Castro, Fidel (Cuba)

Reference work entry


Lawyer and revolutionary guerrilla, Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz led Cuba for almost 50 years after he headed the 1959 revolution that overthrew the military dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. Premier until 1976 when a new constitution created a presidency, Castro set up a socialist state, implemented agrarian reforms, nationalized industries and imposed single party rule. Full employment, free education and universal health care were promised, although all opposition was repressed and freedoms restricted. Strong Soviet links bolstered Cuba in the face of US hostility, but since the collapse of the USSR Castro became increasingly isolated. He transferred power provisionally to his brother after his health deteriorated seriously in July 2006. On 19 Feb. 2008 Castro announced in a letter published in the state-run newspaper Granma that he would be stepping down as president.

Early Life

Castro was born on 13 Aug. 1926 (his official birthday, although some sources dispute this date) in the Oriente province (now Santiago de Cuba) in eastern Cuba, the illegitimate son of a prosperous Spanish sugarcane farmer and his cook. From the age of six, Castro was educated at Jesuit schools in Santiago de Cuba, and in 1945 went to study law at the capital’s Universidad de la Habana, where he became politically active. He was a supporter of Eduardo Chibas who formed the Ortodoxos party (Cuban People’s Party) in 1947. After joining the party, Castro was involved with preparations for a coup to depose the Dominican Republic’s leader Gen. Rafael Trujillo.

After graduating in 1950, Castro set up a law firm in Havana to help the poor and his political allies. He continued his involvement with Ortodoxos and was their candidate for Havana in the 1952 elections. Before they could take place former premier Batista deposed Prime Minister Carlos Prío Socarrás and set up a military dictatorship. Following unsuccessful legal challenges, Castro began recruiting for a revolutionary movement. After a failed raid on the Moncada army barracks on 26 July 1953, Castro was sentenced to 13 years imprisonment.

He was pardoned in 1955 following an amnesty and went to Mexico where he formed the revolutionary Movimiento 26 de Julio. There he met Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara Lynch, who became the Movimiento’s doctor. On 2 Dec. 1956 Castro and his followers attacked his native Oriente province. After losing nearly all of their number, the remaining few fighters took refuge in the Sierra Maestra mountains where Castro continued to recruit, gathering together as many as 800 volunteers. Following numerous battles, Batista was forced into exile on 1 Jan. 1959. Castro became commander-in-chief of the army while the premiership was taken by Manuel Urrutia. Forcing the latter out, in July 1959 Castro appointed himself premier, promising to restore civil and political liberties.

Career Peak

Despite promising moderate reforms, Castro’s radicalism soon intensified, as did his affiliation to Marxism. Communists were favoured for governmental positions while enforced land distribution ended tenancy and private ownership. Foreign investors left and all industry and commerce was nationalized. By early 1960 Castro had established a favourable trade agreement with the USSR which provided Cuba with oil, weapons and loans while importing Cuban sugarcane at an advantageous price. In 1961 the Organizaciones Revolucionarias Integradas was created (the Cuban Communist Party—Partido Comunista de Cuba; PCC—from 1965), comprising Castro’s Movimiento 26 de Julio, the Popular Socialist Party (Partido Socialista Popular) and the Revolutionary Directorate (Directorio Revolucionario). All opposition was outlawed. The immediate effect of Castro’s reforms was the improvement of life for the poorest Cubans. Social services were made available, full employment was promised and illiteracy decreased. However, civil rights abuses led many middle class Cubans to flee the country.

In 1960 US suspicion of Castro and his links to communism led the USA to suspend trade agreements, impose an embargo and sever diplomatic relations. In April 1961 the US government supported and financed an attempted coup by 1,300 Cuban exiles. The unsuccessful invasion at the Bay of Pigs was soon contained by the Cuban army. The USA also mounted several assassination attempts. In 1962 Soviet ballistic missiles were secretly placed in Cuba in range of US cities. In retaliation the US navy surrounded Cuba. The world hovered on the brink of nuclear war until the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev agreed to remove the missiles in exchange for a removal of US missiles based in Turkey and a promise of an end to hostilities with Cuba.

