Castro, Fidel 1926-
Fidel Castro, a first-generation Cuban, was born August 13, 1926, to a wealthy farming family in the eastern region of Oriente. Their 11,000 hectares produced wood, sugarcane, and cattle. His father had migrated from Galicia, Spain, while his religious peasant mother had been born in Cuba of Spanish parents. Both parents learned to read and write although neither went to school. Fidel Castro was one of six children.
When Castro was three years old, the worldwide economic depression hit rural Cuba. From 1929 to 1933 the island experienced widespread social and political upheaval, culminating when Fulgencio Batista (1901–1973), a sergeant, led a military revolt that put a radical government in power. Batista, at the behest of the American ambassador, then overthrew it and continued to dominate Cuban politics until 1959.
Castro initially went to a small rural school. At age six, in 1932, he left for a private Catholic elementary boarding school in Santiago de Cuba. Later he went to the leading elite Jesuit secondary school, Colegio Belén, in Cuba’s capital city of Havana. From the Spanish priests he learned self-discipline. In 1943 he earned an award as the country’s best secondary-school athlete. During school breaks, he visited the family farm and read newspaper reports about the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939) or World War II (1939–1945) to his parents and workers. In the Spanish conflict, his family supported Francisco Franco (1892–1975).
In September 1945, at the age of nineteen, Castro entered the University of Havana. The campus was his springboard to national politics. Just the previous year, national elections had allowed the Partido Revolucionario Cubano (PRC), also known as the Auténtico Party, to set up a government. The PRC promised major social reforms and greater national independence. Castro immediately became involved in the tumultuous politics of the time. Students and professors transformed courses into discussions of Cuba’s social, economic, and political problems.
In 1947 he participated in setting up a new populist political party, the Partido del Pueblo Cubano, or Ortodoxo Party, which had separated from the PRC. The Ortodoxos shared the same values as the PRC but claimed the Auténtico government had failed to deliver on its promised reforms and instead had become thoroughly corrupt.
Early in his life Castro had absorbed anticapitalist ideas based on Catholic counter-reformation conservative thought. While attending high school, he discovered the nationalist, anti-imperialist revolutionary writings and biography of the Cuban patriot José Martí (1853–1895). At the University of Havana he became acquainted with radical works, including those of the German political philosopher Karl Marx (1818–1883) and the Russian Communist leader Vladimir Lenin (1870–1924). He claims that in those days he became a utopian socialist and cites Martí as his primary influence.
During his university years, from 1945 to 1950, Castro was a political activist. In September 1947 he joined an armed expeditionary force composed of Cubans and exiles from the Dominican Republic intending to oust the government of the dictator Rafael Leónidas Trujillo (1891–1961). The invasion was never launched. The next year, in April 1948 as a representative of the Law Students Association of Cuba, Castro went to a Latin American University Students Congress in Bogotá, Colombia, which coincided with the United States’ initiation of the Organization of American States and the advent of civil war in Colombia. The populist leader of the opposition was assassinated. For two days Castro participated in some of the early armed skirmishes, and then he returned home. Both incidents indicate that he, like many contemporaries in Cuba, identified with political struggles in the region. He was also involved in a political organization promoting the independence of Puerto Rico. By then he had acquired lifelong contacts with Latin American progressive political parties and leaders.
He graduated in 1950 with a law degree, having specialized in international law and social sciences. His main interests were politics, sociology, history, theory, and agriculture. As a student leader, radio commentator, and investigative political journalist, he developed a significant following among young people. The Ortodoxo Party recognized his oratorical and organizational skills and nominated him for the planned June 1952 national congressional election. However, on March 10, 1952, the military, led by Batista, carried out a second coup d’état, ending hopes that electoral politics could reform the island and throwing Cuba’s constitutional system into a crisis.
Like many other political reformists, the young Ortodoxos became committed revolutionaries, clandestinely organizing to oust the new military rulers. On July 26, 1953, civilians led by Castro attacked Santiago de Cuba’s Moncada army barracks, the second largest in the country. It ended in failure. Some men were killed in the confrontation; others were captured and then assassinated. The survivors ended up in prison. From the summer of 1953 to May 1955, Castro was imprisoned at the Isle of Pines, but he continued to organize his associates inside and outside prison. He also read about political, economic, and social matters. In mid-May 1955, the Moncadistas were granted a political amnesty. Batista hoped such a move would earn him legitimacy. It did not. Meanwhile, by serving time, Castro had become one of the primary national opposition leaders in Cuba.
He spent May 1955 to November 1956 in exile in Mexico, where he organized and trained a guerrilla force. On December 2, 1956, eighty-two men who had embarked from the Mexican port of Tuxpan days earlier landed in Cuba in the southern portion of the Oriente. The guerrilla insurgency had begun. The guerrillas gained control of significant portions of territory, launched an agrarian reform, recruited peasants, and created an alternative set of political institutions. Castro broadcast daily from a rebel shortwave radio station. From the Sierra Maestra Mountains, he coordinated the military and political struggle. From 1957 to 1958 the guerrillas were able to build a multi-class popular front against the dictatorship.
