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Fidel Castro
Fidel Castro, president of Cuba

Fidel Alejandro Castro Rúz (born August 13,1926) has ruled Cuba since 1959, when, leading the 26th of July Movement, he helped overthrow the government of Fulgencio Batista and turn Cuba into the first socialist state in the Western Hemisphere. He held the title of premier until 1976, when he became president of the Council of State and the Council of Ministers. He has been the First Secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba since its inception in 1965. His brother Raúl, is the number two official in the country. As of October 2004, Fidel Castro stated that Raúl would assume authority over Cuba should he become ill

Early life and rise to power
University student Fidel Castro (3rd from the left, standing) talking to fellow students during a protest on November 11, 1947

Born in Birán, near Mayarí, in the modern-day province of Holguín (then a part of the now-defunct Oriente province), Fidel spent his early years with his wealthy farming family. The son of Ángel Castro y Argiz, an immigrant from Galicia, Spain, and his cook Lina Ruz González, Castro was educated at Jesuit schools, including the preparatory school Colegio Belén in Havana. In 1945, he went to the University of Havana to study law, from where he graduated in 1950.

Castro practiced law in a small partnership between 1950 and 1952. He intended to stand for parliament in 1952 for the "Orthodox Party" but a coup d'état led by General Fulgencio Batista overthrew the government of Carlos Prío Socarrás, after which the elections were cancelled. Castro charged Batista with violating the constitution in court, but his petition was refused. In response, Castro organized a disastrous armed attack on the Moncada Barracks in Oriente province on July 26, 1953. Over eighty of the attackers were killed, and Castro was taken prisoner, tried, and sentenced to fifteen years in prison. (Castro used the closing arguments in the case to deliver "History Will Absolve Me", a passionate speech defending his actions and explaining his political views.) He was released in a general amnesty in May 1955 and went into exile in Mexico and the United States.

He returned to Cuba with a number of other exiles, clandestinely sailing from Mexico to Cuba on the 60-ft pleasure yacht Granma. They were called the 26th of July Movement. At this point, Castro described himself and his movement as believing in "Jeffersonian philosophy" and adhering to the "Lincoln formula" of cooperation between capital and labor. As late as 1959, Castro told U.S. News and World Report that he had "no intention of nationalizing any industries." Some people (both critics and supporters of Castro) contend that the revolution never had anything to do with Jeffersonian philosophy, and that Castro was concealing his true aims.

The 26th of July Movement's first action was in Oriente province on December 2, 1956. Only twelve of the original eighty men survived to retreat into the Sierra Maestra Mountains and from there wage a guerrilla war against the Batista government. The survivors included Che Guevara, Raúl Castro, and Camilo Cienfuegos. Castro's movement gained popular support and grew to over 800 men. On May 24, 1958, Batista launched seventeen battalions against Castro in Operación Verano. Despite being outnumbered, Castro's forces scored a series of stunning victories, aided by massive desertion and surrenders from Batista's army. On New Year's Day 1959 Batista and president-elect Carlos Rivero Agüero fled the country, and the 26th of July forces took Havana.


Castro is an atheist and has not been a practicing Catholic since his childhood. Pope John XXIII excommunicated Castro on January 3, 1962. This was consistent with a 1949 decree by Pope Pius XII forbidding Catholics from supporting communist governments. For Castro, who had previously renounced his Roman Catholicism, this was an event of very little consequence, nor was it expected to be. It was aimed at undermining support for Castro among Catholics; however, there is little evidence that it did. His relations with Pope John Paul II have been somewhat better. In the early 1990s Castro agreed to loosen restrictions on religion and even permitted church going Catholics to join the Cuban Communist Party. In 1998, Castro hosted the pope on his visit to Cuba, the first by a ruling pontiff to the island. Pope John Paul II was extremely critical of both the Castro regime and the US embargo.

Foreign policy

Initially the United States was quick to recognize the new government. Castro became prime minister in February, but friction with the United States soon developed when the new government began expropriating property owned by major U.S. corporations (United Fruit in particular), proposing compensation based on property tax valuations that for many years the same companies had managed to keep artificially low. Castro visited the White House in April 1959, and met with Vice President Richard Nixon. Supposedly, Dwight D. Eisenhower snubbed Castro, giving the excuse that he was playing golf, and he left Nixon to speak to him and discern whether he was a Communist. Castro's economic policies had caused some concerns in Washington that Castro was a Communist with an allegiance to the Soviet Union. Following the meeting, Nixon remarked that Castro was "naive" but not necessarily a Communist.

