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Fidel Castro

[kas-troh; Sp. kahs-traw]

Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz (born August 13, 1926) is a Cuban revolutionary leader who was prime minister of Cuba from December 1959 to December 1976 and then president until his resignation from the office in February 2008.

Castro began his political life with nationalist critiques of Fulgencio Batista, and of United States political and corporate 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 traveled to Mexico to organize and train for the invasion of Cuba that took place in December 1956.

Castro came to power as a result of the Cuban revolution that overthrew the dictator Fulgencio Batista, and shortly thereafter became Prime Minister of Cuba. In 1965 he became First Secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba and led the transformation of Cuba into a one-party socialist republic. In 1976 he became President of the Council of State as well as of the Council of Ministers. He also held the supreme military rank of Comandante en Jefe ("Commander in Chief") of the Cuban armed forces.

Following intestinal surgery from an undisclosed digestive illness believed to have been diverticulitis, Castro transferred his responsibilities to the First Vice-President, his younger brother Raúl Castro, on July 31, 2006. On February 19, 2008, five days before his mandate was to expire, he announced he would neither seek nor accept a new term as either president or commander-in-chief. On February 24, 2008, the National Assembly elected Raúl Castro to succeed him as the President of Cuba. Fidel Castro remains First Secretary of the Communist Party.

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 from the impoverished northwest of Spain who became relatively prosperous through work in the sugar industry and successful investing. His mother, Lina Ruz González, who was a household servant, was also of Galician background. 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 whom 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 8, 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 surname was legally changed to Castro from Ruz, his mother’s name. 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 El Colegio de Belén, a Jesuit school in Havana in 1945. While at Belén, the 21-year-old Castro pitched on the school's baseball team. There are persistent rumors that Castro was scouted for various U.S. baseball teams, but there is no evidence that this ever actually happened.

Political beginnings

In late 1945, Castro entered law school at the University of Havana. He became immediately embroiled in the political culture at the University, which was a reflection of the volatile politics in Cuba during that era. Since the fall of president Gerardo Machado in the 1930s, student politics had degenerated into a form of gangsterismo dominated by fractious action groups, and Castro, believing that the gangs posed a physical threat to his university aspirations, experienced what he later described as "a great moment of decision." He returned to the university from a brief hiatus to involve himself fully in the various violent battles and disputes which surrounded university elections, and was to be implicated in a number of shootings linked to Rolando Masferrer's MSR action group. "To not return", said Castro later, "would be to give in to bullies, to abandon my beliefs". Rivalries were so intense that Castro apparently collaborated in an attempt on Masferrer's life during this period, while Masferrer, whose paramilitary group Les Tigres later became an instrument of state violence under Batista, perennially hunted the younger student seeking violent retribution.

In 1947, growing increasingly passionate about social justice, Castro joined the Partido Ortodoxo which had been newly formed by Eduardo Chibás. A charismatic 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.

Bogotazo incident

Castro's role in the circumstances surrounding the assassination of Jorge Eliécer Gaitán in Bogota, Colombia on April 9, 1948--and the massive riots that followed--has been the object of speculation by James M. Roberts of The Heritage Foundation. However, the following account seems to be generally agreed upon: In early April, Castro traveled to Bogotá 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 and presidential candidate Gaitán was shot by an unknown young man with a .32 caliber handgun, 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.

Decision for revolution

Castro returned to Cuba and married Mirta Díaz Balart, a student from a wealthy Cuban family through which 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. 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 government was formally recognized by the United States, buttressing his power. Castro, nearing thirty, was now a politician without a legitimate platform and thus he broke away from the Partido Ortodoxo to marshal legal arguments based on the Constitution of 1940 to formally charge Batista with violating the constitution. His petition, entitled Zarpazo, 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 government and convinced him that revolution was the only way to depose Batista.

Cuban Revolution

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 Mario Chanes de Armas. Together they 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 'illegal' unofficial order to have the leader executed. Others, such as Angel Prado, military commander of the 26th of July Movement, say that on the night of the attack Castro's 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:

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, which were used by the Cubans the last time they attempted a populist overthrow of what they considered an imperialistic regime. The Cuban war of Independence against the Spanish was Cuba's introduction to guerrilla warfare, about which they read once the Cuban campaign ended but was taken up by Emilio Aguinaldo in the Philippines. Once again, it would be guerrilla warfare to bring down a government.

