Fidel Castro

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Fidel Castro
Fidel Castro

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

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. In 1950, after his graduation from law school, Castro opened a small law practice in Havana.

Political beginnings

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:

Fidel Castro
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.
Fidel Castro

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.

Operation Verano

Fidel Castro in his days as a guerrilla
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 centre 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.

Years in power

On May 17 1959, Castro signed into law the First Agrarian Reform, which limited landholdings to 993 acres (4 km²) per owner and forbade foreign land ownership.

As early as July 1959, Castro's intelligence chief Ramiro Valdés contacted the KGB in Mexico City. Subsequently, the USSR sent over one hundred mostly Spanish speaking advisors, including Enrique Líster Forján, to organize the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution.

In February 1960, Cuba signed an agreement to buy oil from the USSR. When the U.S.-owned refineries in Cuba refused to process the oil, they were expropriated, and the United States broke off diplomatic relations with the Castro government soon afterward. To the concern of the Eisenhower administration, Cuba began to establish closer ties with the Soviet Union. A variety of pacts were signed between Castro and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, allowing Cuba to receive large amounts of economic and military aid from them.

In June 1960, Eisenhower reduced Cuba's sugar import quota by 7,000,000 tons, and in response, Cuba nationalized some $850 million worth of U.S. property and businesses. The revolutionary government grabbed control of the nation by nationalizing industry, expropriating property owned by Cubans and non-Cubans alike, collectivizing agriculture, and enacting policies which would benefit the population. While popular among the poor, these policies alienated many former supporters of the revolution among the Cuban middle and upper-classes. Over one million Cubans later migrated to the U.S., forming a vocal anti-Castro community in Miami, Florida. (See Cuban-American lobby.)

President Dwight Eisenhower broke off ties on January 3, 1961, saying Fidel Castro had provoked him once too often.

By the early autumn of 1960, the U.S. Government was engaged in a semi-secret campaign to remove Castro from power. The unsuccessful Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961 – an attempt to topple Castro by supporting an armed force of Cuban exiles to retake the island – is the most well-known operation of this campaign.

Bay of Pigs

A timeline released by the National Security Archives shows the U.S. began planning to overthrow the government of Cuba in October, 1959. On April 17, 1961, approximately 1,400 members of a CIA-trained Cuban exile force landed at the Bay of Pigs, while the United States denied any involvement.

Documents released by the National Security Archive show that the CIA expected the Cuban people to welcome a U.S.-sponsored invasion, spontaneously rising up against the Castro regime. It expected Cuban military and police forces to refuse to fight against the CIA's 1,400-man mercenary invasion force. President Kennedy had withdrawn support for the invasion at the last minute by canceling several bombing sorties that could have crippled the entire Cuban Air Force. The brief military invasion ended in total failure and quickly became a foreign policy debacle for Kennedy. He had approved the plan just three months into his presidency.

The Cubans had repelled the invaders, killing many and capturing a thousand. On May 1, 1961, as hundreds of thousands celebrating May Day roared their approval, Castro announced:

Fidel Castro
The revolution has no time for elections. There is no more democratic government in Latin America than the revolutionary government. ... If Mr. Kennedy does not like Socialism, we do not like imperialism. We do not like capitalism.
Fidel Castro

In a nationally broadcast speech on December 2, 1961, Castro declared that he was a Marxist-Leninist and that Cuba was adopting Communism. On February 7, 1962, the U.S. imposed an embargo against Cuba. This embargo was broadened during 1962 and 1963, including a general travel ban for American tourists.

Many theories are offered for the failure of the U.S. operation. Some argue that Kennedy's last-minute decision to withdraw air support caused the invasion to fail[ citations needed]. Others argue that the Americans misjudged Cuban support for Castro. They had believed the testimonies of the Cuban exiles, who told them that Castro was not well supported by the Cuban people. In the weeks prior to the invasion, the Castro regime had rounded up tens of thousands of Cubans, holing them up in sports stadiums across the island in order to quash discontent on the island and prevent its adversaries from joining exile forces. The idea that Cubans would rise up against Castro, while possibly correct judging from the discontent reported to be growing on the island at the time, would never happen — perhaps as a result of the widespread incarcerations throughout Cuba and the reprisals the families would have to endure, like public humiliation and harassment. As well, the CIA-trained force of 1,400 armed only with light arms faced a Cuban force of tens of thousands armed with tanks and artillery. In addition, the covert placement of dozens of Cuban intelligence officials in the invasion force gave the Cuban government detailed information on the operation.

