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Fidel Castro

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Fidel Castro
Castro in front of a Havana statue of Cuban national hero José Martí in 2003.
First Secretary of the
Communist Party of Cuba
In office
July 1961 – April 19, 2011
Deputy Raúl Castro
Preceded by Blas Roca Calderio
Succeeded by Raúl Castro
15th President of Cuba
In office
December 2, 1976 – February 24, 2008*
Prime Minister Himself
Vice President Raúl Castro
Preceded by Osvaldo Dorticós Torrado
Succeeded by Raúl Castro
16th Prime Minister of Cuba
In office
February 16, 1959 – February 24, 2008
President Manuel Urrutia Lleó
Osvaldo Dorticós Torrado
Preceded by José Miró Cardona
Succeeded by Raúl Castro
7th and 23rd Secretary-General of the Non-Aligned Movement
In office
September 16, 2006 – February 24, 2008
Preceded by Abdullah Ahmad Badawi
Succeeded by Raúl Castro
In office
September 10, 1979 – March 6, 1983
Preceded by Junius Richard Jayawardene
Succeeded by Neelam Sanjiva Reddy
Personal details
Born Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz
(1926-08-13) August 13, 1926
Birán, Cuba
Political party Communist Party of Cuba
Spouse(s) Mirta Diaz-Balart (1948–1955)
Dalia Soto del Valle (1980–present)
Relations (siblings)
Raúl Castro Ruz
Emma Castro Ruz
Agustina Castro Ruz
Ramon Castro Ruz
Angela Castro Ruz
Juana Castro Ruz
Pedro Emilio Castro Argota
Manuel Castro Argota
Lidia Castro Argota
Antonia Maria Castro Argota
Georgina Castro Argota
Children Fidel Ángel Castro Diaz-Balart
Alina Fernández-Revuelta
Alexis Castro-Soto
Alejandro Castro-Soto
Antonio Castro-Soto
Angel Castro-Soto
Alex Castro-Soto
Jorge Angel Castro Laborde
Francisca Pupo
Alma mater University of Havana
Profession Lawyer
Religion None (Agnosticism)
*Acting presidential powers were transferred to Raúl Castro from July 31, 2006.

Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz (Spanish:  [fiˈðel ˈkastro]; born August 13, 1926) is a Cuban communist revolutionary and politician who was Prime Minister of Cuba from 1959 to 1976, and President from 1976 to 2008. He also served as the Commander in Chief of the country's armed forces from 1959 to 2008, and as the First Secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba from 1961 until 2011. Politically a Marxist-Leninist, under his administration the Republic of Cuba became a one-party socialist state; industry and businesses were nationalized, and socialist reforms implemented in all areas of society. Internationally, Castro was the Secretary-General of the Non-Aligned Movement, from 1979 to 1983 and from 2006 to 2008.

Born the illegitimate son of a wealthy farmer, Castro adopted leftist anti-imperialist politics while studying law at the University of Havana. After participating in armed rebellions against right-wing governments in the Dominican Republic and Colombia, he planned the overthrow of the United States-backed military junta of Cuban president Fulgencio Batista, and served a year's imprisonment in 1953 after a failed attack on the Moncada Barracks. On release he traveled to Mexico, where he formed a revolutionary group with his brother Raúl and friend Che Guevara, the 26th of July Movement. Returning to Cuba, Castro led the Cuban Revolution which ousted Batista in 1959, and brought his own assumption of military and political power. Alarmed by his revolutionary credentials and friendly relations with the Soviet Union, the U.S. governments of Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy unsuccessfully attempted to remove him, by economic blockade, assassination and counter-revolution, including the Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961. Countering these threats, Castro formed an economic and military alliance with the Soviets, and allowed them to place nuclear weapons on the island, sparking the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.

In 1961 Castro proclaimed the socialist nature of the Cuban revolution, with Cuba becoming a one-party state under Communist Party governance. Ideologically-based reforms introducing central economic planning and expanding healthcare and education were accompanied by state control of the press and the suppression of internal dissent. Abroad, Castro supported foreign revolutionary socialist groups in the hope of toppling world capitalism, sending Cuban troops to fight in the Yom Kippur War, Ogaden War and Angolan Civil War. Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Castro led Cuba into its economic " Special Period", before taking the country into the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas in 2006 and forging alliances with other nations in the Latin American Pink Tide. Amid failing health, in 2006 he transferred his responsibilities to Vice-President Raúl Castro, who assumed full presidency in 2008.

Castro is a controversial and divisive world figure, lauded as a champion of anti-imperialism, humanitarianism, socialism and environmentalism by his supporters, but viewed as a dictator who has overseen multiple human rights abuses by his critics. Through his actions and his writings he has significantly influenced the politics of various individuals and groups across the world, including Nelson Mandela, Hugo Chávez, Evo Morales, Rafael Correa and Daniel Ortega.

Early life

Childhood and education: 1926–1945

A letter written by the 14-year-old Castro, learning English, to U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt—"My good friend Roosevelt." In the letter Castro expresses his joy at Roosevelt's re-election, states his age as "twelve years old" and writes, "If you like, give me a ten dollar bill green American, because never, I have not seen a ten dollar bill", signing the letter, "Thank you very much. Good by [ sic]. Your friend, Fidel Castro."

Castro's father, Ángel Castro y Argiz (1875–1956) was born to a poor peasant family in Galicia, Northwest Spain. A farm laborer, in 1895 he was conscripted into the Spanish Army to fight in the Cuban War of Independence and the ensuing Spanish-American War of 1898, in which the U.S. seized control of Cuba. In 1902, the Republic of Cuba was proclaimed, however it remained economically and politically dominated by the U.S. For a time, Cuba enjoyed economic growth, and Ángel migrated there in search of employment. After various jobs, he set up business growing sugar cane at Las Manacas farm in Birán, near Mayarí, Oriente Province. Ángel took a wife in 1911, María Luisa Argota Reyes, with whom he had five children before separating. He then began a relationship with Lina Ruz González (1903–1963), a household servant of Canarian descent who was twenty-seven years his junior; she bore him three sons and four daughters, legally marrying in 1943.

Castro was Lina's third child, born out of wedlock at Ángel's farm on August 13, 1926. Because of the stigma of illegitimacy, he was given his mother's surname of Ruz rather than his father's name. Although Ángel's business ventures prospered, he ensured that Fidel grew up alongside the children of the farm's workforce, many of whom were Haitian economic migrants of African descent. This experience, Castro later related, prevented him from absorbing "bourgeois culture" at an early age. Aged six, Castro, along with his elder siblings Ramón and Angela, was sent to live with their teacher in Santiago de Cuba, dwelling in cramped conditions and relative poverty, often failing to have enough to eat because of their tutor's poor economic situation. Aged eight, Castro was baptized into the Roman Catholic Church, although later became an atheist. Being baptized enabled Castro to attend the La Salle boarding school in Santiago, where he regularly misbehaved, and so was sent to the privately funded, Jesuit-run Dolores School in Santiago. In 1945 he transferred to the more prestigious Jesuit-run El Colegio de Belén in Havana. Although Castro took an interest in history, geography and debating at Belén, he did not excel academically, instead devoting much of his time to playing sport.

University and early political activism: 1945–1947

The University of Havana in 1930.

In late 1945, Castro began studying law at the University of Havana. Admitting he was "politically illiterate", he became embroiled in the student protest movement: under the regimes of Cuban Presidents Gerardo Machado, Fulgencio Batista and Ramón Grau there had been a crackdown on protest, with student leaders being killed or terrorized by gangs. This led to a form of gangsterismo culture within the university, dominated by armed student groups who spent much of their time fighting and running criminal enterprises. Passionate about anti-imperialism and opposing U.S. intervention in the Caribbean, Castro joined the University Committee for the Independence of Puerto Rico and the Committee for Democracy in the Dominican Republic. Unsuccessfully campaigning for the presidency of the Federation of University Students (Federación Estudiantíl Universitaria - FEU), he put forward a platform of "honesty, decency and justice" and emphasized his opposition to corruption, associating it with U.S. involvement in Cuba.

Castro became critical of the corruption and violence of Grau's regime, delivering a public speech on the subject in November 1946 that earned him a place on the front page of several newspapers. In contact with members of student leftist groups – including the Popular Socialist Party (Partido Socialista Popular – PSP), the Socialist Revolutionary Movement (Movimiento Socialista Revolucionaria – MSR) and the Insurrectional Revolutionary Union (Unión Insurrecional Revolucionaria – UIR) – he grew close to the UIR, without for certain becoming a member. In 1947, Castro joined a new socialist group, the Party of the Cuban People ( Partido Ortodoxo), founded by veteran politician Eduardo Chibás (1907–1951). A charismatic figure, Chibás advocated social justice, honest government, and political freedom, while his party exposed corruption and demanded reform. Though Chibás lost the election, Castro remained committed to working on his behalf. Student violence escalated after Grau employed gang leaders as police officers, and Castro soon received a death threat urging him to leave the university; refusing, he began carrying a gun and surrounding himself with armed friends. In later years Castro was accused of attempting gang-related assassinations at the time, including of UIR member Lionel Gómez, MSR leader Manolo Castro and university policeman Oscar Fernandez, but these remain unproven.

Latin American rebellions: 1947–1948

In June 1947, Castro learned of a planned international expedition to invade the Dominican Republic and overthrow its right-wing president, Rafael Trujillo, a military general and U.S. ally. Widely seen as a dictator, Trujillo utilized a violent secret police which routinely murdered and tortured opponents. Becoming president of the University Committee for Democracy in the Dominican Republic, Castro decided to join the expedition, led by Dominican exile General Juan Rodríguez. Launched from Cuba, the invasion began on July 29, 1947; it consisted of around 1,200 men, most of whom were exiled Dominicans or Cubans. However, the Dominican and U.S. governments were prepared, and soon quashed the rebellion. Grau's government arrested many of those involved before they set sail, but Castro escaped arrest by jumping off of his naval frigate and swimming to shore at night.

"I joined the people; I grabbed a rifle in a police station that collapsed when it was rushed by a crowd. I witnessed the spectacle of a totally spontaneous revolution... [T]hat experience led me to identify myself even more with the cause of the people. My still incipient Marxist ideas had nothing to do with our conduct – it was a spontaneous reaction on our part, as young people with Martí-an, anti-imperialist, anti-colonialist and pro-democratic ideas."

— Fidel Castro on the Bogotazo, 2009.

The botched mission furthered Castro's opposition to the Grau administration, and returning to Havana, he took a leading role in the student protests against the killing of a high school pupil by government bodyguards. The protests, accompanied by a U.S.-imposed crackdown on those considered communists, led to violent clashes between protesters and police in February 1948, in which Castro was badly beaten. At this point his public speeches took on a distinctively leftist slant, condemning the social and economic inequalities of Cuba, something in contrast to his former public criticisms, which had centered around condemning corruption and U.S. imperialism.

After a quick visit to Venezuela and Panama, in April 1948 Castro traveled to the city of Bogotá, Colombia, with a Cuban student group sponsored by the government of Argentine President Juan Perón, whose anti-imperialist politics impressed Castro. There, the assassination of popular leftist leader Jorge Eliécer Gaitán Ayala led to widespread rioting that came to be known as the Bogotazo. Leaving 3000 dead, the riots revolved around clashes between the governing Conservatives – backed by the army – and leftist Liberals with support from socialists. Along with his fellow Cuban visitors, Castro joined the Liberal cause by stealing guns from a police station, but subsequent police investigations concluded that neither Castro nor any of the other Cubans had been involved in the killings.

Marriage and Marxism: 1948–1950

Returning to Cuba, Castro became a prominent figure in protests against the government's attempts to raise bus fares, a mode of transport used mostly by students and workers. That year, Castro married Mirta Díaz Balart, a student from a wealthy family through whom he was exposed to the lifestyle of the Cuban elite. The relationship was a love match, disapproved of by both families. Mirta's father gave them tens of thousands of dollars to spend in a three-month honeymoon in New York City, and the couple also received a U.S. $1,000 wedding gift from the military general and former president Fulgencio Batista, a friend of Mirta's family. That same year, Grau decided not to stand for re-election, which was instead won by his Partido Auténtico's new candidate, Carlos Prío Socarrás. Prío faced widespread protests when members of the MSR, now allied to the police force, assassinated Justo Fuentes, a "self-taught black man", prominent UIR member and friend of Castro's. In response, Prío agreed to quell the gangs, but found them too powerful to control.

"Marxism taught me what society was. I was like a blindfolded man in a forest, who doesn't even know where north or south is. If you don't eventually come to truly understand the history of the class struggle, or at least have a clear idea that society is divided between the rich and the poor, and that some people subjugate and exploit other people, you're lost in a forest, not knowing anything."