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, Veracruz, 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 group of survivors included Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, Raúl Castro, and Camilo Cienfuegos. Those who survived were aided by people in the countryside. They regrouped in the Sierra Maestra in Oriente province and organized a column under Fidel 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 1957, 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.

In 1957, Castro also signed the Manifesto of the Sierra Maestra in which he agreed to call elections under the Electoral Code of 1943 within the first 18 months of his time in power and to restore all of the provisions of the Constitution of 1940 that had been suspended under Batista. While he took steps to implement some of the measures in the Manifesto upon coming into power, Cuba failed to have elections, the most important part of the program, within the allotted time.

Operation Verano

In May 1958, Batista launched Operation Verano aiming to crush Castro and other anti-government groups. It was called La Ofensiva ("The Offensive") 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 García 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 Andrés 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. Castro called a general strike in protest of the Piedra government. 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.

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.

During this period Castro repeatedly denied being a communist. For example in New York on April 25 he said, communist "influence is nothing. I don't agree with communism. We are democracy. We are against all kinds of dictators.... That is why we oppose communism.

Between April 15 and April 26, Castro and a delegation of industrial and international representatives visited the U.S. as guests of the Press Club. Castro hired one of the best public relations firms in the United States for a charm offensive visit by Castro and his recently initiated government. Castro answered impertinent questions jokingly and ate hotdogs and hamburgers. His rumpled fatigues and scruffy beard cut a popular figure easily promoted as an authentic hero. He was refused a meeting with President Eisenhower. After his visit to the United States, he would go on to join 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 the USSR. The mould was set. U.S. disappointment with their lack of power in Cuban decision making fueled Castro's fears leading to increasing Cuban dependence on USSR support.

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 Castro claimed would benefit the economically dispossessed. 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, actively supported and funded by successive U.S. administrations.

By the early autumn of 1960, the U.S. government was engaged in a semi-secret campaign to remove Castro from power.

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

In April 1961, the U.S. government unsuccessfully attempted to depose Castro from power by supporting an armed force of Cuban exiles to retake the island. This attempt is known as the Bay of Pigs invasion.

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 U.S. publicly 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 cancelled several planned bombing sorties designed to cripple the entire Cuban Air Force.

The Cuban armed forces repelled the invaders, killing many and capturing a thousand. On May 1, 1961, Castro announced to the hundreds of thousands in the audience that:

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 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 Cuban government had rounded up tens of thousands of Cubans suspected of opposing the government, detaining them in sports stadiums across the island in order to prevent them from joining exile forces. No Cuban uprising against Castro ever materialized. 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 October 15, 1962 before the weapons had actually been deployed. The US government viewed the installation of Soviet nuclear weapons south of Key West as an aggressive act and a threat to US security. As a result, the US publicly announced its discovery on October 22, 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 October 27, 1962, Castro urged him 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 secretly 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

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. One of these attempts was by his ex-lover Marita Lorenz whom he met in 1959. She subsequently agreed to aid the CIA and attempted to smuggle a jar of cold cream containing poison pills into his room. When Castro realized, he reportedly gave her a gun and told her to kill him but her nerve failed. 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."

According to the Family Jewels documents declassified by the CIA in 2007, one such assassination attempt before the Bay of Pigs invasion involved Johnny Roselli and Al Capone's successor in the Chicago Outfit, Salvatore Giancana and his right-hand man Santos Trafficante. It was personally authorized by then US attorney general Robert Kennedy .

Giancana and Miami Syndicate leader Santos Trafficante were contacted in September 1960 about the possibility of an assassination attempt by a go-between from the CIA, Robert Maheu, after Maheu had contacted Johnny Roselli, a member of the Las Vegas Syndicate and Giancana's number-two man. Maheu had presented himself as a representative of numerous international business firms in Cuba that were being expropriated by Castro. He offered $150,000 for the "removal" of Castro through this operation (the documents suggest that neither Roselli nor Giancana and Trafficante accepted any sort of payments for the job). According to the files, it was Giancana who suggested using a series of poison pills that could be used to doctor Castro's food and drink. These pills were given by the CIA to Giancana's nominee Juan Orta, whom Giancana presented as being an official in the Cuban government who was also in the pay of gambling interests, and who did have access to Castro. After a series of six attempts to introduce the poison into Castro's food, Orta abruptly demanded to be let out of the mission, handing over the job to another, unnamed participant. Later, a second attempt was mounted through Giancana and Trafficante using Dr. Anthony Verona, the leader of the Cuban Exile Junta, who had, according to Trafficante, become "disaffected with the apparent ineffectual progress of the Junta". Verona requested $10,000 in expenses and $1,000 worth of communications equipment. However, it is unknown how far the second attempt went, as the entire program was cancelled shortly thereafter due to the launching of the Bay of Pigs invasion.