On December 31, 1958, the Batista military regime and political machine collapsed. This was a first in Latin America: a rural insurgency that defeated a regular military force supported by the U.S. government.
On January 1, 1959, less than six years after the initiation of open opposition to the Batista regime, Castro’s revolutionary forces seized power. The Cuban revolution was about to begin. The fundamental questions of how the society’s institutions would be organized and what the relationship would be with the United States and Latin America soon became paramount issues as the multi-class alliance that had supported the guerrillas fractured. Portions of the bourgeoisie and the middle classes wanted a return to a constitutional government without affecting social and economic institutions. However, landless peasants and the seasonally unemployed, among others, favored radical changes.
Moreover, the Cuban revolutionaries were aware of the political processes unfolding in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. While the United States and the Soviet Union were engaged in the cold war, third-world countries were addressing the pressing problems of national independence, integration, decolonization, and socioeconomic development. Some of the same issues needed to be addressed in Cuba.
Even before the guerrillas left the Sierra Maestra, the U.S. government tried to prevent them from seizing power. Also, the United States gave political refuge to Batistianos, allowing them to plunder Cuba’s national treasure. In January 1959, right-wing Batista forces in exile in the United States began hit-and-run attacks by air and sea, but the U.S. government turned a blind eye. Foreign relations between the two governments deteriorated rapidly.
Moderates and radicals within the new revolutionary regime immediately discovered the interconnection of domestic and foreign policy. Attempting to distribute land to the landless created confrontation with the United States because the best land was owned by American corporations. Increasing wages also affected American-owned corporations. Import-export policy impinged on the businesses that did precisely that, mostly American ones. Moreover, the administration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953–1961) had no intention of forfeiting American privileges enjoyed since 1898.
Nevertheless, the Cuban nationalists sought to bring about unprecedented independence. Any attempt to reform Cuba’s social, economic, and political institutions would create confrontation between the two countries. American opposition only contributed to the radicalization of the revolutionary process.
Cuba had a mono-export economy, with one major buyer (the United States), yearly cyclical high unemployment, and much social inequality. Cuba was a poor and underdeveloped country, although different in one respect from other nation-states in the Caribbean. With Cuban capitalism so closely connected to American investments, nationalist efforts to control the country’s resources easily became equated with anticapitalism. Cuban businesses did not come to the fore to defend their interests by differentiating themselves from U.S. interests. Rather, Cuban capital attached its politics and fate to the U.S. government.
The early Cuban revolutionary regime developed a threefold strategy: a progressive redistribution of income, a radical change in the property system, and a lowering of major daily costs (such as food, rent, transportation, and public services) to benefit the lower classes. This resulted in broader political support among the lower classes and a reduction of the income and wealth of the upper classes, thus diminishing their available resources for counterrevolutionary activity.
As this radicalization advanced, the moderates within the revolutionary coalition joined the opposition or went into exile. Many members of the professions did the same. As the country lost skilled personnel, the state further centralized political, administrative, and economic resources. Facing a shortage of expertise, the revolutionary regime relied on the politically trustworthy, usually people who were radical, including Communists. Such trends further exacerbated the political climate and relations with the U.S. government.
By March 1960, the United States had begun formal covert programs to overthrow the government and kill its leaders. In April 1961, a Cuban exile invasion (Bay of Pigs) was organized, trained, financed, and directed by the Central Intelligence Agency. The fact that it was defeated by the Cubans reinforced the United States’ commitment to oust the revolutionaries. The John F. Kennedy administration (1961–1963) further retaliated by organizing a second expeditionary force and imposing an economic embargo in February 1962.
Havana and Moscow replied by surreptitiously installing tactical nuclear weapons on the island in 1962. Interestingly, Castro urged the Soviets to announce to the world that missiles were going to be installed as a matter of sovereign right on the part of Havana. The Soviet premier, however, did not listen to his advice.
Between April 1961 and March 1962, Castro removed key pro-Soviet Communists from critical positions in the government and the economy while negotiations with Moscow on missile installations were conducted. After October 1962, because of the way the Soviets handled the resolution of the Missile Crisis (Cubans were not informed of the negotiations), relations cooled. Havana made numerous moves to publicly assert its independence. The Soviets put up with Cuba questioning their position on the Sino-Soviet conflict, on the electoral politics of Communist parties in Latin America, the methods of building socialism, and the importance of politics based on moral rather than materialist perspectives. Havana, in other words, was to the left of Moscow. Such were the tense relations until 1972.
From 1972 to 1985, on domestic matters Cuba followed policies that were in accord with the Soviet model, but Castro constructed a foreign policy that challenged the Soviets. This was the case in Angola (1975), Ethiopia (1977), Nicaragua (1979), and an international organization called the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM; 1979). In 1980, Moscow informed Havana that it would not defend the island if U.S. military forces were to attack. Cuba had to develop its own military doctrine and structure from that point on. Thereafter, the political and ideological distance between the two countries grew, even though the island depended on Soviet economic subsidies.