Cuban Missile Crisis

Tensions between Cuba and the U.S. heightened during the 1962 missile crisis, which nearly brought the US and the USSR into nuclear conflict. Khrushchev conceived the idea of placing missiles in Cuba as a deterrent to a possible U.S. invasion and justified the move in response to US missile deployment in Turkey. After consultations with his military advisors, he met with a Cuban delegation led by Raúl Castro in July in order to work out the specifics. It was agreed to deploy Soviet R-12 MRBMs on Cuban soil; however, American Lockheed U-2 reconnaissance discovered the construction of the missile installations on 15 October 1962 before the weapons had actually been deployed. The US government viewed the installation of Soviet nuclear weapons 90 miles south of Key West as an aggressive act and a threat to US security. As a result, the US publicly announced its discovery on 22 October 1962, and implemented a quarantine around Cuba that would actively intercept and search any vessels heading for the island. Nikolai Sergevich Leonov, who would become a General in the KGB Intelligence Directorate and the Soviet KGB deputy station chief in Warsaw, was the translator Castro used for contact with the Russians during this period.

In a personal letter to Khrushchev dated 27 October 1962, Castro urged Khrushchev to launch a nuclear first strike against the United States if Cuba were invaded, but Khrushchev rejected any first strike response. Soviet field commanders in Cuba were; however, authorized to use tactical nuclear weapons if attacked by the United States. Khrushchev agreed to remove the missiles in exchange for a US commitment not to invade Cuba and an understanding that the US would remove American MRBMs targeting the Soviet Union from Turkey and Italy, a measure that the US implemented a few months later. The missile swap was never publicized because the Kennedy Administration demanded secrecy in order to preserve NATO relations and protect Democratic candidates in the upcoming elections.

Assassination Attempts & Health Issues

It has been estimated that there have been over 600 attempts on Castro's life committed by the CIA. Fabian Escalante, who was long tasked with protecting the life of Castro has calculated the exact number of assassination schemes and/or attempts by the CIA to be 638. Some such attempts have included an exploding cigar, a fungal-infected scuba-diving suit, and a mafia-style shooting. Some of these plots are depicted in a documentary entitled 638 Ways to Kill Castro. Castro once said in regards to the numerous attempts on his life, "If surviving assassination attempts were an Olympic event, I would win the gold medal."

Castro has not made any public appearances since July 26, 2006, when he announced he would undergo surgery and temporarily transferred power to his younger brother Raul. The Cuban government has treated Castro's ailment as a state secret, releasing only sporadic videos and photographs to prove he is recovering.

A video released late October on state-run television showed the Cuban leader defiantly denying rumors that he was on his deathbed. Yet some Cubans say they were surprised to see how frail he still was.

Castro turned 80 on Aug. 13. But when he announced his surgery, he said celebrations would be delayed until Dec. 2. The U.S. Government speculates that Fidel now has cancer.


After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Cuba was left bankrupt and isolated by the disintegration of the Soviet bloc. Eighty-five percent of its markets had disappeared, along with the subsidies and trade agreements that had supported its economy. The situation became desperate. Daily life was a struggle with extended gas and water outages, severe power shortages, and dwindling food supplies available for rationing.

Castro denounces the US embargo against Cuba. The embargo has united the Cuban people for over 40 years. A former Prime Minister of Spain has written that the embargo is Castro's greatest ally, as it perpetuates the government; he asserts that if it were lifted, Castro would lose his presidency in three months. Many have condemned the embargo ranging from Pope John Paul II (in 1998 and 2005), to Steven Spielberg for humanitarian reasons.

By 1994, the island's economy, which had survived over 30 years of sanctions by the US, teetered on the brink. Cuba was plunged into what was called the "Special Period" during which there were shortages of everything. To survive, Cuba legalized the US dollar, turned to tourism and encouraged the transfer of remittances in US dollars from Cubans living in the USA to their relatives on the Island. Even as late as 2004, Castro was forced to shut down 118 factories, including steel plants, sugar mills and paper processors for the month of October to deal with a crisis caused by fuel shortages.

