Castro Ruz, Fidel (1926–)

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Castro Ruz, Fidel (1926–)

After leading a revolutionary force that overthrew the Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959, Fidel Castro became Cuba's undisputed leader and one of the best-known political figures in the world, holding the positions of prime minister and commander in chief (1959–2008), first secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba (1965), and president of the Council of State and Council of Ministers (1976–2008).

Castro's life can be divided into two periods: his early years as a revolutionary, and later as a politician and leader of Cuba for more than forty years. As of 2008 this second phase is not over: Although Castro underwent surgery in 2006 and handed over temporary presidential authority to his brother, Raúl Castro, Fidel remained in power, and longtime observers were reluctant to make predictions about a leader who, since 1959, has shown a remarkable ability to challenge the might of the United States, his ally the former Soviet Union, and the world community, without losing his grip on political and economic control. In 2008 Fidel resigned as president and Raúl was officially elected to the post.


Castro was born on 13 August 1926, near the town of Mayarí in Oriente Province (present-day Holguín province) in eastern Cuba to an affluent landowning family. His father, Angel Castro y Argiz, was a native of Galicia, Spain, while his mother, Lina Ruz González, was born in Cuba. Castro attended Catholic boarding schools and graduated in 1945 from Belen College in Havana, also a Catholic school. He entered law school at the University of Havana in 1945 and began practicing law in 1950. At the university Castro became involved in campus politics and even shot a political opponent. In 1947 he took part in a plan, never carried out, to invade the Dominican Republic and overthrow the dictator Rafael Trujillo. The following year, 1948, Castro attended an anti-imperialist conference in Bogotá, Colombia, during which the Colombian populist leader Jorge Gaitán was assassinated and riots broke out. While there, he was arrested for trying to incite mutiny in a police barracks and was released and returned to Cuba only upon the intervention of the Cuban ambassador to Colombia.

It was nationalism, not socialism, that served as the driving force of Castro's early political activism. Castro's hero was José Martí, not Lenin or Marx. As a student, Castro could have joined the Cuban Communist Party (as his brother Raúl had done), but Fidel steered away from Cuba's communist movement in favor of the nationalism that influenced so many of Castro's generation. Because Cuba was subjected to the imperialism of both Spain and the United States, Castro hoped to establish a nation free of the colonialism and neocolonialism of past years. To this end Castro joined the reform-minded Orthodox Party in 1947 and ran for Congress in 1952. In the midst of the campaign, however, Fulgencio Batista spearheaded a coup that suspended elections and left Batista dictator of the island. This coup convinced Castro of the futility of trying to transform Cuba's government through legal means and so was converted to a revolutionary strategy.


Committed to a revolutionary course, Castro led at first a failed attempt to overthrow the U.S.-backed Batista regime before leading his victorious forces into the capital city of Havana in 1959. Castro responded to Batista's coup of 1952 by organizing a guerrilla organization to launch attacks against the Batista government. On 26 July 1953, Castro led an assault on the Moncada Barracks in Santiago. Whereas this attack was sheer folly and easily defeated, Castro nonetheless became a nationally known figure for his prominent role in the attack. Castro was captured and put on trial, which he skillfully used to spread his anti-Batista message. In court testimony defending the attack, Castro gave his famous "History Will Absolve Me" speech in which he listed, with unique flair, the corruption and shortcomings of the Batista regime as well as his own solutions to the problems besetting Cuba. His speech embraced liberal nationalism, not socialism, and called for a democratic government, better education and health care, economic diversification, and an end to the overbearing influence of the United States in Cuba's politics and economy. Not only were nationalists and socialists drawn into Castro's camp but also members of the Cuban middle class resentful of Batista's alliance with U.S. businesses and Cuba's elite as well as the uneven development of the Cuban economy.

After the trial Castro was jailed for his role in the attack on the Moncada Barracks and released as part of a general amnesty two years later. Castro went to Mexico to plot his next move, and it was there that he joined forces with Ernesto "Che" Guevara, an Argentine Marxist and medical doctor. Guevara's anti-United States position grew out of his firsthand experience of the U.S.-backed coup in Guatemala in 1954. Along with Guevara and Raúl Castro, Fidel and seventy-nine others landed in Oriente Province, Cuba, on 2 December 1956, in the boat Granma. Most of the Castros' forces were captured or killed, but Fidel, Raúl, and Guevara survived. It was this small, poorly equipped army that would rally broad popular support among the Cuban people and overthrow Batista.