From 1985 to 1990, Castro elaborated a critique of the old Soviet model while rejecting the reforms of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. The government in Moscow responded by further reducing assistance.
The demise of the Soviet bloc from 1989 to 1991 had major domestic implications in Cuba. It initiated the most difficult economic period in the history of the island—the so-called Special Period.
The United States took advantage of that juncture to increase Cuba’s economic isolation. It was an extraordinary accomplishment that Castro’s regime adapted its policies and survived. Moreover, by 2000 the island had slowly begun to regain the economic standards it had enjoyed in the early 1980s.
To break away from American-imposed isolation policies while distancing itself from the Soviets, Cuba developed a global foreign policy. Castro cultivated a personal relationship with key political, social, and cultural leaders from Africa, Asia, and Latin America. His close friends have included such nationalist progressives as Nelson Mandela (b. 1918; South Africa), Lázaro Cárdenas (1895–1970; Mexico), Omar Torrijos (1929–1981; Panama), Juan Bosch (1909–2001; Dominican Republic), Salvador Allende (1908–1973; Chile), Daniel Ortega (b. 1945; Nicaragua), Juan Domingo Perón (1895–1974; Argentina), Sékou Touré (1922–1984; Guinea), Ahmed Ben Bella (b. 1918; Algeria), Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (b. 1945; Brazil), João Goulart (1918–1976; Brazil), Josip Broz Tito (1892–1980; Yugoslavia), Jawaharlal Nehru (1889–1964; India), and many others. The closest of all associations has been between Castro and Hugo Chávez (b. 1954), the president of Venezuela beginning in 1999. The older man recognized the revolutionary qualities of the Venezuelan as early as 1994. The two have similar national histories with a heavy reliance on mass mobilization. Chávez, however, attained and has maintained political power through electoral politics. Moreover, while the younger man respects the elder statesman, there is a unique reciprocity of respect and influence. Castro provides political and tactical advice, and Venezuela’s economic resources have permitted Chávez to help Cuba surmount the economic crisis that began in 1991. Radical and revolutionary ideas and organization have been extended by their alliance beyond anything that Castro could have imagined.
In 1961 the Non-Aligned Movement was established in Belgrade, Serbia. Cuba was the only country from Latin America that was a founding member. In 2007 the NAM had 118 third-world countries. Twice Castro has been elected to lead the organization, an explicit mark of esteem for the political example and strategic perspectives of the Cuban revolutionary. Thus, Cuba has become identified with selfless internationalism, sending assistance, for example, to Angola, Mozambique, Nicaragua, Grenada, Venezuela, Algeria, North Vietnam, Ethiopia, Pakistan, and Haiti.
Once the Soviet Union and its Eastern European allies were gone, the government in Havana devised more activist policies toward the third-world nations, providing them with the human capital the island had been so successful in creating, particularly teachers, doctors, dentists, and technical people. In January 2007, Cuba had diplomatic relations with 183 countries.
Relations between the United States and Cuba have gone through different periods, but they have never been friendly. Full diplomatic relations were broken by the United States in January 1961. Thirteen months later, normal economic transactions were terminated by Washington. Only during the administration of President Jimmy Carter (1977–1981) was there a brief period during which some diplomatic ties were restored and travel between the two countries resumed. However, during the administration of George W. Bush (starting in 2001), travel to the island from the United States was highly restricted, including family and academic travel. Cuba cannot use the U.S. dollar in any international transaction, receive international credits, or use any banking institution tied to U.S. capital. Third parties outside the United States are also pressured not to engage in trade with the island. The degree of U.S. financial support to the opposition has increased, and the economic blockade/embargo has been heightened. Every year, the United Nations’ General Assembly overwhelmingly votes against the U.S. policy, but the policy remains.
Castro has been the paramount strategist, executive officer, ideologist, and macromanager of the revolutionary regime. He has been the revolution’s main leader, spokesman, and coalition builder. Relying on historical reference, example, and metaphor, he has taught that action is the best educator. A radical nationalist, he integrated Martí and Marx. His political thought is rooted in ethical values rather than materialist theory. He has synchronized socialist European traditions with third-world customs while recognizing that each country must find its own way. He has dealt with development theory, nation building, internationalism, foreign debt, globalization, sustainable development, social justice, party building, and human psychology. Since the 1950s his political strategy has stressed unity among revolutionists. Mass mobilization has been a constant instrument and has included the literacy campaign, childhood vaccination, the creation of a territorial militia, and anticorruption campaigns.
Since 1959 resources have been concentrated in the rural areas and small towns, and the city of Havana has suffered. An ideology of inherent rights and entitlements has developed with a system that provides universal education, health and dental care, child care, and burial service free of charge. The state also assumes the responsibility of providing employment or giving the unemployed financial support. Cuba is one of the most educated countries in the third world, with a life expectancy of 77.5 years and an infant mortality rate of 6.5 per 1,000 live births (as of January 2007). Education and health claim 23 percent of the gross internal product. The number of libraries, schools, hospitals, and dams increased dramatically from1959 to the mid-1980s. Food has been subsidized since 1962, but it has been rationed as well. Just as libraries lend books, there are also centers that lend musical instruments at no cost. Every municipality has computer clubs where access is free. Thirteen percent of the population benefits from universal social security, and 4.2 percent receives social assistance checks.
