Dr. Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz (born August 13, 1926) has been the ruler of Cuba since he became Premier on February 16, 1959 and President of the Cuban Republic on December 3, 1976.
Fidel Castro and his supporters wave the Cuban flag
|Table of contents|
2 Foreign policy
3 Economic policy
4 Education and health care
5 Popular Image
6 Human rights
Resistance against Batista
Born in Biran, Holguin, Cuba, into a wealthy farming family (son of Angel Castro and Lina Ruz), he was educated at Jesuit schools and then the Jesuit preparatory school Colegio Belen in Havana. In 1945 he went to the University of Havana to study law, graduating in 1950.
Castro practiced law in a small partnership between 1950 and 1952. He intended to stand for parliament in 1952 for the Ortodoxo Party but the coup d'état of General Fulgencio Batista overthrew the government of Carlos Prio Socarras and canceled the election. Castro charged Batista with violating the constitution in court but his petition was refused. In response Castro organized a disastrous armed attack on the Moncada Barracks in Oriente province on July 26, 1953. Over eighty of the attackers were killed, and Castro was taken prisoner, tried, and sentenced to fifteen years in prison. (Castro used the closing arguments in the case to deliver "History Will Absolve Me", a passionate speech defending his actions and explaining his political views.) He was released in a general amnesty in May 1955 and went into exile in Mexico and the United States.
He returned to Cuba with a number of other exiles, clandestinely sailing from Mexico to Cuba on the small ship Granma. They were called the 26th of July Revolutionary Movement. The group's first action was in Oriente province on December 2, 1956. Only twelve of the original eighty men survived to retreat into the Sierra Maestra Mountains and from there wage a guerrilla war against the Batista government. The survivors included Che Guevara, Raul Castro, and Camilo Cienfuegos. Castro's movement gained popular support and grew to over 800 men. On May 24, 1958, Batista launched seventeen battalions against Castro in Operación Verano. Despite being outnumbered, Castro's forces scored a series of stunning victories, aided by massive desertion and surrenders from Batista's army. On New Year's Day 1959 Batista fled the country, and Castro's forces took Havana.
Initially the United States was quick to recognize the new government. Castro became prime minister in February, but friction with the United States soon developed when the new government began expropriating property owned by big American companies (United Fruit in particular), proposing compensation based on property tax valuations that for many years the same companies had managed to keep artificially low. Castro visited the White House shortly after coming to power, and met with Vice President Richard Nixon. Castro's economic policies had caused some concerns in Washington that Castro was a Communist with an allegiance to the Soviet Union. Following the meeting Nixon remarked that Castro was "naive" but not necessarily a Communist.
In February 1960, Cuba signed an agreement to buy oil from the USSR. When the U.S. owned refineries in Cuba refused to process the oil they were expropriated, and the United States broke diplomatic relations with the Castro government soon after. To the fears of the Eisenhower Administration, Cuba continued to establish closer ties with the Soviet Union. A variety of pacts were signed between Castro and Soviet Premier Khrushchev, and Cuba began to recive large amounts of economic aid and military arms from the USSR. In early 1961 Castro formally declared himself to be a Communist, and announced that Cuba would become a Communist state, modeled after the Soviet Union. The Communist Party became Cuba's only legal political institution, and the nation's goverance was centered in a Politburo, led by Castro.
The United States then sponsored an unsuccessful attack on Cuba. On April 17, 1961, a force of about 1,400 Cuban exiles, financed and trained by the CIA, landed in the south at the Bay of Pigs. The CIA's assumption was that the invasion would spark a popular rising against Castro. There was no rising, and what part of the invasion force made it ashore was captured while President Kennedy withdrew support at the last minute. Nine were executed in connection with this action. Then in a nationally broadcast speech on December 2 that year Castro declared that he was a Marxist-Leninist and that Cuba was going to adopt Communism.
Castro as a young revolutionary
Pope John XXIII excommunicated Castro on January 3, 1962. This was consistent with a 1949 decree by Pope Pius XII forbidding catholics from supporting communist governments. For Castro, who had previously renounced catholicism, this was an event of very little consequence, nor was it expected to be. It was aimed at undermining support for Castro among Catholics; however, there is little evidence that it did.
In October, 1962, the Cuban missile crisis occurred after the United States discovered the Soviet Union was actively attempting to assemble nuclear missles in Cuba. After the tensions were defused, relations between the United States and Cuba remained mutually hostile, and the CIA continued to sponsor a number of assassination schemes over the following years.
