Cubans living in that country. Medical doctor Che Guevara joined the group during this time. On November 26 1956 they returned to Cuba, clandestinely sailing from Tuxpan to Cuba on the 60-ft pleasure yacht Granma.

They landed in Los Cayuelos near the eastern city of Manzanillo on December 2, 1956. Only sixteen of the original eighty-two men survived a surprise ambush from the Cuban army and they were forced to retreat into the Sierra Maestra mountains. The survivors, who included Guevara, Ral Castro, and Camilo Cienfuegos, reformed into the Jos Mart column under Castro's command. Castro's movement gained popular support and grew to over eight hundred men.

On May 24, 1958, Batista launched seventeen battalions against Castro in Operacin Verano. Despite being outnumbered, Castro's forces scored a series of stunning victories, aided by massive desertion and surrenders from Batista's army. On the night of December 31, 1958, Batista and president-elect Carlos Rivero Agero fled the country to the Dominican Republic and then to Franco's Spain.

Early years in power

On January 1, 1959, Castro's forces took Havana. On January 5 the liberal Jos Mir Cardona created a new government that marked the beginnings of The Revolutionary Government of Cuba. On January 8 Castro himself entered Havana. Mir's resignation allowed Castro to take control of what was now called the Revolutionary government on February 16. He also became head of the armed forces. Initially the United States was quick to recognize the new government. On April 15 Castro went on a famous 12 day unofficial tour of the U.S., where he met Malcolm X, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser and Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru while staying in a cheap hotel in Harlem. He subsequently visited the White House and met with Vice President Richard Nixon. Supposedly, Dwight D. Eisenhower snubbed Castro, giving the excuse that he was playing golf, and he left Nixon to speak to him as Castro's economic policies had caused some concerns in Washington that Castro was a Communist with an allegiance to the Soviet Union. Following the meeting, Nixon remarked that Castro was "nave" but not necessarily a Communist. Castro spent 2 days in Canada, initiating a friendship with then Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau.

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Cuban President Fidel Castro smoking a Cohiba

Yet friction with the US soon developed when the new government began expropriating property owned by major U.S. corporations (United Fruit in particular), proposing compensation based on property tax valuations that for many years the same companies had managed to keep artificially low. In May, following Eisenhower's ban on the importation of Cuban sugar into the U.S., Cuba nationalized some $850 million worth of U.S. property and businesses. Castro consolidated control of the nation by nationalizing industry, expropriating property owned by Cubans and non-Cubans alike, collectivizing agriculture, and enacting policies which he claimed would benefit the population. These policies alienated many former supporters of the revolution among the Cuban middle- and upper-classes, who later migrated to U.S. and formed a vocal anti-Castro community in Miami, Florida.

On July 17 the provisional President of Cuba Manuel Urrutia Lle resigned and was replaced by Osvaldo Dortics Torrado, which strengthened Castro's position. He became Prime Minister in February 1960.In the same month Cuba signed an agreement to buy oil from the USSR. When the U.S.-owned refineries in Cuba refused to process the oil they were expropriated, and the United States broke off diplomatic relations with the Castro government soon after. To the concern of the Eisenhower administration, Cuba began to establish closer ties with the Soviet Union. A variety of pacts were signed between Castro and Soviet Premier Khrushchev, allowing Cuba to receive large amounts of economic and military aid from them.

Bay of Pigs

Main article: Bay of Pigs Invasion

On April 15, 1961, the day after Castro described his revolution as socialist, four Cuban airfields were bombed by A-26s bearing false Cuban markings. These bombing runs were part the beginning stages of the Bay of Pigs invasion. The United States staged an unsuccessful attack on Cuba on April 17, 1961. Brigade 2506, a force of about 1,400 Cuban exiles, financed and trained by the CIA, and commanded by CIA operatives Grayston Lynch and William Robertson, landed south of Havana at Playa Girn on the Bay of Pigs. The CIA assumed that the invasion would spark a popular uprising against Castro. There was, however, no such uprising. Part of the invasion force who made it ashore was captured, while President Kennedy withdrew support for the invasion at the last minute. Two U.S. supplied support ships, the Houston and the Ro Escondido, were sunk by Cuban propeller-driven aircraft. Nine people were executed in connection with this action while Castro gained even more support from ordinary Cubans due to his actions during the attempted invasion. In a nationally broadcast speech on December 2, Castro declared that he was a Marxist-Leninist and that Cuba was going to adopt Communism.