After the massive damage caused by Hurricane Michelle in 2001, Castro proposed to the U.S. a one-time cash purchase of food after declining a U.S. offer of humanitarian aid. The U.S. authorized the shipment of food in 2001, the first since the embargo was imposed in 1962, because of the devastation caused by the hurricane.

Foreign relations

Soviet Union

Following the establishment of diplomatic ties to the Soviet Union, and after the Cuban Missile Crisis, Cuba became increasingly dependent on Soviet markets and military and economic aid. Castro was able to build a formidable military force with the help of Soviet equipment and military advisors. The KGB kept in close touch with Havana, and Castro tightened Communist Party control over all levels of government, the media, and the educational system, while developing a Soviet-style internal police force.

Castro's alliance with the Soviet Union caused something of a split between him and Guevara, who took a more pro-Chinese view following ideological conflict between the CPSU and the Maoist CPC. In 1966, Guevara left for Bolivia in an ill-fated attempt to stir up revolution against the country's government.

On 23 August 1968, Castro made a public gesture to the USSR that caused the Soviet leadership to reaffirm their support for him. Two days after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia to repress the Prague Spring, Castro took to the airwaves and publicly denounced the Czech rebellion. Castro warned the Cuban people about the Czechoslovakian 'counterrevolutionaries', who "were moving Czechoslovakia towards capitalism and into the arms of imperialists". He called the leaders of the rebellion "the agents of West Germany and fascist reactionary rabble." In return for his public backing of the invasion, at a time when many Soviet allies were deeming the invasion an infringement of Czechoslovakia's sovereignty, the Soviets bailed out the Cuban economy with extra loans and an immediate increase in oil exports.

In 1971, despite an Organization of American States convention that no nation in the Western Hemisphere would have a relationship with Cuba (the only exception being Mexico, which had refused to adopt that convention), Castro took a month-long visit to Chile, following the re-establishment of diplomatic relations with Cuba. The visit, in which Castro participated actively in the internal politics of the country, holding massive rallies and giving public advice to Allende, was seen by those on the political right as proof to support their view that "The Chilean Way to Socialism" was an effort to put Chile on the same path as Cuba.

When Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev visited Cuba in 1989, the comradely relationship between Havana and Moscow was strained by Gorbachev's implementation of economic and political reforms in the USSR. "We are witnessing sad things in other socialist countries, very sad things," lamented Castro in November 1989, in reference to the changes that were sweeping such communist allies as the Soviet Union, East Germany, Hungary, and Poland. The subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 had an immediate and devastating effect on Cuba.

Other countries

 Schafik Handal, Hugo Chávez, Fidel Castro and Evo Morales, in Havana in 2004.
Schafik Handal, Hugo Chávez, Fidel Castro and Evo Morales, in Havana in 2004.

On November 4, 1975, Castro ordered the deployment of Cuban troops to Angola in order to aid the Marxist MPLA-ruled government against the South African-backed UNITA opposition forces. Moscow aided the Cuban initiative with the USSR engaging in a massive airlift of Cuban forces into Angola. On Cuba's role in Angola, Nelson Mandela is said to have remarked "Cuban internationalists have done so much for African independence, freedom, and justice." Cuban troops were also sent to Marxist Ethiopia to assist Ethiopian forces in the Ogaden War with Somalia in 1977. In addition, Castro extended support to Marxist Revolutionary movements throughout Latin America, such as aiding the Sandinistas in overthrowing the Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua in 1979. It has been claimed by the Carthage Foundation-funded Centre for a Free Cuba that an estimated 14,000 Cubans were killed in Cuban military actions abroad.

Cuba and Panama have restored diplomatic ties after breaking them off in 2005 when Panama's former president pardoned four Cuban exiles accused of attempting to assassinate Cuban President Fidel Castro. The foreign minister of each country re-established official diplomatic relations in Havana by signing a document describing a spirit of fraternity that has long linked both nations. Cuba, once shunned by many of its Latin American neighbours, now has full diplomatic relations with all but Costa Rica and El Salvador.

