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leader of Cuba
Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz was born near Mayari, Cuba, on August 13, 1926, the third of seven children (two brothers, four sisters). His father, Angel Castro, had come to Cuba from Spain to fight against the United States during the Spanish-American War. He then remained on the island and made a fortune growing sugar cane for American companies.
Castro attended the prestigious El Colegio de BelÚn in Havana, where his Jesuit teachers stressed the superiority of the Spanish values of honor and pride over the materialistic values of the Anglo-Saxon world. At the University of Havana, from which he received his law degree in 1950, he was exposed to the writings of nationalist professors. In 1947 he went to the Dominican Republic, where he joined a group of revolutionaries determined to overthrow the government of Rafael Trujillo. The revolution failed and Castro returned to his law studies.
In 1948, Castro married Mirta Diaz Balart, the daughter of a lawyer for the United Fruit Company. The marriage gave Castro limited access to the company town of Banes, where Americans and Cubans were kept separate. The couple had one child, Fidelito, before divorcing in 1955.
Fidel and Mirta Castro
In 1952, Castro intended to run for the Cuban House of Representatives, but elections were never held because Fulgencio Batista halted them upon seizing power. Castro then became determined to overthrow Batista.
On July 26, 1952, Castro assembled a small force of fellow revolutionaries and attacked the Moncada Army Barracks in Santiago de Cuba. The attack failed, and Castro was captured and sentenced to fifteen years in prison. Although the attack failed, public sentiment had already begun to turn against Batista, and before long Castro was seen as a martyr to the cause. On May 15, 1955, in an attempt to show that he wasn't concerned about public unrest, Batista released Castro and the other survivors of the Moncada attack. Castro went into voluntary exile in Mexico, where he met Che Guevara, who helped him gather and train a group of revolutionaries called the 26th of July Movement.
On December 2, 1956, Castro, his brother Raul, Guevara, and 81 insurgents invaded Cuba near Manzanillo. The invasion was quickly repulsed by the Cuban military, and many of the insurgents were either killed, wounded, or captured. Castro, his brother, and Guevara, however, were able to escape to the Sierra Maestra mountains in southeastern Cuba, from which they staged guerrilla warfare for the next two years. By 1958 the revolutionaries had gained widespread popular support and the Batista government had lost its support from the United States government. Batista was finally forced to step down and leave the country on New Year's Eve, 1958.
Leader of Cuba
Almost immediately after Batista left the country Castro formed a new government, with Manuel Urrutia as President, Jose Miro Cardona as Prime Minister, and Castro as Commander-in-Chief of the military. The government quickly gained U.S. recognition. In February 1959, however, Miro suddenly resigned and Castro was sworn in as Prime Minister, on February 16. Troubles with the United States began soon after.
Castro signing in as Cuban Premier
In May 1959, Castro signed the First Agrarian Reform Law, which limited the size of land holdings and forbade foreign property ownership. The law did not, however, restrict the right of U.S.-owned companies to operate businesses and factories in Cuba.
Problems with the United States began in February 1960, after Castro signed an agreement to buy oil from the Soviet Union and established diplomatic relations with that country. When U.S.-owned refineries in Cuba refused to process Soviet oil, Castro responded by nationalizing all U.S.-owned oil refineries in Cuba. When the United States responded by boycotting Cuban sugar, Castro then nationalized all U.S.-owned businesses in Cuba. On January 3, 1961, outgoing U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower broke off diplomatic relations with Cuba.
With relations with the United States now ended, Castro sought to improve his country's relationship with the Soviet Union, and on April 16, 1961, he declared Cuba a socialist state. The following day, Cuban exiles, with some backing from the United States, attempted to invade Cuba at the Bay of Pigs. The invasion proved disastrous, and Castro was able to paint the United States as a serious threat to Cuba. On May 1, 1961, he announced an end to democratic elections in Cuba and denounced American imperialism. By the end of that year he had declared himself a Marxist-Leninist and announced that the Cuban government was adopting communist economic and political policies.
Faced with a Communist government barely 90 miles from United States shores, President John F. Kennedy imposed a full economic embargo against Cuba on February 7, 1962; that embargo remains in place today. In response to President Kennedy's action, Castro agreed to allow the Soviet Union to install nuclear missiles in Cuba, an action that resulted in the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962. The fact that the United States and the Soviet Union resolved the crisis without any input from Castro left Castro reeling. He was further humiliated when the United States persuaded the Organization of American States to end diplomatic relations with Cuba; those relations have yet to be reinstated. Although Cuba continued to receive Soviet assistance over the ensuing decades, Castro never regained his status within the Soviet Communist Party.
In 1965, with his Soviet support now tenuous at best, Castro merged the Cuban Communist Party with his revolutionary organizations, with himself as head of the party. He then embarked on a program to foment Communist revolutions around the world. In 1966 he founded the Asia-Africa-Latin America People's Solidarity Organization to promote revolution in those three regions. In 1967 he formed the Latin America Solidarity Organization to foster revolution in select Latin American countries. In the 1970's he provided military support to pro-Soviet revolutionaries in Angola, Ethiopia, and Yemen.
While Castro was busy sparring with the United States, he was also working to improve conditions within Cuba. Some 10,000 new schools were opened, Cuba's literacy rate increased to 98 percent, and a universal health care system reduced infant mortality to 11 deaths per 1,000 births (1.1 percent).
The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 left Cuba without its principal economic benefactor and put its economy in dire straits. In response Castro lobbied the United States to lift its embargo, with no success. Hoping to ease tensions with the United States, he adopted a semi-free market economy and encouraged international investment, legalized the U.S. dollar, and encouraged U.S. tourists to visit his country. In 1996 he even visited the United States and invited Cuban exiles to return to Cuba and start businesses. None of these actions worked, however, and the U.S. government has continued its embargo against Cuba.
Although Cuba was devasted by Hurricane Michelle in 2001, Castro refused U.S. humanitarian aid. He did, however, propose a one-time cash purchase of food, which President George W. Bush authorized. Serious fuel supply shortages forced 118 factories to be closed, and thousands of doctors were sent to Venezuela in exchange for oil.
Despite literally hundreds of U.S.-backed attempts to oust Castro, he remained solidly in power until his health began failing. In July 2006 he underwent surgery for gastrointenstinal bleeding, which in turn led to rumors that he was near death. Although he came through the surgery well, he did designate his brother Raul as his successor, just in case. As age began catching up with him, he was seen in public less and less. On February 19, 2008, Fidel Castro officially stepped down as President and turned the government over to Raul; the 76-year-old was officially elected President by the National Assembly that same month.
Fidel Castro died in Havana on November 25, 2016.
American Experience: Fidel Castro www.pbs.org
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This page was last updated on 09/08/2018.