On February 7, 1962, the U.S. imposed an embargo against Cuba, which included a general travel ban for American tourists. This has been repeatedly cited by Castro as a major factor in Cuba's economic troubles.

Cuban Missile Crisis

Main article: Cuban Missile Crisis

Tensions between Castro and U.S. heightened during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, which nearly brought the USSR and the US in direct confrontation. Khrushchev conceived the idea of placing missiles in Cuba as a deterrent to further U.S. aggression against the island. After consultations with his military advisors, he met with a Cuban delegation led by Ral Castro in July in order to work out the specifics. It was agreed to deploy Soviet R-12 MRBM on Cuban soil; however, American U-2 reconnaissance discovered the construction of the missile installations on October 15, 1962 before the weapons had actually been deployed. The U.S. government viewed the installation of Soviet nuclear weapons 90 miles south of Miami as an aggressive act and a threat to U.S. security. As a result, the U.S. publicly announced its discovery on October 22, 1962 and implemented a quarantine around Cuba that would actively intercept and search any vessels heading for the island.

In a personal letter to Khrushchev written on October 27, 1962 (url (, Castro urged Khrushchev to launch a nuclear first strike against the United States if Cuba were invaded, but Khrushchev rejected any first strike response (pdf ( Soviet field commanders in Cuba were, however, authorized to use tactical nuclear weapons if attacked by the United States. Khrushchev agreed to remove the missiles in exchange for a U.S. commitment not to invade Cuba and to remove American missiles from Turkey.

Relations with The Soviet Union

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Fidel Castro embracing Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev

Following initial U.S. hostility, the establishment of diplomatic ties to the Soviet Union, and the Cuban Missile Crisis, Cuba became increasingly dependent on Soviet markets and military and economic aid. Castro was able to build a formidable military force with the help of Soviet equipment and military advisors. The KGB kept in close touch with Havana, and Castro tightened Communist Party control over all levels of government, the media, and the educational system, while developing a Soviet-style internal police force.

Castro's alliance with the Soviet Union caused somewhat of a split between him and Guevara, who took a more pro-Chinese view following ideological conflict between the CPSU and the Maoist CPC. In 1967, Guevara left for Bolivia in an ill-fated attempt to stir up revolution against the country's military dictatorship; Castro did not provide him with any material support. One reason given for Castro's refusal is the fact that Moscow did not approve of revolution in Latin America unless it involved groups whose idea of communism was close to the Soviet model.

On August 23, 1968 Castro made a public gesture to the Soviet Union that reaffirmed their support in him. Two days after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, Castro took to the airwaves and publicly denounced the Czech rebellion. Castro warned the Cuban people about the Czechoslovakian 'counter-revolutionaries', who "were moving Czechoslovakia towards capitalism and into the arms of imperialists". He called the leaders of the rebellion "the agents of West Germany and fascist reactionary rabble," In return for his public backing of the invasion, at a time when many Soviet allies were deeming the invasion an infringement of Czechoslovakia's sovereignty, the Soviets bailed out the Cuban economy with extra loans and an immediate increase in oil exports.

Castro with Yugoslavian president
Castro with Yugoslavian president Josip Broz Tito

On November 4, 1975, Castro ordered the deployment of Cuban troops to newly-independent Angola in response to the South African invasion of that country. Moscow aided the Cuban initiative with the USSR engaging in a massive airlift of Cuban forces into Angola.

When reformist Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev visited Cuba in 1989, the close relationship between Moscow and Havana was strained by Gorbachev's implementation of economic reforms. "We are witnessing sad things in other socialist countries, very sad things," stated Castro in November 1989 in reference to the reforms that were sweeping such communist allies as the Soviet Union, East Germany, Hungary and Poland.

According to Castro, "the sun vanished from the horizon when the Soviet Union collapsed."