— Fidel Castro on discovering Marxism, 2009.

Castro had moved further left in his politics, being influenced by the writings of Marxist communists like Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels and Vladimir Lenin. He came to interpret Cuba's problems as an integral part of capitalist society, or the "dictatorship of the bourgeoisie", rather than the failings of corrupt politicians. Adopting the Marxist idea that meaningful political change could only be brought about by a proletariat revolution, Castro visited Havana's poorest neighborhoods, witnessing the nation's social and racial inequalities, and became active in the University Committee for the Struggle against Racial Discrimination.

In September 1949, Mirta gave birth to a son, Fidelito, so the couple moved to a larger Havana flat. Castro continued to put himself at risk, staying active in the city's politics and joining the September 30 Movement, which contained within it both communists and members of the Partido Ortodoxo. The group's purpose was to oppose the influence of the violent gangs within the university; despite his promises, Prío had failed to control the situation, instead offering many of their senior members jobs in government ministries. Castro volunteered to deliver a speech for the Movement on November 13, exposing the government's secret deals with the gangs and identifying key members. Attracting the attention of the national press, the speech angered the gangs, and Castro fled into hiding, first in the countryside and then in the U.S. Returning to Havana several weeks later, Castro lay low and focused on his university studies, graduating as a Doctor of Law in September 1950.

Career in law and politics: 1950–1952

Castro founded a legal partnership with two fellow leftists, Jorge Azpiazu and Rafael Resende, focusing on helping poor Cubans assert their rights. A financial failure, its main client was a timber merchant who paid them in timber to furnish their office. Caring little for money or material goods, Castro failed to pay his bills; his furniture was repossessed and electricity cut off, distressing his wife. He took part in a high-school protest in Cienfuegos in November 1950, fighting a four-hour battle with police in protest at the Education Ministry's ban on the founding of student associations. Arrested and charged for violent conduct, the magistrate dismissed the charges. He also became an active member of the Cuban Peace Committee, campaigning against western involvement in the Korean War. His hopes for Cuba still centered around Eduardo Chibás and the Partido Ortodoxo; however Chibás had made a mistake when he accused Education Minister Aureliano Sánchez of purchasing a Guatemalan ranch with misappropriated funds, but was unable to substantiate his allegations. The government accused Chibás of being a liar, and in 1951 he shot himself during a radio broadcast, issuing a "last wake-up call" to the Cuban people. Castro was present and accompanied him to the hospital where he died.

Castro intended to overthrow the presidency of General Fulgencio Batista (left, with U.S. Army Chief of staff Malin Craig).

Seeing himself as the heir to Chibás, Castro wanted to run for Congress in the June 1952 elections. Senior Ortodoxo members feared his radical reputation and refused to nominate him; instead he was nominated as a candidate for the House of Representatives by party members in Havana's poorest districts, and began campaigning. The Ortodoxo gained a considerable level of support and was predicted to do well in the election.

During his campaign, Castro met with General Fulgencio Batista, the former president who had returned to politics with the Unitary Action Party; although both opposing Prío's administration, their meeting never got beyond "polite generalities". In March 1952, Batista seized power in a military coup, with Prío fleeing to Mexico. Declaring himself president, Batista cancelled the planned presidential elections, describing his new system as "disciplined democracy": Castro, like many others, considered it a one-man dictatorship. Batista moved to the right, solidifying ties with both the wealthy elite and the United States, severing diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union, suppressing trade unions and persecuting Cuban socialist groups. Intent on opposing Batista's administration, Castro brought several legal cases against them, arguing that Batista had committed sufficient criminal acts to warrant imprisonment and accusing various ministers of breaching labor laws. Coming to nothing, Castro began thinking of alternate ways to oust the new government.

Cuban Revolution

The Movement and the Moncada Barracks attack: 1952–1953

Dissatisfied with Ortodoxo's non-violent opposition, Castro formed "The Movement", a group consisting of both a civil and a military committee. The former agitated through underground newspaper El Acusador (The Accuser), while the latter armed and trained anti-Batista recruits. With Castro as the Movement's head, the organization was based upon a clandestine cell system, with each cell containing 10 members. A dozen individuals formed the Movement's nucleus, many also dissatisfied Ortodoxo members, although from July 1952 they went on a recruitment drive, gaining around 1,200 members in a year, organized into over a hundred cells, with the majority coming from Havana's poorer districts. Although a revolutionary socialist, Castro avoided an alliance with the communist PSP, fearing it would frighten away political moderates, but kept in contact with several PSP members, including his brother Raúl. He later related that the Movement's members were simply anti-Batista, and few had strong socialist or anti-imperialist views, something which Castro attributed to "the overwhelming weight of the Yankees' ideological and advertising machinery" which he believed suppressed class consciousness among Cuba's working class.

"In a few hours you will be victorious or defeated, but regardless of the outcome – listen well, friends – this Movement will triumph. If you win tomorrow, the aspirations of Martí will be fulfilled sooner. If we fail, our action will nevertheless set an example for the Cuban people, and from the people will arise fresh new men willing to die for Cuba. They will pick up our banner and move forward... The people will back us in Oriente and in the whole island. As in '68 and '92, here in Oriente we will give the first cry of Liberty or Death!"

— Fidel Castro's speech to the Movement just before the Moncada Attack, 1953.

Castro began stockpiling weapons for a planned attack on the Moncada Barracks, a military garrison outside Santiago de Cuba, Oriente. Castro's militants intended to dress in army uniforms and arrive at the base on July 25, the festival of St James, when many officers would be away. The rebels would seize control, raid the armory and escape before reinforcements arrived. Supplied with new weaponry, Castro intended to arm supporters and spark a revolution among Oriente's impoverished cane cutters. The plan was to then seize control of a Santiago radio station, broadcasting the Movement's manifesto, hence promoting further uprisings. Castro's plan emulated those of the 19th century Cuban independence fighters who had raided Spanish barracks; Castro saw himself as the heir to independence leader and national hero José Martí, both leading national liberation struggles against foreign dominance. Castro gathered 165 revolutionaries for the mission; 138 stationed in Santiago, the other 27 in Bayamo. Mostly young men from Havana and Pinar del Río, Castro insured that – with the exception of himself – none had children, and ordered his troops not to cause bloodshed unless they met armed resistance. The attack took place on July 26, 1953, but ran into trouble; 3 of the 16 cars that had set out from Santiago failed to get there. Reaching the barracks, the alarm was raised, with most of the rebels pinned down outside the base by machine gun fire. Those that got inside faced heavy resistance, and 4 were killed before Castro ordered a retreat. The rebels had suffered 6 fatalities and 15 other casualties, whilst the army suffered 19 dead and 27 wounded.

Meanwhile, some rebels took over a civilian hospital; subsequently stormed by government soldiers, the rebels were rounded up, tortured and 22 were executed without trial. Those that had escaped, including Fidel and Raúl, assembled at their base where some debated surrender, while others wished to flee to Havana. Accompanied by 19 comrades, Castro decided to set out for Gran Piedra in the rugged Sierra Maestra mountains several miles to the north, where they could establish a guerrilla base. In response to the Moncada attack, Batista's government proclaimed martial law, ordering a violent crackdown on dissent and imposing strict censorship of the media. Propaganda broadcasted misinformation about the event, claiming that the rebels were communists who had killed hospital patients. Despite this censorship, news and photographs soon spread of the army's use of torture and summary executions in Oriente, causing widespread public and even some governmental disapproval.

Trial and History Will Absolve Me: 1953

Fidel Castro under arrest in July 1953 after the Moncada attack.

Over the following days, the rebels were rounded up, with some being executed and others – including Castro – transported to a prison north of Santiago. Believing Castro incapable of planning the attack alone, the government accused Ortodoxo and PSP politicians of involvement, putting 122 defendants on trial on September 21 at the Palace of Justice, Santiago. Although censored from reporting on it, journalists were permitted to attend, which proved an embarrassment for the Batista administration. Acting as his own defense council, Castro convinced the 3 judges to overrule the army's decision to keep all defendants handcuffed in court, proceeding to argue that the charge with which they were accused – of 'organizing an uprising of armed persons against the Constitutional Powers of the State' – was incorrect, for they had risen up against Batista, who had seized power in an unconstitutional manner. When asked who was the intellectual author of the attack, Castro claimed that it was the long deceased national icon José Martí, quoting Martí's works that justified uprisings.

The trial revealed that the army had tortured suspects, utilizing castration and the gouging out of eyes; the judges agreed to investigate these crimes, embarrassing the army, which tried unsuccessfully to prevent Castro from testifying any further, claiming he was too ill to leave his cell. The trial ended on October 5, with the acquittal of most defendants; 55 were sentenced to prison terms of between 7 months and 13 years. Castro was sentenced separately, on October 16, during which he delivered a speech that would be printed under the title of History Will Absolve Me. Although the maximum penalty for leading an uprising was a 20 years, Castro was sentenced to 15, being imprisoned in the hospital wing of the Model Prison (Presidio Modelo), a relatively comfortable and modern institution on the Isla de Pinos, 60 miles off of Cuba's southwest coast.

Imprisonment and the 26th of July Movement: 1953–1955

Imprisoned with 25 fellow conspirators, Castro renamed "The Movement" the " 26th of July Movement" (MR-26-7) in memory of the Moncada attack's date. Forming a school for prisoners, the Abel Santamaría Ideological Academy, Castro organized five hours a day of teaching in ancient and modern history, philosophy and English. He read widely, enjoying the works of Marx, Lenin, and Martí but also reading books by Freud, Kant, Shakespeare, Munthe, Maugham and Dostoyevsky, analyzing them within a Marxist framework. He began reading about Roosevelt's New Deal, believing that something similar should be enacted in Cuba. Corresponding with supporters outside of prison, he maintained control over the Movement and organized the publication of History Will Absolve Me, with an initial print run of 27,500 copies. Initially permitted a relative amount of freedom within the prison, he was locked up in solitary confinement after inmates sang anti-Batista songs on a visit by the President in February 1954. Meanwhile, Castro's wife Mirta gained employment in the Ministry of the Interior, having been encouraged to do so by her brother, a friend and ally of Batista's. This was kept a secret from Castro, who found out through a radio announcement. Appalled, he raged that he would rather die "a thousand times" than "suffer impotently from such an insult". Both Fidel and Mirta initiated divorce proceedings, with Mirta taking custody of their son Fidelito; this angered Castro, who did not want his son growing up in a bourgeois environment.

"I would honestly love to revolutionize this country from one end to the other! I am sure this would bring happiness to the Cuban people. I would not be stopped by the hatred and ill will of a few thousand people, including some of my relatives, half the people I know, two-thirds of my fellow professionals, and four-fifths of my ex-schoolmates."

— Fidel Castro, 1954.

In 1954, Batista's government held presidential elections, but no politician had risked standing against him; he won, but the election was widely considered fraudulent. It had allowed some political opposition to be voiced, and Castro's supporters had agitated for an amnesty for the Moncada incident's perpetrators. Some politicians suggested an amnesty would be good publicity, and the Congress and Batista agreed. Backed by the U.S. and major corporations, Batista believed Castro to be no political threat, and on May 15, 1955 the prisoners were released. Returning to Havana, Castro was carried on the shoulders of supporters, and set about giving radio interviews and press conferences; the government closely monitored him, curtailing his activities. Now divorced, Castro had sexual affairs with two female supporters, Naty Revuelta and Maria Laborde, each conceiving him a child. Setting about strengthening the MR-26-7, he established an 11-person National Directorate; despite these structural changes, there was still dissent, with some questioning Castro's autocratic leadership. Castro dismissed calls for the leadership to be transferred to a democratic board, arguing that a successful revolution could not be run by committee. Some then abandoned the MR-26-7, labeling Castro a caudillo (dictator), although the majority remained loyal.

Mexico and guerrilla training: 1955–1956

Fidel's brother Raúl Castro (left) and Argentine friend Che Guevara (right). As Castro would later relate: "[Che] distinguished himself in so many ways, through so many fine qualities... As a man, as an extraordinary human being. He was also a person of great culture, a person of great intelligence. And with military qualities as well. Che was a doctor who became a soldier without ceasing for a single minute to be a doctor."