The political system has changed from its original high dependence on charismatic leadership based on mass popular organizations (1959–1976) to a formal institutionalized political regime where officials are directly elected by the population, with no campaigning or Communist Party–proposed candidates. Still, charismatic authority continued to operate to balance and control the administrative state. Castro’s contact with the population, which began in 1959 through mass rallies, has been preserved. He has been the unifying and integrating force among disparate factions in the revolutionary family.
Cuba does not permit alternative political parties or a political opposition to openly publish political materials. However, thirty-two Catholic publications do express positions that are opposed to the government, although in a subtle fashion. The political leadership maintains, based on Federalist Paper No. 8 by the U.S. founding father James Madison (1751–1836), that the external threat posed by the U.S. government’s policies—including confrontation, isolation, invasion, financial assistance to opponents within the island, and an economic embargo that has lasted more than four decades—do not provide much space for a political opposition.
By the end of July 2006, Castro had transferred political power, in a provisional manner, to his brother and other individuals in what constitutes the establishment of a collective leadership. The question for most foreign observers is whether the Cuban revolution will survive the death of its leader. History will tell.
SEE ALSO Authoritarianism; Bay of Pigs; Bush, George H. W.; Bush, George W.; Chavez, Hugo; Cuban Missile Crisis; Cuban Revolution; Franco, Francisco; Guerrilla Warfare; Khrushchev, Nikita; Leninism; Madison, James; Marx, Karl; Marxism; Reagan, Ronald; Revolution; Socialism; Spanish Civil War; Third World; Totalitarianism
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Guerra, Dolores, Margarita Concepción, and Amparo Hernández. 2004. José Martí en el ideario de Fidel Castro. Havana, Cuba: Centro de Estudios Martianos.
Liss, Sheldon B. 1994. Fidel! Castro’s Political and Social Thought. Boulder, CO: Westview.
Lockwood, Lee. 1967. Castro’s Cuba, Cuba’s Fidel: An American Journalist’s Inside Look at Today’s Cuba. New York: Macmillan.
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Ramonet, Ignacio. 2006. Fidel Castro: Biografía a dos voces. Madrid, Spain: Debate.
Nelson P. Valdes
Born August 13, 1926
C uba's proximity to the United States, only 90 miles (145 kilometers) from the Florida Keys, and its hard-line pro–Soviet Union communist government led successive U.S. presidential administrations to fear the island, both as a base for subversive activities throughout the Western Hemisphere and as a platform for a Soviet attack on the United States. These fears led to the Bay of Pigs invasion, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and American efforts to isolate the Cuban government and assassinate its leader, Fidel Castro. In the early twenty-first century, Cuba still operated under communism, a governmental system in which a single political party, the Communist Party, controls nearly all aspects of society. In a communist economy, private ownership of property and businesses is banned so that goods produced and wealth accumulated can be shared equally by all.
Although the Soviet Union never entered into a formal military alliance with Castro, Castro was useful to the Soviets because his presence challenged U.S. dominance in Latin America. In this sense, Castro's Cuba was an irritant to the Americans just as West Berlin was to the Soviets. Castro regularly appeared at international meetings, where he criticized American imperialism, the process of expanding the authority of one government over other nations and groups of people, and offered aid and encouragement to national liberation movements in the Third World. (Third World refers to poor underdeveloped or economically developing nations in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Many of these countries were seeking independence from the political control of Western European nations.
A land of opportunity
Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz was born on his father's farm, "Las Manacas," near the town of Mayarí in the former province of Oriente. He was the third child of seven born to Lina Ruz Gonzalez and Angel Castro Argiz. Angel was a Spaniard who fought as a cavalry officer in the Spanish army during the Spanish-American War (1898). This conflict was an ongoing civil war between Spain, which controlled Cuba at that time, and rebel forces seeking independence for Cuba. The United States had an interest in ridding Cuba of its Spanish rulers, because it no longer wanted European influences in the Western Hemisphere. The United States wanted to control or influence resources and economies for its own benefit and not allow possible growth of influences from abroad. By April 1898,U.S. military forces were sent in to assist the rebels. Within only a few months, Cuba was liberated from Spanish domination.
After the war, Angel Castro stayed on in Cuba to become a relatively prosperous sugarcane grower. He was a powerful authoritarian figure who was often in a state of conflict with his young sons. At the age of thirteen, Fidel went so far as to organize a strike of the workers on his father's plantation. Fidel inherited his father's height, which contributed to his success as a superior athlete.
Fidel's mother was a very religious woman who had received little education herself. She therefore stressed the importance of education for her children. She combined warmth and affection with high expectations and a determination that they would succeed. In 1942, at the age of fifteen, Fidel attended Belen, a Jesuit, or Catholic missionary, boarding school in Havana that had close ties with Spain. The prestigious school served the nation's upper class and offered the best education and opportunity in Cuba. From the moment young Fidel arrived at the school, the faculty singled him out as a boy with exceptional talent and leadership potential.