Although the relationship between Cuba and Mexico remains strained, each side appears to make attempts to improve it. In 1998, Fidel Castro apologised for remarks he made about Mickey Mouse which led Mexico to recall its ambassador from Havana. He said he intended no offense when he said earlier that Mexican children would find it easier to name Disney characters than to recount key figures in Mexican history. Rather, he said, his words were meant to underscore the cultural dominance of the US. Mexican president, Vicente Fox, apologised to Fidel Castro in 2002 over allegations by Castro that Fox forced him to leave a United Nations summit in Mexico so that he would not be in the presence of President Bush, who also attended.

At a summit meeting of sixteen Caribbean countries in 1998, Castro called for regional unity, saying that only strengthened cooperation between Caribbean countries would prevent their domination by rich nations in a global economy. Caribbean nations have embraced Cuba's Fidel Castro while accusing the US of breaking trade promises. Castro, until recently a regional outcast, has been increasing grants and scholarships to the Caribbean countries, while US aid has dropped 25% over the past five years. Cuba has opened four additional embassies in the Caribbean Community including: Antigua and Barbados, Dominica, Suriname, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. This development makes Cuba the only country to have embassies in all independent countries of the Caribbean Community.

In the poorest areas of Latin America and Africa, Castro is seen as a hero, the leader of the Third World, and the enemy of the wealthy and greedy. On a visit to South Africa he was warmly received by President Nelson Mandela. President Mandela gave Castro South Africa's highest civilian award for foreigners, the Order of Good Hope. Last December Castro fulfilled his promise of sending 100 medical aid workers to Botswana, according to the Botswana presidency. These workers play an important role in Botswana's war against HIV/AIDS. According to Anna Vallejera, Cuba's first-ever Ambassador to Botswana, the health workers are part of her country's ongoing commitment to proactively assist in the global war against HIV/AIDS,

The president of Venezuela Hugo Chávez is a grand admirer of his and Bolivian president Evo Morales called him the "Grandfather". In Harlem, he is seen as an icon because of his historic visit with Malcolm X in 1960 at the Hotel Theresa.

Castro and Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau.
Castro and Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau.

Castro was known to be a friend of former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and was an honorary pall bearer at Trudeau's funeral in October 2000. They had continued their friendship after Trudeau left office until his death. Canada became one of the first American allies to openly trade with Cuba. Cuba still has a good relationship with Canada. In 1998 Canadian Prime Minister, Jean Chretien arrived in Cuba to meet President Castro and highlight their close ties. He is the first Canadian government leader to visit the island since Pierre Trudeau was in Havana in 1976.

In December 2001, European Union representatives described their political dialogue with Cuba as back on track after a weekend of talks in Havana. The EU praised Cuba's willingness to discuss questions of human rights. Cuba is the only Latin American country without an economic co-operation agreement with the EU. However, trade with individual European countries remains strong, since the US trade embargo on Cuba leaves the market free from American rivals. In 2005 EU Development Commissioner Louis Michel ended his visit to Cuba optimistic that relations with the communist state will become stronger. The EU is Cuba's largest trading partner. Cuba's imprisonment of 75 dissidents and the execution of three hijackers have strained diplomatic relations. However, the EU commissioner was impressed with Fidel Castro's willingness to discuss these concerns, although he received no commitments from Castro. Cuba does not admit to holding political prisoners, rather seeing them as mercenaries in the pay of the United States.

Succession issues

According to the Cuban Constitution Article 94, the First Vice President of the Council of State assumes presidential duties upon the illness or death of the president. At the moment (2006), that is Raúl Castro.

Due to the issue of presidential succession, and Castro's longevity, there has long been rumor, speculation and hoaxing about Castro's health and demise. In 1998 there were reports that he had a serious brain disease, later discredited. In June 2001, he apparently fainted during a seven-hour speech under the Caribbean sun. Later that day he finished the speech, walking buoyantly into the television studios in his military fatigues, joking with journalists.

In January 2004, Luis Eduardo Garzón, the mayor of Bogotá, said that Castro "seemed very sick to me" following a meeting with him during a vacation in Cuba. In May 2004, Castro's physician denied that his health was failing, and speculated that he would live to be 140 years old. Dr. Eugenio Selman Housein said that the "press is always speculating about something, that he had a heart attack once, that he had cancer, some neurological problem", but maintained that Castro was in good health.

