Fidel Castro

Fidel Castro Ruz (born 1926) was Cuban prime minister and first secretary of the Communist party of Cuba. A lawyer by training, Castro led the Cuban Revolution and transformed the island into the first Communist state in the Western Hemisphere.

Fidel Castro was born on Aug. 13, 1926, on his family's prosperous sugar plantation near Birán, Oriente Province. His father was an immigrant from Galicia, Spain. Castro studied in Jesuit schools in Oriente and in Havana, where one of his high school teachers, Father Armando Llorente, recalled him as "motivated, proud, different from the others…. Fidel had a desire to distinguish himself primarily in sports; he liked to win regardless of efforts; he was little interested in parties or socializing and seemed alienated from Cuban society."


Became Campus Activist

In 1945 Castro entered law school at the University of Havana, where student activism, violence, and gang fights were common occurrences. Protected by its autonomy, the university was a sanctuary for political agitators. Castro soon joined the activists and associated with one of the gangs, the Unión Insurreccional Revolucionaria. Although police suspected him of the murder of a rival student leader and other violent actions, nothing was proved. Castro acquired a reputation for personal ambition, forcefulness, and persuasive oratory. Yet he never became a prominent student leader. On several occasions he was defeated in student elections.

In 1947 Castro temporarily left the university in order to join in an expedition led by writer Juan Bosch to overthrow the government of Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo, but the coup was called off during the ocean voyage to Dominica. The 23-year-old Castro jumped into the shark-infested waters and swam to shore carrying a gun over his head.

The following year he participated in one of the most controversial episodes of his life, the Bogotazo—a series of riots in Bogotá, Colombia, following the assassination of Liberal party leader Jorge E. Gaitán. Castro, who was attending a student meeting in Bogotá supported by Argentine dictator Juan Perón that was timed to coincide with—and disrupt—the Ninth Inter-American Conference, was caught up in the violence that rocked Colombia after the assassination. Picking up a rifle from a nearby police station, he joined the mobs and roamed the streets, distributing anti-United States propaganda and inciting the populace to revolt. Enrique Ovares, one of his student companions, denies that Castro was a Communist but claims that it was "a hysteric, ambitious, and uncontrollable Fidel who acted in those events." Pursued by Colombian authorities, the Cuban students sought asylum in the Cuban embassy and were later flown back to Havana, where Castro resumed his law studies at the University of Havana.

While still a student, Castro married Mirta Díaz-Balart, a philosophy student whose wealthy family had political ties to powerful Cuban military leader Fulgencio Batista. The couple would have one son, Fidelito, in 1949, but because Castro had no income with which to support his family, the marriage eventually ended.

At the university Castro was exposed to different ideologies. The authoritarian ideas of fascism and communism were widely discussed, but above all, the nationalistic program of Cuba's Ortodoxo party—economic independence, political liberty, social justice, and an end to corruption— captured the imagination of many students. The party's charismatic leader, Eduardo Chibás, became their idol, and Castro developed into his devoted follower, joining the Ortodoxo party in 1947. While he would graduate three years later and and begin to practice law in Havana, his interest in the law soon gave way to his passion for politics.


Assumed Leadership of Revolution

Early in 1952, in preparation for upcoming elections scheduled for June, Castro began campaigning for a seat in congress as a replacement for Ortodoxo party leader Chibás, who had publicly killed himself the previous summer. However, elections were never held. On March 10 General Batista and a group of army conspirators overthrew the regime of Cuban president Carlos Prío Socarrás. For Castro, violence seemed the only way to oppose the military coup. He organized a group of followers and on July 26, 1953, attacked the Moncada military barracks in Oriente Province. Castro was captured, tried, and sentenced to 15 years in prison. During his trial he delivered a lengthy defense in what would become his most famous speech, La historia me absolverá, attacking Batista's regime and outlining his own political and economic ideas, most of them within the mainstream of Cuba's political tradition.

After being released by an amnesty in 1955, Castro was exiled to Mexico City, where he began organizing an expedition against Batista dubbed the 26th of July Movement. On Dec. 2, 1956, Castro, his brother Raul, and 80 other men landed in Oriente Province. After encounters with the army, in which all but 12 of his men were killed or captured, Castro fled to the Sierra Maestra, forming in these mountains a nucleus for a guerrilla operation.