Batista's army failed to capture him, and Castro's image among the Cuban people grew. Starting from his base in the mountains of eastern Cuba, Castro's 26th of July Movement (named for the day the attack was launched on the Moncada Barracks) quickly made contact with other groups disillusioned with Batista's rule. While most observers, including most of the leaders of the Cuban Communist Party (Partido Socialista Popular), were startled at Castro's success, Castro never doubted the eventual outcome of his struggle. On 1 January 1959, Castro's forces marched triumphantly into Havana just hours after Batista had fled Cuba.


Castro at first took the position of commander in chief of the armed forces and was also sworn in as prime minister when José Miró Cardona abruptly resigned. Once in power, Castro gained world attention for his defiant stand against the United States. As head of the Cuban government, Castro was committed to nationalizing Cuba's largest industries and landholdings, especially the sugar industry. On a visit to the United States, Castro was refused an audience with President Eisenhower. Refusing to bow to U.S. economic and political pressures, Castro then met for the first time with Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev. These positions led to a cooling of U.S.-Cuban relations, while at the same time the Castro government turned increasingly toward the Soviet Union to counter U.S. pressure.

On 17 April 1961, U.S.-backed Cuban exiles launched an invasion at the Bay of Pigs on the southern coast of the island, an offensive both ill conceived and poorly planned. First developed during the Eisenhower administration, the invasion was carried out under the newly elected administration of John F. Kennedy and was a conclusive failure. Cuba's local police force and militia defeated the counterrevolutionaries, and Castro was hailed both at home and abroad as one of the few leaders capable of standing up to the North American giant. It was after the failed invasion, on 2 December 1961, that Castro publicly declared himself a Marxist, a conversion whose sincerity has since been the subject of much debate. The timing of his conversion does suggest, however, that Castro's move was more pragmatic than heartfelt. Whatever his motives, Castro was left with few alternatives: The U.S. government was patently hostile to his rule and would be satisfied only with the continuation of a Batista-style government sans Batista. Thus, Castro embraced communism and drew ever closer to the Soviet Union.


In October 1962, U.S. intelligence detected Soviet nuclear missiles on the island, and a tense period known as the Cuban Missile Crisis followed. U.S. president Kennedy demanded that the Soviet Union remove its missiles from Cuba, and Soviet premier Khrushchev countered by demanding that the United States remove its nuclear missiles from Turkey. For days it appeared that the United States and the Soviet Union were headed toward war. According to documents released years later, Castro was willing to call Washington's bluff, whereas the Soviets were more reluctant to start a nuclear war. While the world anxiously waited, Premier Nikita Khrushchev gave an eleventh-hour order to turn back a Soviet ship allegedly carrying nuclear missiles and to recall the Soviet nuclear missiles from Cuba. Castro was privately furious at Khrushchev's decision, but the crisis sealed Cuba's fate: The United States would work to undermine Cuba at every turn, as well as try to assassinate Castro himself. From the early 1960s to the early 2000s, Castro led the country, with varied success, on the path of Soviet-style socialism. By the late 1960s the Cuban government had nationalized all economic endeavors, no matter how small, in an effort to centralize the economy and the distribution of resources. Fearful of another U.S.-backed coup, all political activities, the press, and education were closely monitored by the state.


Starting in 1956, before the ouster of Batista, until 1965, when Castro formally became the head of the Cuban Communist Party, Castro adeptly maneuvered around the various factions vying for power in revolutionary Cuba. In his march to power Castro manipulated varied political groupings within Cuba to help achieve his revolutionary goal without relinquishing any real power. For example, in April 1958 Castro at first supported a general strike planned by the urban wing of the underground 26th of July Movement. This strike was opposed by the PSP and backed by the liberal wing of Castro's own movement. But when the strike proved unsuccessful, Castro reversed course and opposed the strike. From that time forward, Castro was the undisputed leader of the movement to oust Batista. Not only did the failed strike discredit the liberals of the movement, but it also allowed Castro to absorb many PSP members into his 26th of July Movement. Although Castro mistrusted the leadership of the PSP, he nonetheless recognized that their commitment to rank-and-file organization and their well-organized party structure could be useful to his own aims.