Resulting from these numerous assassination attempts, Castro sent out warnings to the US government to stop the attempts or face retaliatory actions. This resulted in a theory stating that Cuba was behind the Kennedy assassination.

United States embargo

Jose Maria Aznar, former Spanish Prime Minister, wrote that the embargo was Castro's greatest ally, and that Castro would lose his presidency within three months if the embargo was lifted. Castro retained control after Cuba became bankrupt and isolated following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The synergic contraction of Cuban economy resulted in eighty-five percent of its markets disappearing, along with subsidies and trade agreements that had supported it, causing extended gas and water outages, severe power shortages, and dwindling food supplies. In 1994, the island's economy plunged into what was called the "Special Period"; teetering on the brink of collapse. 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. After massive damage caused by Hurricane Michelle in 2001, Castro proposed a one-time cash purchase of food from the U.S. while 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. During 2004, Castro shut down 118 factories, including steel plants, sugar mills and paper processors to compensate for the crisis due to fuel shortages., and in 2005 directed thousands of Cuban doctors to Venezuela in exchange for oil imports.

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. In 1966, Guevara left for Bolivia in an ill-fated attempt to stir up revolution against the country's government.

On August 23, 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 Salvador 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

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 government in Nicaragua in 1979. It has been claimed by the Carthage Foundation-funded Center for a Free Cuba that an estimated 14,000 Cubans were killed in Cuban military actions abroad.

Cuba and Panama restored diplomatic ties in 2005 after breaking them off a year prior when Panama's former president pardoned four Cuban exiles accused of attempting to assassinate Cuban President Fidel Castro in 2000. 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 apologized 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 apologized to Fidel Castro in 2002 over statements by Castro, who had taped their telephone conversation, to the effect 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 Barbuda, 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 in 1998 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, Castro is seen as an icon because of his historic visit with Malcolm X in 1960 at the Hotel Theresa.

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 Chrétien 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, seeing them rather as mercenaries in the pay of the United States.

Succession issues

According to Article 94 of the Cuban Constitution, the First Vice President of the Council of State assumes presidential duties upon the illness or death of the president. Raúl Castro was the person in that position for the last 32 years of Fidel Castro's presidency.

Due to the issue of presidential succession and Castro's longevity, there have long been rumors, 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 had Parkinson's disease. Castro denied such allegations, while also citing the example of Pope John Paul II in saying that he would not fear the disease.

Illness and transfer of duties

On July 31, 2006, Castro delegated his duties as President of the Council of state, President of the Council of Ministers, First Secretary of the Cuban Communist Party and the post of commander in chief of the armed forces to his brother Raúl Castro. This transfer of duties was described at the time as temporary while Fidel recovered from surgery he underwent due to an "acute intestinal crisis with sustained bleeding". Fidel Castro was too ill to attend the nationwide commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Granma boat landing on December 2, 2006, which also became his belated 80th birthday celebrations. Castro's non-appearance fueled reports that he had terminal pancreatic cancer and was refusing treatment, but on December 17, 2006 Cuban officials stated that Castro had no terminal illness and would eventually return to his public duties.

Rumors of Castro's health

While Cuba continues to deny claims that Castro is suffering from a terminal cancer, on December 24, 2006, Spanish newspaper El Periódico de Catalunya reported that Spanish surgeon José Luis García Sabrido has been flown to Cuba on a plane charted by the Cuban government. Dr. García Sabrido is an intestinal expert who further specializes in the treatment of cancer. The plane that Dr. García Sabrido's traveled in also was reported to be carrying a large quantity of advanced medical equipment. On December 26, 2006, shortly after returning to Madrid, Dr. García Sabrido held a news conference in which he answered questions about Castro's health. He stated that "He does not have cancer, he has a problem with his digestive system," and added, "His condition is stable. He is recovering from a very serious operation. It is not planned that he will undergo another operation for the moment. Although most Cubans acknowledge that they are aware Castro is seriously ill, most also seem worried about a future without Castro.

