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Biography

Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz
(born August 13, 1926) is the current President of Cuba. On July 31, 2006, Castro, after undergoing intestinal surgery for diverticulitis, transferred his responsibilities to the First Vice-President, his younger brother Raú Castro.

He led the revolution overthrowing Fulgencio Batista in 1959 and shortly after was sworn in as the Prime Minister of Cuba. Castro became First Secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba in 1965, and led the transformation of Cuba into a one-party socialist republic. In 1976 he became president of the Council of State as well as of the Council of Ministers. He also holds the supreme military rank of Comandante en Jefe ("Commander in Chief") of the Cuban armed forces.

Castro first attracted attention in Cuban political life through nationalist critiques of Batista and the United States political and corporate influence in Cuba. He gained an ardent, but limited, following and also drew the attention of the authorities. He eventually led the failed 1953 attack on the Moncada Barracks, after which he was captured, tried, incarcerated and later released. He then travelled to Mexico to organize and train for the guerrilla invasion of Cuba that took place in December 1956. Since his assumption of power in 1959 he has evoked both praise and condemnation (at home and internationally). Castro is described by opponents as a dictator while supporters see Castro as a charismatic liberator.

Outside of Cuba, Castro has been defined by his relationship with the United States and the former Soviet Union, both of whom courted Cuban attentions as part of their own global political game. After the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961 by U.S. backed forces, the Castro-led government has had an openly antagonistic relationship with the U.S., which encouraged a closeness with the Soviet bloc. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 forced Castro to seek alliances regionally to counter U.S. and find like-minded partners in regional nationalist figures such as Hugo Chávez in Venezuela and Evo Morales in Bolivia. Over time he has become a world icon.

At home, Fidel Castro has overseen the implementation of various economic policies, leading to the rapid centralization of Cuba's economy, land reform, collectivization and mechanization of agriculture, and the nationalization of leading Cuban industries. The expansion of publicly funded health care and education has been a cornerstone of Castro's domestic social agenda. Cuba ranks better than many countries, including the United States, among world countries on the United Nations' List of countries by infant mortality rate, which is claimed by Castro's supporters as a success of his regime. Castro and his policies are cited by some as being responsible for Cuba's economic problems, whilst others blame the U.S. embargo.

Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz was born on a sugar plantation in Birán, near Mayarí, in the modern-day province of Holguín – then a part of the now-defunct Oriente province. He was the third child born to Ángel Castro y Argiz, a Galician immigrant who became relatively prosperous through hard work in the sugar industry and shrewd investments. His mother, Lina Ruz González, was a household servant. Angel Castro was married to another woman Maria Luisa Argota. until Fidel was 17, and thus Fidel as a child had to deal both with his illegitimacy and the challenge of being raised in various foster homes away from his father's house.

Castro has two brothers: Ramón and Raúl, and four sisters: Angelita, Juanita, Enma, and Agustina. All of them were born out of wedlock. He also has two half siblings, Lidia and Pedro Emilio who were raised by Ángel Castro's first wife.

Fidel was not baptized until he was eight, also very uncommon, bringing embarrassment and ridicule from other children. Ángel Castro finally dissolved his first marriage when Fidel was 15 and married Fidel’s mother. Castro was formally recognized by his father when he was 17, when his surname was legally changed to Castro from Ruz, his mother’s name. Although accounts of his education differ, most sources agree that he was an intellectually gifted student, more interested in sports than in academics, and spent many years in private Catholic boarding schools, finishing high school at Belen, a Jesuit school in Havana in 1945.

Political beginnings

In late 1945, Castro entered law school at the University of Havana. He became immediately embroiled in the political culture at the University, which was a reflection of the volatile politics in Cuba during that era.

Since the fall of president Gerardo Machado in the 1930s, student politics had degenerated into a form of gangsterismo dominated by fractious action groups, and Castro, believing that the gangs posed a physical threat to his university aspirations, experienced what he later described as "a great moment of decision". He returned to the university from a brief hiatus to involve himself fully in the various violent battles and disputes which surrounded university elections, and was to be implicated in a number of shootings linked to Rolando Masferrer's MSR action group. "To not return", said Castro later, "would be to give in to bullies, to abandon my beliefs". Rivalries were so intense that Castro apparently collaborated in an attempt on Masferrer's life during this period, while Masferrer, whose paramiltary group Les Tigres later became an instrument of state violence under Batista, perennially hunted the younger student seeking violent retribution. This pattern is of course repeated in later political life with over 663 assassination attempts on Castro credited to the U.S. Government and their secret services.