On October 20, 2004, Castro tripped and fell following a speech he gave at a rally, breaking his kneecap and fracturing his right arm. He was able to recover his ability to walk, and publicly demonstrated this two months later.

Due to his large role in Cuba, his well-being has become a continual source of speculation, both on and off the island, as he has grown older. The CIA has long been interested in Castro's health.

In 2005 the CIA said it thought Castro has Parkinson's disease. Castro denies such allegations, while also stating "I don't care if I get Parkinson's. The Pope had Parkinson's, and he spent a bunch of years running all around the world."

On July 31, 2006, the spokesman for Castro announced a provisional transfer of his duties as president and Communist Party first secretary to his younger brother Raúl. The announcement cited "an acute intestinal crisis, with sustained bleeding" requiring immediate medical intervention, as the cause of his decision to cede control. The announcement marked the first delegation of presidential duties in Cuba since Castro's inauguration in 1976.

As of early August, rumors persisted that Castro was already dead. On August 5, the Brazilian newspaper Folha de S. Paulo reported that Cuban authorities had informed Brazilian president Lula da Silva that Castro's health was much worse than what the Cuban government had previously admitted in public. According to the report, Castro is actually suffering from intestinal cancer and will be unable to resume control of the Cuban state. The Brazilian government quickly denied that the report was accurate. Folha's editors responded to the government's denials by saying their sources were aides to the president. On 13 August 2006, Castro published a note: "I ask you all to be optimistic, and at the same time to be ready to face any adverse news. . . . For all those who care about my health, I promise I'll fight for it". He also appeared live on Venezuelan television on 14 August 2006 joking with Hugo Chávez from his sickbed. Castro issued a statement updating his condition on September 6, 2006: "The worst is over." "This is still serious. We're out of the woods, but don't expect me to be walking around in my fatigues any time soon. Other people are running the show now, but I'm still here as the grandfather of the revolution." "We all must also understand, with realism, that the duration of a complete recovery, whether we want it or not, will be prolonged," he said. "At this moment, I am not in any hurry, and no one should hurry. The country marches on well and moves ahead." The photos showed a slimmer Castro in two different sets of blue pajamas reading and writing. Only one shows a full-length image, showing him wearing slippers and reading while he sits on a rocking chair. In one photo, Castro holds up what appears to be a proof of the book One Hundred Hours With Fidel, written by Spanish leftist intellectual Ignacio Ramonet. Castro promises the book will be published soon. However, the book was launched April 2006 in Spain, and came under criticism when some of the passages from the alleged interviews turned out to be identical to Castro speeches. "He didn't look good," Castro biographer Georgie Anne Geyer said by phone from Washington D.C. "In the past he's had this hearty look about him. This time he looked like an old man. It's a little surprising to me. My own knowledge of him is that . . . he would never ever admit he's sick, weak, or not coming back." Dr. Jeffrey Raskin, the University of Miami's interim chief of gastroenterology, speculated that the ongoing secrecy surrounding Castro's health suggests Castro may have cancer. "The fact that they're continuing to be vague this late into it means more than likely it's not a benign condition, that he does in fact have a tumor," Raskin said. Cancer of the pancreas, stomach or colon are all possibilities. Other conditions that could have prompted intestinal bleeding and surgery — such as a bleeding ulcer or diverticular disease — would likely have been resolved by now, Raskin said. The Brazilian newspaper Folha de São Paulo reported on September 3, 2006 that sources in the ruling Workers Party with a direct line to the Cuban government say a part of Castro's intestines was removed because of a cancer that had not metastasized.

On October 6, 2006, Time reported that U.S. intelligence sources indicate that Castro does have terminal cancer and will likely not return to power.

On November 6, Cuban foreign minister, Felipe Perez Roque, backed away from his earlier prediction that Castro would return to power in early December, further fueling speculation that Castro's health is much worse than Cuban government officials are saying.

On November 12, the Associated Press reported that multiple U.S. government officials believe Castro has terminal cancer and will not live through 2007.