At the same time, urban opposition to the militaristic Batista regime increased. An attack on the Presidential Palace on March 13, 1957, led by students and followers of deposed President Prío, nearly succeeded in killing Cuba's new dictator. By 1958 a movement of national revulsion against Batista had developed. Castro emerged as the undisputed leader of the anti-Batista opposition, and his guerrillas increased their control over rural areas. On April 9, 1958, Castro called a national strike, which was called off after Batista ordered strikers to be shot on sight, causing massive shootings. Finally, defections in the army precipitated the fall of the regime on December 31.


Revolution Changed Course

On Jan. 1, 1959, Castro and his July 26th movement assumed power, proclaimed a provisional government, and began public trials and executions of "criminals" of the Batista regime. On February 15 Castro replaced José Miró Cardona as prime minister and appointed his own brother commander of the armed forces. A powerful speaker and a charismatic leader, Castro began exerting an almost mystical hold over the Cuban masses. As previous revolutionaries had done, he lectured the Cubans on morality and public virtue. He also emphasized his commitment to democracy and social reform and promised to hold free elections. Denying that he was a Communist, Castro described his revolution as humanistic and promised his followers a nationalistic government that would respect private property and uphold Cuba's international obligations.

Attempting to consolidate his support inside Cuba, Castro introduced several reforms. He confiscated wealth "illegally" acquired by Batista's followers, substantially reduced residential rents, and passed an agrarian reform law that confiscated inherited property. Although the avowed purpose of this law was to develop a class of independent farmers, in reality the areas seized developed into state farms, with farmers becoming government employees. By the end of 1959 a radicalization of the revolution had begun to take place. Purges or defections of military leaders became common, and their replacement by more radical and oftentimes Communist militants was the norm. Newspapers critical of these new leaders were quickly silenced.

This internal trend toward a Communist agenda was reflected in foreign policy too. Castro accused the United States of harboring aggressive designs against the revolution. In February 1960 a Cuban-Soviet trade agreement was signed, and soon after Cuba established diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union and most Communist countries. Several months later, when the three largest American oil refineries in Cuba refused to refine Soviet petroleum, Castro confiscated them. The United States retaliated by cutting the import quota on Cuba's sugar. Castro in turn nationalized other American properties, as well as many Cuban businesses. On Jan. 3, 1961, U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower broke relations with Cuba.


Declaration of a Socialist State

In April 1961 anti-Castro exiles, supported by the United States under the leadership of its newly elected president, John F. Kennedy, attempted an invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs. The failure of that invasion consolidated Castro's power, and the Cuban leader declared his regime to be socialist. Economic centralization increased. Private schools fell under government control and educational facilities increased. There was a nationwide literacy campaign. Sanitation and health improved with the establishment of rural hospitals and clinics. Confiscation of private property brought virtually all industrial and business enterprises under state control. Religious institutions were suppressed and clergymen expelled from the island.

In December 1961 Castro openly declared himself to be a Marxist Leninist. He merged all groups that had fought against Batista into the Integrated Revolutionary Organizations, changed it later into the United Party of the Socialist Revolution, and transformed it into the Communist Party of Cuba—the island's only ruling party—in 1965.

In foreign affairs Castro moved closer to the Soviet Union, although the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 severely strained Cuban-Soviet relations. Castro had allowed the U.S.S.R. to install within Cuba's borders medium-range nuclear missiles aimed at the United States, ostensibly for the defense of Cuba. When President Kennedy protested and negotiated the missiles' removal directly with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, Castro felt humiliated. Shortly thereafter, pro-Soviet Cuban Communists were eliminated from positions of power. By 1964 the Organization of American States had ended all diplomatic relations with Cuba, effectively isolating that country in South America and increasing its dependence on the U.S.S.R.

Until the end of 1964 Castro had attempted to maintain a position of neutrality in the Sino-Soviet dispute. But following the 1964 Havana Conference of pro-Soviet Latin American Communist parties, the Soviet Union pressured Castro into supporting its policies. Cuba's relations with China deteriorated, and early in 1966 Castro denounced the Peking regime. By supporting the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, he demonstrated his dependence on the Soviet Union as well as his determination to move closer to the Soviet camp.