Criticisms of the United States

Castro remains a vocal critic of United States policies, speaking against the continuing economic embargo and past U.S. attempts to topple his government in the '60s. He has also condemned what he sees as exploitation of developing countries by U.S. corporations and even the state of public health care in the United States. Recently, he has harshly condemned U.S. immigration policies, which severely limit travel between the U.S. and Cuba. Castro also opposes the growing costs of servicing foreign debt.

Castro claims that, during the Cold War, the United States engaged in a variety of covert, and often deadly attacks against Cuba in order to weaken the entire country as a way of weakening Castro's government. He has also claimed that, between 1960 and 1965, the U.S. government made plans to assassinate him; he has accused the CIA of, among other things, having his Havana broadcasting studio sprayed with a mind altering chemical, poisoning his cigars, dusting his boots with a chemical that would cause his beard to fall out, and planting an explosive seashell in the area where he was known to scuba dive. (Vail 108). He alleges that, in 1971, Cuban pigs were infected with African swine fever, a disease not normally found in the Americas, by anti-Castro organizations with past ties to the CIA. Whether or not this is true, those infected pigs started an epidemic which forced the Cuban government to destroy half of all the pigs on the island in order to get it under control. 2

He also claims that, in 1981, the CIA started a dengue fever epidemic that killed 158 people.3. Between 1956 and 1958 the US Army tested whether mosquitoes of the type Aedes Aegypti - which are carriers of dengue fever - could be used as weapons of biological warfare. 4 During a trial in New York in 1984, a Cuban exile said that in late 1980 a ship traveled to Cuba "with a mission to carry some germs to introduce them in Cuba to be used against the Soviets and against the Cuban economy ... which later on produced results that were not what we had expected ... and it was used against our own people, and with that we did not agree". 5

In 2000, four Cuban exiles with ties to the Cuban-American National Foundation (url ( were convicted in a Panamanian court of plotting to assassinate Castro during a regional summit. The four were pardoned in 2004 and all but Luis Posada Carriles entered the United States. Posada appeared in the U.S in May 2005, but was arrested and faces extradition to Venezuela. (url ( All four men have been accused of working for the CIA at one time or another. [1] (

Recent years in power


Castro is an atheist and has not been a practicing Roman Catholic since his childhood. Pope John XXIII excommunicated Castro on January 3, 1962 on the basis of a 1949 decree by Pope Pius XII forbidding Catholics from supporting Communist governments. For Castro, who had previously renounced his Catholic faith, this was an event of very little consequence, nor was it expected to be. It was aimed at undermining support for Castro among Catholics; however, there is little evidence that it did.

His relationship with Pope John Paul II was somewhat better. In the early 1990s Castro agreed to loosen restrictions on religion and even permitted church-going Catholics to join the Cuban Communist Party. After the Pope denounced the U.S. embargo on Cuba as "unjust and ethically unacceptable", the relationship between the Vatican and Castro improved, to the point that the Pope even visited Cuba in 1998, the first visit by a ruling pontiff to the island. During his visit, the Pope generally stayed away from overt political themes, instead emphasizing that his trip was designed to strengthen the Catholic Church in Cuba. However, he criticized Cuba's widespread practice of legalized abortion and urged Castro to end its monopoly on education and allow the return of Catholic schools. ([2] ( Castro and the Pope appeared side by side in public on several occasions during the visit, and afterwards Cubans were allowed to mark Christmas as a holiday again and to hold religious processions.

After the Pope's death in April 2005, Castro attended a mass in his honor in Havana's cathedral. His previous visit to the cathedral had been in 1959, 46 years earlier, for the wedding of one of his sisters. Cardinal Jaime Ortega, who led the mass, welcomed Castro, who was dressed in a dark suit, and expressed his gratitude for the "heartfelt way the death of our Holy Father John Paul II was received (in Cuba)." [3] (

Remaining in power

Castro's leadership of Cuba has remained largely unchallenged. His supporters claim this is because the population believes Castro is responsible for improved living conditions. Castro's opponents believe his continued leadership is due to the coercion, repression and jailing of dissidents.