With Batista gone, Castro first designated Manuel Urrutia Lleó president of Cuba, a post Castro would take over himself once he had consolidated the necessary power. To do this, he turned again to the well-disciplined PSP, whose members he placed in key positions within the government. Resignations of liberals and moderates quickly followed, accompanied by predictable claims that Cuba's government was turning too far to the left. But the wave of resignations and dismissals by liberals and moderates, and the arrest of the popular anti-Communist guerrilla commander Major Hubert Matos, only allowed Castro to consolidate further his political and economic power.

As supreme leader, Castro similarly balanced competing forces in order to maintain his uncontested rule. With the dismissal and exile of the liberals and moderates of the anti-Batista movement, Castro turned increasingly to his brother Raúl and the charismatic Che Guevara for support. Guevara in particular played a crucial role in government economic planning in the mid-1960s. But while Guevara's lasting contribution as a revolutionary is undeniable, his role as economic planner was largely a failure.

Seeking to shift Cuba's economy away from its traditional reliance on sugar production, Guevara embarked on a disastrous plan of diversification. When it became clear that sugar was still the only Cuban product of significant value on the world market, Guevara "recruited" armies of workers to get out the sugar harvest. Despite his calls for Cubans to sacrifice for the good of the revolution (presumably by working sixteen-hour days with no days of rest), the sugar harvest continued to falter because of poor economic planning. Yet Castro took little direct blame for the serious economic decline of the middle and late 1960s. Instead, Castro succeeded in directing the blame variously toward Guevara, the unyielding government bureaucracy, or the United States. While events leading up to Guevara's departure are poorly documented, it is clear that Castro and Guevara had a parting of the ways. Guevara left Cuba for the final time in 1965 and was killed while fighting in Bolivia in 1967.


Over the years Castro has relied on a core of individuals to carry out his rule. Second in power to Castro is his brother Raúl, longtime first vice president of the Council of State and the Council of Ministers and second secretary of the Communist Party, who on 31 July 2006, was appointed by his ailing brother as the acting president of Cuba as well as the commander in chief of the armed forces. Another power of longstanding in Castro's ruling circle, Osmani Cienfuegos, whose brother Camilo Cienfuegos was a comrade of Castro's during the guerrilla war, has served as a vice president of the Council of Ministers and member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. Other Castro loyalists include Ricardo Alarcón, president of the Cuban National Assembly and former Cuban ambassador to the United Nations, and Ramiro Valdés, minister of information science and communication, who fought with Castro at the Moncada Barracks attack in 1953. Valdés has served many posts under Castro, including minister of the interior and member of the Politburo. One of the few leaders besides Fidel to wear the olive-green uniform of the revolution, Valdés is one of only three veterans to carry the title Comandante de la Revolución, a position not even Raúl Castro enjoys. Castro also relied on Carlos Rafael Rodríguez both before and after the revolution to rally crucial support for the regime. Rodríguez was head of the PSP before the revolution, and while he gave his support to Castro only just prior to Batista's ouster, he became a close friend and ally of Castro's after the revolution. Rodríguez served as a vice president of both the Council of State and the Council of Ministers and was a member of the Politburo before his death in 1997

While Castro's political genius has allowed him to enjoy unchallenged power in Cuba, the U.S. government has tried every method conceivable to oust him. After the failure of the Bay of Pigs operation, the Kennedy administration initiated Operation Mongoose, with the purpose of assassinating the Cuban leader. One plan was to contaminate Castro's clothing with thallium salts that would make his beard fall out. Another idea was to spray the broadcasting booth with hallucinogens before a televised speech. There were also plans to poison Castro's cigars or to place explosive shells at his favorite diving spots.

Because he has squelched most opposition within Cuba, Castro has relied on a charismatic rule that places personality ahead of practical programs. Castro is forever the advocate, and up until age and illness limited his movements, he was known to travel up, down, and across the island to meet with as many Cubans as possible. A brilliant speaker, he is capable of convincing huge crowds to endorse programs they may have been opposed to minutes earlier. His speeches are legend, both for their length (he has been known to speak for up to nine hours straight) and their ability to persuade. Castro places great importance on his ability to move massive crowds (and Cuba's television audience) to endorse with their shouts and cheers whatever programs or policy he might be pushing for at the time.