At Belen, Castro was exposed to the writings of Cuban national hero José Martí (1853–1895). Martí was a towering figure in Cuban history, a patriot who fought for Cuba's freedom. Like Castro, Martí was the son of an officer in the Spanish army, the army that opposed the Cuban rebels who fought for independence in the late nineteenth century. Despite his father's political leanings, José Martí was dedicated to the struggle for an independent Cuba.
The fascist, or dictatorial, views of José Antonio Primo de Rivera (1903–1936) were another significant influence on Castro. De Rivera fought under Spanish leader Francisco Franco (1892–1975) in order to free Spain from strong communist and British influences. Like Castro, de Rivera came from a wealthy background, but he had given up an easy life to fight for what he believed in.
While at Belen, Castro was very active in a Jesuit organization called the "Explorers," which was similar to the Boy Scouts. They went on rigorous camping trips into rugged mountain areas, and Castro acquired a reputation for stamina and endurance, eventually becoming the leader of the troop.
In 1945, Castro went on to study law at the University of Havana, and it was there that he became involved in politics. Castro joined the left-wing, or liberal, Cuban People's Party. In 1948, he married Mirta Diaz-Bilart, and they had a son. Castro graduated with a law degree from the University of Havana in 1950 and set up a law practice in the city.
During most of Castro's early years, Fulgencio Batista y Zaldívar (1901–1973), an oppressive dictator, a leader who uses force and terror to maintain control, ruled Cuba. Since 1933, either directly or through others who were leaders in name only, Batista had been in complete control of the island. Batista's economic policies helped establish such light industry businesses as canneries and allowed foreign companies, many from the United States, to build their businesses in Cuba. U.S. corporations dominated the sugar industry, oil production, and other key elements of the island's economy. As a result, most of Cuba's wealth was therefore only owned by a small percentage of the population, meaning most Cuban citizens lived in dire poverty. Cuba was ripe for revolution by the 1950s. Castro, the handsome, intense young lawyer, proved to be a charismatic leader for the rebel cause.
Castro started organizing a revolution to overthrow Batista. On July 26, 1953, Castro was arrested after leading an armed assault on the Moncada army barracks in Santiago de Cuba. The attack was a failure, and most of his followers were killed. Castro conducted his own defense at his trial and used the opportunity as a platform to call for free elections, land reform, profit sharing, and industrialization. These issues formed the foundation of his revolutionary movement, and they appealed to many Cubans. Both Castro and his brother, Raúl Castro (1931–), were sentenced to fifteen years in prison for insurrection, or revolt. They were released under an amnesty, or official forgiveness, program in 1955. Castro's marriage to Mirta was dissolved that year as well.
Naming a tiny group of rebels the "26th of July Movement," Castro went into exile in Mexico and began to organize an armed rebellion. The small band of guerrillas, small groups of soldiers specializing in surprise attacks, returned to Cuba on December 26, 1956, aboard an old 38-foot (12-meter) wooden boat, the Granma, which had been purchased from an American. Upon landing back at home in Oriente, they encountered government forces and suffered heavy losses. Castro and eleven others, including his brother Raúl and Argentinian revolutionary leader Ernesto "Che" Guevara (1928–1967), survived the encounter and escaped to the mountains of the Sierra Maestra on the southeast end of the island. There they joined allies, all part of a widespread opposition to Batista. Castro began to launch a military offensive against Batista's Cuban army in the fall of 1958. With his regime collapsing around him and Castro marching on Havana, Batista fled for the Dominican Republic in the early hours of January 1, 1959. Fidel Castro and his forces immediately took control of the capital and the country. Castro took the oath of office as premier of Cuba on February 16, 1959, and became the youngest head of state in the Western Hemisphere.
A new Cuban government
In the immediate aftermath of the overthrow of Batista's government, Castro appeared to be inclined toward a democratic government. A democratic system of government allows multiple political parties. Members of the different political parties are elected to various government offices by popular vote of the people. Castro arrived in Washington, D.C., in April 1959 to begin a goodwill tour of the United States, a staunchly democratic country. In Washington and in New York City, enthusiastic crowds greeted Castro; he was seen as a democratic reformer, not a communist. However, after Castro returned to Cuba, it quickly became evident that he was basing his regime on opposition to the Americans. In May, against the objections of the United States, Castro nationalized, or took control and ownership of, the sugarcane industry, which had been dominated by an American corporation, the United Fruit Company. He proceeded to collectivize agriculture, or place control of farmlands under group control in specific areas rather than by individual ownership. Castro also took over native- and foreign-owned industry, placing it under the government's control. Many of the wealthy, property-owning classes fled the country.
The United States was heavily invested in the Cuban economy and had virtually controlled it for decades. Being the dominant power in Cuba, America had also intervened in Cuban politics to ensure that the Cuban government would stay friendly to the United States. Castro's policy of transforming Cuba from a capitalist to a socialist society did not sit well with the United States, which had always had a capitalist economy. In a capitalist economy, property and businesses are privately owned. Production, distribution, and prices of goods are determined by competition in a market relatively free of government intervention. In contrast, a socialist economy allows the government to control all means of production and to set prices.