In February 1960, Cuba signed an agreement to buy oil from the Soviet Union when the U.S.-owned refineries in Cuba refused to process the oil they said were expropriated. The United States broke off diplomatic relations with the Castro's government soon after. To the concern of the Eisenhower administration, Cuba continued to establish closer ties with the Soviet Union. A variety of pacts were signed between Castro and Soviet Premier Khrushchev, and Cuba began to receive large amounts of economic and military aid from the Soviet Union.
Castro as a young revolutionary

On April 17, 1961, two days after bombardments by B-26s bearing false Cuban markings, and the day after Castro had described his revolution as a socialist one, the United States sponsored an unsuccessful attack on Cuba. Brigade 2506, a force of about 1,400 Cuban exiles, financed and trained by the CIA, and commanded by CIA operatives Grayston Lynch and William Robertson, landed south of Havana at Playa Girón on the Bay of Pigs. The CIA's assumption was that the invasion would spark a popular uprising against Castro. There was, however, no such uprising. What part of the invasion force made it ashore was captured, while President Kennedy withdrew support at the last minute. Two U.S. supplied support ships, the Houston and the Río Escondido, were sunk by Cuban propeller driven aircraft. Nine were executed in connection with this action. Castro, who was personally calling the shots on the battlefield, gained even more support from ordinary Cubans due to his actions during the attempted invasion.

Later that year, in a nationally broadcast speech on December 2, Castro declared that he was a Marxist-Leninist and that Cuba was going to adopt Communism. During the 1960s, several smaller-scale attempts to overthrow Castro were made. Cuban exiles, financed and equipped by the CIA, tried to copy the style of Castro's revolution, forming small violent gangs operating mainly in the Sierra de Escambray, a remote region near Trinidad, Cuba, hoping for an uprising and causing many civilian casualties.

Cuban Missile Crisis

According to Khrushchev's memoirs, the Soviet Premier conceived the idea of placing missiles in Cuba as a deterrent to further US aggression against the island (or against the Soviet Union directly) while he was vacationing in the Crimea in the spring of 1962. After consultations with his own military 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 MRBM on Cuban soil, however, American U-2 reconnaissance discovered the construction of the missile installations on October 15, 1962 before the weapons had actually been deployed. The U.S. government viewed the installation of Soviet nuclear weapons 90 miles south of Miami as an aggressive act and a threat to US security. The Cuban missile crisis resulted with the United States publicly announcing its discovery on October 22, 1962 and implemented a quarantine around Cuba that would actively intercept and search any vessels heading for the island.

In a personal letter to Khrushchev written on October 27 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.

Khruschev agreed to remove the missiles in exchange for a US commitment not to invade Cuba and to remove American missiles from Turkey. After tensions were defused, relations between the United States and Cuba remained mutually hostile, and the CIA continued to sponsor a number of assassination schemes (over 600, according to Cuban sources) over the following years.

Relations with The Soviet Union

Following initial American hostility, the establishment of diplomatic ties to the Soviet Union, and the famous Cuban Missile Crisis, the Havana government fell increasingly under the influence of the USSR. 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 consolidated his power over all levels of government, the media, and the educational system, leading many to describe the political system within Cuba as totalitarian. A pervasive secret police force was developed.

Usually described as cordial and cooperative, Castro’s relationship with the Soviet Union was at times strained. After a trial in Cuba of thirty five members of a pro-Moscow “microfaction” charged with activities including “clandestine propaganda against the Party line”, Petrovich Shlyapnikov, the chief KGB advisor to the General Intelligence Directorate was sent back to Moscow as part of the alleged conspiracy with the “microfaction”. This coupled with what Moscow saw as wasteful use of Soviet aid, and a perception of an increasingly haughty and indignant demeanor, led to Soviet threats of cutting off aid to Cuba.

As soon as he returned from Havana, Shlyapnikov immediate lobbied for a reduction in oil exports to Cuba. Shipments were cut by 40%, which slowed Cuban industrial output drastically.

Castro's strong Soviet ties caused somewhat of a split between him and his fellow revolutionary, Che Guevara, who took a more pro-Chinese view following ideological conflict between the CPSU and the Maoist CPC. In 1967, Che left for Bolivia in an ill-fated attempt to stir up revolution against the country's military government; Castro did not provide him with any material support. One reason given for Castro's refusal is the fact that Moscow did not approve of revolution in Latin America unless it involved groups whose idea of communism was close to the Soviet model.