Despite U.S. efforts to undermine Castro's regime, the Cuban economy grew throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Despite criticism at home and abroad, Castro could justifiably claim that the standard of living for Cubans was better than for other Caribbean peoples. In some categories, such as life span or low infant mortality, Cuba led all Latin American nations. Literacy rates in Cuba rivaled that of the United States and the western European nations. And though scarcities were common, Cuba did not have the army of homeless beggars that populated the streets of other Latin American nations.

Critics argued that Cuba's relative affluence was the result of financial support from the Soviet Union, not of what many considered the failed polices of Castro's socialist government. While true, it is also true that the United States has funneled large sums of economic and military support to Latin American nations such as Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Haiti, where economic misery and political strife were constant. Thus, Castro could argue that while Soviet aid helped build a nourished and housed population with an exceptional health care system, U.S. aid to many Latin American nations only exacerbated the cycle of poverty and violence so prevalent in the region.


Because Cuba's economy relied on Soviet support and subsidies, when the Soviet economy began to falter in the late 1970s so too did Cuba's. With food and housing shortages spreading throughout the island, in April 1980 a group of Cubans ran the gates of the Peruvian embassy in Havana and requested asylum. As news spread throughout Cuba, an estimated ten thousand Cubans flocked to the Peruvian embassy hoping to leave the island. This was a genuine crisis for Castro's government, because it suggested a high level of discontent among Cubans living in Cuba. Castro, the master politician, however, successfully diverted attention from the failings of his government and caused a public embarrassment for the U.S. government and its president, Jimmy Carter.

In response to the crisis, Carter publicly expressed solidarity for all Cubans wanting to leave Cuba. Castro responded by declaring that any Cuban who wanted to leave the island could now do so. Overnight, thousands of ships from Florida crossed the Florida Straits to collect Cubans wanting to leave Cuba. This caused an immediate problem for the United States, especially state officials in Florida, who had neither the money nor the facilities to handle such a large exodus. When Carter denounced Castro for keeping political prisoners, Castro freed many Cubans in prison or state hospitals. The result was an unmanageable crisis for the United States, and Carter was forced to request that Castro once again enforce Cuba's border and prevent Cubans from leaving the island without legal permission.


With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 the Cuban economy declined dramatically, and anti-Castro forces in the United States waited for the collapse of Cuba's socialist system. Rationing was expanded, malnourishment appeared in some areas, and a fuel shortage forced more and more Cubans to walk or ride bicycles. But by the late 1990s Cuba's economy had recovered slightly, and the election of Hugo Chávez as president of Venezuela gave a boost to the Cuban economy. With Chávez in power, oil-rich Venezuela could now provide Cuba with the oil it had lacked since the collapse of the Soviet Union. In 2006 the Cuban economy was in full rebound and reported a 12 percent growth. Though this estimate is considered high, independent analysts figured Cuba's growth to be a still robust 9 percent in 2006.


For all his visibility as a public figure, little is known about Castro's private life. In 1948 he married Mirta Díaz-Balart, with whom he had one son before divorcing in 1955. Castro later married Dalia Soto del Valle and had five sons with her. Most of Castro's old comrades have died off, and he lacks close personal friendships with all but a few. He is still in touch with his ex-wife, Mirta, and also keeps in contact with his eldest son, Fidelito, who is married and has two children. Trained as a physicist, Fidelito served as head of the Cuban Nuclear Commission until Castro had him removed from the post. Castro's daughter Alina Fernández-Revuelta (whose mother Naty Revuelta had an affair with Castro while he was still married to Mirta Díaz-Balart) left Cuba in 1993 and has been a strong critic of her father's rule.

Castro maintains varying degrees of cordiality with his siblings. He is closest to his brother Raúl, a relationship born of their unique shared experiences starting with the attack on the Moncada Barracks. One sister, Juana, is actively hostile toward him, however, and attacks him often from her self-imposed exile in Miami. The Castro family land-holdings were gradually turned over to government control starting in 1959. Castro's former nephew by marriage, Lincoln Diaz-Balart, is a Republican Congressman from Florida.