Castro's new economic policies made Cuba a focal point of the Cold War, an intense political and economic rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union that lasted from 1945 to 1991. By September 1959, Castro had signed trade agreements with the Soviet Union, a communist country. He then signed agreements with the rest of Eastern Europe and China, all communist nations. Castro was openly critical of the United States and blamed American imperialism for inflicting economic backwardness on Cuba and the rest of Latin America. U.S. president Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890–1969; served 1953–61; see entry) responded by imposing trade restrictions on Cuba. One of the last official diplomatic acts of the Eisenhower administration was the severing of U.S.-Cuban diplomatic relations. In March 1960, Eisenhower authorized the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to begin training Cuban exiles, people who had fled Cuba, to participate in a possible attack on Cuba.
The Bay of Pigs
When President John F. Kennedy (1917–1963; served 1961–63; see entry) took office in January 1961, he inherited Eisenhower's plan to destabilize the Castro regime. The United States was in the midst of the Cold War with the communist Soviet Union, and Kennedy did not wish to appear soft on Communism. However, he did not want to put U.S. forces in danger by staging a full-fledged invasion of Cuba. Kennedy instead authorized a revised, top-secret plan to carry out a small-scale invasion. On April 17, 1961, the plan was put into action.
The original plan had been to land a large-scale operation at Trinidad, on the southern coast of Cuba. The landing was switched to a spot about 100 miles (160 kilometers) away, just south of the city of Matanzas, called the Bahía de Cochinos (Bay of Pigs). The armed force consisted of about fifteen hundred U.S.-trained Cuban exiles. The Cuban military quickly confronted this small group, and the whole operation collapsed within days. The victory was a major boost for Castro and a major embarrassment for the Kennedy administration. The invasion provoked demonstrations against the United States in Latin America and Europe and increased the tensions between the United States and Cuba. The event also encouraged Castro to seek military ties with the Soviet Union so he could protect his government against another attack.
A tug of war
Castro's success in maintaining independence from the United States earned him admiration in Latin America and throughout the Third World. Sporting a beard and dressed in army fatigues, Castro cultivated his image as a revolutionary hero and guerrilla fighter. Cuba provided military assistance to revolutionary movements in South America and later in Africa. U.S. presidential administrations sought to isolate Castro's government within the Western Hemisphere and made it known to other countries that having friendly relations with Castro would be considered an unfriendly act toward the United States.
American attempts to overthrow Castro shifted from invasion to a covert operation, dubbed Operation Mongoose. The goal of the top-secret effort, which was directed by the CIA, was to get rid of Castro—via overthrow or assassination. At least eight attempts were made on Castro's life, a fact revealed in documents released by the U.S. government. The assassination attempts involved contacts with the Mafia, or secret criminals, to hire hit men to assassinate Castro. Other attempts involved the use of poisoned cigars, poisoned pills, a poison pen, and a poison-impregnated skin diving suit. At one time, Castro himself claimed that at least twenty-four CIA-organized attempts had been made on his life.
Castro reacted to the U.S. hostility by openly describing himself as procommunist in 1961. He established close political and economic ties with the Soviet Union so that Cuba was aligned with the communist bloc, or group, of nations. Soviet aid enabled Castro to redistribute wealth in Cuba, introduce a free public health system, expand educational opportunities, and provide full employment. However, Castro also introduced a Soviet-style political structure; the Cuban Communist Party was the only legal political party. Press and television were heavily censored, and most businesses were owned by the state. In exchange for the aid they provided to Cuba, the Soviets hoped to use Castro's revolutionary enthusiasm to further the cause of communism on an international scale.
In 1962, Castro sent his finance minister, Che Guevara, and his foreign minister, Raúl Castro, to Moscow to negotiate for Soviet military aid. The Soviets refused to sign a formal military alliance with Cuba; instead they decided to install nuclear offensive and defensive missiles on the island. This would provide
the Soviets with a strategic military base in the Western Hemisphere and protect Cuba from American attack.
One year after the Bay of Pigs invasion attempt, Kennedy and his advisors began an intensive debate about how to respond to the informal alliance between Cuba and the Soviet Union. Anxious U.S. leaders doubted that Cuban communism and the capitalist democracy of the United States could exist peacefully side by side, only 90 miles (145 kilometers) apart. As an added security measure, some 150,000 U.S. reserve troops were ordered to active duty, and U.S. reconnaissance, or spy, flights over Cuba increased. These flights revealed that the Soviet Union had started building launching pads for offensive ballistic missiles at San Cristóbal. Then intelligence reports revealed that twenty-five Soviet ships, carrying a cargo of ballistic missiles, had recently left ports on the Black Sea bound for Cuba. They were expected to reach the Caribbean within ten days. This left President Kennedy just over a week to decide his course of action. The only certain military solution would be a full-scale assault on Cuba. But such an attack could be used by the Soviets to justify a similar attack on West Berlin, the stronghold of Western influence in Eastern Europe. In short, Kennedy thought that military action at this point might well lead to World War III.