In 1955, bombings and violent demonstrations led to a crackdown on dissent; Castro was placed under protective armed guard by supporters, before he and Raúl fled the country. MR-26-7 members remaining in Cuba were left to prepare cells for revolutionary action and await Castro's return. He sent a letter to the press, declaring that he was "leaving Cuba because all doors of peaceful struggle have been closed to me. Six weeks after being released from prison I am convinced more than ever of the dictatorship's intention, masked in many ways, to remain in power for twenty years, ruling as now by the use of terror and crime and ignoring the patience of the Cuban people, which has its limits. As a follower of Martí, I believe the hour has come to take our rights and not beg for them, to fight instead of pleading for them." The Castros and several comrades traveled to Mexico, which had a long history of offering asylum to leftist exiles. Here, Raúl befriended an Argentine doctor and Marxist-Leninist named Ernesto "Che" Guevara, a proponent of guerrilla warfare keen to join Cuba's Revolution. Fidel liked him, later describing him as "a more advanced revolutionary than I was." Castro also associated with the Spaniard Alberto Bayo, a Republican veteran of the Spanish Civil War; Bayo agreed to teach Fidel's rebels the necessary skills in guerrilla warfare, clandestinely meeting them at Chapultepec for training.

Requiring funding, Castro toured the U.S. in search of wealthy sympathizers; Prío contributed $100,000. Castro was monitored by Batista's agents, who allegedly orchestrated a failed assassination and bribed Mexican police to arrest the rebels; with the support of several Mexican politicians, they were soon released. Castro kept in contact with the MR-26-7 in Cuba, where they had gained a large support base in Oriente. Other militant anti-Batista groups had sprung up, primarily from the student movement; most notable was the Revolutionary Directorate (DR), founded by the Federation of University Students (FEU) President José Antonio Echevarría. Antonio traveled to Mexico City to meet with Castro, but they disagreed on tactics; Castro opposed the student's policy of supporting indiscriminate assassinations.

Purchasing a decrepit yacht, the Granma, on 25 November 1956 Castro set sail from Tuxpan, Veracruz, with 81 revolutionaries, armed with 90 rifles, 3 machine guns, around 40 pistols and 2 hand-held anti-tank guns. The 1,200 mile crossing to Cuba was harsh, and in the overcrowded conditions of the ship, many suffered seasickness, and food supplies ran low. At some points they had to bail water caused by a leak, and at another a man fell overboard, delaying their journey. The plan had been for the crossing to take 5 days, and on the Granma’s scheduled day of arrival, 30 November, MR-26-7 members under Frank Pais led an armed uprising against government buildings in Santiago, Manzanillo and several other towns. However, the Granma’s journey ultimately lasted 7 days, and with Castro and his men unable to provide reinforcements, Pais and his militants dispersed after two days of intermittent attacks.

Guerrilla war in the Sierra Maestra: 1956–1958

The thickly forested mountain range of the Sierra Maestra, from where Castro and his revolutionaries led guerrilla attacks against Batista's forces for two years. Castro biographer Robert E. Quirk noted that there was "no better place to hide" in all the island.

The Granma crash-landed in a mangrove swamp at Playa Las Coloradas, close to Los Cayuelos, on 2 December 1956. Within several hours they were bombarded from a naval vessel; fleeing inland, they headed for the forested mountain range of Oriente's Sierra Maestra. At daybreak on 5 December they were attacked by a detachment of Batista's Rural Guard; the rebels scattered, making their journey to the Sierra Maestra in small groups. Upon arrival, Castro discovered that of the 82 rebels who had arrived on the Granma, only 19 had made it to their destination, the rest having been killed or captured.

Setting up an encampment in the jungle, the survivors, including the Castros, Che Guevara, and Camilo Cienfuegos, began launching raids on small army posts to obtain weaponry. In January 1957 they overran the outpost near to the beach at La Plata; Guevara treated the soldiers for any injuries, but the revolutionaries executed the local mayoral (land company overseer) Chicho Osorio, who was despised by the local peasants and who boasted of killing one of the MR-26-7 rebels several weeks previously. Osorio's execution aided the rebels in gaining the trust of locals, who typically hated the mayorals as enforcers of the wealthy landowners, although they largely remained unenthusiastic and suspicious of the revolutionaries. As trust grew, some locals joined the rebels, although most new recruits came from urban areas. With increasing numbers of volunteers, who now numbered over 200, in July 1957 Castro divided his army into three columns, keeping charge of one and giving control of the others to his brother and Guevara. The MR-26-7 members operating in urban areas continued agitation, sending supplies to Castro, and on 16 February 1957 he met with other senior members to discuss tactics; here he met Celia Sánchez, who would become a close friend.

"The story of our beards is very simple: it arose out of the difficult conditions we were living and fighting under as guerrillas. We didn't have any razor blades... everybody just let their beards and hair grow, and that turned into a kind of badge of identity. For the campesinos and everybody else, for the press, for the reporters we were "los barbudos" - the bearded ones. It had its positive side: in order for a spy to infiltrate us, he had to start preparing months ahead of time - he'd have had to have six-months' growth of beard, you see... Later, with the triumph of the Revolution, we kept our beards to preserve the symbolism."

— Fidel Castro on his iconic beard, 2009

Across Cuba, militant groups were rising up against Batista, carrying out bombings and acts of sabotage; police responded with mass arrests, torture and extra-judicial killings, with corpses being hung on trees to intimidate dissidents. In March 1957, Antonio's DR launched a failed attack on the presidential palace, with Antonio being shot dead; his death removed a charismatic rival to Castro's leadership of the revolution. Frank Pais was also killed, leaving Castro the unchallenged leader of the MR-26-7. Castro hid his Marxist-Leninist beliefs, something in contrast to Guevara and Raúl, whose beliefs were well known; in doing so, he hoped to gain the support of less radical dissenters, and in 1957 met with leading members of the Partido Ortodoxo. Castro and Ortodoxo leaders Raúl Chibás and Felipe Pazos drafted and signed the Sierra Maestra Manifesto, in which they laid out their plans for a post-Batista Cuba. Rejecting the rule of a provisional military junta, it demanded that a provisional civilian government be set up that was "supported by all" and which would implement moderate agrarian reform, industrialization and a literacy campaign before introducing "truly fair, democratic, impartial, elections".

Batista's government censored the Cuban press, and so Castro contacted foreign media to spread his message. Herbert Matthews, a journalist from the The New York Times, interviewed Castro, attracting international interest to the rebel's cause and turning him into a celebrity. Other reporters followed, sent by such news agencies as CBS, while a reporter from Paris Match stayed with the rebels for around 4 months, documenting their routine. Castro's guerrillas increased their attacks on military outposts, forcing the government to withdraw from the Sierra Maestra region, and by spring 1958, the rebels controlled a hospital, schools, a printing press, slaughterhouse, land-mine factory and a cigar-making factory.

Batista's fall and Cantillo's military junta: 1958–1959

"When I saw the [U.S. supplied] rockets being fired at Mario's house, I swore to myself that the Americans would pay dearly for what they are doing. When this war is over a much wider and bigger war will begin for me: the war that I am going to wage against them. I know that this is my real destiny."

— Fidel Castro in a letter to Celia Sánchez, 1958.

Batista was under increasing pressure by 1958. His army's military failures, coupled with his press censorship and the police and army's use of torture and extra-judicial executions, were increasingly criticized both domestically and abroad. Influenced by anti-Batista sentiment among their citizens, the U.S. government ceased supplying him with weaponry, leading him to buy arms from the United Kingdom. The opposition used this opportunity to call a general strike, accompanied by armed attacks from the MR-26-7. Beginning on 9 April, it received strong support in central and eastern Cuba, but little elsewhere.

Batista's responded with and all-out-attack on Castro's guerrillas, Operation Verano. The army aerially bombarded forested areas and villages suspected of aiding the militants, while 10,000 soldiers under the command of General Eulogio Cantillo surrounded the Sierra Maestra, driving north to the rebel encampments. Despite their numerical and technological superiority, the army had no experience with guerrilla warfare or the mountainous region. Now with 300 men at his command, Castro avoided open confrontation, using land mines and ambushes to halt the enemy offensive. The army suffered heavy losses and a number of embarrassments; in June 1958 a battalion surrendered, their weapons were confiscated and they were handed over to the Red Cross. Many of Batista's soldiers, appalled at the human rights abuses that they were ordered to carry out, defected to Castro's rebels, who also benefited from popular support in the areas they controlled. In the summer, the MR-26-7 went on the offensive, pushing the army back, out of the mountain range and into the lowlands, with Castro using his columns in a pincer movement to surround the main army concentration in Santiago. By November, Castro's forces controlled most of Oriente and Las Villas, and tightened their grip around the capitals of Santiago and Santa Clara. Through control of Las Villas, the rebels divided Cuba in two by closing major roads and rail lines, severely disadvantaging Batista's forces.

Castro (right) with fellow revolutionary Camilo Cienfuegos entering Havana on January 8, 1959.

The U.S. realized Batista would lose the war, and fearing that Castro would displace U.S. interests with socialist reforms, decided to support Batista's removal in support of a rightist military junta, believing that General Cantillo, who then commanded most of the country's armed forces, should lead it. After being approached with this proposal, Cantillo decided to secretly meet with Castro to see if they could bring an end to the fighting, agreeing that the two would call a ceasefire, following which Batista would be apprehended and tried as a war criminal. Double crossing Castro, Cantillo warned Batista of the revolutionary's intentions. Wishing to avoid a war crimes tribunal, Batista resigned on 31 December 1958, informing the armed forces that they were now under Cantillo's control. With his family and closest advisers, Batista fled into exile with over US$ 300,000,000. Cantillo then entered Havana's Presidential Palace, proclaimed the Supreme Court judge Carlos Piedra to be the new President, and began appointing new members of the government.

Still in Oriente, Castro was furious. Recognizing the establishment of a military junta, he ended the ceasefire and continued on the offensive. The MR-26-7 put together a plan to oust the Cantillo-Piedra junta, freeing the high-ranking military officer Colonel Ramón Barquín from the Isle of Pines prison (where he had been held captive for plotting to overthrow Batista), and commanding him to fly to Havana to arrest Cantillo. Accompanying widespread celebrations as news of Batista's downfall spread across Cuba on 1 January 1959, Castro ordered the MR-26-7 to take responsibility for policing the country, in order to prevent widespread looting and vandalism. Whilst Cienfuegos and Guevara led their columns into Havana on 2 January, Castro entered Santiago, accepting the surrender of the Moncada Barracks and giving a speech invoking the wars of independence. He spoke out against the Cantillo-Piedra junta, called for justice against human rights abusers and proclaimed a better era for women's rights. Heading toward Havana, he met José Antonio Echevarría's mother, and greeted cheering crowds at every town, giving press conferences and interviews. Foreign journalists commented on the unprecedented level of public adulation, with Castro striking a heroic "Christ-like figure" and wearing a medallion of the Virgin Mary.

Provisional government: 1959

Castro had made his opinion clear that lawyer Manuel Urrutia Lleó should become president, leading a provisional civilian government following Batista's fall. Politically moderate, Urrutia had defended MR-26-7 revolutionaries in court, arguing that the Moncada Barracks attack was legal according to the Cuban constitution. Castro believed Urrutia would make a good leader, being both established yet sympathetic to the revolution. Following the junta's collapse, Urrutia was proclaimed provisional president, with Castro erroneously announcing he had been selected by "popular election"; most of Urrutia's cabinet were MR-26-7 members. On January 8, 1959, Castro's army entered Havana; proclaiming himself Representative of the Rebel Armed Forces of the Presidency, Castro – along with close aides and family members – set up home and office in the penthouse of the Havana Hilton Hotel, there meeting with journalists, foreign visitors and government ministers.

Officially having no role in the provisional government, Castro exercised a great deal of influence, largely because of his overwhelming popularity and control of the rebel army. Ensuring the government implemented policies to cut corruption and fight illiteracy, he did not initially force through any radical proposals. Attempting to rid Cuba's government of Batistanos, the Congress elected under Batista was abolished, and all those elected in the rigged elections of 1954 and 1958 were banned from politics. The government now ruling by decree, Castro pushed the president to issue a temporary ban on all political parties, but repeatedly claimed that they would get around to organizing multiparty elections, which ultimately it never did. He began meeting members of the Popular Socialist Party, believing they had the intellectual capacity to form a socialist government, but repeatedly denied being a communist to press.

"We are not executing innocent people or political opponents. We are executing murderers and they deserve it."

— Castro's response to his critics regarding the mass executions, 1959.

In suppressing the revolution, Batista's government had orchestrated mass human rights abuses, with academic estimates for the death toll typically placing it at around 20,000. Popular uproar across Cuba demanded that those figures who had been complicit in the widespread torture and killing of civilians be brought to justice. Although remaining a moderating force and preventing the mass reprisal killings advocated by many, Castro helped set-up trials of many Batistanos, resulting in hundreds of executions. Although widely popular domestically, critics – in particular from the U.S. press – argued that many were not fair trials, and condemned Cuba's government as being more interested in vengeance than justice. Castro retaliated, proclaiming that "revolutionary justice is not based on legal precepts, but on moral conviction", organizing the first Havana trial to take place before a mass audience of 17,000 at the Sports Palace stadium; when a group of aviators accused of bombing a village were found not guilty, he ordered a retrial in which they were found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment.