Human rights record

Thousands of political opponents to the Castro regime have been killed, primarily during the first decade of his leadership; however exact numbers are not known. Some Cubans labeled "counterrevolutionaries", "fascists", or "CIA operatives" have been imprisoned in extremely poor conditions without trial. Military Units to Aid Production, or UMAPs, were labor camps established in 1965 which confined "social deviants" including homosexuals and Jehovah Witnesses in order to work "counter-revolutionary" influences out of certain segments of the population. The camps were closed in 1967 in response to international outcries. Professor Marifeli Pérez Stable, a Cuban American who once supported the revolution, reflects on the costs of the Cuban revolution. "[There were] thousands of executions, forty, fifty thousand political prisoners. The treatment of political prisoners, with what we today know about human rights and the international norms governing human rights ... it is legitimate to raise questions about possible crimes against humanity in Cuba." Castro acknowledges that Cuba holds political prisoners, but argues that Cuba is justified because these prisoners are not jailed because of their political beliefs, but have been convicted of "counter-revolutionary" crimes, including bombings.

Fidel Castro portrays opposition to the Cuban government as illegitimate, and the result of an ongoing conspiracy fostered by Cuban exiles with ties to the United States or the CIA. Many Castro supporters say that Castro's measures are justified to prevent the fall of his government, whereas his opposition says he uses the United States as an excuse to justify his continuing political control.

Religious beliefs

Castro was raised a Roman Catholic as a child but doesn't practice as one. However, when asked whether he believes in God, Castro has not given a direct answer, saying that if he professed belief he would offend disbelievers, and that if he expressed disbelief he would offend believers. Pope John XXIII excommunicated Castro in 1962 on the basis of a 1949 decree by Pope Pius XII forbidding Catholics from supporting communist governments. The excommunication was aimed at undermining support for Castro among Catholics. For Castro, who had previously renounced his Catholic faith, this was an event of very little consequence, nor was it expected to be otherwise.

In 1992, Castro agreed to loosen restrictions on religion and even permitted church-going Catholics to join the Cuban Communist Party. He began describing his country as "secular" rather than "atheist". Pope John Paul II visited Cuba in 1998, the first visit by a reigning pontiff to the island. Castro and the Pope appeared side by side in public on several occasions during the visit. Castro wore a dark blue business suit (in contrast to his fatigues) in his public meetings with the Pope and treated him with reverence and respect. With Castro and other senior Cuban officials in the front row at a mid-morning Mass, the pope delivered a ringing call for pluralism in Cuba. He rejected the materialistic, one-party ideology of the Cuban state. And he said that true liberation "cannot be reduced to its social and political aspects," but must also include "the exercise of freedom of conscience — the basis and foundation of all other human rights." Later in the day, though, the pope also made his most critical reference yet to the American economic embargo of Cuba. At a departure ceremony at Jose Marti Airport that evening, he said that Cuba's "material and moral poverty" arises not only from "limitations to fundamental freedoms" and "discouragement of the individual," but also from "restrictive economic measures — unjust and ethically unacceptable — imposed from outside the country." He also criticized widespread abortion in Cuban hospitals and urged Castro to end the government's monopoly on education to allow the return of Catholic schools. A month later Castro condemned the use of abortion as a form of birth control.

In December 1998, Castro formally re-instated Christmas Day as the official celebration it was formerly before the Communist Party abolished it in 1969. Cubans were again allowed to mark Christmas as a holiday and to openly hold religious processions. The Pope sent a telegram to Castro thanking him for restoring Christmas as a public holiday.

Castro attended a Roman Catholic convent blessing in 2003. The purpose of this unprecedented event was to help bless the newly restored convent in Old Havana and to mark the fifth anniversary of the Pope's visit to Cuba.

The senior spiritual leader of the Orthodox Christian faith arrived in Cuba in 2004, the first time any Orthodox Patriarch of the 2,000-year-old Orthodox faith has visited Latin America in the Church's history. Patriarch Bartholomew consecrated a cathedral in Havana and bestowed an honour on Fidel Castro. His aides said that he was responding to the decision of the Cuban Government to build and donate to the Orthodox Christians a tiny Orthodox cathedral in the heart of old Havana.

After the Pope's death in April 2005, an emotional Castro attended a mass in his honour in Havana's cathedral and signed the Pope's condolence book at the Vatican Embassy. He had last visited the cathedral in 1959, 46 years earlier, for the wedding of one of his sisters. Cardinal Jaime Lucas Ortega y Alamino led the mass and welcomed Castro, who was dressed in a black suit, expressing his gratitude for the "heartfelt way the death of our Holy Father John Paul II was received (in Cuba)."