President Kennedy and his advisors decided to use a naval blockade around Cuba. Because blockades were against international law, they called the blockade a "quarantine." The purpose of the quarantine was to prevent the Soviet ships carrying the missiles from reaching Cuba; the United States wanted to give Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev (1894–1971; see entry) time to reconsider his actions. Khrushchev quickly recognized that he was in an impossible situation: If he moved against West Berlin, he would face nuclear retaliation. If he completed and used the missile bases already in Cuba, his fate would be no different. If he simply left the missiles already in place in Cuba, the United States would invade Cuba and the Soviet Union would lose its communist foothold in the Western Hemisphere. If he tried to break the blockade, the result would be a direct Soviet-American military confrontation, which could quickly escalate out of control. Khrushchev therefore opted to negotiate with the United States, and ultimately the Soviets removed their missiles from Cuba. Castro was left out of the negotiations entirely.
The Cuban Missile Crisis frightened the leaders of both the Soviet Union and the United States. It led both countries to move toward easing international tensions in order to avoid a repeat of the event. In the months immediately following the crisis, the two countries established the Washington-Moscow Hot Line, and in August 1963 they signed the first Limited Test-Ban Treaty, which banned nuclear bomb testing in the atmosphere, in outer space, or underwater.
Although Cuba retained its political independence, the Cuban economy came to depend on billions of dollars in Soviet aid. Soviet support eventually began to drop off, and by 1985, when Mikhail Gorbachev (1931–; see entry) came into power in the Soviet Union, Castro was forced to reduce his expenditures. As the Cuban economy worsened, Castro's government increased food and gasoline rationing, or limited distribution. After a thirty-year absence, Cuba was given a seat in the United Nations Security Council on January 1,1990. However, in Cuba, there were signs of discontent with Castro's government. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Cuba entered a crisis period. In need of foreign financial assistance to relieve the economic depression, Castro's regime began to promote tourism and open the country up to foreign investment. In 1991, Castro coauthored a book with South African leader Nelson Mandela (1918–). It was titled How Far We Slaves Have Come: South Africa and Cuba in Today's World. Castro remains a symbol of the Cuban Revolution and continues to lead Cuba in the twenty-first century.
For More Information
Bourne, Peter G. Fidel: A Biography of Fidel Castro. New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1986.
Fursenko, Aleksandr, and Timothy Naftali. "One Hell of a Gamble": Khrushchev, Castro, and Kennedy, 1958–1964. New York: W. W. Norton, 2000.
Huchthausen, Peter A., and Alexander Hoyt. October Fury. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons, 2002.
Leonard, Thomas M. Castro and the Cuban Revolution. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1999.
Quirk, Robert E. Fidel Castro. New York: Norton, 1993.
Szulc, Tad. Fidel: A Critical Portrait. New York: Morrow, 1986.
Fidel Castro Ruz
Fidel Castro Ruz
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.
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). □
Fidel Castro is the 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.
Young Castro and campus activist
Fidel Castro Ruz was born on August 13, 1926, on his family's successful sugar plantation near Birán, Oriente Province, Cuba. Castro's parents had not planned to send their young son to school, but he was so set on getting an education that he talked them into letting him go when he was only six or seven years old. Castro studied in Jesuit schools in Oriente and in Havana, Cuba. He was a motivated student who did well in agriculture, history, and Spanish, and he was also an exceptional athlete. Meanwhile he showed little interest in socializing.
In 1945 Castro entered law school at the University of Havana, where student activism, violence, and gang fights were common. 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 proven. Castro developed a reputation for his personal ambition and public speaking ability, yet he never became a well-known student leader. On several occasions he was defeated in student elections.
A taste of revolution
In 1947 Castro temporarily left the university in order to join an expedition led by writer Juan Bosch to overthrow the government of Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo (1891–1961). The coup was called off during the ocean voyage to Dominica. Castro jumped into the shark-infested waters and swam to shore carrying a gun over his head.
The following year Castro 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 (1902–1948). He joined the mobs and roamed the streets, distributing anti-United States material and stirring a revolt. Pursued by Colombian authorities, the Cuban students sought asylum, or protection, in the Cuban embassy. Afterwards, Castro flew back to Havana and resumed his law studies.
At the university Castro was exposed to different ideologies (ideas shared by a class). The ideas of fascism (a strong central government headed by one absolute ruler) and communism (where goods and services are owned by the government and distributed among the people) were widely discussed. Castro soon found a calling with Cuba's Ortodoxo party, which stressed economic independence, political liberty, social justice, and an end to corruption. Castro also became a devoted follower of the party's charismatic leader, Eduardo Chibás.
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 (1901–1973). The couple had one son, Fidelito, in 1949. Because Castro had no income with which to support his family, the marriage eventually ended.
Leading the revolution
Early in 1952 Castro began campaigning for a seat in congress as a replacement for Chibás. Elections were never held, however. On March 10 General Batista and his army overthrew the regime of Cuban president Carlos Prío Socarrás. For Castro, violence seemed the only way to oppose the military takeover. 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 fifteen years in prison.