Acclaimed across Latin America, he traveled to Venezuela to attend the first-anniversary celebrations of Marcos Pérez Jiménez's overthrow. Meeting President-elect Rómulo Betancourt, Castro proposed greater relations between the two nations, unsuccessfully requesting a loan of $300,000,000 and a new deal for Venezuelan oil. Returning home, an argument between Castro and senior government figures broke out; the government had banned the National Lottery and closed down the casinos and brothels, leaving thousands of waiters, croupiers and prostitutes unemployed, infuriating Castro. As a result, Prime Minister José Miró Cardona resigned, going into exile in the U.S. and joining the anti-Castro movement.


Consolidating leadership: 1959

Castro in Washington, D.C., arriving at the MATS Terminal (left) and visiting the Lincoln Memorial (right).

On February 16, 1959, Castro was sworn in as Prime Minister of Cuba, accepting the position on the condition that the Prime Minister's powers be increased. Between 15 and 26 April Castro visited the U.S. with a delegation of representatives, hiring a public relations firm for a charm offensive and presenting himself as a "man of the people". U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower avoided meeting Castro, who instead met Vice President Richard Nixon, a man Castro instantly disliked. Proceeding to Canada, Trinidad, Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina, Castro attended an economic conference in Buenos Aires, unsuccessfully proposing a $30 billion U.S.-funded "Marshall Plan" for Latin America.

Appointing himself president of the National Institute of Agrarian Reform (Instituto Nacional de Reforma Agraria - INRA), on 17 May 1959, Castro signed into law the First Agrarian Reform, limiting landholdings to 993 acres (4.02 km2) per owner and forbidding further foreign land-ownership. Large land-holdings were broken up and redistributed; an estimated 200,000 peasants received title deeds. To Castro, this was an important step, breaking the control of the landowning class over Cuba's agriculture; popular among the working class, it alienated many middle-class supporters. Castro appointed himself president of the National Tourist Industry, introducing unsuccessful measures to encourage African-American tourists to visit, advertising it as a tropical paradise free of racial discrimination. Changes to state wages were implemented; judges and politicians had their pay reduced while low-level civil servants saw theirs raised. In March 1959, Castro ordered rents for those who paid less than $100 a month halved, with measures implemented to increase the Cuban people's purchasing powers; productivity decreased and the country's financial reserves were drained within two years.

Although refusing to categorize his regime as socialist and repeatedly denying being a communist, Castro appointed Marxists to senior government and military positions; most notably Che Guevara became Governor of the Central Bank and then Minister of Industries. Appalled, Air Force commander Pedro Luis Díaz Lanz defected to the U.S. Although President Urrutia denounced the defection, he publicly expressed concern with the rising influence of Marxism. Angered, Castro announced his resignation as Prime Minister, blaming Urrutia for complicating government with his "fevered anti-Communism". Over 500,000 Castro-supporters surrounded the Presidential Palace demanding Urrutia's resignation, which was duly received. On July 23, Castro resumed his Premiership and appointed the Marxist Osvaldo Dorticós as the new President.

"Until Castro, the U.S. was so overwhelmingly influential in Cuba that the American ambassador was the second most important man, sometimes even more important than the Cuban president."

Earl T. Smith, former American Ambassador to Cuba, during 1960 testimony to the U.S. Senate

Castro used radio and television to develop a "dialogue with the people", posing questions and making provocative statements. His regime remained popular with workers, peasants and students, who constituted the majority of the country's population, while opposition came primarily from the middle class; thousands of doctors, engineers and other professionals emigrated to Florida in the U.S., causing an economic brain drain. Funded by exiles, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and Trujillo's Dominican government, militant anti-Castro groups undertook armed attacks and set up guerrilla bases in Cuba's mountainous regions, leading to the six-year Escambray Rebellion; lasting longer and involving more soldiers than the revolution, the government won with superior numbers, executing those who surrendered. Castro's government cracked down on this opposition movement, arresting hundreds of counter-revolutionaries. Although rejecting the methods of physical torture employed by Batista's regime, Castro's government sanctioned the use of psychological torture, subjecting prisoners to solitary confinement, rough treatment, and threatening behaviour. After conservative editors and journalists expressed hostility towards the government, the pro-Castro printers' trade union disrupted editorial staff, and in January 1960 the government proclaimed that each newspaper would be obliged to publish a "clarification" written by the printers' union at the end of any articles critical of the government; thus began press censorship in Castro's Cuba.

Soviet support and U.S. opposition: 1960

Castro (far left), Che Guevara (centre), and other leading revolutionaries, marching through the streets in protest of the La Coubre explosion, 5 March 1960.

By 1960, the Cold War raged between two superpowers: the United States, a capitalist liberal democracy, and the Soviet Union (USSR), a Marxist-Leninist socialist state ruled by the Communist Party. Expressing contempt for the U.S., Castro shared the ideological views of the USSR, establishing relations with several Marxist-Leninist states. Meeting with Soviet First Deputy Premier Anastas Mikoyan, Castro agreed to provide the USSR with sugar, fruit, fibers, and hides, in return for crude oil, fertilizers, industrial goods, and a $100 million loan. Cuba's government ordered the country's refineries – then controlled by the U.S. corporations Shell, Esso and Standard Oil – to process Soviet oil, but under pressure from the U.S. government, they refused. Castro responded by expropriating and nationalizing the refineries. In retaliation, the U.S. cancelled its import of Cuban sugar, provoking Castro to nationalize most U.S.-owned assets on the island, including banks and sugar mills.

Relations between Cuba and the U.S. were further strained following the explosion of a French vessel, the Le Coubre, in Havana harbour in March 1960. Carrying weapons purchased from Belgium, the cause of the explosion was never determined, but Castro publicly insinuated that the U.S. government were guilty of sabotage. He ended this speech with "¡Patria o Muerte!" ("Fatherland or Death"), a proclamation that he made much use of in ensuing years. Inspired by their earlier success with the 1954 Guatemalan coup d'état, on 17 March 1960, U.S. President Eisenhower secretly authorized the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to overthrow Castro's government. Providing them with a budget of $13 million, he permitted them to ally with the Mafia, who were aggrieved that Castro's government closed down their businesses in Cuba. On 13 October 1960, the U.S. prohibited the majority of exports to Cuba, initiating an economic embargo. In retaliation, INRA took control of 383 private-run businesses on 14 October, and on 25 October a further 166 U.S. companies operating in Cuba had their premises seized and nationalized. On 16 December, the U.S. ended its import quota of Cuban sugar, the country's primary export.

Castro at the United Nations General Assembly in 1960.

In September 1960, Castro flew to New York City for the General Assembly of the United Nations. Offended by the attitude of the elite Shelburne Hotel, he and his entourage stayed at the cheap, run-down Hotel Theresa in the impoverished area of Harlem, meeting with journalists and anti-establishment figures like Malcolm X. Also visited by the Soviet Premier Nikita Khruschev, the two leaders publicly highlighted the poverty faced by U.S. citizens in areas like Harlem; Castro described New York as a "city of persecution" against black and poor Americans. Relations between Castro and Khrushchev were warm; they led the applause to one another's speeches at the General Assembly. Although Castro publicly denied being a socialist, Khrushchev informed his entourage that the Cuban would become "a beacon of Socialism in Latin America." Subsequently visited by four other socialists, Polish First Secretary Władysław Gomułka, Bulgarian Chairman Todor Zhivkov, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser and Indian Premier Jawaharlal Nehru, the Fair Play for Cuba Committee organized an evening's reception for Castro, attended by Allen Ginsburg, Langston Hughes, C. Wright Mills and I.F. Stone.

Returning to Cuba on 28 September, Castro feared a U.S.-backed coup, in 1959 spending $120 million on Soviet, French and Belgian weaponry. With the intent of constructing the largest army in Latin America, by early 1960 the government had doubled the size of the Cuban armed forces. Fearing counter-revolutionary elements in the army, the government created a People's Militia to arm citizens favorable to the revolution, training at least 50,000 supporters in combat techniques. In September 1960, they created the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR), a nationwide civilian organization who implemented neighbourhood spying to weed out "counter-revolutionary" activities and who could support the army in the case of invasion; they also organized health and education campaigns, and were a conduit for public complaints. Eventually, 80% of Cuba's population would be involved in the CDR. Castro proclaimed the new administration a direct democracy, in which the Cuban populace could assemble en masse at demonstrations and express their democratic will. As a result, he rejected the need for elections, claiming that representative democratic systems served the interests of socio-economic elites. In contrast, critics condemned the new regime as un-democratic, with U.S. Secretary of State Christian Herter announcing that Cuba was adopting the Soviet model of communist rule, with a one-party state, government control of trade unions, suppression of civil liberties and the absence of freedom of speech and press.

CDR-sign in Pinar del Río.

Castro's government emphasised social projects to improve Cuba's standard of living, often to the detriment of economic development. Major emphasis was placed on education, and under the first 30 months of Castro's government, more classrooms were opened than in the previous 30 years of government. The Cuban primary education system offered a work-study program, with half of the time being spent in the classroom, and the other half taking part in a productive activity. Health care was nationalized and expanded, with rural health centers and urban polyclinics opening up across the island, offering free medical aid. Universal vaccination against childhood diseases was implemented, and infant mortality rates were reduced dramatically. A third aspect of the social programs was the construction of infrastucture; within the first 6 months of Castro's government, 600 miles of road had been built across the island, while $300 million was spent on water and sanitation schemes. Over 800 houses were constructed every month in the early years of the administration in a measure to cut homelessness, while nurseries and day-care centers were opened for children and other centers opened for the disabled and elderly.

The Bay of Pigs Invasion: 1961

Che Guevara (left) and Castro, photographed by Alberto Korda in 1961.

By January 1961, the U.S. Embassy in Havana had 300 staff, of whom 80% were believed by Castro to be spies. He ordered the Embassy to reduce its size to match that of the Cuban Embassy in Washington D.C. The U.S. response was to cut all diplomatic relations with Cuba, with the CIA increasing its support for militant dissidents in exile. Such dissident groups began attacking ships trading with Cuba, and organized raiding parties to destroy Cuban factories and sugar mills in an attempt to disrupt the island's economy. Under the Eisenhower administration, the CIA had organized a plan to invade Cuba using exiled Cuban dissidents – unified as the "Democratic Revolutionary Front" – thereby avoiding international condemnation. Following the election of Democratic Party nominee John F. Kennedy as U.S. President in 1961, the CIA gained his support for continuing with the plan, which would result in the Bay of Pigs Invasion of April 1961. Brigade 2506, made up of around 1,400 Cuban dissidents, divided into five infantry and one paratrooper battalions, had assembled in Guatemala, a U.S. ally, before being transported to another pro-U.S. state, Nicaragua, from which they set off aboard seven ships toward Cuba on 13 April. On 15 April, eight CIA-supplied B-26 bombers took off from Nicaragua and bombed three Cuban military airfields, damaging runways and fighter planes, as well as killing 7 and injuring 52. The U.S. government immediately proclaimed that the bombers had belonged to Cuba's air force and had been commandeered by dissidents who wanted to defect to the U.S.; in retaliation, Castro publicly went on state television to denounce their claims, providing evidence to expose their misinformation.

Castro feared that the bombing was a prelude to an invasion, putting the armed forces on maximum alert and ordering the arrest of anyone suspected of having counter-revolutionary sympathies. This constituted at least 20,000 people, who were detained in prisons, theaters and sport centres. At the funerals of the dead airmen on 16 April, he publicly proclaimed that "What the imperialists cannot forgive us, is that we have made a Socialist revolution under their noses." This was his first ever declaration that the Cuban revolutionary movement was socialist in character, and he proceeded to declare that his movement was "a revolution of the humble, with the humble, for the humble, democratic and Socialist."

"There was... no doubts about who the victors were. Cuba's stature in the world soared to new heights, and Fidel's role as the adored and revered leader among ordinary Cuban people received a renewed boost. His popularity was greater than ever. In his own mind he had done what generations of Cubans had only fantacized about: he had taken on the United States and won."

