Castro, Fidel: 1927—: President
Fidel Castro: 1927—: President
Fidel Castro has ruled Cuba since his revolutionary forces overthrew dictator Fulgencia Batista in 1959. He introduced agriculture, medical, and education reforms to improve the quality of life for poor Cubans during the 1960s, but was criticized for suspending elections. His socialist philosophy and close ties to the Soviet Union led to tensions with the United States, reaching a pinnacle during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. During the late 1950s and early 1960s United States trade embargos greatly impacted the Cuban economy, leading Castro to rely on the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe as primary trading partners. Castro also attempted to cast himself upon the world stage by exporting Cuba's socialist revolution to Latin America and Africa during the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s.
The end of the Cold War in the late 1980s, along with a reduction in Soviet support, led to drastic changes in Cuba. The collapse of the economy between 1989-1993 persuaded Castro to introduce market-oriented reforms, and to seek investment from Canada, Britain, and Spain. The United States, meanwhile, maintained its embargo and continues to call for democratic reforms in Cuba. "Castro, perhaps as much as any major political figure of this century," wrote Peter G. Bourne in Fidel: a Biography of Fidel Castro, "could simultaneously raise to fever pitch feelings of love, hatred, loyalty, reverence, and contempt."
Born into Privilege
Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz was born on August 13, 1927 near the village of Brián in the Oriente Province. His father, Angel Castro, came from the Galacia region of northwest Spain in the 1890s and performed contract work for the United Fruit Company. He eventually accumulated 2,000 acres of land, leashed another 25,000 acres, and became a wealthy farmer. Angel Castro married a schoolteacher named Maria Louisa Argote and they had two children, Lidia and Pedro Emilio. He later married Lina Ruz González and they had seven children: Angela, Ramón, Fidel, Juana, Raúl, Emma, and Augustina.
Although Fidel Castro grew up in privilege, he was influenced by the poverty of his municipality. In Cuba: or, the Pursuit of Freedom, Hugh Thomas wrote, "Castro's early impressions and ambitions were mostly therefore formed by conditions in Oriente province, the most savage part of Cuba, where gun-law often reigned; the area where the U.S. influence was strongest and most brutally exercised; where the doctors, teachers, dentists and indeed all social professions were least numerous in proportion to the population." His hero from youth was a national leader named José Martí who had died in 1895 fighting for Cuban independence. "As the island's greatest thinker and patriotic hero," wrote Tad Szulc in Fidel: a Critical Portrait, "Martí was always Castro's role model … "
At a Glance . . .
Born Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz on August 13, 1927, in Mayarí region of the Oriente Province, Cuba; married Mirta Díaz-Balart (divorced); children: Fidelito; married Dalia Soto del Valle; children: Angel, Antonio, Alejandro, Alexis, and Alex; other children: Alina Fernandez Revuelta. Education: University of Havana, studied law, 1945-50.
Career: Azpiazu, Castro y Rosendo, lawyer, 1950-52; Prime Minister, 1959-76; Council of State president, Council of Ministers chairman, 1976–.
Awards: Order of the White Lion.
Adresses: Cuban Interests Section, 2639 16th Street NW, Washington, DC 20009; Cuban Consulate, 2630 16th St, NW, Washington, DC 20009.
Castro attended the French Marists brothers' La Salle school in Santiago and at nine enrolled in Colegio Dolores boys' school. In 1941 he entered Belén College, an exclusive high school in Havana and Bourn noted, "From the moment Fidel arrived at the school, he was spotted by the fathers as a boy with exceptional talent and leadership potential." He became active in sports and won a prize for Cuba's best all-round school athlete in 1943-44.
Castro became interested in politics while studying law at the University of Havana in the mid-1940s. He took part in abortive invasion of the Dominican Republic in summer of 1947, designed to overthrow dictator Rafael Trujillo. When the expedition was called off, Castro escaped in a small boat that overturned. Thomas wrote, "he swam, carrying an Argentinian sub-machine gun and a pistol, across the Bay of Nipe, known to be infested with sharks … " In February of 1948, Castro mobilized a mass protest against the invasion by the police of university autonomy, and in April, he traveled to Bogotá as a member of the student congress and became involved in the street violence that erupted during the Ninth Inter-American Conference.