In 1976 Castro created a new constitution and national assembly and appointed himself president. His brother Raúl was appointed minister of armed forces becoming de facto vice president. In 1980 Castro opened the northern port of Mariel for 5 months allowing thousands of Cubans to flee, including 125,000 who emigrated to the USA.

On an international level, Castro supported revolutionary activity in Bolivia, Venezuela and the Dominican Republic. Between 1975–89 the Cuban army aided communists in the Angolan civil war and helped Ethiopia combat Somalia’s invasion in 1978. But Cuba’s military expenditure was detrimental to its economic progress. Castro was unable to stimulate the country’s industry or agriculture. In 1991 Cuba suffered heavily from the withdrawal of Soviet trade and rationing had to be imposed, leading to economic and social unrest in 1993. After public demonstrations, Castro agreed to relax restrictions on leaving the country. In 1994 the Cuban economy reached its nadir. Although Castro refused to change his regime after the fall of the USSR (free speech is still effectively banned), he was forced to adopt a pragmatic approach and to open up the economy and encourage a tourist industry. A two-tier financial system has meant plentiful supplies in tourist dollar shops but shortages for most Cubans.

At the end of the 1990s Castro formed an alliance with the Venezuelan premier Hugo Chávez and agreed a preferential trade arrangement exchanging Venezuelan oil for Cuban goods and services. Castro and Chávez also signed a co-operation agreement on agriculture and tourism. In Nov. 1999 relations with the USA were further strained by the Elián González affair, in which the two governments were involved in a custody battle over the fate of a 6-year old Cuban refugee.

Castro was re-elected for his sixth presidential term in 2003 with 100% of the 609 available parliamentary votes. In March 2003 relations with the USA deteriorated further when Castro arrested several dozen political dissidents who had met with the US envoy, James Cason. Castro accused Cason of subversion and restricted the movement of diplomats within the country in a tit-for-tat response after the USA imposed similar restrictions in Washington. The EU threatened sanctions in June 2003, but the following month promised to continue aid despite Castro attacking the EU as a ‘Trojan horse’ of the USA. Diplomatic contacts with the EU were restored in Jan. 2005. In May 2005 Castro unusually allowed a dissident group to hold a public meeting, although foreigners seeking to attend were turned away.

Concerns over Castro’s declining health increased markedly from late July 2006 as he underwent intestinal surgery and, for the first time in 47 years, handed over power provisionally to his brother Raúl. Speculation about his condition heightened as he failed to attend Havana’s May Day parade and the annual celebrations in July 2007 marking the anniversary of the revolution. However, he maintained that he was anticipating for a full recovery and in Sept. appeared in an hour-long interview on state television.

In Oct. 2007 President George W. Bush reaffirmed that the US trade embargo would be maintained while the Castro regime kept a ‘monopoly’ of power.

In Feb. 2008 Castro announced he would be resigning as president citing his ‘critical condition’. He said that it would be a betrayal to his conscience to accept responsibility which required mobility and dedication that he was physically unable to offer. Castro added that retirement would not stop him from carrying on ‘fighting like a soldier of ideas’. promising to continue writing essays entitled Reflections of Comrade Fidel. George W. Bush responded to the news by saying that the United States will ‘help the people of Cuba realise the blessings of liberty’. Five days after Castro’s announcement Cuba’s National Assembly chose his younger brother Raúl to be the country’s new president.

Later Life

In July 2010 Castro made his first appearance in public since the announcement of his illness in 2006. Photographs of the leader were tightly controlled by the state media although essays that he still wrote regularly published in state newspapers. He died at the age of 90 on 25 Nov. 2016 having been in bad health for several years.

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