Peter Bourne, Castro biographer, 1986

At night, the invasion fleet landed in Cuba largely undetected along the narrow inlet known as the Bay of Pigs. A local revolutionary militia opened fire on the invaders, but was forced back by heavy fire from the landing craft. Castro had not expected this to be their landing site, and as a result it was a poorly defended stretch of coast. He ordered Captain José Ramón Fernández to launch an immediate counter-offensive, and ordered the country's small air force to destroy the Brigade 2506's ships which contained weapons, food and medical supplies for the dissidents. Eventually taking direct command of the operation, Castro oversaw the counter-offensive, bringing in reinforcements and tanks to use against the rebel army. President Kennedy was unwilling to directly intervene with U.S. military support, and so on 20 April 1189 men of the Brigade 2506 surrendered to the Cuban army.

Celebrating his victory, Castro ordered that the rebels be interrogated on live television by a panel of journalists. He himself took over the questioning on 25 April, walking in among them with a microphone and asking them why they had taken part in the invasion. 14 of them were then put on trial for crimes that they allegedly committed before the revolution, while all of the others were returned to the U.S. in exchange for medicine and food valued at around U.S. $25 million. Castro's victory was a powerful symbol for his supporters, both at home and across Latin America, but also served to increase some internal opposition, particularly among the thousands of primarily middle-class Cubans who had been detained in the run-up to the invasion. Although most were freed within a few days, many decided to flee Castro's Cuba for Florida.

Embracing socialism: 1961–1962

Castro founded a new governing party of "Socialist Cuba", the Integrated Revolutionary Organizations (Organizaciones Revolucionarias Integradas - ORI), under which he united the MR-26-7, the Popular Socialist Party and the Revolutionary Directorate. The Soviet government were hesitant over Cuba's open embrace of socialism, fearing U.S. retaliation, but relations between the two nations deepened, with Castro sending his son Fidelito to be schooled in Moscow. In turn, the first Soviet technicians arrived on the island on 7 June. In December 1961, Castro officially proclaimed himself to be a Marxist-Leninist, and in his subsequent Second Declaration of Havana called on the peoples of Latin America to rise up in revolution against their governments. In response, the U.S.-dominated Organization of American States expelled Cuba, although Latin America's largest nations, Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Mexico, all abstained from the vote. The Soviet government privately reprimanded Castro for being reckless, believing that other Latin American governments would now crack down on communists, ultimately hindering the cause of socialism, although he was instead praised by the Chinese government for his cause in advocating Third World revolution. As the Sino-Soviet Split began to emerge between the Marxist-Leninist governments of the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China, Castro's government officially allied itself with the former, recognising that the Soviets had the economic and military ability to aid Cuba, despite the fact that ideologically they remained closer to China.

Castro's government brought in measures to shape society using the Soviet model, persecuting both political opponents and perceived social deviants such as prostitutes and homosexuals. Castro expressed the opinion that homosexuality was a bourgeois decadence absent from working class rural areas, proclaiming that "in the country, there are no homosexuals". Members of his government spoke out against the treatment of gay people, noting the support of homosexual intellectuals in the Cuban Revolution, and ultimately Castro agreed that while they would be prevented from involvement in education, they would not be punished. Nevertheless, many homosexuals were rounded up by police and forced into a manual labor organization for criminals, the Military Units for the Support of Production (UMAP). Decades later, Castro expressed deep regret for these actions, taking full responsibility and calling them "moments of great injustice, great injustice!"

"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, 1961

By 1962, the Cuban economy was in steep decline, a result of poor economic management coupled with the interference and trade embargo of the U.S. government. There were major food shortages, and the government introduced rationing of both food and consumer goods, with a riot breaking out in Cárdenas. Security reports indicated that the Cuban people were increasingly associating the governing communists with austerity, shortages and persecution, and Castro himself was having difficulties with many of the members of the defunct Popular Socialist Party, in particular Aníbal Escalante and Blas Roca, believing them to be unduly loyal to Moscow over his government in Havana. In March 1962 Castro removed the most prominent of these "Old Communists" from office, labeling them too "sectarian". On a personal level, Castro was feeling increasingly lonely and isolated in his position as Prime Minister, and relations with his old friend Che Guevara became strained as the latter became increasingly anti-Soviet, instead favoring the Chinese Marxist-Leninist government of Mao Zedong in the Sino-Soviet Split.

The Cuban Missile Crisis: 1962

Soviet Premier Khrushchev believed that the USSR was vulnerable to attack from the U.S. and its NATO allies, who were militarily superior and who had nuclear weapons in Western Europe and Turkey, within striking distance of the USSR. He developed a plan to alter the balance of power by placing Soviet nuclear missiles on Cuba, from where they could target the U.S. Khrushchev approached Castro with this idea, and while the Cuban leader felt conflicted, he ultimately agreed, believing that it would guarantee Soviet protection of Cuba and enhance the power of the socialist camp. In July 1962, Raúl Castro traveled to Moscow to work out the specifics. The operation was undertaken in strict secrecy, with only the Castro brothers, Guevara, President Dorticós and security chief Ramiro Valdés knowing the full picture. It was agreed to deploy Soviet R-12 MRBMs on Cuban soil, all of which had the capacity to fire nuclear warheads at all of the U.S.' major cities. 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 U.S. government viewed the installation of Soviet nuclear weapons 90 miles (145 km) south of Key West as an aggressive act and a threat to U.S. security. As a result, the U.S. 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. Castro hit back at Kennedy, insisting that Cuba had a right to defend itself from foreign aggression.

Castro privately urged Khrushchev to heighten tensions by threatening a nuclear strike on the U.S. should Cuba be attacked, but Khrushchev was desperate to avoid nuclear war. Negotiations took place between Kennedy and Khrushchev, with Castro having no involvement. Ultimately, Khrushchev agreed to remove the missiles in exchange for a U.S. 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 U.S. implemented a few months later. After learning of the deal, Castro was furious, believing that Khrushchev had betrayed him and given in to U.S. demands. Depressed, he lost his appetite and became ill. Proposing a five-point plan, Castro demanded that the U.S. end its embargo, put a stop to its support for dissidents, cease its support for militant attacks on Cuba, stop violating Cuban air space and territorial waters and withdrawing from the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base. Putting forward these demands to the visiting Secretary-General of the United Nations, the Burmese U Thant, the U.S. ignored his demands, and in turn Castro refused to allow a U.N. inspection team onto Cuba.

Furthering Socialism: 1963–1970

In February 1963, Castro received a personal letter from Khrushchev, in which the Soviet Premier had emotionally set out his reasons for coming to an agreement with the U.S. government and in which he invited Castro to come and visit the USSR. Deeply touched by the letter, Castro set aside his resentment and traveled to the country in April, ultimately staying for five weeks. Visiting 14 cities, he gave speeches and met with locals, addressing a rally in Red Square and watching the May Day parade from the wall of the Kremlin. During his visit, he was also awarded both an honorary doctorate from Moscow State University as well as the Order of Lenin, becoming the first foreigner to receive the latter.

Castro returned from the Soviet Union with new ideas for furthering socialism in Cuba. Inspired by the Soviet daily newspaper, Pravda, Castro oversaw the amalgamation of Cuba's two authorized newspapers, Hoy and Revolución, into a new publication, Granma, named after the boat upon which Castro had arrived in Cuba with his revolutionaries in 1956. He also oversaw largescale investment in Cuban sports programmes, allowing the country to become one of Latin America's most successful sporting nations. On the 10th anniversary of Castro's attack on the Moncada Barracks, held in 1963, the Cuban leader gave a speech in the Plaza de la Revolución attended by his mother, who would die 11 days later. Her death was reported on in the Cuban press, but it would prove the last time that they were permitted to mention Castro's private life, who began to increasingly value his privacy. Domestically, Castro agreed to allow anyone wishing to leave Cuba – with the exception of males aged between 15 and 26 – to do so. This helped rid the government of many of its opponents, but thousands took up the government's offer, many more than Castro had wanted. In 1964, Castro undertook a second, shorter trip to Moscow, officially to sign a new five-year sugar trade agreement, but also to discuss the ramifications of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. In October 1965, the governing Integrated Revolutionary Organizations officially changed its name to the Cuban Communist Party, and published the membership of its Central Committee.

"The greatest threat presented by Castro's Cuba is as an example to other Latin American states which are beset by poverty, corruption, feudalism, and plutocratic exploitation ... his influence in Latin America might be overwhelming and irresistible if, with Soviet help, he could establish in Cuba a Communist utopia."

Walter Lippmann, Newsweek, April 27, 1964

Despite the Soviet government's misgivings, Castro continued to call for armed revolution across the capitalist world, providing funding and support for various militant leftist groups. He supported Che Guevara's plan for the "Andean project", an unsuccessful plan to set up a guerrilla movement in the highlands of Bolivia, Peru and Argentina, and allowed revolutionary groups from across the world, from the Viet Cong of Vietnam to the Black Panthers of the U.S., to train in Cuba. In particular, he thought that Africa, much of which was dominated by western colonial and neo-colonial powers, was rife for revolutionary change, and sent soldiers and medics to aid the socialist government of Ahmed Ben Bella in Algeria, supporting them during the Sand war against Morocco; in turn, the Algerian government awarded Castro its Medal of Honour. Also allying itself with the socialist government of Alphonse Massemba-Débat in Congo-Brazzaville, in 1965 Castro authorized Guevara to travel to the neighbouring Congo Kinshasa in order to train militant revolutionaries against the western-backed government. Castro was personally devastated when Guevara was subsequently killed by CIA-backed troops in Bolivia in October 1967, publicly attributing it to Che's disregard for his own safety in the revolutionary cause. In 1966 Castro staged the first Tri-Continental Conference of Africa, Asia and Latin America in Havana, further establishing himself as a significant player on the world stage despite the small and dependent nature of Cuba's economy. From this conference, Castro oversaw the creation of the Latin American Solidarity Organization (OLAS), a vehicle through which he could support the cause of socialist revolution. Holding its first meeting in Havana in August 1967, it adopted the slogan of "The duty of a revolution is to make revolution", with Castro signifying that Havana, and not Moscow, was now the leader of the Marxist-Leninist movement in Latin America.

Castro's increasing role on the world stage led to a strained relationship with the Soviet government, now under the leadership of Leonid Brezhnev. Attempting to reassert Cuba's independence, Castro refused to sign the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons in May 1976, declaring that it represented a Soviet and U.S. attempt to dominate the Third World. In turn, the Soviet-loyalist Aníbal Escalante, then Cuban ambassador to Czechoslovakia, returned to Cuba where he began organizing a network of opposition to Castro's leadership within the government, publicly criticising his advocacy of armed revolution. In January 1968, Escalante and his supporters were then arrested for passing Cuban state secrets on to the Soviet Union. However, Brezhnev exerted pressure on Castro's government to be more obediant, something they ultimately accepted. 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 1968, Castro proclaimed a Great Revolutionary Offensive in Cuba, influenced by the Great Leap Forward in China. As a part of this, any remaining privately owned shops and businesses were shut down, with Castro denouncing their owners as capitalist counter-revolutionaries. In January 1969, Castro publicly celebrated the tenth anniversary of his administration in Revolution Square, but used the occasion to ask the assembled crowds if they would tolerate greater sugar rations, reflecting the economic problems facing the country. The majority of the country's sugar crop was being sent to the Soviet Union to maintain Cuba's trade quota, but the 1969 crop was heavily damaged by a hurricane. As a result, the government postponed the Christmas and New Year holidays of 1969/1970 so that the harvest could continue with detailed monthly targets being set for every mill, while the military were drafted in to aid in the agricultural effort. Castro and other Cabinet ministers joined in with the harvest, as did several foreign diplomats from friendly nations. Ultimately, the country failed to achieve that year's production quota for sugar. Castro publicly proclaimed it to be a worse set-back for the Revolution than the failed Moncada Barracks Attack, and offered to resign, but assembled crowds denounced the idea, cheering their support for Castro. Despite the country's economic problems, many of Castro's social reforms remained popular in Cuba, whose population were largely supportive of the "Achievements of the Revolution" in education, medical care and road construction, as well as the government's policy of " direct democracy".

Economic stagnation and Third World politics: 1970–1974

In a dire economic situation, the Cuban government turned to the Soviets for help. From 1970 through to 1972, Soviet economists re-planned and organized the Cuban economy, founding the Cuban-Soviet Commission of Economic, Scientific and Technical Collaboration, while Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin (1904–1980) visited Cuba in late 1971. In July 1972, Cuba would successfully apply for membership of the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (Comecon), an economic organization of socialist states, although this move only served to further limit Cuba's economy to agricultural production. Aside from the economy, Castro's Cuba also faced other problems in the early 1970s: in May 1970, Alpha 66, a militant Cuban dissident group based in Florida, sank two Cuban fishing boats and captured their crews, demanding the release of Alpha 66 members imprisoned in Cuba. Under U.S. government pressure, the hostages were released, with Castro welcoming them back as heroes. In April 1971, Castro gained international condemnation after ordering the arrest of Herberto Padilla, a Cuban poet who had won an international prize but whose views were critical of the government. Padilla fell ill, with Castro visiting him in hospital; soon after, the poet publicly confessed his guilt and was released. Soon, the government formed the National Cultural Council through which it ensured that intellectuals and artists produced work that supported their administration.