Rejected Batista's Dictatorship
Castro married Mirta Díaz-Balart on October 10, 1948, and in 1949, Fidel Castro Diaz-Balart, or Fidelito, was born. Castro received a doctorate in law in 1950 and worked for the law firm of Azpiazu, Castro y Rosendo. He also became involved in politics, joining the Party of the Cuban People (Ortodoxos) in 1947. Many believed that the party's leader, Eduardo Chibás, would win the presidential election in 1952, but he surprised his followers by committing suicide on live radio on August 5, 1951. Castro became a candidate for Congress in 1952, but the elections were called off when former president Fulgencio Batista staged a coup on March 10, 1952. Bourne noted, "It was a moment of despair for those who thought that through the elections and the idealism of the Ortodoxo Party Cuba was finally going to end fifty years of turmoil and become a tranquil democratic country. No one was more angered than Fidel, who saw his hopes for a political career dashed."
Castro openly challenged Batista by submitting a petition to the Court of Constitutional Guarantees, accusing the dictator of violating the Constitution of 1940. When the petition was rejected, Castro gathered a small band of opposition forces and planned an armed insurrection. With 150 men, mostly factory workers, agriculture workers, and shop assistants, he attacked the Moncada military barracks in Santiago de Cuba, hoping to stir an uprising in Oriente Province. The armed assault ended in disaster. Nearly half of the participants were captured, tortured, and then killed, while Castro and his brother Raúl were arrested.
During his trial in September of 1953, Castro made a speech justifying his actions, but he also added political elements calling for land reform, civil liberties, and rural improvements. The speech later appeared in a pamphlet that circulated secretly. Castro lost his plea and was sentenced to 15 years in prison. In 1953, while in jail, Mirta Castro was granted a divorce. On May of 1955, after only a year and a half in prison, Castro, his brother Raúl, and 18 followers left the Isle of Pines under the amnesty law.
In July of 1955, Castro and a small number of followers regrouped in Mexico. They called themselves the 26th of July Movement in memory of the attack on the Moncada barracks. In November of 1955, Castro met Ernesto "Che" Guevara, a doctor who enrolled in his army. When the small rebel force returned to Cuba aboard the yacht, Granma, they were attacked and a third of their forces decimated. The remaining rebels reassembled in the Sierra Maestra, located in the southern most part of Cuba. Within six months, Castro had won over the local peasants with promises of land reform; within a year, the 26th of July Movement controlled the Sierra Maestra region. "For two years, he and his small band stayed in the rough mountains of the Sierra Maestra," wrote Georgie Anne Geyer in World and I, "hiding from the army, engaging in occasional ambushes, but above all writing with their lives the new mythology of the Cuban revolution."
The revolution began in earnest when Castro called a strike over the radio on April 9, 1958 and many dissidents were killed in the street. In May Batista launched a major attack on Sierra Maestra. Thomas wrote, "For weeks it was impossible to know what was going on." While the rebels were greatly outnumbered, ill-trained government troops suffered a series of defeats. This pattern continued throughout 1958, climaxing when Guevara attacked a government train column in December and achieved a decisive victory. On New Years, Batista fled Cuba to the Dominican Republic. A general strike was called to show support for the rebels and the Cuban army surrendered. Castro arrived in the capital on January 8, 1959.
Cubans were excited about the revolution, but also anxious because of their new leader's lack of political experience. 1,500 laws were passed during the first year, increasing pay, decreasing rents, and forming state farms that offered steady employment. The Agrarian Reform Act confiscated land from anyone with an estate over 1,000 acres. Bourne noted, "In the eyes of the masses, the revolution had already led to the redistribution of some land, a reduction in the cost of essential services, the elimination of corruption, and the promise for the first time of education, health care, and steady employment." A massive literacy campaign sent 250,000 volunteers into rural areas, eventually achieving a 94 percent rate. Hundreds of medical clinics and hospitals were built in the countryside, raising the average Cuban life expectancy to 76 years. Schools and universities were erected, and postgraduate education was free.
Other actions were controversial. Revolutionary tribunals sent political enemies to firing squads and elections were suspended. Castro nationalized oil refineries, sugar mills, and utilities, most belonging to American companies. In retaliation, the United States canceled sugar purchases completely in October of 1960 and prohibited all exports to Cuba except food and medical supplies. Eisenhower recalled the United States' Cuban ambassador in January of 1961 and suspended diplomatic relations.
