President of the Council of State and President of the Council of Ministers of Cuba
|In office since |
December 2, 1976
Responsibilities transferred as of
31 July 2006
|Vice President(s) ||Raúl Castro Ruz |
|Preceded by ||Osvaldo Dorticós Torrado |
Prime Ministers of Cuba
|In office |
February 16, 1959 – December 2, 1976
|Preceded by ||José Miró Cardona |
|Succeeded by ||Office abolished |
|Born ||August 13, 1926 |
Birán, Holguín Province
|Political party ||Communist Party of Cuba |
|Spouse ||(1) Mirta Díaz-Balart (divorced 1955) |
(2) Dalia Soto del Valle
Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz (born August 13, 1926) is the current President of Cuba. After commanding the revolution that overthrew Fulgencio Batista in 1959, he held the title of Prime Minister of Cuba until 1976, when he became president of the Council of State as well as of the Council of Ministers. Castro became First Secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba in 1965, and led the transformation of Cuba into a one-party socialist republic. As president he also holds the supreme military rank of Comandante en Jefe in the Cuban military. On July 31, 2006, Castro, after undergoing intestinal surgery, transferred his responsibilities to the vice-president, his brother Raúl.
Castro first attracted attention in Cuban political life through nationalist critiques of Batista and United States corporate and political influence in Cuba. He gained an ardent, but limited, following and also drew the attention of the authorities. He eventually led the failed 1953 attack on the Moncada Barracks, after which he was captured, tried, incarcerated and later released. He then travelled to Mexico to organize and train for the guerrilla invasion of Cuba that took place in December 1956. Since his assumption of power in 1959 he has evoked both praise and condemnation (at home and internationally). Castro is frequently described by opponents as a dictator and accused of gross human rights violations, including the execution of thousands of political opponents . Other groups hail Castro as a charismatic liberator.
Outside of Cuba, Castro has been defined by his relationship with both the United States and with the former Soviet Union. Ever since the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961 by the United States, the Castro-led government has had an openly antagonistic relationship with the U.S., and a simultaneous closeness with the Soviet bloc. This was true until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, after which his priorities shifted from supporting foreign interventions to partnering with regional socialist figures such as Hugo Chávez in Venezuela and Evo Morales in Bolivia.
Domestically, Fidel Castro has overseen the implementation of various economic policies which saw the rapid centralization of Cuba's economy, land reform, collectivization and mechanization of agriculture, and the nationalization of leading Cuban industries. The expansion of publicly funded health care and education has been a cornerstone of Castro's domestic social agenda. Some credit these policies for Cuba's relatively high Human Development Index rating.  Others see Castro and his policies as being responsible for Cuba's general economic depredation, and harshly criticize him for the criminalization of political dissent, free speech, and provoking hundreds of thousands of Cubans into fleeing the country.
Childhood and education
University student Fidel Castro (center, standing, in black) talking to fellow students during a protest on November 11, 1947.
Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz was born on a sugar plantation in Birán, near Mayarí, in the modern-day province of Holguín – then a part of the now-defunct Oriente province. He was the third child born to Ángel Castro y Argiz, a Galician immigrant who became relatively prosperous through hard work in the sugar industry and shrewd investments. His mother, Lina Ruz González, was a household servant. Angel Castro was married to another woman Maria Luisa Argota. until Fidel was 17, and thus Fidel as a child had to deal both with his illegitimacy and the challenge of being raised in various foster homes away from his father's house.
Castro has two brothers: Ramón and Raúl, and four sisters: Angelita, Juanita, Enma, and Agustina. All of them were born out of wedlock. He also has two half siblings, Lidia and Pedro Emilio who were raised by Ángel Castro's first wife.
Fidel was not baptized until he was eight, also very uncommon, bringing embarrassment and ridicule from other children. Ángel Castro finally dissolved his first marriage when Fidel was 15 and married Fidel’s mother. Castro was formally recognized by his father when he was 17, when his last name was legally changed to Castro from Ruiz, his mother’s maiden name. At the same time, Fidel changed his middle name to “Alejandro” (Alexander) after reading about the Macedonian warrior in school.
Although accounts of his education differ, most sources agree that he was an intellectually gifted student, more interested in sports than in academics, and spent many years in private Catholic boarding schools, finishing high school at Belen, a Jesuit school in Havana in 1945.