If Castro has a lover, her identity is unknown, and since the death of Celia Sánchez Manduley in 1980, Castro has shown no interest in elevating another woman to this position. Despite never marrying Fidel, Celia Sánchez played the role of first lady of Cuba. In addition to her role as companion, she exercised considerable political power as secretary of the Council of State and member of the party's Central Committee. After her death, numerous monuments and parks were erected in her honor.

Castro was a habitual smoker throughout much of his career, but he quit smoking in 1986 in order to set an example to other Cubans. Although the cigar industry brings in hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue every year, Castro has embarked on a campaign to get Cubans to quit smoking.

Castro's health has been the subject of rumors since he first emerged as a international figure in the 1950s. Despite numerous claims of ill health (or death), Castro was an active, visible leader of Cuba from the 1950s until 2006, when he temporarily gave all governing power to his brother Raúl while he underwent surgery for "acute intestinal crisis with sustained bleeding." For months Castro was not seen in public, but video footage of him a year later suggested that his health was improved. In February 2008 Castro announced his resignation as leader of Cuba.


When the Soviet bloc collapsed, Castro faced still another challenge to his rule and the Cuban state he built. In his eighties, Castro cannot rule for very much longer, and some argue that after his death Cuba will revert to the control of the Cuban exile community based in Miami. Yet the political pundits have never given Castro his due, and there is no reason to think that Castro's brand of socialism will collapse once he dies. It was considered folly to attack the Moncada Barracks in 1953 and even more foolhardy to launch a sea invasion of Cuba in 1956. Yet Castro silenced his critics with his record of success. Since the establishment of his socialist regime in Cuba, many have counted by the day or week, not year, the time it would supposedly take for Castro to be ousted, yet he has clung to power for nearly fifty years.

It is also common to regard Castro as nothing more than a caudillo, and in fact he displays many of the traits associated with other Latin American strongmen. Yet if his only goal had been to replace Batista, certainly a man of Castro's considerable abilities and class background could have reached the pinnacle of power in Cuba through the accepted military and social channels. While Castro's early days in the mountains of eastern Cuba nearly cost him his life, they also established that he was fighting for more than just personal aggrandizement and perpetuation of the old order. From his earliest days as a student, Castro has been an ardent nationalist fighting to rid Cuba of foreign control and the humiliation of poverty and illiteracy. Although foreign influences remain after his much-publicized break with the United States, certainly Cuba enjoyed greater leeway with the Soviet Union than it did in its relations with its North American neighbor. And while poverty and illiteracy there have not been eliminated, Cuba far surpasses the rest of Latin America in education and the fulfillment of basic needs. Although he cannot claim sole responsibility for this, Fidel Castro can take at least partial credit for overseeing the transformation of Cuba into a modern, secular, healthy, and well-educated society.

See alsoCuba: Cuba Since 1959; Cuban Intervention in Africa; Cuban Missile Crisis; Cuba, Revolutions: Cuban Revolution; Cuba, Twenty-Sixth of July Movement.


Primary Work

Castro, Fidel, and Ignacio Ramonet. Fidel Castro: My Life; A Spoken Autobiography. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2008.

Secondary Works

Bourne, Peter G. Fidel: A Biography of Fidel Castro. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1986.

De la Cova, Antonio Rafael. The Moncada Attack: Birth of the Cuban Revolution. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2007.

Franqui, Carlos. Diary of the Cuban Revolution. New York: Viking, 1980.

Latell, Brian. After Fidel: The Inside Story of Castro's Regime and Cuba's Next Leader. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.

Lievesley, Geraldine. The Cuban Revolution: Past, Present, and Future. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.

Lockwood, Lee. Castro's Cuba, Cuba's Fidel. New York: Vintage, 1969.

Shierka, Volker. Fidel Castro: A Biography, trans. Patrick Camillar. Cambridge, U.K., and Malden, MA: Polity, 2004.

Szulc, Tad. Fidel, a Critical Portrait. New York: Morrow, 1986.

                                      Michael Powelson

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Castro Ruz, Fidel (1926–)

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