Clashed With United States
When John Kennedy became president in 1961, the United States attempted to remove Castro from power with an inland invasion of Cuba. Emily Hatchwell and Simon Calder wrote in Cuba In Focus: a Guide to the People, Politics and Culture, "Political considerations aside, the Bay of Pigs attack was a shambles from its very inception. The idea that the people of Cuba would rise up against Castro following an invasion showed a complete lack of understanding of the situation on the island." Within 48 hours, the United States operation had been defeated. Castro's success at repelling the invasion made him very popular.
In 1962 Castro requested military aid from Russia because he believed the United States was planning another assault. More than 40 nuclear missiles arrived in Cuba before the Kennedy administration realized what had happened. On October 22, Kennedy ordered a blockade of Russian ships carrying arms to Cuba and issued an ultimatum: remove the missiles from Cuba or face the possibility of nuclear war. Russian leader Khrushchev agreed to withdraw the weapons, but only if the United States pledged not to invade Cuba. Kennedy agreed. Cuba became further isolated in 1962 when the Organization of American States (OAS) suspended Cuba's membership and two years later, suspended all diplomatic and trade ties. Only Mexico refused to join the boycott.
During the 1960s, 60,000 political prisoners crowded Cuban jails. Homosexuals, artists, intellectuals, and former friends of Castro's were also imprisoned. Hatchwell and Calder noted, "Anyone who was not with the Revolution was by definition against it. Trade unions were disbanded and the media came under direct government control." Castro also attempted to export the revolution by supporting communist rebels in a dozen other countries. Cubans fought in the Angolan Civil War, helped Ethiopia defend itself against Somalia, and aided guerilla movements in South and Central America, including the Sandinistas in Nicaragua.
Political repression and lack of economic opportunity led many Cubans to seek asylum in the United States. During 1980 Castro opened the port of Mariel near Havana, allowing 120,000 Cubans to flee. Another 30,000 left in 1994.
Enlisted New Economic Reforms
Castro suffered many setbacks during the 1990s, primarily due to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the reduction of Russian aid. In 1996 the United States passed the Helms-Burton Act, tightening the embargo by attempting to impose penalties on other countries that traded with Cuba. Reductions in Russian oil left many Cuban factories inoperative. There was a shortage of electricity, and bicycles became the primary mode of transportation in cities like Havana. Many farmers were forced to replace their tractors with oxen, while a deficiency of farm products required Cubans to stand in line to receive a single load of bread.
Despite such difficulties, Castro remained in power. He has, however, made a number of concessions toward market economies during the 1990s, leading to a greater emphasis on tourism. He also encouraged investment from Spain, Mexico, France, and Canada. Cuba also softened its rhetoric against the United States. In November of 2001, Cuba received $30 million in humanitarian aid from American companies after a hurricane devastated the island. The Economist noted, "Foreign diplomats speculate that Cuba, facing great economic difficulties, has the desire, and may have an opportunity, to improve relations." Castro, however, has shown no intention of instituting the one reform most requested by American critics: democracy. After over 40 years as Cuba' s leader, he appears determined to maintain the status quo. Hatchwell and Calder summarized, "It is difficult to imagine Fidel Castro standing down; any subsequent leader would be hard pushed to command any authority as long as he was still alive."
Playa Girón: A Victory of the People, Editorial en Marcha, 1961.
History Will Absolve Me, Carol Publishing Group, 1961.
Revolutionary Struggle, MIT Press, 1972.
In Defense of Socialism, Pathfinder Press, 1989.
Selected Speeches of Fidel Castro, Pathfinder Press, 1992.
Fidel Castro Reader, Ocean Press, 2002.
Bourne, Peter G., Fidel: a Biography of Fidel Castro, Dodd, Mead & Company, 1986, pp. 14, 26, 64, 195.
Calder, Simon, and Hatchwell, Emily, Cuba In Focus: a Guide to the People, Politics and Culture, Interlink Books, 1999, pp. 15, 19, 38.
Szulc, Tad, Fidel: a Critical Portrait, William Morrow and Company, 1986, p. 14.
Thomas, Hugh, Cuba: or, The Pursuit of Freedom, Da Capo Press, 1998, pp. 808, 809, 812, 996.
Economist (US), January 26, 2002.
World and I, May 2001, p. 265.
Biography Resource Center, Gale, 2002, http://www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC.
—Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.
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