On August 23, 1968 Castro made a public gesture to the Soviet Union that reaffirmed their support in him. Two days after the Soviet Invasion of Czechoslovakia, Castro took to the airwaves and publicly denounced the Czech rebellion. Castro warned the Cuban people about the Czechoslovakian “counter-revolutionaries”, 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 loyalty to the Soviet Union when many traditional Soviet allies were questioning the brutal putdown of the Czechs, the Soviets bailed out the Cuban economy with extra loans and an immediate increase in oil exports.

Asylum issues
Castro with Yugoslavian president Josip Tito

On March 28, 1980, a bus of asylum seekers crashed through the gates of the Peruvian Embassy in Havana. Over 10,000 Cubans fled to the embassy within 48 hours. Castro announced on April 20 that anyone could leave by boat at the port of Mariel in Havana. Cuban exiles began sailing to Mariel in what became known as the "freedom flotilla". According to U.S. Coast Guard figures 124,776 Cubans had fled their homeland when Castro closed Mariel on September 26.

Although the vast majority of Cubans who fled during the Mariel Boat Lift were legitimate asylum seekers, Castro used the event as an opportunity to expel an estimated 20,000 convicts, homosexuals and mentally disabled citizens.

Criticisms of the United States

Castro remains a vocal critic of United States policies, speaking against the continuing economic embargo and U.S. attempts to topple his government. He has also condemned what he sees as exploitation of developing countries by U.S. corporations and even the state of public health care in the United States. Recently, he has harshly condemned the migration policies of the United States, which severely limit travel of Cuban-Americans to their families in Cuba. Castro also opposes the policies of developed world vis-à-vis the developing countries, including growing costs of servicing foreign debt.

Castro claims that, during the Cold War, the United States engaged in a variety of covert, and often deadly attacks against Cuba in order to weaken the entire country as a way of weakening Castro's government. He points out the alleged infection of Cuban pigs by anti-Castro organisations supported by the CIA in 1971 with African swine fever, a disease of pigs not previously reported in the Americas. This started an epidemic which forced the Cubans to destroy half of all the pigs on the island in order to get it under control. 1

He also claims that, in 1981 the CIA started a Dengue fever epidemic that killed 158 people.2. Between 1956 and 1958 the US Army tested whether mosquitos of the type Aedes Aegypti - which are carriers of Dengue fever - could be used as weapons of biological warfare. 3 During a trial in New York in 1984 a Cuban exile said that in the late 1980s a ship travelled to Cuba "with a mission to carry some germs to introduce them in Cuba to be used against the Soviets and against the Cuban economy ... which later on produced results that were not what we had expected ... and it was used against our own people, and with that we did not agree" . 4

There may have been CIA efforts at sabotaging crops using pathogens. Fidel Castro has definitely been the target of several CIA-sponsored attempts at his life, but none have been reported since the early 1960s.

Economic policy

Castro consolidated control of the nation by nationalizing industry, expropriating property owned by Cubans and non-Cubans alike, collectivizing agriculture, and enacting policies which he claimed would benefit the population. In 1959, following President Eisenhower's ban on the importation of Cuban sugar into the U.S., Castro nationalized some $850 million worth of U.S. property and businesses. This alienated some of the Cuban middle-class and previous supporters of the revolution, who left for the U.S. Many other Cubans would later migrate to the U.S. as well, a great deal of them forming a vocal anti-Castro community in Miami, Florida. Because of the embargo imposed by the United States, Cuba then became increasingly dependent on Soviet and Eastern bloc subsidies, worth up to one quarter of the island's gross domestic product, to finance improvements to Cuba's economic conditions. The dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 had severe repercussions on the Cuban economy.

The U.S. economic sanctions, which include a general travel ban for American tourists to Cuba, has been cited by Castro supporters as a major factor in Cuba's economic troubles. Supporters of the embargo reply that the United States is the only nation which has an embargo on Cuba, and that Cuba is still free to trade with all other nations. At the same time the United States attempts to forbid foreign subsidiaries of US companies from trading with Cuba, imposes sanctions on foreign companies that would benefit from properties which the United States alleges were taken without compensation, and restricts its own trade with smaller nations that would trade with Cuba.