In 1976, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, then Prime Minister of Canada, made one of the first state visits to Cuba by a Western leader during the height of the American blockade and personally embraced the Cuban leader. Trudeau gave him a $4 million gift, and arranged a loan for another $10 million. In a speech delivered by Trudeau, he said "Long live Prime Minister and Commander-in-Chief Fidel Castro. Long live Cuban-Canadian friendship."
Castro consolidated control of the nation by further nationalizing industry, confiscating property owned by non-Cubans, collectivizing agriculture, and enacting policies to benefit workers. Many Cubans fled the country, some to Miami, Florida, where they established a large, active anti-Castro community. Because of the harsh embargo imposed by the United States, Cuba became increasingly dependent on Soviet subsidies to finance improvements in Cuba's economic conditions. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990 brought real economic hardship to Cuba.
The harsh American-led economic sanctions, which include a general travel ban to Cuba for tourists, have been a major reason for Cuba's economic troubles. However, between 1960 and 1990 much of their effects were neutralized by aid from the former Soviet Union that in some years was as high as one quarter of the island's Gross Domestic product. In spite of the embargo Cuba continues to trade with other nations. Nonetheless, Cuba is the second most popular tourist destination in the Caribbean (behind the Dominican Republic). Its economy also receives an large amounts of currency (estimated at $ 850 million annually) from Cuban Americans who send money back to their relatives or friends.
Education and health care
Education and health care were made available to all, even those living in the remotest corners of the island. UNESCO statistics confirm that Cuba's rate of basic literacy is now among the highest in Latin America.
Few Cuban children live on the streets - unlike in many neighbouring countries. Infant mortality rates are the lowest in the region (and slightly lower that those in the United States), health care is excellent and all receive free milk until the age of six. Besides entertainment, Cuban television broadcasts college-level courses for the adult population.
The Cuban media often highlight the contrast between contented Cuban children and their counterparts in Bogotà, Los Angeles or Buenos Aires - dealing in drugs, dragged into prostitution or living in shanty towns.
Castro's leadership of Cuba has remained largely unchallenged, his supporters claim this because the masses -- whose living conditions they believe he improved -- rallied behind him. Castro's opponents believe his continued leadership is due to coercion and repression.
Supporters of Fidel Castro's regime point to Cuba's relatively advanced healthcare as a success of his government since it came to power in 1959. Much of the post-revolutionary rebuilding of the country focused on children. Cuban life expectancy as of 2002 is only slightly lower than the USA's.
Critics of Castro's regime allege that although Cuba's infant mortality rate is now the lowest in Latin America that was also was the case before Castro -- when, they claim, it was also the 13th lowest in the world.
It is generally acknowledged that Cuba has made substantial progress in developing pharmaceuticals. Cuba has its own portfolio of related patents and tries to market its medicine around the world.
Cuba also has improved the literacy of its people. Castro's literacy campaign focused on rural areas where literacy was very low. In a fall 1960 speech before the United Nations, Castro had announced that "Cuba will be the first country of America that, after a few months, will be able to say it does not have one illiterate person." Nearly 270,000 teachers and students were sent across the country to teach those who wanted to learn how to read and write. By 1961, Cuba's illiteracy rate had been reduced from 20 percent to 4 percent. People who completed the course were asked to send a letter to Fidel Castro as a test. Cuba's National Literacy Museum archives more than 700,000 such letters. 
The apparent cult of personality around Castro's person has arisen despite his personal attempts to discourage it. In contrast to many of the world's modern strongmen, Castro has only twice been personally featured on a Cuban stamp. In 1974 he appeared on a stamp to commemorate the visit of Leonid Brezhnev, and in 1999 he appeared on a stamp commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Revolution. There has been a much stronger tendency to encourage reverence for Cuban independence hero Jose Marti and the "martyrs" of the Cuban revolution such as Che Guevara. Castro himself is famous for his long and detailed speeches which often last several hours and contain lots of data and historical references. He rarely appears in public without his military fatigues, and trademark cap.
Critics also point to Cuba's human rights record and to the many opponents of Castro's regime in prison. Castro himself claims that the United States continue to engage in secret warfare against Cuba using spies and mercenaries, and that many so-called human rights activists are in fact agents of the United States. Critics also point to censorship, the lack of press freedom in Cuba, the lack of civil rights, and the inability for a vote to result in a leader other than Castro. Castro's supporters feel that this is justfied to prevent the United States from installing a foreign leader that suits their interests by means of propaganda and funding for opposition groups. They contend that Cuba's human rights record is significantly better than that of many other countries in the Caribbean/Latin America region, that the Batista regime which Castro replaced was a brutal dictatorship nevertheless supported by the US, and that Cuba faces a very real and proven threat from the United States.