Biography of Fidel Castro

Revolutionary Establishes Communism in Cuba

Castro Cuba speech after Batista flees in 1959. Getty Images

Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz (1926–2016) was a Cuban lawyer, revolutionary, and politician. He was the central figure in the Cuban Revolution (1956-1959), which removed dictator Fulgencio Batista from power and replaced him with a communist regime friendly to the Soviet Union. For decades, he defied the United States, which tried to assassinate or replace him countless times. A controversial figure, many Cubans consider him a monster who destroyed Cuba, while others consider him a visionary who saved their nation from the horrors of capitalism.

Early Years

Fidel Castro was one of the several illegitimate children born to middle-class sugar farmer Angel Castro y Argíz and his household maid, Lina Ruz González. Castro’s father eventually divorced his wife and married Lina, but young Fidel still grew up with the stigma of being illegitimate. He was given his father's last name at age 17 and had the benefits of being raised in a wealthy household.

He was a talented student, educated at Jesuit boarding schools, and decided to pursue a career in law, entering the University of Havana Law School in 1945. While in school, he became increasingly involved in politics, joining the Orthodox Party, which was in favor of drastic government reform to reduce corruption.

Personal Life

Castro married Mirta Díaz Balart in 1948. She came from a wealthy and politically-connected family. They had one child and divorced in 1955. Later in life, he married Dalia Soto del Valle in 1980 and had five more children.

He had several other children outside of his marriages, including Alina Fernández, who escaped Cuba to Spain using false papers and then lived in Miami where she criticized the Cuban government.

Revolution Brewing in Cuba

When Batista, who had been president in the early 1940s, abruptly seized power in 1952, Castro became even more politicized.

Castro, as a lawyer, tried to mount a legal challenge to Batista’s reign, demonstrating that the Cuban Constitution had been violated by his power grab. When Cuban courts refused to hear the petition, Castro decided that legal assaults on Batista would never work: if he wanted change, he would have to use other means.

Attack on the Moncada Barracks

The charismatic Castro began drawing converts to his cause, including his brother Raúl. Together, they acquired weapons and began organizing an assault on the military barracks at Moncada. They attacked on July 26, 1953, the day after a festival, hoping to catch the soldiers still drunk or hung over. Once the barracks were captured, there would be enough weapons to mount a full-scale insurgency. Unfortunately for Castro, the attack failed: most of the 160 or so rebels were killed, either in the initial assault or in government prisons later. Fidel and his brother Raul were captured.

"History Will Absolve Me"

Castro led his own defense, using his public trial as a platform to bring his argument to the people of Cuba. He wrote an impassioned defense for his actions and smuggled it out of prison. While on trial, he uttered his famous slogan: “History will absolve me.” He was sentenced to death, but when the death penalty was abolished, his sentence was changed to 15 years imprisonment.

In 1955, Batista came under increasing political pressure to reform his dictatorship, and he freed a number of political prisoners, including Castro.

Mexico

The newly-freed Castro went to Mexico, where he made contact with other Cuban exiles eager to overthrow Batista. He founded the 26th of July Movement and began making plans for a return to Cuba. While in Mexico, he met Ernesto “Ché” Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos, who were destined to play important roles in the Cuban Revolution. The rebels acquired weapons and trained and coordinated their return with fellow insurgents in Cuban cities. On November 25, 1956, 82 members of the movement boarded the yacht Granma and set sail for Cuba, arriving on December 2.

Back in Cuba

The Granma force was detected and ambushed, and many of the rebels were killed.

Castro and the other leaders survived, however, and made it to the mountains in southern Cuba. They remained there for a while, attacking government forces and installations and organizing resistance cells in cities across Cuba. The movement slowly but surely gained in strength, especially as the dictatorship cracked down further on the populace.

Castro's Revolution Succeeds

In May of 1958, Batista launched a massive campaign aimed at ending the rebellion once and for all. It backfired, however, as Castro and his forces scored a number of unlikely victories over Batista’s forces, which led to mass desertions in the army. By the end of 1958, the rebels were able to go on the offensive, and columns led by Castro, Cienfuegos and Guevara captured major towns. On January 1, 1959, Batista spooked and fled the country. On January 8, 1959, Castro and his men marched into Havana in triumph.

Cuba's Communist Regime

Castro soon implemented a Soviet-style communist regime in Cuba, much to the dismay of the United States. This led to decades of conflict between Cuba and the USA, including such incidents as the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Mariel boatlift. Castro survived countless assassination attempts, some of them crude, some quite clever. Cuba was placed under an economic embargo, which had serious effects on the Cuban economy. In February of 2008 Castro resigned from duties as President, although he remained active in the communist party. He died on November 25, 2016, at the age of 90.

Legacy

Fidel Castro and the Cuban Revolution have had a profound effect on worldwide politics since 1959. His revolution inspired many attempts at imitation and revolutions broke out in nations such as Nicaragua, El Salvador, Bolivia and more. In southern South America, a whole crop of insurgencies sprang up in the 1960's and 1970's, including the Tupamaros in Uruguay, the MIR in Chile and the Montoneros in Argentina, just to name a few. Operation Condor, a collaboration of military governments in South America, was organized to destroy these groups, all of which hoped to incite the next Cuban-style Revolution in their home nations.

Cuba aided many of these insurgent groups with weapons and training.

While some were inspired by Castro and his revolution, others were aghast. Many politicians in the United States saw the Cuban Revolution as a dangerous “toehold” for communism in the Americas, and billions of dollars were spent propping up right-wing governments in places like Chile and Guatemala. Dictators such as Chile’s Augusto Pinochet were gross violators of human rights in their countries, but they were effective in keeping Cuban-style revolutions from taking over.

Many Cubans, particularly those in the middle and upper classes, fled Cuba shortly after the revolution. These Cuban emigrants generally despise Castro and his revolution. Many fled because they feared the crackdown that followed Castro’s conversion of the Cuban state and economy to communism. As part of the transition to communism, many private companies and lands were confiscated by the government.

Over the years, Castro maintained his grip on Cuban politics. He never gave up on communism even after the fall of the Soviet Union, which supported Cuba with money and food for decades. Cuba is a genuine communist state where the people share labor and rewards, but it has come at the cost of privation, corruption, and repression. Many Cubans fled the nation, many taking to the sea in leaky rafts hoping to make it to Florida.

Castro once uttered the famous phrase: “History will absolve me.” The jury is still out on Fidel Castro, and history may absolve him and may curse him. Either way, what is certain is that history will not forget him anytime soon.

Sources:

Castañeda, Jorge C. Compañero: the Life and Death of Che Guevara. New York: Vintage Books, 1997.

Coltman, Leycester. The Real Fidel Castro. New Haven and London: the Yale University Press, 2003.