Public image

By wearing military-style uniforms and leading mass demonstrations, Castro projects an image of a perpetual revolutionary. He is mostly seen in military attire, but his personal tailor, Merel Van 't Wout, convinced him to occasionally change to a business suit. Large throngs of people gather to cheer at Castro's fiery speeches, which typically last for hours. Many details of Castro's private life, particularly involving his family members, are scarce and Castro, often referred to as "Comandante" ("Commander"), insists that he does not promote a cult of personality. When asked about the matter in 1985 he replied,

Fidel Castro
Although we have been dogmatic, we have never preached cult of personality. You will not see a statue of me anywhere, nor a school with my name, nor a street, nor a little town, nor any type of personality cult because we have not taught our people to believe, but to think, to reason out."
Fidel Castro

There are no streets in Cuba named after Castro, and no statues or peso bills bearing his image. Despite this, Castro was accused by American anarchist Sam Dolgoff of "bask[ing] in the adulation and servility of his subordinates" and "creating a regime built around the cult of the personality functions" encouraging "the illusion that only he and his select group of revolutionaries have earned the right to wield unlimited power over the people of Cuba." Castro has also been described as an example of the rise of a distinct " charismatic leader" common to developing nations, and of encouraging the "personalistic political regime". This theory contends that Castro has maintained power largely through highly visible, charismatic leadership and popular appeals to the Cuban people, though the administration is successful only as long as the leader's charisma lasts.



Fidel Castro making a speech in Havana in 1978, image by Marcelo Montecino
Fidel Castro making a speech in Havana in 1978, image by Marcelo Montecino

By his first wife Mirta Díaz Balart, Castro has a son named Fidel "Fidelito" Castro Díaz-Balart. Mirta and Castro were divorced in 1955, and Mirta now lives remarried in Madrid. Fidelito was later returned to and grew up in Cuba, For a time, he ran Cuba's atomic-energy commission before being removed from the post by his father.

Fidel has five other sons by his second wife, Dalia Soto del Valle: Alexis, Alexander, Alejandro, Antonio, and Angel.

While Fidel was still married to Mirta, he had an affair with Naty Revuelta resulting in a daughter named Alina Fernández-Revuelta. Alina left Cuba in 1993, disguised as a Spanish tourist, and sought asylum in the United States. She has been a vocal critic of her father's policies. During his days in the Sierra, Castro was linked romantically with fellow rebel Celia Sánchez, though support for this theory isn't as common as it was.

His sister Juanita Castro has been living in the United States since the early 1960s and was featured in a film documentary by Andy Warhol in 1965.


In 2005, American business and financial magazine Forbes (whose owner and editor-in-chief is the Republican Steve Forbes) listed Castro among the world's richest people, with an estimated net worth of $550 million. This was based on economic control of Cuban state-owned companies. In 2006, Forbes magazine increased their estimate of Castro's wealth to $900 million. but acknowledged in the article that the estimates for all the leaders are "more art than science." Castro responded to the report by saying, "If they can prove I have an account abroad... containing even one dollar I will resign my post."

Attempts have been made to provide a clear and in-depth overview of Castro's large economic influence and financial status. Castro and loyalists are said to control several billions of dollars in real estate, bank accounts, private estates, yachts and other assets — called “the Comandante's Reserves” — in Europe, Latin America and Asia. These attempts often must rely on the testimonials of defectors who were close to Castro and investigators have not been able to give hard evidence of his real worth. In addition, although the evidence is clear that Cuba as an entity must and does operate within the nexus of global capital markets as a "global conglomerate", it is difficult to separate the state from the individual and vice versa. Castro maintains that these activities are for the benefit of the state and not for personal gain. Whether or not the wealth that he controls as the head of state is to be considered personal wealth or not is a matter of controversy. What is generally accepted is the fact that the Cuban state, an entity over which Castro has wide-reaching influence, acts in world markets as any other financial and economic entity must.

In May 2006, British MP George Galloway, who has a history of supporting Castro, made a live appearance on Cuban TV to defend Castro against the charges.

"The Castro family's substantial wealth was in no way spared from the expropriations of the immediate post-revolutionary period."

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