In 1947, growing increasingly passionate about social justice lacking under Cuba's current system, Castro joined the Partido Ortodoxo which had been newly formed by Eduardo Chibás. A charismatic and emotional figure, Chibás was running for president against the incumbent Ramón Grau San Martín who had allowed rampant corruption to flourish during his term. The Partido Ortodoxo publicly exposed corruption and demanded government and social reform. It aimed to instill a strong sense of national identity among Cubans, establish Cuban economic independence and freedom from the United States, and dismantle the power of the elite over Cuban politics. Though Chibás lost the election, Castro, considering Chibás his mentor, remained committed to his cause, working fervently on his behalf. In 1951, while running for president again, Chibás shot himself in the stomach during a radio broadcast. Castro was present and accompanied him to the hospital where he died.

Bogotazo

Fidel Castro's role in this incident has been dogged by speculation and controversy but the following account seems to be generally agreed upon. In 1948 Castro traveled to Bogotá in Colombia for a political conference of Latin American students that coincided with the ninth meeting of the Pan-American Union Conference. The students had planned to use this opportunity to distribute pamphlets protesting United States dominance of the Western Hemisphere and to foment discontent. A few days after the conference began, the populist Colombian Liberal Party leader Jorge Eliecer Gaitán was assassinated, triggering massive riots in the streets in which many (mostly poor workers) were injured or killed. Rioting and looting spread to other cities in Colombia, beginning an era of turbulence that became known as "La Violencia". The students were caught up in the violence and chaos rocking the city, picking up rifles and roaming the streets distributing anti-United States material and stirring a revolt. When Castro was pursued by the Colombian authorities for his role in the riots, he took refuge in the Cuban Embassy and was flown back to Havana. It seems clear that experiencing the power of popular insurrection had an effect on Castro and influenced his subsequent political thinking.

Castro returned to Cuba and married Mirta Díaz Balart, a student from a wealthy Cuban family where he was exposed to the lifestyle of the Cuban elite. In 1950 he graduated from law school with a Doctor of Laws degree and began practicing law in a small partnership in Havana, mostly representing the poor and underprivileged. By now he had become well known for his passionately nationalistic views and his intense opposition to the influence of the United States on Cuban internal affairs. Increasingly interested in a career in politics, Castro had become a candidate for a seat in the Cuban parliament when General Fulgencio Batista led a coup d'état in 1952, successfully overthrowing the government of President Carlos Prío Socarrás and canceling the election.

Batista established himself as de facto leader with the support of establishment elements of Cuban society and powerful Cuban agencies. His regime was formally recognized by the United States, buttressing his power. Castro, nearing thirty, was now a politician without a legitimate platform and thus he broke away from the Partido Ortodoxo to marshal legal arguments based on the Constitution of 1940 to formally charge Batista with violating the constitution. His petition, entitled Zarpazo, was denied by the Court of Constitutional Guarantees and he was not allowed a hearing. This experience formed the foundation for Castro's opposition to the Batista regime and convinced him that revolution was the only way to depose Batista.

Cuban Revolution

Attack on Moncada Barracks

As discontent over the Batista coup grew, Castro abandoned his law practice and formed an underground organization of supporters, including his brother, Raúl, and Mario Chanes de Armas. Together they actively plotted to overthrow Batista. They collected guns and ammunition and finalized their plans for an armed attack on Moncada Barracks, Batista's largest garrison outside Santiago de Cuba. On the 26th of July, 1953, they attacked Moncada Barracks. The Céspedes garrison in Bayamo was also attacked as a diversion. The attack proved disastrous and more than sixty of the one-hundred and thirty-five militants involved were killed.

