Cuban leader Fidel Castro (1926-) established the first communist state in the Western Hemisphere after overthrowing military dictator Batista in 1959. He ruled Cuba for nearly 50 years, until handing off power to his younger brother Raúl in 2008. During that time, Castro’s government was successful in reducing illiteracy, stamping out racism and improving public health care. His government is also widely criticized for greatly reducing economic and political freedoms. Castro’s Cuba also had a highly unfriendly relationship with the United States–most especially during the United States’ failed invasion of the island, called the Bay of Pigs. The two nations have no formal political relations, and the United States has enforced a trade embargo with Cuba since 1960.
Fidel Castro: Early Years
Castro was born on August 13, 1926, in Birán, a small town in eastern Cuba. His father was a wealthy Spanish sugarcane farmer who first came to the island during the Cuban War of Independence (1895-1898). His mother was a domestic servant for his father’s family. After attending a couple of Catholic schools Castro enrolled as a law student at the University of Havana. While there, he became interested in politics, joining the anti-corruption Orthodox Party and participating in an attempt to overthrow the dictator of the Dominican Republic. In 1950, Castro graduated from the University of Havana and opened a law office. Two years later, he ran for election to the Cuban House of Representatives. The election never happened. Batista seized power as a dictator. Castro responded by planning an uprising. “From that moment on, I had a clear idea of the struggle ahead,” he said in a 2006.
Castro’s Revolution Begins
In July 1953, Castro led about 120 men in an attack on army barracks. The attack failed. Castro was captured and sentenced to 15 years in prison, and many of his men were killed. The U.S.-backed Batista, trying to improve his reputation at a dictator, released Castro in 1955 as part of a general amnesty (forgiveness of a crime). Castro ended up in Mexico where he plotted his return.
The following year, Castro and a few his supporters returned to Cuba. By early 1957 they were attracting recruits and winning small battles against Rural Guard patrols. “We’d take out the men in front, attack the center, and then ambush the rear when it started retreating, in the terrain we’d chosen,” Castro said in his spoken autobiography. In 1958, Batista tried to snuff out the uprising with a massive military offensive. The Castro’s revolutionaries held their ground and wrested control from Batista on January 1, 1959. Castro arrived in Havana a week later and soon took over as prime minister. At the same time, revolutionary tribunals (military trial) began trying and executing members of the old government for alleged war crimes.
In 1960, Castro nationalized (gave ownership to the government) all U.S.-owned businesses, including oil refineries, factories and casinos. This prompted the United States to end diplomatic relations with Cuba and impose a trade embargo that still stands today. The United States worsened the hostility between the two countries in 1961. In April 1,400 CIA trained Cuban exiles landed near the Bay of Pigs with the intent of overthrowing Castro. The invasion was funded by the CIA and supported by the president. Their plans ended in disaster. Ultimately, more than 100 exiles were killed and nearly everyone else was captured. In December 1962, Castro freed them in exchange for medical supplies and baby food worth about $52 million.
Castro publicly declared himself a communist in late 1961. In coming years, millions of Cubans believed themselves to be trapped in an immense, open air prison. To try to leave the island without government permission became a criminal offense. Nonetheless a massive migration of Cubans was underway by 1960.
Although Castro promised democratic elections, none were ever held. The free press was silenced. Courts were now controlled by the state. Government ownership and confiscation of private property shifted wealth and power away from the people. State planning and government controls became ever-present in all aspects of economic life. For decades, Fidel relied heavily upon creating conditions of psychological bondage, where the highest social values are political conformity, loyalty to the system, the denial of individualism, and the rejection of critical or independent thought.
Cuba was becoming increasingly dependent on the Soviet Union (communist Russia) for economic and military support. In October 1962, the United States discovered that nuclear missiles had been stationed there, just 90 miles from Florida, setting off fears of a World War III. After a 13-day standoff, Soviet leader Khrushchev agreed to remove the nukes against the wishes of Castro, who was left out of the negotiations. In return, U.S. President Kennedy publicly consented not to reinvade Cuba and privately consented to take American nuclear weapons out of Turkey.
Cuban Life under Castro
After taking power, Castro abolished legal discrimination, brought electricity to the countryside, provided for full employment. He also advanced the causes of education and health care by building new schools and medical facilities. But, he also closed down newspapers that disagreed with his policies, jailed thousands of political opponents and did not allow elections. Moreover, he limited the amount of land a person could own, abolished private business and had total control over housing and consumer goods shortages. With political and economic options so limited, hundreds of thousands of Cubans, including vast numbers of professionals and technicians, left Cuba, often for the United States.
From the 1960s to the 1980s, Castro supplied military and financial aid to various pro-communist revolutionary movements in Latin America and Africa. Nonetheless, relations with many countries, with the notable exception of the United States, began to normalize. Cuba’s economy foundered when the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s and the United States expanded sanctions even further. Yet Castro, who by this time had switched his title from prime minister to president, found new trading partners and was able to cling to power until 2006, when he temporarily gave control of the government to Raúl after undergoing emergency intestinal surgery. Two years later, in 2008, he permanently resigned.