On January 16, 2007, the Spanish newspaper, El País, citing two unnamed sources from the Gregorio Marañón hospital —who employs Dr. García Sabrido— in Madrid, reported Castro was in "very grave" condition, having trouble cicatrizing, after three failed operations and complications from an intestinal infection caused by a severe case of diverticulitis. However, Dr. García Sibrido told CNN that he was not the source of the report and that "any statement that doesn't come directly from [Castro's] medical team is without foundation. Also, a Cuban diplomat in Madrid said the reports were lies and declined to comment, while White House press secretary Tony Snow said the report appeared to be "just sort of a roundup of previous health reports. We've got nothing new. On January 30, 2007, Cuban television and the paper Juventud Rebelde showed fresh video and photos from a meeting between Castro and Hugo Chavez said to have taken place the previous day.

In mid-February 2007, it was reported by the Associated Press that Acting President Raul Castro had said that Fidel Castro's health was improving and he was taking part in all important issues facing the government. "He's consulted on the most important questions," Raul Castro said of Fidel. "He doesn't interfere, but he knows about everything." On February 27, 2007, Reuters reported that Fidel Castro had called into Aló Presidente, a live radio talk show hosted by Hugo Chávez, and chatted with him for thirty minutes during which time he sounded "much healthier and more lucid" than he had on any of the audio and video tapes released since his surgery in July. Castro reportedly told Chávez, "I am gaining ground. I feel I have more energy, more strength, more time to study," adding with a chuckle, "I have become a student again." Later in the conversation (transcript in Spanish; audio) , he made reference to the fall of the world stock markets that had occurred earlier in the day and remarked that it was proof of his contention that the world capitalist system is in crisis.

Reports of improvements in his condition continued to circulate throughout March and early April. On April 13, 2007, Chávez was quoted by the Associated Press as saying that Castro has "almost totally recovered" from his illness. That same day, Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Roque confirmed during a press conference in Vietnam that Castro had improved steadily and had resumed some of his leadership responsibilities. On April 21, 2007, the official newspaper Granma reported that Castro had met for over an hour with Wu Guanzheng, a member of the Politburo of the Chinese Communist Party who was visiting Havana. Photographs of their meeting showed the Cuban president looking healthier than he had in any previously released since his surgery.

As a comment on Castro’s recovery, U.S. President George W. Bush said: "One day the good Lord will take Fidel Castro away," Hearing about this, Castro, who is an atheist, ironically replied: "Now I understand why I survived Bush's plans and the plans of other presidents who ordered my assassination: the good Lord protected me.

Retirement

In a letter dated February 18, 2008, Castro announced that he would not accept the positions of president and commander in chief at the February 24, 2008 National Assembly meetings, saying "I will not aspire nor accept—I repeat I will not aspire or accept—the post of President of the Council of State and Commander in Chief, effectively announcing his retirement from official public life. The letter was published online by the official Communist Party newspaper Granma. In it, Castro stated that his health was a primary reason for his decision, stating that "It would betray my conscience to take up a responsibility that requires mobility and total devotion, that I am not in a physical condition to offer".

Succession

On February 24, 2008, the National Assembly of People's Power unanimously chose his brother, Raúl Castro, as Fidel's successor as President of Cuba. In his first speech as Fidel’s successor, he proposed to the National Assembly of People's Power that Fidel continue to be consulted on matters of great importance, such as defence, foreign policy and "the socioeconomic development of the country". The proposal was immediately and unanimously approved by the 597 members of the National Assembly. Raúl described Fidel as "not substitutable". Fidel also remains the First Secretary of the Communist Party.

Religious beliefs

Castro was raised a Roman Catholic as a child but did not practice as one. In Oliver Stone's documentary Comandante, Castro states "I have never been a believer", and has total conviction that there is only one life. Pope John XXIII excommunicated Castro in 1962 on the basis of a 1949 decree by Pope Pius XII forbidding Catholics from supporting communist governments.

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 materialist, 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 José Martí International 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 for the first time since its abolition by the Communist Party 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 has visited Latin America in the Church's history. Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I consecrated a cathedral in Havana and bestowed an honor 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 Pope John Paul II's death in April 2005, an emotional Castro attended a mass in his honor 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. Castro is often referred to as "Comandante", but is also nicknamed "El Caballo", meaning "The Horse", a label that was first attributed to Cuban entertainer Benny Moré, who on hearing Castro passing in the Havana night with his entourage, shouted out "Here comes the horse! During the revolutionary campaign, fellow rebels knew Castro as "The Giant". 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 as the media is forbidden to mention them. Castro insists that he does not promote a cult of personality.