In late 1945, he entered law school at the University of Havana. While at the University he repeatedly was involved in gangs in order to assure himself political power.
Castro became immediately fascinated by the politics on campus at the University of Havana. The campus atmosphere during that volatile period in Cuba's history was so aggressive that organized political gangs condoning violence had become an important tool for those students aspiring to be successful leaders. Politics centered around these political gangs and Castro participated in their ever violent confrontations.
In 1947, growing increasingly passionate about social justice lacking under Cuba's current system, Castro joined the Partido Ortodoxo which had been newly formed by Eduardo Chibás. A charismatic and emotional figure, Chibás was running for president against the incumbent Ramón Grau San Martín who had allowed rampant corruption to flourish during his term. The Partido Ortodoxo publicly exposed corruption and demanded government and social reform. It aimed to instill a strong sense of national identity among Cubans, establish Cuban economic independence and freedom from the United States, and dismantle the power of the elite over Cuban politics. Though Chibás lost the election, Castro, considering Chibás his mentor, remained committed to his cause, working fervently on his behalf. In 1951, while running for president again, Chibás shot himself in the stomach during a radio broadcast. Castro was present and accompanied him to the hospital where he died.
Fidel Castro's role in this incident has been dogged by speculation and controversy but the following account seems to be generally agreed upon. In 1948 Castro traveled to Bogotá in Colombia for a political conference of Latin American students that coincided with the ninth meeting of the Pan-American Union Conference. The students had planned to use this opportunity to distribute pamphlets protesting United States dominance of the Western Hemisphere and to foment discontent. A few days after the conference began, the populist Colombian Liberal Party leader Jorge Eliecer Gaitán was assassinated, triggering massive riots in the streets in which many (mostly poor workers) were injured or killed. Rioting and looting spread to other cities in Colombia, beginning an era of turbulence that became known as "La Violencia". The students were caught up in the violence and chaos rocking the city, picking up rifles and roaming the streets distributing anti-United States material and stirring a revolt. When Castro was pursued by the Colombian authorities for his role in the riots, he took refuge in the Cuban Embassy and was flown back to Havana. It seems clear that experiencing the power of popular insurrection had an effect on Castro and influenced his subsequent political thinking.
Castro returned to Cuba and married Mirta Díaz Balart, a student from a wealthy Cuban family where he was exposed to the lifestyle of the Cuban elite. In 1950 he graduated from law school with a Doctor of Laws degree and began practicing law in a small partnership in Havana, mostly representing the poor and underprivileged. By now he had become well known for his passionately nationalistic views and his intense opposition to the influence of the United States on Cuban internal affairs. Increasingly interested in a career in politics, Castro had become a candidate for a seat in the Cuban parliament when General Fulgencio Batista led a coup d'état in 1952, successfully overthrowing the government of President Carlos Prío Socarrás and canceling the election.
Batista established himself as de facto leader with the support of establishment elements of Cuban society and powerful Cuban agencies. His regime was formally recognized by the United States, buttressing his power. These events effectively ended Castro's chances of pursuing a legitimate political career in Cuba.
Frustrated, Castro broke away from the Partido Ortodoxo and marshaled legal arguments based on the Constitution of 1940 to formally charge Batista with violating the constitution. His petition was denied by the Court of Constitutional Guarantees and he was not allowed a hearing. This experience formed the foundation for Castro's opposition to the Batista regime and convinced him that revolution was the only way to depose Batista.
Attack on Moncada Barracks
As discontent over the Batista coup grew, Castro abandoned his law practice and formed an underground organization of supporters, including his brother, Raúl, and actively plotted to overthrow Batista. They collected guns and ammunition and finalized their plans for an armed attack on Moncada Barracks, Batista's largest garrison outside Santiago de Cuba. On the 26th of July, 1953, they attacked Moncada Barracks. The Céspedes garrison in Bayamo was also attacked as a diversion. The attack proved disastrous and more than sixty of the one-hundred and thirty-five militants involved were killed.
Castro and other surviving members of his group managed to escape to a part of the rugged Sierra Maestra mountains east of Santiago where they were eventually discovered and captured. Although there is disagreement over why Castro and his brother, Raúl, were not executed on capture as many of their fellow militants were, there is evidence that an officer recognized Castro from his university days and treated the captured rebels compassionately, despite the unofficial order to have the leader executed. Others say for example military commander of the 26th of July Movement Angel Prado that Castro said on his defense that on the night of the attack his driver got lost and he never reached the barracks. That night was the night of “El Carnaval de Santiago” and the streets of Santiago de Cuba were filled with party goers.
