Fidel Castro Ruz, Cuba's enduring "maximum leader," held power for nearly 50 years, from 1959 until 2008. He led Cuba first as prime minister and later (from 1976) as president. He simultaneously served as first secretary of the Cuban Communist party and commander of the armed forces. His decisions were final on matters of domestic and foreign policy.
Castro was born on Aug. 13, 1926 (some sources give 1927), on a farm in Mayarí municipality in the province of Oriente. He attended good Catholic schools in Santiago de Cuba and Havana, where he took to the spartan regime at a Jesuit boarding school, Colegio de Belén. In 1945 he enrolled at the University of Havana, graduating in 1950 with a law degree. He married Mirta Díaz-Balart in 1948, but they were divorced in 1954. Their son, Fidel Castro Díaz-Balart, born in 1949, has served as head of Cuba's atomic energy commission. A member of the social-democratic Ortodoxo party in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Castro was an early and vocal opponent of the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. On July 26, 1953, Castro led an attack on the Moncada army barracks that failed but brought him national prominence. At the time, his political ideas were nationalist, anti-imperialist, and reformist; he was not a member of the Communist party.
Following the attack on Moncada, Castro was tried and sentenced to 15 years in prison but was amnestied in 1955. He then went into exile in Mexico, where he founded the 26th of July Movement, vowing to return to Cuba in order to fight against Batista. In December 1956 he and 81 others, including Che Guevara, returned to Cuba and made their way to the Sierra Maestra mountains, from which they launched a successful guerrilla war. Castro proved himself a strong leader; he also demonstrated shrewd political skills, convinced that he had a historic duty to change the character of Cuban society. Seeing his army collapse, and unable to count on the support of the United States, Batista fled on Jan. 1, 1959, paving the way for Castro's rise to power.
In its early phase, Castro's revolutionary regime included moderate politicians and democrats; gradually, however, its policies became radical and confrontational. Castro remained the unchallenged leader, and the masses, whose living conditions he improved, rallied behind him. Promises of elections were unfulfilled, foreign-owned properties confiscated, and opponents of the regime killed or driven into exile. Thousands of middle-class and professional Cubans left the island once it became clear that a Communist revolution was under way.
The U.S.-supported Bay of Pigs invasion failed (1961), and Castro was able to consolidate his power. In December 1961 he publicly declared that "I have been a Marxist-Leninist all along, and will remain one until I die." Cuba aligned itself with the Soviet Union, which granted it massive economic, technical, and military assistance until 1991. In 1962 the Cuban Missile Crisis dramatized the Cuban-Soviet alliance. In 1979 he was elected chair of the Nonaligned Nations Movement, a position that gained him some international prestige. Castro believed that he had a revolutionary duty to fight imperialism in the developing world; a caustic critic of U.S. foreign policy, he dispatched troops to assist Marxist regimes in Angola and Ethiopia.
With no rivals for power, Castro demanded the absolute loyalty of those around him. He was less than successful as an economic policymaker: Cuba remained a poor indebted country whose livelihood depended on sugar production and, more recently, tourism. He nonetheless held the system in place. He instituted modest free-market reforms (beginning in 1994) and sought new trading partners and sources of foreign exchange, markets, and technology. He continued these policies after winning a fifth term as president in March 1998. Castro secured a sixth term in March 2003, when he was once again the sole candidate. The world's longest-serving political leader, he outlasted nine U.S. presidents. But the elderly Castro grew increasingly frail. He temporarily relinquished power to his designated successor, his 75-year-old brother Raúl, on July 29, 2006. Since this was the first time he had ever done so, many believed that it marked the beginning of the end of the Castro era in Cuba.
As acting president Raúl Castro initially concentrated on preserving political stability. A year later, in his first Revolutionary Day speech, he acknowledged that state salaries were inadequate. He also declared that agriculture needed to be made more efficient, and that foreign investment would be welcomed.
Over the next 19 months, Fidel Castro did not appear in public or even leave his hospital, although some images of him receiving visitors were broadcast on Cuban television. Prompted by the imminent end of his current term in office, Castro announced on Feb. 19, 2008, that he would not seek or accept a renewed term as president. Five days later, the legislature formally elected his brother as president.
Juan M. del Aguila
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