Fidel Castro

Biography of Cuban Leader Fidel Castro

Picture of Fidel Castro speaking during a rally.
Cuban President Fidel Castro speaks during a rally outside the U.S. Interest Section in Havana, Cuba. (June 21, 2004). Photo by Jorge Rey / Getty Images.

Who Was Fidel Castro

In 1959, Fidel Castro took control of Cuba by force and remained its dictatorial leader for nearly five decades. As the leader of the only communist country in the Western Hemisphere, Castro had long been the focus of international controversy.

Dates: August 13, 1926/27 --

Also Known As: Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz

Childhood of Fidel Castro

Fidel Castro was born near his father's farm, Birán, in southeast Cuba in what was then the Oriente Province. Castro's father, Angel Castro y Argiz, was an immigrant from Spain who had prospered in Cuba as a sugarcane farmer.

Although Castro's father was married to Maria Luisa Argota (not Castro's mother), he had five children out of wedlock with Lina Ruz González (Castro's mother), who worked for him as a maid and cook. Years later, Angel and Lina did marry.

Fidel Castro spent his youngest years on his father's farm, but spent most of his youth in Catholic boarding schools, excelling at sports.

Castro Becomes a Revolutionary

In 1945, Castro began law school at the University of Havana and quickly became involved in politics.

In 1947, Castro joined the Caribbean Legion, a group of political exiles from Caribbean countries who planned to rid the Caribbean of dictator-led governments. When Castro joined, the Legion was planning to overthrow Generalissimo Rafael Trujillo of the Dominican Republic but the plan was later canceled because of international pressure.

In 1948, Castro traveled to Bototá, Colombia with plans to disrupt the Pan-American Union Conference, when country-wide riots broke out in response to the assassination of Jorge Eliecer Gaitán. Castro grabbed a rifle and joined the rioters. While handing out anti-U.S. pamphlets to the crowds, Castro gained first-hand experience of popular uprisings.

After returning to Cuba, Castro married co-student Mirta Diaz-Balart in October 1948. Castro and Mirta had one child together.

Castro vs. Batista

In 1950, Castro graduated from law school and began practicing law.

Retaining a strong interest in politics, Castro became a candidate for a seat in Cuba's House of Representatives during the election of June 1952. However, before the elections could be held, a successful coup led by General Fulgencio Batista toppled the previous Cuban government, canceling the elections.

From the beginning of Batista's rule, Castro fought against him. At first, Castro took to the courts to try legal means to oust Batista. However, when that failed, Castro began to organize an underground group of rebels.

Castro Attacks the Moncada Barracks

In the morning of July 26, 1953, Castro, his brother Raúl, and a group of about 160 armed men attacked the second-largest military base in Cuba - the Moncada Barracks in Santiago de Cuba.

Confronted with hundreds of trained soldiers at the base, there was little chance that the attack could have succeeded. Sixty of Castro's rebels were killed; Castro and Raúl were captured and then given a trial.

After delivering a speech at his trial which ended with, "Condemn me. It does not matter. History will absolve me," Castro was sentenced to 15 years in prison. He was released two years later, in May 1955.

The 26th of July Movement

Upon his release, Castro went to Mexico where he spent the next year organizing the "26th of July Movement" (based on the date of the failed Moncada Barracks attack).

On December 2, 1956, Castro and the rest of the 26th of July Movement rebels landed on Cuban soil with the intention of starting a revolution. Met by heavy Batista defenses, nearly everyone in the Movement was killed, with merely a handful escaping, including Castro, Raúl, and Che Guevara.

For the next two years, Castro continued guerrilla attacks and succeeded in gaining large numbers of volunteers.

Using guerrilla warfare tactics, Castro and his supporters attacked Batista's forces, overtaking town after town.

Batista quickly lost popular support and suffered numerous defeats. On January 1, 1959, Batista fled Cuba.

Castro Becomes Cuba's Leader

In January, Manuel Urrutia was selected as president of the new government and Castro was placed in charge of the military. However, by July 1959, Castro had effectively taken over as leader of Cuba, which he remained for the next four decades.

During 1959 and 1960, Castro made radical changes in Cuba, including nationalizing industry, collectivizing agriculture, and seizing American-owned businesses and farms. Also during these two years, Castro alienated the United States and established strong ties with the Soviet Union. Castro transformed Cuba into a communist country.

The United States wanted Castro out of power. In one attempt to overthrow Castro, the U.S. sponsored the failed incursion of Cuban-exiles into Cuba in April 1961 (the Bay of Pigs Invasion). Over the years, the U.S. has made hundreds of attempts to assassinate Castro, all with no success.

In 1961, Castro met Dalia Soto del Valle. Castro and Dalia had five children together and finally married in 1980.

In 1962, Cuba was the center of world focus when the U.S. discovered the construction sites of Soviet nuclear missiles. The struggle that ensued between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, the Cuban Missile Crisis, brought the world the closest it ever came to nuclear war.

Over the next four decades, Castro ruled Cuba as a dictator. While some Cubans benefited from Castro's educational and land reforms, others suffered from the food shortages and lack of personal freedoms. Hundreds of thousands of Cubans have fled Cuba to live in the United States.

Having relied heavily on Soviet aid and trade, Castro found himself suddenly alone after the downfall of the Soviet Union in 1991. With the U.S. embargo against Cuba still in effect, Cuba's economic situation suffered greatly in the 1990s.

Fidel Castro Steps Down

In July 2006, Castro announced that he was temporarily handing over power to his brother, Raúl, while he underwent gastrointestinal surgery. Since then, complications with the surgery caused infections for which Castro underwent several additional surgeries.

Still in ill health, Castro announced on February 19, 2008 that he would not seek nor accept another term as president of Cuba, effectively resigning as the leader of Cuba.