After being released by an amnesty (a government pardon) in 1955, Castro was sent to Mexico City, Mexico. There he began organizing an expedition against Batista called the 26th of July Movement. On December 2, 1956, Castro and eighty other men landed in Oriente Province. After encounters with the army, in which all but twelve of his men were killed or captured, Castro fled to the Sierra Maestra. In these mountains, Castro designed a guerrilla operation, where a small band of revolutionaries would attempt to remove Batista.
Castro emerged as the undisputed leader of the anti-Batista movement, and his guerrillas increased their control over rural areas. On April 9, 1958, Castro called a national strike. It was called off after Batista ordered strikers to be shot on sight, causing massive shootings. Soon Batista began losing power within his military.
Revolution changed course
On January 1, 1959, Castro and his July 26th Movement assumed power and began public trials and executions of "criminals" of the Batista government. On February 15 Castro replaced José Miró Cardona as prime minister and appointed his own brother, Raul, as commander of the armed forces. A powerful speaker and a charismatic leader, Castro began exercising 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 he promised to hold free elections—all while denying that he was a communist.
Castro confiscated (forcefully took) wealth "illegally" acquired by Batista's followers. He greatly reduced rents, and passed a law that confiscated inherited property—all moves hinting at Castro's communist leanings. By the end of 1959 many military leaders left and were replaced by communist radicals. Newspapers critical of these new leaders were quickly silenced.
This internal trend toward a communist agenda appeared in foreign policy too. Castro accused the United States of taking actions against his revolution. Afterwards, Cuba established relations with other communist countries, mainly the very powerful Soviet Union. On January 3, 1961, U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower (1890–1969) 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 (1917–1963), attempted an invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs. The invasion failed. In December 1961 Castro merged all groups that had fought against Batista into the Integrated Revolutionary Organizations. In 1965 it became the Communist Party of Cuba—the island's only ruling party.
In foreign affairs Castro moved closer to the Soviet Union. In October 1962 Cuban-Soviet relations reached a boiling point during the Cuban Missile Crisis, where the United States faced off with the communist powers over the presence of Soviet-owned nuclear arms in Cuba. When President Kennedy avoided confrontation and directly negotiated the missiles' removal with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev (1894–1971), Castro felt humiliated.
Spread of the revolution
Another source of conflict in Cuban-Soviet relations was Castro's determination to take his revolution into other countries. 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 the Asia-Africa-Latin America People's Solidarity Organization to promote revolution on three continents.
In July 1967 Castro formed the Latin American Solidarity Organization, which was designed to spark violence in Latin America. Castro's efforts, however, were mostly unsuccessful, as evidenced by the failure of former Cuban revolutionist Che Guevara's (1928–1967) 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 Castro brought to Cuba, he was constantly criticized for human rights abuses. Political prisoners crowded Cuban jails, while homosexuals, intellectuals, and others were constant victims of government-sponsored violence.
One of Castro's goals was to remove opposition to his rule, which he accomplished not only with executions and imprisonments, but also through forcing people to leave the country. The largest of these, the Mariel Boat Lift, occurred in response to a riot in Havana. In mid-April of 1980 Castro opened the port of Mariel to outsiders, particularly exiled Cubans living in Miami, Florida, who sailed into port to claim their relatives. Castro took advantage of the situation. He loaded boats with prison inmates, long-term psychiatric patients, and other people whose presence in Cuba was not welcomed. More than 120 thousand Cubans left their homeland for the United States, causing a small crisis upon reaching Miami.
Communism loses steam
With the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, Castro's revolution began to lose momentum. Without support from its Soviet allies, unemployment and inflation (increase in prices) both grew in Cuba. Castro began pressing the United States to lift the trade embargo (suspension of trade) 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 form of government.
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.
In the summer of 2000 a Cuban-U.S. media frenzy erupted when a Cuban mother and her son escaped Cuba on a makeshift boat. The mother died during the trip, but the son, Elian Gonzalez, was rescued and brought to America. Castro was heavily involved in the dispute over custody between Elian's relatives in the United States and his father in Cuba. Elian eventually returned to live with his father in Cuba.
On July 26, 2000, Castro led what may have been the largest government-organized march in Cuban history to protest the United States embargo of Cuba. The march also celebrated the forty-seventh anniversary of the Cuban Revolution.
On August 13, 2001, Castro celebrated his seventy-fifth birthday. The leader of Cuba is said to be showing his age, but he still manages to speak for hours on end and sleeps only a few hours every night. He also named his brother Raul Castro as his successor (the person who will take over for him when he leaves office).
For More Information
Castro, Fidel. My Early Years. New York: Ocean Press, 1998.
Geyer, Georgie Anne. Guerrilla Prince: The Untold Story of Fidel Castro. Rev. ed. Kansas City: Andrews McMeel, 2001.
Quirk, Robert E. Fidel Castro. New York: Norton, 1993.
Rice, Earle. The Cuban Revolution. San Diego: Lucent Books, 1995.
Castro (Ruz), Fidel