In 1971, Castro made his first foreign visit since 1964, this time to Chile, where the Marxist President Salvador Allende (1908–1973) had just been elected as the head of a left-wing coalition. Implementing socialist reforms by nationalizing industry, Allende gained Castro's support, and Castro spent 23 days touring the country, giving speeches and press conferences, talking to both admiring socialists and right wing opponents. Cautious of the staunchly right-wing Chilean military, Castro advised Allende to purge such opponents from the armed forces before they led a coup. Castro was proven right; in 1973, the Chilean military, led a coup d'etat against Allende's government, banning elections, executing thousands of opponents and establishing a military junta led by Commander-in-Chief Augusto Pinochet. Castro considered it a tragedy, but was unsurprised.

Fidel Castro and members of the East German Politburo on his visit to the country in 1972.

Following his trip to Chile, Castro traveled to West Africa to meet with Sékou Touré (1922–1984), the President of Guinea. A socialist and nationalist, Touré had much in common with Castro, and they forged an alliance; the Cuban even told a crowd of Guineans that theirs was the greatest leader in Africa. From Guinea he went on a seven-week tour visiting various other leftist allies in Africa and Eurasia: Algeria, Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia and the then Soviet Union. On every trip he seemed eager to travel among the people by visiting factories and farms, and chatted and joked with those whom he met. Although publicly highly supportive of these governments, in private he urged them to do more to aid revolutionary socialist movements in other parts of the world, and in particular in Vietnam, where the Vietnam War was then raging between the Soviet-backed communists and U.S.-backed anti-communists. In September 1973 he returned to Algiers to attend the Fourth Summit of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). Various members of the NAM were critical of Castro's attendance, claiming that Cuba was aligned to the USSR and the Eastern Bloc and therefore should not be at the conference, particularly as he praised the Soviet Union in his speech and asserted that it was not imperialistic in nature.

As the Yom Kippur War broke out in 1973 between Israel and a coalition of Arab states led by Egypt and Syria, Castro's government sent 4000 troops to Syria in order to prevent the Israeli forces entering Syrian territory. In 1974, Castro broke off relations with the Israeli government over both their treatment of Palestinian civilians during the Israel-Palestine conflict and their increasingly close relationship with the United States. This earned him respect from leaders throughout the Arab world. In particular he was praised by Muammar Gaddafi (1942–2011), the socialist president of the Libyan Arab Republic, with Castro and Gaddafi becoming friends and allies. That year, Cuba also experienced an economic boost, due primarily to the high international price of sugar, but also influenced by new trade credits with Canada, Argentina, and various countries in Western Europe. A number of Latin American states began calling for Cuba's re-admittance into the Organization of American States (OAM), with the United States finally conceding in 1975 at the advice of Henry Kissinger. The Cuban government decided to call the first National Congress of the Cuban Communist Party, thereby officially announcing Cuba's status as a socialist state. It adopted a new constitution based upon the Soviet model, which abolished both the position of President and Prime Minister, leaving Castro without any official position in government. Instead he took up the role as President of both the newly created Council of State and the Council of Ministers, meaning that he was now both head of state and head of government.


Foreign wars and NAM Presidency: 1975–1979

Castro's image painted onto a now-destroyed lighthouse in Lobito, Angola, 1995.

On November 4, 1975, President Castro ordered the deployment of Cuban troops to the southern African state of Angola, in order to aid the Marxist MPLA in the Angolan Civil War. The two opposition forces, the FLNA and UNITA, had the backing of the United States and South Africa, the latter of whom feared that a Marxist-governed Angola would threaten their rule in neighboring Namibia. Initially providing the MPLA with 230 military advisers, South Africa subsequently sent between 5,000 and 10,000 troops into Angola in support of UNITA, causing Castro to respond with 18,000 Cuban troops. The Cubans played a major role in forcing the South Africans into retreat and securing MPLA's hold over Luanda. Considering Africa to be "the weakest link in the imperialist chain", Castro celebrated his success in Angola with Angolan President Agostinho Neto, Guinean President Sékou Touré and Guinea-Bissaun President Luís Cabral, together agreeing to support the communist government of Mozambique from the threat of the rebel army RENAMO in the Mozambique Civil War. Heading north in February, Castro visited his allies in Algeria and then Libya, where he spent ten days in the company of friend and ally Muammar Gadaffi. Moving on to talks with the Marxist government of South Yemen, he then traveled to Somalia, Tanzania, Mozambique and Angola, being greeted by crowds as a hero for Cuba's role in opposing the apartheid government of South Africa.

Fidel Castro speaking in Havana, 1978.

In 1977, the Ogaden War broke out between Somalia and Ethiopia as the government of the former, headed by pro-Soviet President Siad Barre, decided to annex the Ethiopian region of Ogaden to create Greater Somalia. In his earlier talks with Barre, Castro had advised him not to take such action, and as war broke out, Castro sided with the Ethiopians, whose Marxist President Mengistu Haile Mariam of the Workers' Party of Ethiopia appealed to fellow Marxist governments for help. Like the Soviet Union, Castro complied, sending troops under the command of General Arnaldo Ochoa to aid the overwhelmed Ethiopian army. Forcing back the Somali army, Mengistu then ordered the Ethiopians to suppress the Eritrean People's Liberation Front, a measure that Castro refused to support. In addition, Castro extended support to Marxist revolutionary movements throughout Latin America, namely in Nicaragua, where he aided the Sandinista National Liberation Front in overthrowing the government of right-wing president Anastasio Somoza Debayle in July 1979. Castro's critics accused the government of wasting Cuban lives in these military endeavors; it has been claimed by the anti-Castro Carthage Foundation-funded Centre for a Free Cuba that an estimated 14,000 Cubans were killed in Cuban military actions abroad.

"There is often talk of human rights, but it is also necessary to talk of the rights of humanity. Why should some people walk barefoot, so that others can travel in luxurious cars? Why should some live for thirty-five years, so that others can live for seventy years? Why should some be miserably poor, so that others can be hugely rich? I speak on behalf of the children in the world who do not have a piece of bread. I speak on the behalf of the sick who have no medicine, of those whose rights to life and human dignity have been denied."

— Fidel Castro's message to the UN General Assembly, 1979

In 1979, the Conference of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) was held in Havana, while that year Castro was selected as the president of the NAM, a position that he would hold till 1982. In his capacity as both President of the NAM and of Cuba he appeared at the United Nations General Assembly in October 1979, giving a speech on the disparity between the world's rich and poor. His speech was greeted with much applause from other world leaders, although American anti-communist protesters demonstrated against him outside the building. However, his standing among the Non-Aligned Movement was damaged due to Cuba abstaining from the U.N. General Assembly condemnation of the Soviet war in Afghanistan.

Relations between Cuba and other North American states improved, with the Mexican President Luis Echeverría reiterating ties between the two countries in the face of U.S. domination and the Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau even proclaiming "Viva Castro!". Relations with the U.S. also improved following the election of Democratic Party candidate Jimmy Carter in 1977. Carter continued to criticize the human rights abuses of Castro's government, but took a more respectful approach which gained Castro's attention. Believing Carter to be well-meaning and sincere, Castro freed certain political prisoners and allowed some Cuban exiles to visit relatives on the island, hoping that in turn Carter would abolish the U.S. economic embargo and halt the CIA's support for militant dissident groups.

Reagan and Gorbachev: 1980–1989

By the start of the 1980s, the Cuban economy was again in trouble, following a decline in the price of sugar on the open market and a decimated harvest following 1979's bad weather and plant infestations. Increasing numbers of Cubans began hijacking boats and fleeing toward Florida, enticed by the wealth and consumer goods of the U.S.; Castro labelled such individuals traitorous "scum". In one incident, 10,000 Cubans eager to leave had stormed the Peruvian Embassy requesting asylum, embarrassing both the Peruvian and Cuban authorities. The U.S. agreed that it would accept 3,500 Cuban refugees, with Castro conceding that those who wanted to leave could do so from the port of Mariel. Hundreds of boats arrived from the U.S., leading to a mass exodus of 120,000; Castro's government took advantage of the situation by unloading criminals and the mentally ill onto the boats destined for Florida. The Cuban government were desperate for money to boost the economy and fund its internationalist ambitions, in doing so turning to almost any economic transaction, however un-socialist. They began secretly selling off paintings from the national collections on the international market and illicitly traded to obtain U.S. electronic goods through Panama. Castro became passionate in his denunciation of the Third World debt problem, arguing that the Third World would never escape the debt that the First World banks and governments had imposed upon it. In 1985 alone Havana hosted five international conferences on the world debt problem.

U.S. President Reagan and Soviet Premier Gorbachev were the two major players on the world stage in the 1980s, and would heavily affect Castro's governance of Cuba.

In 1980, the Republican Party nominee Ronald Reagan was elected to the U.S. Presidency, pursuing a hard line approach against Castro, and by 1981, Castro was accusing the U.S. of undertaking biological warfare against Cuba. Although he despised the right wing military junta in Argentina, Castro supported them in the 1982 Falklands War against the British, whom he viewed as an imperialist aggressor, even offering military aid to the Argentinians, although British forces had won the war before this ever materialized. Castro had also been supportive of the leftist New Jewel Movement that had seized power in Grenada in 1979, sending in doctors, teachers, and technicians to aid the country's development, and befriending the Grenadine Marxist president, Maurice Bishop. When Bishop was murdered in a Soviet-backed coup by hardline Marxist Bernard Coard in October 1983, Castro cautiously continued supporting the Grenadine government, which remained Marxist. However, the U.S. and six Caribbean nations opposed the coup as a basis for invading the island and overthrowing the government; with Cuban soldiers dying in the fighting. Castro denounced the invasion and compared the U.S. to Nazi Germany, with condemnation also coming from the Soviet Union and the U.N. General Assembly. Subsequently fearing a U.S. invasion of Nicaragua, Castro sent General Ochoa to help train the governing Sandinistas in the tactics of guerrilla warfare, but received little support from the Soviet Union.

In 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev became Secretary-General of the Soviet Communist Party. A reformer, he implemented measures to increase freedom of the press ( glasnost) and economic decentralisation ( perestroika) in an attempt to strengthen socialism, but like many more-orthodox Marxist critics, Castro feared that they would actually weaken the socialist state and allow capitalist elements to regain control. Hoping to strengthen relations with the western powers, Gorbachev entered into further talks with the U.S. government, who demanded that the USSR reduce its support for Castro's Cuba, something Gorbachev conceded to. Relations between the two nations deteriorated, and Castro ordered the security services to begin surveillance of Soviet diplomats in the country. When Gorbachev visited Cuba in April 1989, he was greeted with a banner proclaiming "Long live Marxism-Leninism!", a reproach for his reforms, and while his meetings with Castro were friendly, Gorbachev informed the Cuban leader that the perestroika reforms meant an end to subsidies and special favours for Cuba. Ignoring calls to liberalise his regime in accordance with the policies implemented in the Soviet Union, Castro continued to clamp down on internal dissidents, in particular keeping tabs on the military, whom he saw as the primary threat to his government. A number of senior military officers, including Ochoa and Tony de la Guardia, were subsequently investigated for a variety of crimes, including corruption and complicity in cocaine smuggling, put on trial, and executed in 1989, despite international calls for leniency. In October 1985, Castro gave up regularly smoking Cuban cigars on medical advice, helping to set an example for the rest of the populace.

By November 1987, Castro began spending more time focusing on the ongoing Angolan Civil War, in which UNITA and South Africa had achieved great strides, forcing the Marxist forces into a retreat. Angolan President José Eduardo dos Santos appealed to Castro to send more troops, which he duly did, on the condition that the Cuban military would have overall command under the leadership of General Ochoa. Castro spent a great deal of his time monitoring the war effort, later admitting that he devoted more time to Angola that to Cuba's domestic situation; he believed that a successful victory would lead to the collapse of the apartheid regime in South Africa. However, relations between long-term friends Castro and Ochoa became strained, with the latter proclaiming the Cuban leader to be "crazy." Castro wanted to continue for an all-out leftist victory, but Gorbachev was calling for a peaceful end to the conflict, organising quadripartite talks between the USSR, USA, Cuba and South Africa in 1988; the result was an agreement that all foreign troops would be pulled out of Angola. Castro was angered by Gorbachev's approach, believing that he was abandoning the plight of the world's poor in favour of detente.