Castro and other surviving members of his group managed to escape to a part of the rugged Sierra Maestra mountains east of Santiago where they were eventually discovered and captured. Although there is disagreement over why Castro and his brother, Raúl, were not executed on capture as many of their fellow militants were, there is evidence that an officer recognized Castro from his university days and treated the captured rebels compassionately, despite the 'illegal' unofficial order to have the leader executed Others, such as Angel Prado, military commander of the 26th of July Movement, say that on the night of the attack Castro's driver got lost and he never reached the barracks. That night was the night of “El Carnaval de Santiago” and the streets of Santiago de Cuba were filled with party goers.

Castro was tried in the fall of 1953 and sentenced to up to fifteen years in prison. During his trial Castro delivered his famous defense speech History will absolve me, upholding his rebellious actions and boldly declaring his political views:

“I warn you, I am just beginning! If there is in your hearts a vestige of love for your country, love for humanity, love for justice, listen carefully... I know that the regime will try to suppress the truth by all possible means; I know that there will be a conspiracy to bury me in oblivion. But my voice will not be stifled – it will rise from my breast even when I feel most alone, and my heart will give it all the fire that callous cowards deny it... Condemn me. It does not matter. History will absolve me.”

While he was being held at the prison for political activists on Isla de Pinos, he continued to plot Batista's overthrow, planning upon release to reorganize and train in Mexico After having served less than two years, he was released in May 1955 due to a general amnesty from Batista who was under political pressure, and went as planned to Mexico.

26th of July Movement

Once in Mexico, Castro reunited with other Cuban exiles and founded the 26th of July Movement, named after the date of the failed attack on the Moncada Barracks. The goal remained the overthrow of Fulgencio Batista. Castro had learned from the Moncada experience that new tactics were needed if Batista's forces were to be defeated. This time, the plan was to use underground guerrilla tactics, at that time a form of combat unknown in Latin America.

In Mexico Castro met Ernesto "Che" Guevara, a proponent of guerrilla warfare. Guevara joined the group of rebels and became an important force in shaping Castro's evolving political beliefs. Guevara's observations of the misery of the poor in Latin America had already convinced him that the only solution lay in violent revolution.

Since regular contacts with a KGB agent named Nikolai Sergeevich Leonov in Mexico City had not resulted in the hoped for weapon supply, they decided to go to the United States to gather personnel and funds from Cubans living there, including Carlos Prío Socarrás, the elected Cuban president deposed by Batista in 1952. Back in Mexico, the group trained under a Spanish Civil War Veteran, Cuban-born Alberto Bayo who had fled to Mexico after Francisco Franco's victory in Spain. On November 26, 1956, Castro and his group of 81 followers, mostly Cuban exiles, set out from Tuxpan Mexico aboard the yacht Granma. for the purpose of starting a rebellion in Cuba.

The rebels landed at Playa Las Coloradas close to Los Cayuelos near the eastern city of Manzanillo on December 2, 1956. In short order, most of Castro's men were killed, dispersed, or taken prisoner by Batista's forces. While the exact number is in dispute, it is agreed that no more than twenty of the original eighty-two men survived the bloody encounters with the Cuban army and succeeded in fleeing to the Sierra Maestra mountains. The group of survivors included Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, Raúl Castro, and Camilo Cienfuegos. Those who survived were aided by people in the countryside. They regrouped in the Sierra Maestra in Oriente province and organized a column under Fidel Castro's command.

From their encampment in the Sierra Maestra mountains, the 26th of July Movement waged a guerrilla war against the Batista government. In the cities and major towns also, resistance groups were organizing until underground groups were everywhere. The strongest was in Santiago formed by Frank País.

In the summer of 1955, País’s organization merged with the 26th of July Movement of Castro. As Castro's movement gained popular support in the cities and countryside, it grew to over eight hundred men. In mid-1957 Castro gave Ernesto "Che" Guevara command of a second column. A journalist, Herbert Matthews from the New York Times, came to interview him in the Sierra Maestra, attracting interest to Castro's cause in the United States. The New York Times front page stories by Matthews presented Castro as a romantic and appealing revolutionary, bearded and dressed in rumpled fatigues. Castro and Matthews were followed by the TV crew of Andrew Saint George, said to be a CIA contact person. Through television, Castro's rudimentary command of the English language and charismatic presence enabled him to appeal directly to a U.S. audience.