Human Rights and Under Castro's Leadership

Main article: Human rights in Cuba

Many argue that several thousand unjustified deaths have occurred under Castro's decades-long rule. Some Cubans have been labeled "counterrevolutionaries", "fascists", or "CIA operatives", and imprisoned in extremely poor conditions without trial; some have been summarily executed. The level of political control in Cuba has relaxed somewhat since the USSR's collapse, but some people still view Castro as presiding over a totalitarian state. Military Units to Aid Production, or UMAP's were labor camps established in 1965, according to Castro, for "people who have committed crimes against revolutionary morals" in order to work counter-revolutionary influences out of certain segments of the population.

Citing previous U.S. hostility, supporters of Castro thus portray opposition to his rule as illegitimate, and the result of an ongoing conspiracy fostered solely by Cuban exiles with ties to the United States or the CIA (referring to the entire Cuban refugee community in Miami as a terrorist Mafia, for example). Many Castro supporters thus feel that Castro's often harsh measures are justified to prevent the United States from presumably installing a puppet leader in his place. Castro's opposition, though, maintains that he uses the United States as an excuse to justify his continuing political control.

Popular image

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Venezuelan girl kissing Fidel Castro on his 75th birthday
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A painting of Fidel Castro given as a gift from the former Soviet Union

An apparent cult of personality around Castro has arisen despite his personal attempts to discourage it. In contrast to many of the world's modern strongmen, Castro has only twice been personally featured on a Cuban stamp. In 1974 he appeared on a stamp to commemorate the visit of Leonid Brezhnev, and in 1999 he appeared on a stamp commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Revolution. There has been a much stronger tendency to encourage reverence for Cuban independence hero Jos Mart and the "martyrs" of the Cuban revolution such as Camilo Cienfuegos. He rarely appears in public without his military fatigues. Castro himself is famous for his long and detailed speeches which often last several hours (he used to hold the world record for the longest speech) and contain much data and historical references.

There has been speculation about Castro's health since he apparently fainted during a seven-hour speech under the Caribbean sun in June 2001. His doctors say his health is improving.

During 2004, there was further speculation about the state of Castro's health. In January 2004, Luis Eduardo Garzn, the mayor of Bogot, said that Castro "seemed very sick to me" following a meeting with him during a vacation in Cuba. (url ( In May 2004, Castro's physician denied that his health was failing, and speculated that he would live to be 140 years old. Dr. Eugenio Selman Housein said that the "press is always speculating about something, that he had a heart attack once, that he had cancer, some neurological problem", but maintained that Castro was in good health. (url (

On October 20, 2004, Castro fell off a stage following a speech he gave at a rally. The fall fractured his knee and arm. He underwent three hours of surgery to repair his kneecap. Following his fall, Castro wrote a letter that was read on Cuban television and published in newspapers. In it, he assured the public that he was fine and would "not lose contact with you." (url ( A government statement added: "His general health is good, and spirits are excellent."

By November, Castro surprised many when he suddenly stood up from his wheelchair during a state visit by Chinese President Hu Jintao, leaning on a metal cane with an arm support. The following month, he stood unassisted for several minutes during a visit by Venezuelan President Hugo Chvez.

Finally, cheered by hundreds of lawmakers, a smiling Castro walked in public for the first time since shattering his kneecap in the fall after only two months. Legislators looked stunned, then smiled and applauded, when Cuba's 78-year-old president entered the main auditorium of the Convention Palace on the arm of a uniformed schoolgirl to attend a year-end National Assembly meeting.

Because of his larger than life role in Cuba, his well-being has become a continual source of speculation, both on and off the island, as he has grown older. Castro's quick recovery from breaking his left kneecap into eight pieces was likely to dampen the latest round of rumors questioning his health.

In 2005 Forbes magazine listed Castro among the world's richest people, with an estimated net worth of $550 million. As a result Castro is considering filing a lawsuit against the magazine, saying the accusations are false and the article was meant to defame him.

Preceded by:
(position created 1959)
Prime Minister of Cuba
Succeeded by:
(position abolished 1976)
Preceded by:
Osvaldo Dortics Torrado
President of Cuba
Succeeded by:
Incumbent (indefinite)
Ral Castro (designated)

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In 2003, Castro's death was incorrectly announced by CNN when his pre-written obituary (along with those of several other famous figures) was inadvertently published on CNN's web site due to a lapse in password protection.

See also

External links

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