Spread of the Revolution

Another source of conflict in Cuban-Soviet relations was Castro's determination to export his revolution. After the 1964 Havana Conference the Soviet Union was temporarily able to slow down Castro's support for armed struggle in Latin America. But by 1966 Castro founded in Havana the Asia-Africa-Latin America People's Solidarity Organization to promote revolution on three continents. In July 1967 he formed the Latin American Solidarity Organization, specifically designed to foster violence in Latin America. Castro's efforts, however, were mostly unsuccessful, as evidenced by the failure of Che Guevara's guerrilla campaign in Bolivia in 1967. Nevertheless, Castro's efforts in this regard continued through the 1970s.

Repression Culminated in Boat Lift

Despite the improvements that he brought to Cuba— the country boasted a 94 percent literacy rate and an infant mortality rate of only 11 in 1,000 births in 1994—Castro was constantly condemned for human rights abuses. Political prisoners crowded Cuban jails, while homosexuals, intellectuals, political dissidents, and others were constant victims of government-sponsored violence. In 1989, perceiving him a threat, Castro authorized the execution of former friend General Arnaldo Ochoa Sanchez on trumped-up drug smuggling charges.

One of Castro's goals was to remove opposition to his rule, which he accomplished not only with executions and imprisonments, but through forced emigrations. The largest of these, the Mariel Boat Lift, occurred in response to a riot outside the Peruvian Embassy in Havana. In mid-April of 1980, Castro opened the port of Mariel to outsiders, particularly exiled Cubans living in Miami, FL., who sailed into port to claim their relatives. Taking advantage of the situation, Castro loaded boats with prison inmates, long-term psychiatric patients, and other social undesirables. During the government-directed exodus, over 120,000 Cubans left their homeland for sanctuary in the United States, causing a small crisis upon reaching Miami.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, Castro's revolution began to lose momentum. Without support from its Soviet allies, who had subsidized much of Cuba's economy via cheap petroleum and a large, ready market for the country's all-important sugar industry, unemployment and inflation both grew. In addition to adopting a quasi-free market economy, encouraging international investment in Cuba, and developing a tourist industry designed to draw foreign currency into his country, Castro began pressing the United States to lift the trade embargo it had imposed upon Cuba since the revolution. The U.S. government remained firm, however, refusing to negotiate with Cuba on trade matters until Castro ended his dictatorial regime. In 1994, the U.S. Congress even tightened the embargo. "This country can only be ruled by the revolution," Castro responded, according to U.S. News & World Report; he reaffirmed his determination to retain control by threatening further emigrations of Cubans to Miami. Still, U.S. Cuban relations had begun to show signs of warming by the latter part of the 1990s: Castro visited the United States in 1996, and invited Cuban exiles then living in the United States to return to their homeland and start businesses. Resolute in his determination to preserve some form of socialism in his country, Castro prepared to groom a new generation of Cuban leaders while also effectively restoring stability to the Cuban economy and regaining support among its people.

Further Reading on Fidel Castro Ruz

There is extensive literature on Castro. Herbert L. Matthews's sympathetic Fidel Castro (1969) contains valuable insights into Castro's personality. Jules Dubois, Fidel Castro: Rebel— Liberator or Dictator? (1959), has much information on Castro's early life and on his struggle against Batista. For the historical conditions of the events see Wyatt MacGaffey and Clifford R. Barnett, Twentieth Century Cuba: The Background of the Castro Revolution (1965); and Earle Rice, The Cuban Revolution (1995).

Other recommended titles on Castro include Marta Harnecker, Fidel Castro's Political Strategy: From Moncada to Victory (1987); Sebastian Balfour, Castro (1990; 2nd edition, 1995); Georgie Anne Geyer's Guerilla Prince: The Untold Story of Fidel Castro (1991); Robert E. Quirk's Fidel Castro (1993); Warren Brown, Fidel Castro: Cuban Revolutionary (1994); and Esther Selsdon, The Life and Times of Fidel Castro (1997). Recommended for background on the revolution are Robert Taber, M-26: Biography of a Revolution (1961); Theodore Draper, Castroism: Theory and Practice (1965) and Castro's Revolution: Myths and Realities (1962); Bruce D. Jackson, Castro, the Kremlin, and Communism in Latin America (1968); Jaimie Suchlicki, University Students and Revolution in Cuba, 1920-1968 (1969); and Hugh Thomas, Cuba: The Pursuit of Freedom (1971). See also Lee Lockwood, Castro's Cuba, Cuba's Fidel: An American Journalist's Inside Look at Today's Cuba in Text and Picture (1967; revised edition, 1990).