In Eastern Europe, socialism was collapsing as capitalist governments swept to power across the region between 1989 and 1991. Many western observers speculated that the same would happen in Cuba, although it was debated as to whether the transition to capitalism would be peaceful and gradual, as in Czechoslovakia, or violent and sudden, as in Romania. Increasingly isolated, Castro's only allies in the Americas were the Sandinista government of Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua and the military administration of General Manuel Noriega in Panama. Although Castro personally despised Noriega, a former CIA agent, he agreed to an alliance with him after the U.S. made attempts to depose his regime. Sending military advisers and military equipment to Panama, he advised Noriega to form a popular militia to combat U.S. aggression, but ultimately both the Panamanian military and militias fell before the invading U.S. marines in December 1989. In February 1990, the Sandinista government in Nicaragua was then defeated by the U.S.-funded National Opposition Union in an election, further isolating Castro's government. At the United Nations Human Rights Commission in Geneva, Switzerland, the U.S. secured a majority vote for a resolution condemning the human rights violations of Castro's regime. Castro was particularly incensed that four of Cuba's former allies in Eastern Europe, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Bulgaria, had supported the U.S. resolution, and in turn proclaimed that Cuba would cease to purchase goods from those countries. Rejecting the UN resolution, which the Cuban government asserted was simply a manifestation of increasing U.S. power, they refused to allow a six-nation investigative delegation to enter the country.

The Special Period: 1990–2000

With favourable trade from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe coming to an end, Castro recognised that Cuba was facing an economic crisis, publicly declaring that the country was entering a " Special Period in Time of Peace." Petrol rations were dramatically reduced, Chinese bicycles were imported to replace cars, and factories performing non-essential tasks were shut down. Oxen began to replace tractors, firewood began being used for cooking and electricity cuts were introduced, lasting 16 hours a day. Castro informed the populace that they were facing the worst situation short of open war, and that there may come a time when no oil would reach the island, forcing the urban population to migrate to the countryside and adopt a life of subsistence farming. By 1992, the Cuban economy had declined by over 40% in under two years, with major food shortages, widespread malnutrition and a lack of basic goods.

Castro continued to hope for a restoration of orthodox Marxism-Leninism in the Soviet Union, but refrained from backing the 1991 coup in the country, which saw hardliners oust Gorbachev. When the coup failed and Gorbachev regained control, relations between the two nations deteriorated further, with the Soviets withdrawing their troops stationed in Cuba in September 1991. In December, the Soviet Union was officially dismantled, with the capitalist reformer Boris Yeltsin, President of the Russian Federation, overseeing the abolition of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and the introduction of a multiparty democracy with a capitalist economy. A staunch anti-socialist, Yeltsin despised Castro, and developed links with the anti-Castro Cuban American National Foundation, based in Miami. Castro began attempts to improve relations with capitalist nations, welcoming western politicians and investors to Cuba, befriending Manuel Fraga and taking a particular interest in the policies of Margaret Thatcher in the United Kingdom, believing that Cuban socialism could learn from her emphasis on low taxation and personal initiative. He also ceased his support of guerrilla militants in various parts of the world, refraining from praising FARC on a 1994 visit to Colombia and calling for a negotiated settlement between the Zapatistas and Mexican government in 1995; publicly, he tried to present himself as a moderate figure on the world stage.

"We do not have a smidgen of capitalism or neo-liberalism. We are facing a world completely ruled by neo-liberalism and capitalism. This does not mean that we are going to surrender. It means that we have to adopt to the reality of that world. That is what we are doing, with great equanimity, without giving up our ideals, our goals. I ask you to have trust in what the government and party are doing. They are defending, to the last atom, socialist ideas, principles and goals."

— Fidel Castro explaining the reforms of the Special Period

In 1991, Havana hosted the Pan-American Games, which involved the construction of a stadium and accommodation for the athletes; Castro would admit that it was an expensive error, but it proved to be a success both for Cuba and Castro. Crowds regularly shouted "Fidel! Fidel!" in front of foreign journalists, while Cuba reached the top of the gold-medal table, the first time a Latin American nation had ever beaten the United States to that title. Support for Castro within Cuba remained strong, and although there were several small demonstrations against the government, the opposition movement stationed within the country rejected the exile community's calls for an armed uprising. On 5 August 1994, the most serious anti-government demonstration since Castro took power occurred in Havana, as 200 to 300 young men began throwing stones at police, demanding that they be given a boat and allowed to travel to Miami. Soon, a much larger pro-Castro crowd emerged to confront them, being joined by Castro himself, who told state media that the men were anti-socials who had been misled by U.S. media. The protests soon dispersed with no recorded injuries. Fearing that the U.S. or Florida-based dissident groups would take the opportunity to invade, the government organised a defense strategy known as the "War of All the People." This involved planning a widespread guerilla warfare campaign, and the unemployed were given jobs in building a network of bunkers and tunnels across the island.

Castro recognised the need for reform if Cuban socialism was to survive in a world now dominated by capitalist free markets. In October 1991, the Fourth Congress of the Cuban Communist Party was held in Santiago, at which a number of important changes to the government were announced. Castro would step down as head of government, to be replaced by the much younger Carlos Lage, although would remain the head of the Communist Party and Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces. Many older members of government were to be retired and replaced by younger counterparts. A number of economic changes were proposed, and subsequently put to a national referendum. Free farmers' markets and small-scale private enterprises would be legalised in an attempt to stimulate economic growth, while U.S. dollars were also made legal tender. Certain restrictions on emigration were eased, allowing more discontented Cuban citizens to move to the United States. Further democratisation was to be brought in by having the National Assembly's members elected directly by the people, rather than through municipal and provincial assemblies. Castro welcomed debate between proponents and opponents of the reforms, although over time began to increasingly sympathise with the opponent's positions, arguing that such reforms must be delayed.

South African president Nelson Mandela was highly supportive of Cuba's military and humanitarian work in Africa, personally thanking Castro for his role in helping to topple apartheid.

Castro's government decided to diversify its economy from sugar production, focusing on the development of biotechnology and also on tourism, the latter of which overtook the island's sugar industry as its primary source of revenue in 1995. The arrival of thousands of tourists from Mexico and Spain led to an increasing number of young Cubans turning to prostitution; although officially illegal, Castro refrained from bringing a full crack down on these prostitutes, fearing a political backlash. Economic hardship led many Cubans to turn towards religion, both in the forms of Roman Catholicism and the syncretic faith of Santeria. Although he had long considered religious belief to be backward, Castro softened his approach to the Church and religious institutions, recognising the psychological comfort it could bring, and religious people were permitted for the first time to join the Communist Party. Although viewing the Roman Catholic Church as a reactionary, pro-capitalist institution, Castro decided to organise a visit to Cuba by Pope John Paul II, which took place in January 1998; ultimately, it strengthened the position of both the Church in Cuba, and Castro's government.

In the early 1990s, Castro embraced environmentalism, campaigning against the waste of natural resources and global warming, accusing the U.S. of being the world's primary polluter. His government's environmentalist policies would prove highly effective; by 2006, Cuba was the only nation in the world which met the WWF's definition of sustainable development, having an ecological footprint of less than 1.8 hectares per capita and a Human Development Index of over 0.8 for 2007. Similarly, Castro also became a proponent of the anti-globalisation movement, criticizing U.S. global hegemony and the control exerted by multinationals. Castro also maintained his devout anti-apatheid beliefs, and at the July 26 celebrations in 1991, Castro was joined onstage by the South African political activist Nelson Mandela, recently released from prison. Mandela would praise Cuba's involvement in battling South Africa in Angola and thanked Castro personally. He would later attend Mandela's inauguration as President of South Africa in 1994. In 2001 he attended the Conference Against Racism in South Africa at which he lectured on the global spread of racial stereotypes through U.S. film.

The Pink Tide: 2000–2006

"As I have said before, the ever more sophisticated weapons piling up in the arsenals of the wealthiest and the mightiest can kill the illiterate, the ill, the poor and the hungry but they cannot kill ignorance, illnesses, poverty or hunger."

— Fidel Castro's speech at the International Conference on Financing for Development, 2002
Castro meeting with centre-left Brazilian President Lula da Silva, a significant "Pink Tide" leader.

At the start of the 21st century, Castro's Cuba was still mired in the economic problems of its "Special Period". However, Castro would be offered a "political godsend" in the form of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez (1954–2013). A former army general who represented the Fifth Republic Movement, Chávez was elected to the Presidency of Venezuela in 1999. A democratic socialist, Chavez began a program of nationalizing much of the country's lucrative oil industry and made use of fiercely anti-U.S. rhetoric. First having met in 1994, Castro would later attend Chávez's presidential inauguration, before they began discussing greater economic links between the two nations. In 2000, Castro and Chávez signed an agreement through which Cuba would send 20,000 medics to Venezuela, in return receiving 53,000 barrels of oil per day at preferential rates; in 2004, this trade was stepped up, with Cuba sending 40,000 medics and Venezuela providing 90,000 barrels a day. That same year, Castro initiated Mision Milagro, a joint medical project between Cuba and Venezuela which aimed to provide free eye operations on 300,000 individuals from each nation. The alliance provided a great boost to the Cuban economy, and in May 2005, Castro doubled the minimum wage for 1.6 million workers, raised pensions and delivered new kitchen appliances to the island's poorest residents. Some economic problems did however remain; during 2004, Castro shut down 118 factories, including steel plants, sugar mills and paper processors to compensate for the crisis due to fuel shortages.

Evo Morales of Bolivia has described him as "the grandfather of all Latin American revolutionaries". In contrast to the improved relations between Cuba and a number of leftist Latin American states, in 2004 it broke off diplomatic ties with Panama after centrist President Mireya Moscoso pardoned four Cuban exiles accused of attempting to assassinate Cuban President Fidel Castro in 2000; diplomatic ties were reinstalled in 2005 following the election of leftist President Martín Torrijos.

Castro's increasingly good relationship with his Latin American neighbours was accompanied by continuing animosity towards the U.S. government. However, after massive damage caused by Hurricane Michelle in 2001, Castro successfully proposed a one-time cash purchase of food from the U.S. while declining their government's offer of humanitarian aid. In reaction to the September 11 attacks in 2001, in which Islamist militants belonging to Al Qaeda attacked New York City and Washington D.C., Castro expressed solidarity with the United States, condemning the attacks and offering Cuban airports for the emergency diversion of any U.S. planes. He recognized that the attacks would make the U.S. government more aggressive in its foreign policy, which he believed was counter-productive.

Castro amid cheering crowds supporting his presidency in 2005.

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.

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 openly to 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.

Stepping down: 2006–2008

Poster advertising a mass to pray for Castro's health that was posted on a wall in Bogotá, Colombia, in 2007.

On July 31, 2006, Castro delegated all his duties to Raúl; the transfer was described as a temporary measure while Fidel recovered from surgery for an "acute intestinal crisis with sustained bleeding". In February 2007, Raúl announced that Fidel's health was improving and that he was taking part in important issues of government. Later that month, Fidel called into Hugo Chávez's radio show Aló Presidente, and in April, Chávez told press that Castro was "almost totally recovered". On April 21, Castro met Wu Guanzheng of the Chinese Communist Party's Politburo, with Chávez visiting in August, and Morales in September. 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, the atheist Castro 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." The quote would subsequently be picked up on by the world's media.

In a letter dated February 18, 2008, Castro announced that he would not accept the positions of President of the Council of State and Commander in Chief at the February 24 National Assembly meetings, stating that his health was a primary reason for his decision, remarking 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". On February 24, 2008, the National Assembly of People's Power unanimously voted Raúl as president. Describing his brother as "not substitutable", Raúl proposed that Fidel continue to be consulted on matters of great importance, a motion unanimously approved by the 597 National Assembly members.

Later years

Retirement: 2008–present

Following his retirement, Castro's health deteriorated; international press speculated that he had diverticulitis, but Cuba's government refused to corroborate this. Continuing to interact with the Cuban people, he published an opinion column titled "Reflections" in Granma, used a Twitter account, and gave occasional public lectures. In January 2009 Castro asked Cubans not to worry about his lack of recent news columns and failing health, and not to be disturbed by his future death. He continued meeting foreign leaders and dignitaries, and that month photographs were released of Castro's meeting with Argentine president Cristina Fernández.

In old age, Castro continued his involvement with politics and international affairs.

In July 2010, he made his first public appearance since falling ill, greeting science centre workers and giving a television interview to Mesa Redonda in which he discussed U.S. tensions with Iran and North Korea. On August 7, 2010, Castro gave his first speech to the National Assembly in four years, urging the U.S. not to take military actions against those nations and warning of a nuclear holocaust. When asked whether Castro may be re-entering government, culture minister Abel Prieto told the BBC, "I think that he has always been in Cuba's political life but he is not in the government...He has been very careful about that. His big battle is international affairs."