Castro was tried in the fall of 1953 and sentenced to up to fifteen years in prison. During his trial Castro delivered his famous defense speech History Will Absolve Me, upholding his rebellious actions and boldly declaring his political views:
| ||I warn you, I am just beginning! If there is in your hearts a vestige of love for your country, love for humanity, love for justice, listen carefully... I know that the regime will try to suppress the truth by all possible means; I know that there will be a conspiracy to bury me in oblivion. But my voice will not be stifled – it will rise from my breast even when I feel most alone, and my heart will give it all the fire that callous cowards deny it... Condemn me. It does not matter. History will absolve me. || |
While he was being held at the prison for political activists on Isla de Pinos, he continued to plot Batista's overthrow, planning upon release to reorganize and train in Mexico. After having served less than two years, he was released in May 1955 due to a general amnesty from Batista who was under political pressure, and went as planned to Mexico.
26th of July Movement
Once in Mexico, Castro reunited with other Cuban exiles and founded the 26th of July Movement, named after the date of the failed attack on the Moncada Barracks. The goal remained the overthrow of Fulgencio Batista. Castro had learned from the Moncada experience that new tactics were needed if Batista's forces were to be defeated. This time, the plan was to use underground guerrilla tactics, at that time a form of combat unknown in Latin America.
In Mexico Castro met Ernesto "Che" Guevara, a proponent of guerrilla warfare. Guevara joined the group of rebels and became an important force in shaping Castro's evolving political beliefs. Guevara's observations of the misery of the poor in Latin America had already convinced him that the only solution lay in violent revolution.
Since regular contacts with a KGB agent named Nikolai Sergeevich Leonov in Mexico City had not resulted in the hoped for weapon supply, they decided to go to the United States to gather personnel and funds from Cubans living there, including Carlos Prío Socarrás, the elected Cuban president deposed by Batista in 1952. Back in Mexico, the group trained under a Spanish Civil War Veteran, Cuban-born Alberto Bayo who had fled to Mexico after Francisco Franco's victory in Spain. On November 26, 1956, Castro and his group of 81 followers, mostly Cuban exiles, set out from Tuxpan Mexico aboard the yacht Granma. for the purpose of starting a rebellion in Cuba.
The rebels landed at Playa Las Coloradas close to Los Cayuelos near the eastern city of Manzanillo on December 2, 1956. In short order, most of Castro's men were killed, dispersed, or taken prisoner by Batista's forces. While the exact number is in dispute, it is agreed that no more than twenty of the original eighty-two men survived the bloody encounters with the Cuban army and succeeded in fleeing to the Sierra Maestra mountains. The survivors, who were aided by people in the countryside, included Che Guevara, Raúl Castro, and Camilo Cienfuegos. They regrouped in the Sierra Maestra in Oriente province and organized a column under Castro's command.
From their encampment in the Sierra Maestra mountains, the 26th of July Movement waged a guerrilla war against the Batista government. In the cities and major towns also, resistance groups were organizing until underground groups were everywhere. The strongest was in Santiago formed by Frank País.
In the summer of 1955, País’s organization merged with the 26th of July Movement of Castro. As Castro's movement gained popular support in the cities and countryside, it grew to over eight hundred men. In mid-1957 Castro gave Che Guevara command of a second column. A journalist, Herbert Matthews from the New York Times, came to interview him in the Sierra Maestra, attracting interest to Castro's cause in the United States. The New York Times front page stories by Matthews presented Castro as a romantic and appealing revolutionary, bearded and dressed in rumpled fatigues.  Castro and Matthews were followed by the TV crew of Andrew Saint George, said to be a CIA contact person. Through television, Castro's rudimentary command of the English language and charismatic presence enabled him to appeal directly to a U.S. audience.