Family

By his first wife Mirta Díaz-Balart, whom he married on October 11, 1948, Castro has a son named Fidel Ángel "Fidelito" Castro Díaz-Balart, born on September 1, 1949. Díaz-Balart and Castro were divorced in 1955, and she remarried Emilio Núñez Blanco. After a spell in Madrid, Díaz-Balart reportedly returned to Havana to live with Fidelito and his family. Fidelito grew up in Cuba; for a time, he ran Cuba's atomic-energy commission before being removed from the post by his father. Díaz-Balart's nephews are Republican U.S. Congressmen Lincoln Diaz-Balart and Mario Diaz-Balart, vocal critics of the Castro government.

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

While Fidel was married to Mirta, he had an affair with Natalia "Naty" Revuelta Clews, born in Havana in 1925 and married to Orlando Fernández, 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.

By an unnamed woman he had another son, Jorge Ángel Castro.

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.

Criticism

Human rights record

Castro's human rights record remains controversial. It is alleged that some political opponents to his regime were killed, primarily during the first decade of his leadership. Persons found to be "counterrevolutionaries", "fascists", or "CIA operatives" were said to be imprisoned in poor conditions without trial.. Military Units to Aid Production, or UMAPs, were labor camps established in 1965 to confine "social deviants" (including homosexuals and Jehovah's Witnesses), with the goal of working "counter-revolutionary" influences out of certain segments of the population. The camps were closed in 1967.

Castro acknowledged that Cuba holds political prisoners, but argued that Cuba is justified because these prisoners are not jailed for their political beliefs, but have been convicted of "counter-revolutionary" crimes, including bombings. Castro has often portrayed opposition to the Cuban government as illegitimate, and has alleged that most such opposition is the result of an ongoing cooperation between Cuban exiles and the CIA.

Allegations regarding wealth

In 2005, American business and financial magazine Forbes listed Castro among the world's richest people, with an estimated net worth of $550 million. The estimates, which the magazine admitted was "more art than science", claimed that the Cuban leader's personal wealth was nearly double that of Britain's Queen Elizabeth II, despite anecdotal evidence from diplomats and businessmen that the Cuban leader's personal life was notably austere. This assessment was drawn by making economic estimates of the net worth of Cuba's state-owned companies, and used the assumption that Castro had personal economic control. Forbes Magazine later increased the estimates to $900 million, adding rumors of large cash stashes in Switzerland. The magazine offered no proof of this information, and according to CBS news, Castro's entry on the rich list was notably brief compared to the amount of information provided on other figures.

Castro, who had considered suing the magazine, responded that the claims were "lies and slander", and that they were part of a US campaign to discredit him. He declared: "If they can prove that I have a bank account abroad, with $900m, with $1m, $500,000, $100,000 or $1 in it, I will resign." President of Cuba's Central Bank, Francisco Soberón, called the claims a "grotesque slander", asserting that money made from various state owned companies is pumped back into the island's economy, "in sectors including health, education, science, internal security, national defense and solidarity projects with other countries."

Authored works

Fully or partially by Fidel Castro

  • Capitalism in Crisis: Globalization and World Politics Today, Ocean Press, 2000, ISBN 1876175184
  • Che: A Memoir, Ocean Press, 2005, ISBN 192088825X
  • Cuba at the Crossroads, Ocean Press, 1997, ISBN 187528494X
  • Fidel Castro: My Life: A Spoken Autobiography, Scribner, 2008, ISBN 1416553282
  • Fidel Castro Reader, Ocean Press, 2007, ISBN 1920888888
  • Fidel My Early Years, Ocean Press, 2004, ISBN 1920888098
  • Fidel & Religion: Conversations with Frei Betto on Marxism & Liberation Theology, Ocean Press, 2006, ISBN 1920888454
  • Playa Giron: Bay of Pigs : Washington's First Military Defeat in the Americas, Pathfinder Press, 2001, ISBN 087348925X
  • Political Portraits: Fidel Castro reflects on famous figures in history, Ocean Press, 2008, ISBN 1920888942
  • The Declarations of Havana, Verso, 2008, ISBN 1844671569
  • The Prison Letters of Fidel Castro, Nation Books, 2007, ISBN 1560259833
  • War, Racism and Economic Justice: The Global Ravages of Capitalism, Ocean Press, 2002, ISBN 1876175478

See also

References and footnotes

External links

By Fidel Castro

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