Cuba is the second most popular tourist destination in the Caribbean (behind the Dominican Republic), providing it with much needed foreign currency. Cubans also receive large amounts of currency (with an estimated value of $850 million annually) from Cuban-Americans who send money back to their relatives or friends. Cuba also receives most of its energy needs in oil from Venezuela, partly in exchange for Cuban medical personnel, replacing the previous long supply lines from Eastern Europe over a decade after these subsidies were cut.

In recent years, Castro has invested in biotechnology to support the Cuban economy and to find substitutes for foreign imports of medical supplies. Cuban developments in this area have stirred concern and fears around the potential for biological weapons. Thus in 2002 one of the goals of a visit by former US President, Jimmy Carter, was to inspect Cuban genetic engineering sites. Since then, the Cuban economy has benefited from both the export of medical technology and from "health tourism".

On October 25, 2004, Castro announced that USD currency in Cuba would be banned in Cuban stores as of November 8, after which US dollars could be exchanged for pesos with a 10% commission. The dollar was legalized in Cuba in 1993 following the fall of the Soviet Union, which had deprived the country of its primary source of economic aid and resulted in a general decline of living standards. Castro announced that the tax on US dollars is a response to economic pressure from the US, which has instituted restrictions on the transfer of US dollars to Cuba. Other foreign currencies, such as Canadian dollars and euro, will not be taxed.

Health care
Fidel Castro and a crowd waving the Cuban flag

Education and health care were made available to all in Cuba. UNESCO statistics confirm that Cuba's rate of basic literacy is now among the highest in Latin America.

Infant mortality rates are the lowest in the region, health care is of very high quality and all Cubans receive free milk until the age of six. Besides entertainment, Cuban television broadcasts college-level courses for the adult population. In a recognition of his efforts, on April 12, 1988, Castro became the only head of government to receive the Health for All medal from the World Health Organization.

United States government sources reject the claims of significant achievements by Castro's regime and argue that "Cuba has at best maintained what were already high levels of development in health and education" (reference below).

The Cuban media often highlight the contrast between contented Cuban children and children dealing in drugs, dragged into prostitution, or living in the shantytowns of Bogotá, Los Angeles, Buenos Aires, the pueblos jóvenes of Peru, or the favelas of Brazil. In contrast, there is not a sizable population of Cuban children living on the streets.

About 20,000 doctors were dispatched by Cuba around the world to provide medical aid to more than 60 Third World countries.

Castro's leadership of Cuba has remained largely unchallenged. His supporters claim this is because the population believes Castro is responsible for improved living conditions. Castro's opponents believe his continued leadership is due to coercion and repression.

Supporters of Fidel Castro's regime point to Cuba's relatively advanced healthcare and medical system as a success of his government since it came to power in 1959. Much of the post-revolutionary rebuilding of the country focused on children. Cuban life expectancy as of 2002 is only slightly lower than that of the United States, and, according to the CIA World Factbook, it is the highest life expectancy in Latin America.

Critics of Castro's regime allege that although Cuba's infant mortality rate is now the lowest in Latin America, that was also the case before Castro – when it was also the 13th lowest in the world. Other indicators, however, such as life expectancy that increased from less than 60 years at birth in 1959 to 76.13 years in 2004, clearly demonstrate significant quality of life improvements. Life expectancy in the world as a whole has also significantly increased in that time frame, however.

It is generally acknowledged that Cuba has made substantial progress in developing pharmaceuticals. Cuba has its own portfolio of related patents and tries to market its medicine around the world.

Education and the literacy campaign

Cuba also has improved the literacy of its people. Castro's literacy campaign focused on rural areas where literacy was very low. In a fall 1960 speech before the United Nations, Castro announced that, "Cuba will be the first country of America that, after a few months, will be able to say it does not have one illiterate person." Nearly 270,000 teachers and students were sent across the country to teach those who wanted to learn how to read and write. By 1961, Cuba's illiteracy rate had been reduced from 20 percent to 4 percent. People who completed the course were asked to send a letter to Fidel Castro as a test. Cuba's National Literacy Museum archives more than 700,000 such letters.

The Cuban government restricts the books that are available in the country. Books considered counter-revolutionary (such as Animal Farm) are neither sold nor available in public libraries. A movement to start underground libraries independent of the government was broken up and several participants were imprisoned.

Popular image

An apparent cult of personality around Castro has arisen despite his personal attempts to discourage it. In contrast to many of the world's modern strongmen, Castro has only twice been personally featured on a Cuban stamp. In 1974 he appeared on a stamp to commemorate the visit of Leonid Brezhnev, and in 1999 he appeared on a stamp commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Revolution. There has been a much stronger tendency to encourage reverence for Cuban independence hero José Martí and the "martyrs" of the Cuban revolution such as Camilo Cienfuegos. He rarely appears in public without his military fatigues. Castro himself is famous for his long and detailed speeches which often last several hours and contain much data and historical references.