Fidel Castro in his days as a guerrilla
In May 1958, Batista launched Operation Verano aiming to crush Castro and other anti-government groups. It was called "la Ofensiva" by the rebels (Alarcón Ramírez,1997). Although on paper heavily outnumbered, Castro's guerrilla forces scored a series of victories, largely aided by mass desertions from Batista's army of poorly trained and uncommitted young conscripts. During the Battle of La Plata, Castro's forces defeated an entire battalion. While pro-Castro Cuban sources later emphasized the role of Castro's guerrilla forces in these battles, other groups and leaders were also involved, such as escopeteros (poorly-armed irregulars). During the Battle of Las Mercedes, Castro's small army came close to defeat but he managed to pull his troops out by opening up negotiations with General Cantillo while secretly slipping his soldiers out of a trap.
When Operation Verano ended, Castro ordered three columns commanded by Guevara, Jaime Vega and Camilo Cienfuegos to invade central Cuba where they were strongly supported by rebellious elements who had long been operating in the area. One of Castro's columns moved out onto the Cauto Plains. Here, they were supported by Huber Matos, Raúl Castro and others who were operating in the eastern-most part of the province. On the plains, Castro's forces first surrounded the town of Guisa in Granma Province and drove out their enemies, then proceeded to take most of the towns that had been taken by Calixto Garcia in the 1895-1898 Cuban War of Independence.
Battle of Yaguajay
In December 1958, the columns of Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos continued their advance through Las Villas province. They succeeded in occupying several towns, and then began preparations for an attack on Santa Clara, the provincial capital. Guevara's fighters launched a fierce assault on the Cuban army surrounding Santa Clara, and a vicious house-to-house battle ensued. They also derailed an armored train which Batista had sent to aid his troops in the city while Cienfuegos won the Battle of Yaguajay. Defeated on all sides, Batista's forces crumbled. The provincial capital was captured after less than a day of fighting on December 31, 1958.
After the loss of Santa Clara and expecting betrayal by his own army, Batista (accompanied by president-elect Andres Rivero Agüero) fled to the Dominican Republic in the early hours of January 1, 1959. They left behind a junta headed by Gen. Eulogio Cantillo, recently the commander in Oriente province, the center of the Castro revolt. The junta immediately selected Dr. Carlos Piedra, the oldest judge of the Supreme Court, as provisional President of Cuba as specified in the Constitution of 1940. Castro refused to accept the selection of Justice Piedra as provisional President and the Supreme Court refused to administer the oath of office to the Justice.
The rebel forces of Fidel Castro moved swiftly to seize power throughout the island. At the age of 32, Castro had successfully masterminded a classic guerrilla campaign from his headquarters in the Sierra Maestra and ousted Batista.
Assumption of power
On January 8, 1959, Castro's army rolled victoriously into Havana. As news of the fall of Batista's government spread through Havana, The New York Times described the scene as one of jubilant crowds pouring into the streets and automobile horns honking. The black and red flag of the 26th of July Movement waved on automobiles and buildings. The atmosphere was chaotic. Soon after, the Castro-led revolutionary government embarked on a systematic purge of adversaries that saw the judicial and extra-judicial executions of thousands.
Castro called a general strike in protest of the Piedra regime. He demanded that Dr. Urrutia, former judge of the Urgency Court of Santiago de Cuba, be installed as the provisional President instead. The Cane Planters Association of Cuba, speaking on behalf of the island's crucial sugar industry, issued a statement of support for Castro and his movement.
Law professor José Miró Cardona created a new government with himself as prime minister and Manuel Urrutia Lleó as president on January 5. The United States officially recognized the new government two days later. Castro himself arrived in Havana to cheering crowds and assumed the post of Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces on January 8.
In February Miró suddenly resigned and on February 16, 1959, Castro was sworn in as Prime Minister of Cuba.
Soon friction with the U.S. developed as the new government began expropriating property owned by major U.S. corporations (United Fruit in particular) and announced plans to base the compensation on the artificially low property valuations that the companies themselves had kept to a fraction of their true value so that their taxes would be negligible.
Between April 15th and 26th, Castro and a delegation of industrial and international representatives visited the U.S. as guests of the Press Club. This visit was perceived by many as a charm offensive on the part of Castro and his recently initiated government; the fact that Castro hired one of the best public relations firms in the United States supports that conclusion. Castro answered impertinent questions jokingly and ate hotdogs and hamburgers. His rumpled fatigues and scruffy beard made him seem an authentic hero. He was refused a meeting with President Eisenhower. Rebuffed, he soon joined forces with the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev.