Childhood & Early Life
Fidel Castro was born Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz on 13 August 1926, in Birán, Cuba, to Angel Castro y Argiz and Lina Ruz Gonzalez. Fidel Castro was the illegitimate child of the couple and hence bore the surname Ruz for the first 17 years of his life. He was the third of the seven children born to the couple.
At the age of six, Castro was sent to live with his teacher in Santiago de Cuba. As a child, he attended various schools, finally enrolling himself at the ‘El Colegio de Belen’ in Havana.
Academically, Castro was just an average student, but he had a profound liking for sports and excelled in the same. He played for the school’s baseball team.
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In 1945, Castro enrolled himself at the law school of the ‘University of Havana.’ Although he was politically illiterate at the time of admission, he soon found himself immersed in the political climate of Cuban nationalism, anti-imperialism, and socialism.
He joined the University Committee, which opposed the intervention of the US in the Caribbean and fought for the independence of Puerto Rico. Falling back on honesty, decency, and justice, Castro opposed corruption and openly associated it with US interference.
With time, Castro gained prominence, so much so that his speech on corruption and violence of Grau’s regime earned him a place on the front page of every newspaper.
In 1947, Castro joined the ‘Party of the Cuban People,’ a socialist group headed by presidential candidate Chibas. An anti-communist political party, it aimed at securing an honest government and political freedom. It also paid significant importance to social reforms and economic independence.
Additionally, Castro acquired the post of the president of ‘University Committee for Democracy’ in the Dominican Republic. The committee decided to invade the Dominican Republic and overthrow its Right-Wing President Rafael Trujillo who was an ally of the US.
Led by Dominican exile General Juan Rodriguez, about 1200 men joined the rebellion and launched the invasion from Cuba. However, they were squashed in a matter of time by the US and Dominican forces. Castro luckily escaped the mass arrest.
Though the mission turned out to be a failure, it strengthened Castro’s opposition of the Grau administration. Following this, Castro traveled to Venezuela and Panama before visiting Bogota, Colombia. Insurgence and rebelliousness ruled the city as there was a riot between the governing Conservatives and the leftist liberals. Castro supported the liberals.
With time, Castro rose to prominence among the public and openly protested the government’s wrongdoings. It was during the end of the 1940s that Castro was exposed to Marxism. He also became greatly influenced by the same.
Castro realized that corrupt politicians were not the only problem of Cuba; the real problem was the dominion of the bourgeoisie. A visit to the poorest villages of Havana uncovered the social and racial inequalities prevalent there. This further solidified Castro’s belief and he became active in the University Committee.
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Graduating in 1950 as a Doctor of Law, Castro began his legal practice. He started a legal partnership with Jorge Azpiazu and Rafael Resende, focusing on helping poor Cubans assert their rights. However, poor finances led to the closure of the firm.
Castro turned his interest towards politics and became an active member of the ‘Cuban Peace Committee.’ Castro hoped to build a better future for Cuba with the help of Chibas and the ‘Party of the Cuban People.’ Castro saw himself as Chibas’ heir following the latter’s death. When Castro expressed his desire to run for Congress in the 1952 elections, his party members refused to nominate him fearing his radical reputation.
General Fulgencio Batista’s return to power scrapped the slated presidential elections as he set himself up as the dictator. He got support from the military and Cuban elite, and the US recognized his government.
Baffled by this, Castro made plans to oust the government. Along with 165 supporters, he attacked the Moncada military barracks in an attempt to overthrow Batista. However, the plan failed and Castro was tried and imprisoned. Nevertheless, the incident increased Castro’s popularity amongst the Cubans.
While in jail, Castro kept the rebellious sentiments alive and maintained control over the Movement. Meanwhile, Batista held the presidential election in 1954 and won the election as there were no opponents.
Upon his release after two years, Castro moved to Mexico where he formulated a plan along with Ernesto "Che" Guevara to overthrow the Batista government. In no time, Guevara became an ally and confidante to Castro. They devised a new strategy called ‘guerrilla warfare.’
The following year, the forces led by Castro attacked the government forces. However, Castro once again failed in his attempt. Subsequently, Castro, Guevara, and Raul (Castro’s brother) fled to the south-eastern coast.
Castro organized a parallel government alongside that of Batista’s and started building resistance groups in cities and small towns across Cuba. He enforced some agrarian reforms and controlled provinces with agricultural and manufacturing production.
In 1958, Castro, along with his group, launched military campaigns in all the key areas of Cuba. This resulted in the collapse of the government and Batista fled to Dominican Republic.
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Castro emerged as a national hero. While Jose Miro Cardona was voted as the prime minister of Cuba, Castro became the commander-in-chief of the military. However, as a result of Miro’s sudden resignation, Castro became the prime minister of Cuba on February 16, 1959.
Castro accepted the position of the prime minister of Cuba with a condition that the powers of the prime minister should be increased.
In his initial days as the prime minister, Castro launched various reforms that resulted in the nationalization of factories and plantations. The objective of this move was to end the US economic domination. However, the reforms angered the US.
Castro’s political tactics made him a favorite among the lower class, including workers, peasants, labors, and so on, but he received opposition from the middle class comprising of doctors, engineers, and other professionals. This resulted in the mass-migration of Cuba’s middle class to the US, causing brain drain in Cuba.
Though he denied being a Communist and argued against having Marxist-type governance, much of his policies reflected the Soviet-style control of economy and the communist influence on his governance was apparent.
He was widely criticized for his reformative policies which led to the formation of anti-Castro groups. These groups, which opposed the government, were duly suppressed by Castro. Even journalists and writers who wrote against the government were forced to publish clarification at the end of every article that they wrote.