On April 19, 2011, Castro resigned from the Communist Party central committee, thus stepping down as party leader. Raúl Castro was selected as his successor. Now without any official role in the country's government, he took on the role of an elder statesman. In March 2012, Pope Benedict XVI visited Cuba for three days, during which time he briefly met with Castro despite the Pope's vocal opposition to Cuba's government. Later that year it was revealed that along with Hugo Chávez, Castro had played a significant behind-the-scenes role in orchestrating peace talks between the Colombian government and the far left FARC guerilla movement to end the conflict which had raged since 1964.

During the North Korea crisis, he urged both parties to show restraint. He called the situation "incredible and absurd," and that war would not benefit either side. Castro also said, "This is one of the gravest risks of nuclear war since the October Crisis in 1962 involving Cuba, 50 years ago."

Personal and public life

"Castro first and foremost is and always has been a committed egalitarian. He despises any system in which one class or group of people lives much better than another. He wanted a system that provided the basic needs to all—enough to eat, health care, adequate housing and education. The authoritarian nature of the Cuban Revolution stems largely from his commitment to that goal. Castro was convinced that he was right, and that his system was for the good of the people. Thus, anyone who stood against the revolution stood also against the Cuban people and that, in Castro’s eyes, was simply unacceptable. There is, then, very little in the way of individual freedoms – especially freedom of expression and assembly. And there are political prisoners — those who have expressed positions against the revolution — though today only some 300, down markedly from the number at the outset of the revolution.

Wayne S. Smith, US Interests Section in Havana Chief from 1979 to 1982, in 2007.

Biographer Leycester Coltman described Castro as "fiercely hard-working, dedicated[,] loyal... generous and magnanimous" but noted that he could be "vindictive and unforgiving" at times. He asserted that Castro "always had a keen sense of humor and could laugh at himself" but could equally be "a bad loser" who would act with "ferocious rage if he thought that he was being humiliated." Fellow biographer Peter Bourne noted that Castro "suffers fools poorly" and that in his younger years he was "intolerant" of those who did not share his views for Cuba's future. He claimed that Castro liked to socialize and meet with ordinary citizens, both in Cuba and abroad, but took a particularly paternal attitude toward his own people, treating them as if "they were a part of his own giant family." British historian Alex Von Tunzelmann commented that "though ruthless, [Castro] was a patriot, a man with a profound sense that it was his mission to save the Cuban people", contrasting him strongly to his Haitian contemporary François Duvalier.

Castro was known for his busy working hours, often only going to bed at 3 am or 4 am in the morning. When meeting with foreign diplomats, he liked to meet them in these early hours, a time when they would be tired and he could gain the upper hand. He described Ernest Hemingway as his favorite writer, and enjoyed reading but was uninterested in music. A sports fan, he also spent much of his time trying to keep fit, undertaking regular exercise. He took a great interest in gastronomy, as well as wine and whisky, and as Cuban leader was known to wander into his kitchen to discuss ingredients and cookery with his chefs. Ever since childhood, Castro had a love of weapons, in particular guns, and would carry a pistol with him much of the time, even as President. He also expressed his preference for life in the countryside rather than in the city.

Political ideology and religious beliefs

Castro is a Marxist-Leninist, following the theories about the nature of society put forward by Marx, Engels and Lenin (left to right).

Castro has proclaimed himself to be "a Socialist, a Marxist, and a Leninist". Also a keen proponent of Cuban nationalism, historian Richard Gott remark that one of the keys to Castro's success was in his ability to utilize the "twin themes of socialism and nationalism" and keep them "endlessly in play." Castro describes Karl Marx and Cuban nationalist José Martí as his main political influences, although Gott believed that ultimately Martí remained more important than Marx in Castro's politics. Castro described Martí's political ideas as "a philosophy of independence and an exceptional humanistic philosophy". Castro has taken a relatively socially conservative stance on many issues, opposing alcohol, drugs, gambling and prostitution, which he viewed as moral evils. Instead he has advocated hard work, family values, integrity and self-discipline.

Fidel Castro's religious beliefs have been a matter of some debate; he was baptized and raised a Roman Catholic but has commented that he is an atheist. In his spoken autobiography, he criticized elements of the Bible that have been used to justify the oppression of women and Africans, but also commented that Christianity exhibited "a group of very humane precepts" which gave the world "ethical values" and a "sense of social justice", relating that "If people call me Christian, not from the standpoint of religion but from the standpoint of social vision, I declare that I am a Christian."

Family and friends

Many details of Castro's private life, particularly involving his family members, are scarce as the state media is forbidden to mention them. Castro's biographer Robert E. Quirk noted that throughout his life, the Cuban leader had been "unable to form a lasting sexual relationship with any female." 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.

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 critical of her father's policies. By an unnamed woman he had another son, Jorge Ángel Castro. Fidel has another daughter, Francisca Pupo (born 1953) the result of a one night affair. Pupo and her husband now live in Miami. Castro often engaged in one night stands with women.

His sister Juanita Castro has been living in the United States since the early 1960s. When she went into exile, she said "I cannot longer remain indifferent to what is happening in my country. My brothers Fidel and Raúl have made it an enormous prison surrounded by water. The people are nailed to a cross of torment imposed by international Communism."

While in power, Castro's two closest male friends were the former Mayor of Havana Pepin Naranjo and his own personal physician, René Vallejo. From 1980 until his death in 1995, Naranjo headed Castro's team of advisers. He also had a deep friendship with fellow revolutionary Celia Sanchez, who accompanied him almost everywhere during the 1960s, and controlled almost all access to the leader. During the mid to late 1960s, Vallejo and Sanchez became his two closest companions. Vallejo, who served as his personal physician since 1958, died in 1969. Sanchez died in 1982. Castro was also good friends with the Colombian poet Gabriel García Márquez.

Public image

Cuban propaganda poster proclaiming a quote from Castro: "Luchar contra lo imposible y vencer" ("Fight against the impossible and win")

Unlike a number of other Soviet-era communist leaders, Castro's government did not intentionally construct a cult of personality around him, although his popularity among segments of the Cuban populace nevertheless led to one developing in the early years of his administration. By 2006, the BBC reported that Castro's image could frequently be found in Cuban stores, classrooms, taxicabs, and on national television. For 37 years, Castro publicly wore nothing but olive-green military fatigues, emphasizing his role as the perpetual revolutionary, but in a 1994 visit to the Ibero-American Conference in Cartagena, surprised assembled dignitaries by appearing in a guayabera. Several months later he appeared in Paris wearing a dark civilian suit. This transition to business suits in later life has been attributed to the influence of his personal tailor, Merel Van 't Wout.

Throughout his administration, large throngs of supporters gathered to cheer at Castro's fiery speeches, which typically lasted for hours, being delivered without the use of written notes. Within Cuba, Castro is often 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!" The name itself is an allusion to Castro's well known womanizing during the 1950s and early 1960s. During this period, Castro himself was widely recognized as a sex symbol within Cuba, and a minor sensation was caused when footage was publicly broadcast showing that he had skinny legs, something widely considered an unattractive trait in Cuba.

Reception and legacy


Historian and journalist Richard Gott considered Castro to be "one of the most extraordinary political figures of the twentieth century", noting that he had become a "world hero in the mould of Garibaldi" to people throughout the developing world for his efforts in opposing imperialism. Similarly, Bourne noted that Castro had established himself as "an influential world leader who is listened to with great respect", having grown into a "statesmanlike role" that has gained recognition from people of all political persuasions across the developing world. Wayne S. Smith, former Chief of the US Interests Section in Havana, noted that in the early years of the 21st century, Castro was met with "warm applause" almost everywhere that he went in the Western Hemisphere. He attributed this to the respect that Castro had earned in Latin America for standing up to the socio-political dominance of the United States, and for allowing Cuba to grow from a " banana republic" into a nation thats role in the international arena at times resembles that of a "world power".

Various leftist governments across the world have granted Castro awards for his work in promoting socialism and providing international humanitarian aid. The Juche government of North Korea for instance awarded him "the Golden Medal (Hammer and Sickle) and the First Class Order of the National Flag", whilst Muammar Gaddafi's Arab socialist government of Libya bestowed upon him a "Libyan human rights award".

Castro has been praised for his opposition to racism throughout the world. In Harlem, Castro is seen by many as an icon because of his historic visit with Malcolm X in 1960 at the Hotel Theresa. Nelson Mandela cited Castro as inspiration for his creation of Umkhonto we Sizwe and for the speech he gave at the Rivonia Trial. In Southern Africa, he has received praise for his role in opposing apartheid South Africa. On a visit to South Africa in 1998, Castro was warmly received by President Nelson Mandela, who subsequently awarded him South Africa's highest civilian award for foreigners, the Order of Good Hope. In neighbouring Namibia, the country's capital city of Windhoek renamed one its streets "Fidel Castro Street" after the Cuban revolutionary.


"Within Cuba, Fidel's domination of every aspect of the government and the society remains total. His personal needs for absolute control seems to have changed little over the years. He remains committed to a disciplined society in which he is still determined to remake the Cuban national character, creating work-orientated, socially concerned individuals... He wants to increase people's standard of living, the availability of material goods, and to import the latest technology. But the economic realities, despite rapid dramatic growth in the gross national product, severely limit what Cuba can buy on the world market."

Peter Bourne, Castro Biographer, 1986

During his administration of Cuba, Castro has been heavily criticized both domestically and abroad, but particularly in the Western world. In the United States, and particularly in the state of Florida, which has a high Cuban-American population, Castro has been viewed with "passion and hatred". Although also unpopular in other parts of the west, in Canada and Western Europe, Castro was viewed no differently to other Marxist-Leninist leaders.

Many observers refer to Castro as a dictator, and as evidence highlight the fact that his regime was the longest to-date in modern Latin American history. Although considering Castro to be well-intentioned, biographer Peter Bourne noted that in Cuba, political power was "completely invested" in him, and that it is very rare for "a country and a people" to have been so completely dominated by "the personality of one man." Castro publicly refuted allegations that he was a dictator and repeatedly informed foreign journalists that under his government, Cuba was more democratic than the liberal democracies in the West, with greater consultation of the populace on issues of government policy. He emphasized that constitutionally, he held less political power than most heads of state, including that of the U.S. president. Critics have countered that while he might not have as much official power, since 1959 he has instead wielded an enormous amount of unofficial influence over the country.

Castro has also been widely criticised for overseeing an administration that has committed a number of human rights abuses. The Human Rights Watch organization has suggested that Castro constructed a "repressive machinery" which deprived Cubans of their "basic rights". Castro has publicly defended his government from such accusations, using the "standard Marxist answers" to such criticisms; that the state must limit the freedoms of individuals in order to protect the rights of the collective populace, such as the right to employment, education and health care.

Castro has also been criticized for allegedly ordering the execution of political prisoners. Various estimates have been made to ascertain the number of political executions carried out on behalf of the Cuban government in Cuba since the revolution. Some estimates for the total number political executions range from 4,000 to 33,000. According to Amnesty International, official death sentences from 1959 to 1987 numbered 237, of which all but 21 were actually carried out. The Cuban government justifies such measures on the grounds that the application of the death penalty in Cuba against war criminals and others followed the same procedure as that seen in the trials by the Allies in the Nuremberg trials.

Signs of protest in the 2010 Cuban Day Parade in Union City, New Jersey, a heavily Cuban-American community.

Others have accused Castro of corruption; Servando Gonzalez, in The Secret Fidel Castro, calls Castro a "corrupt tyrant". According to Gonzalez, Castro established "Fidel's checking account" in 1959, from which he could draw funds as he pleased. The "Comandante's reserves" were created in 1970, from which Castro allegedly "provided gifts to many of his cronies, both home and abroad". Gonzalez asserts that Comandante's reserves have been linked to counterfeiting business empires and money laundering. Gonzalez wrote that Cuba's paucity of trade with Switzerland contrasts oddly with the National Office of Cuba's relatively large office in Zurich. Castro has denied having a bank account abroad with even a dollar in it. In their book, Corruption in Cuba, Sergio Diaz-Briquets and Jorge F. Pérez-López Servando state that Castro "institutionalized" corruption and that "Castro's state-run monopolies, cronyism, and lack of accountability have made Cuba one of the world's most corrupt states".

In 2005, American business and financial magazine Forbes listed Castro among the world's richest people, with an estimated net worth of US$550 million. The estimates, which the magazine admitted were "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 later increased the estimates to US$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 US$900m, with US$1m, US$500,000, US$100,000 or US$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."

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