On October 20, 2004, Castro fractured his knee and an arm when he tripped and fell at the end of a televised public speech in Santa Clara. A government statement added: "His general health is good, and spirits excellent." There has been speculation about his health since he apparently fainted during a lengthy speech in June, 2001.

Human rights and relationship with the United States

The Castro regime has frequently been accused of numerous human rights abuses, including torture, arbitrary imprisonment, unfair trials, and extra-judicial executions. Many argue that several thousand unjustified deaths have occurred under Castro's decades-long rule. Several Cubans have been labelled "counterrevolutionaries," "fascists," or "CIA operatives" and imprisoned in extremely poor conditions without trial; some have been summarily executed. The level of political control in Cuba has relaxed somewhat since the USSR's collapse, but several people still view Castro as presiding over a totalitarian state.

Groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch also criticize the censorship, the lack of press freedom in Cuba, the lack of civil rights, the outlawing of political opposition groups and unions, and the lack of free and democratic elections.

Justifying his actions, Castro sees this as an appropriate response to his claims, dubious at best, that the United States is continuing to engage in covert activities against Cuba using spies and mercenaries, and that most if not all critical human rights activists are in fact American agents. In Operation Mongoose during the early '60s, the CIA is known to have participated in various forms of covert economic sabotage in an attempt to oust Castro, including attempting partial destruction of the country's vital sugar crop and setting up explosives at certain factories. During the same time frame, the CIA is also known to have established an "enemy of the enemy" relationship with the Mafia in assassination attempts on Castro; in contrast to the ousted General Batista, Castro's government cracked down severely on organized crime, depriving some notorious mobsters of millions of dollars. There is controversy over whether President John F. Kennedy was fully aware of the "dirty tricks" the CIA was employing in its attempts to overthrow Castro at the time, as the agency's accountability standards were not as strict as they are today. However, much of these events occurred during the early '60s, and there is no evidence suggesting that the U.S. is currently engaged in a subversion campaign against Cuba.

Citing previous U.S. hostility, supporters of Castro thus portray opposition to his regime as illegitimate, and the result of an ongoing conspiracy fostered solely by Cuban exiles with ties to the United States or the CIA. Many Castro supporters thus feel that Castro's often harsh measures are justified to prevent the United States from presumably installing a puppet leader in his place. Castro's opposition, though, maintains that he uses the United States as an excuse to justify his continuing political control.

The United States government maintains the continuing U.S. foreign policy goal in regards to Cuba is to bring democracy to the nation. The Cuban-immigrant population of the US state of Florida, which holds considerable political clout in U.S. electoral politics, has significant influence in U.S. relations with Cuba.

Supporters also contend that Cuba's human rights record is substantially better than that of many other former governments in the Caribbean or Latin America, particularly those that were ruled by U.S.-backed anti-Communist military regimes during the widespread guerrilla warfare of the 1970s and 1980s. In particular, they argue the human rights record and quality of life in Cuba is better than under his predecessor, Fulgencio Batista, who was unpopular and resented by Castro and his supporters as subservient to American interests, though Washington withdrew support of him in the wake of Castro's revolution. Critics point out that Cuba is the only Latin American country to have not democratized in a post-Cold War environment.

Castro's health

Recently, rumors have grown about the state of Castro's health. 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 fell off a stage following a speech he gave at a rally. The fall fractured his knee and arm. He underwent three hours of surgery to repair his kneecap.

Following his fall, Castro wrote a letter that was read on Cuban television and published in newspapers. In it, he assured the public that he was fine and would "not lose contact with you."

Asked if he wished Castro a speedy recovery, U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher responded "No," and urged for a change in Cuban leadership.

External links


1. San Francisco Chronicle, 10 January 1977

2. Bill Schaap, "The 1981 Cuba Dengue Epidemic", Covert Action Information Bulletin, No. 17, Summer 1982, pp 28-31

3. San Francisco Chronicle, 29 October 1980, p.15

4. Covert Action Information Bulletin, No. 22, Fall 1984, the trial of Eduardo Victor Arocena Perez, Federal District Court for the Southern District of New York, transcript of 10 September 1984, pp. 2187-89

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