Castro worked towards strengthening the ties between Cuba and the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union agreed to organize Cuba’s defense committee.
Furthermore, Cuba agreed to buy oil from Soviet, which led to the expropriation of the US-owned refineries in Cuba. Striking back, the US cut short Cuba’s import of sugar.
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The ties between Cuba and the US worsened with the passage of time and came to an all-time low in 1961. Outgoing US President Dwight Eisenhower broke off all diplomatic relations with the Cuban government and Castro declared Cuba a socialist state.
In April 1961, thousands of exiles invaded Cuba at the Bay of Pigs in an attempt to overthrow the Castro regime. Despite being taken aback by this surprise attack, the military was able to restrict the insurgents. Hundreds of soldiers were dead due to the attack.
Capitalizing on this US-backed incident, Castro further strengthened his position by announcing the end of democratic elections and American imperialism. Thereafter, he clearly indicated to the world that he was a Marxist-Leninist and that Cuba would follow the communist way.
While the US imposed economic ban on Cuba, the Soviet Union affirmed its base by giving Cuba economic and military aid. The increasing hold of Soviet Union over Cuba reached a new level when Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev conceived the idea of placing nuclear missiles in Cuba to avert US invasion.
Discovering the plan, the US asked Khrushchev to remove the missiles. Khrushchev agreed, but asked in return for the removal of Jupiter missiles from Turkey. He also asked the United States to publicly announce that their government won’t invade Cuba.
In 1965, Castro formed the ‘Cuba Communist Party.’ Serving as the head of the organization, he initiated a campaign which supported armed struggle against imperialism in Latin America and Africa.
Gradually, he became the leading spokesperson of the Third World countries. Cuba became a member of the OAM (Organization of American States), with Cuba’s government being called first National Congress of the ‘Cuban Communist Party.’
Cuba’s emergence as a socialist state meant the abolishment of the positions of president and prime minister and adoption of a new constitution based on the lines of the Soviet Union.
Castro was proffered the position of presidency of both Council of State and Council of Ministers. This made him the head of state and head of government.
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Castro's Presidency & Retirement
Along with Cuban presidency, Castro also remained the president of the Non-Aligned Movement until 1982. Under his rule, the literacy rate of Cuba increased to 98% as hundreds and thousands of new schools were opened. The infant mortality rate of the country also reduced dramatically to 1.1% under the Castro regime.
Civil liberties, however, crumpled under his administration; labor unions lost the right to strike. Independent newspapers were forced to shut down as were religious institutions.
Anyone who stood at the opposite end of Castro was removed either through imprisonment or execution. Sometimes people who opposed him were forced to emigrate, which was prevalent in the 1980s when Castro opened the port of Mariel to transport Cubans who wished to move to the US.
The US initially agreed to accommodate a total of 3500 refugees. However, a mass exodus took place resulting in almost 120,000 Cubans seeking shelter in the US. As per Castro’s plan, among these refugees were convicts, mental patients, and socially undesirables.
The economy of Cuba hit an all-time low in 1999 as favorable trade from the Soviet Union crashed. In two years, the economy dipped over 40% with major food shortage, widespread malnutrition, and lack of basic goods.
Realizing the need for reforms, Castro announced a number of changes at the Fourth Congress of the ‘Cuban Communist Party’ meeting. Among these was his stepping down as the head of government. He, however, retained his position as the head of the ‘Communist Party’ and commander-in-chief of the armed forces.
A number of economic reforms were brought to the forefront and emigration restrictions were relaxed. Apart from the sugar industry, biotechnology and tourism were also selected to provide a boost to the economy.
Castro even softened his arch-anti-religious sentiments, allowing people of various religious faiths to join the ‘Communist Party.’ He allowed people to choose their own religious faith and even arranged for Pope John Paul II’s visit to Cuba in 1998, a move that not only strengthened the position of the Church but also Castro’s government in Cuba.
The dawn of the 21st century brought to Cuba a ‘godsend’ opportunity in the form of Hugo Chavez, the president of Venezuela. Castro and Chavez developed economic ties which solidified Cuba’s economy.
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On July 31, 2006, Castro transferred all his powers to his brother Raul on account of his failing health. However, with time, his health improved and he participated in the important issues of the government.
Two years later, Castro gave up his position as the head of the ‘Communist Party’ as well as his position as the commander-in-chief of the military. Though Raul substituted him, he was allowed to seek advice and consultation from Castro in matters of great importance. His retirement was announced on February 24, 2008.
Post his retirement, Castro took to writing a column titled ‘Reflections of Fidel,’ an account of his personal experiences and opinions.
Awards & Achievements
He became the first foreigner to receive the Order of Lenin; he was honored with the order three times.
His effort against racism won him South Africa’s highest civilian award for foreigners - the Order of Good Hope.
He was also honored and praised by many governments around the world, including Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Vietnam, Spain, Mexico, Ukraine, Venezuela, Malaysia, etc.
Personal Life & Legacy
Castro married Mirta Diaz-Balart in 1948. Though both the families opposed the wedding, the two went on with it.
It was through his relationship with Balart, who came from a wealthy Cuban family, that Castro was exposed to the lifestyle of the Cuban elite.
In 1949, the couple was blessed with their son Fidelito. The marriage did not last long as Castro divorced Balart in 1955.
Following his divorce with Balart, Castro had sexual affairs with two female supporters - Naty Revuelta and Maria Laborde, each of whom bore him a child.
Since 1990s, Castro suffered various health issues which worsened in 2006 when he was reported to be suffering from gastrointestinal bleeding.
He died on 25 November 2016, at the age of 90.