Operation Verano

In May 1958, Batista launched Operation Verano aiming to crush Castro and other anti-government groups. It was called "la Ofensiva" by the rebels (Alarcón Ramírez,1997). Although on paper heavily outnumbered, Castro's guerrilla forces scored a series of victories, largely aided by mass desertions from Batista's army of poorly trained and uncommitted young conscripts. During the Battle of La Plata, Castro's forces defeated an entire battalion. While pro-Castro Cuban sources later emphasized the role of Castro's guerrilla forces in these battles, other groups and leaders were also involved, such as escopeteros (poorly-armed irregulars). During the Battle of Las Mercedes, Castro's small army came close to defeat but he managed to pull his troops out by opening up negotiations with General Cantillo while secretly slipping his soldiers out of a trap.

When Operation Verano ended, Castro ordered three columns commanded by Guevara, Jaime Vega and Camilo Cienfuegos to invade central Cuba where they were strongly supported by rebellious elements who had long been operating in the area. One of Castro's columns moved out onto the Cauto Plains. Here, they were supported by Huber Matos, Raúl Castro and others who were operating in the eastern-most part of the province. On the plains, Castro's forces first surrounded the town of Guisa in Granma Province and drove out their enemies, then proceeded to take most of the towns that had been taken by Calixto Garcia in the 1895-1898 Cuban War of Independence.

Battle of Yaguajay

In December 1958, the columns of "Che" Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos continued their advance through Las Villas province. They succeeded in occupying several towns, and then began preparations for an attack on Santa Clara, the provincial capital. Guevara's fighters launched a fierce assault on the Cuban army surrounding Santa Clara, and a vicious house-to-house battle ensued. They also derailed an armored train which Batista had sent to aid his troops in the city while Cienfuegos won the Battle of Yaguajay. Defeated on all sides, Batista's forces crumbled. The provincial capital was captured after less than a day of fighting on December 31, 1958.

After the loss of Santa Clara and expecting betrayal by his own army, Batista (accompanied by president-elect Andres Rivero Agüero) fled to the Dominican Republic in the early hours of January 1, 1959. They left behind a junta headed by Gen. Eulogio Cantillo, recently the commander in Oriente province, the center of the Castro revolt. The junta immediately selected Dr. Carlos Piedra, the oldest judge of the Supreme Court, as provisional President of Cuba as specified in the Constitution of 1940. Castro refused to accept the selection of Justice Piedra as provisional President and the Supreme Court refused to administer the oath of office to the Justice.

The rebel forces of Fidel Castro moved swiftly to seize power throughout the island. At the age of 32, Castro had successfully masterminded a classic guerrilla campaign from his headquarters in the Sierra Maestra and ousted Batista.

Assumption of power

On January 8, 1959, Castro's army rolled victoriously into Havana. As news of the fall of Batista's government spread through Havana, The New York Times described the scene as one of jubilant crowds pouring into the streets and automobile horns honking. The black and red flag of the 26th of July Movement waved on automobiles and buildings. The atmosphere was chaotic. Castro called a general strike in protest of the Piedra regime. He demanded that Dr. Urrutia, former judge of the Urgency Court of Santiago de Cuba, be installed as the provisional President instead. The Cane Planters Association of Cuba, speaking on behalf of the island's crucial sugar industry, issued a statement of support for Castro and his movement.

Law professor José Miró Cardona created a new government with himself as prime minister and Manuel Urrutia Lleó as president on January 5. The United States officially recognized the new government two days later. Castro himself arrived in Havana to cheering crowds and assumed the post of Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces on January 8.

In February Miró suddenly resigned and on February 16, 1959, Castro was sworn in as Prime Minister of Cuba.

Friction with the U.S. developed as the new government began expropriating property owned by major U.S. corporations (United Fruit in particular) and announced plans to base the compensation on the artificially low property valuations that the companies themselves had kept to a fraction of their true value so that their taxes would be negligible.

Between April 15th and 26th, Castro and a delegation of industrial and international representatives visited the U.S. as guests of the Press Club. Castro hired one of the best public relations firms in the United States for a charm offensive visit by Castro and his recently initiated government. Castro answered impertinent questions jokingly and ate hotdogs and hamburgers. His rumpled fatigues and scruffy beard cut a popular figure easily promoted as an authentic hero. He was refused a meeting with President Eisenhower. Rebuffed, he soon joined forces with the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev.
 


 

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