A Short Biography of Fidel Castro

Foto: Alexis Gainza Solenzal.

Issue 74,  April 7, 2006

*The following biography is being released since Fidel Castro's health has continued to deteriorate recently.

Officially, Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz was born August 13, 1926, on his family's sugar plantation near Biran, Oriente province in Cuba, but there is good reason to believe he was actually born one year later. His father was an immigrant from Galicia, Spain. Castro was educated in Catholic schools in Oriente and later in Havana.

One of his Jesuit teachers at Belen high school in Havana, Father Armando Llorente, describes Fidel as "motivated, proud, and different from the others. Fidel had a desire to distinguish himself primarily in sports, he liked to win regardless of effort; he was little interested in parties or socializing and seemed alienated from Cuban society."

At Belen Castro became influenced by fascist ideas. He admitted being impacted by the Falange, the Spanish variety of fascism and by its leader Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera. Castro also participated in Hispanidad, a movement that criticized Anglo Saxon material values and admired the moral values of Spanish and Spanish American culture.

In 1945 Castro entered Law School at the University of Havana, where student activism, violence, and gang conflicts were common. Protected by its autonomy, the university was a sanctuary for political agitators. Castro soon joined the activists and associated with one of the gangs, the Union Insurreccional Revolucionaria. Although he was implicated in the murder of a rival student leader, and in at least three other similar attempts, nothing was proved. He acquired a reputation for personal ambition, opportunism, and oratorical flair. Yet he never achieved his ambition to lead the student federation. On several occasions he was defeated in student elections, experiences that could help explain his subsequent antipathy for fair elections of any kind.

In 1947 Castro left the University temporarily to enroll in an attempt to overthrow Dominican Republic dictator Rafael L. Trujillo. He trained in military tactics on a small island off Cuba’s shores, although the expedition never materialized. In 1948 he participated in one of the most controversial episodes of his life, the Bogotazo – a series of riots in the Colombian capital following the assassination of Liberal Party leader Jorge E. Gaitan.

At the time, Argentine Dictator Juan D. Peron, who favored the establishment of an anti-imperialist Latin American Student Union under his control, encouraged four Cuban students, including Castro, to attend a student meeting in Bogota. The gathering was timed to coincide with the Ninth Inter-American Conference that Peron opposed, and which the Communists were also bent on disrupting. When Gaitan was assassinated, riots and chaos followed. Castro was caught up in the violence that rocked Bogota. Picking up a rifle from a police station, he roamed the streets inciting the populace to revolt and distributing anti-U.S. propaganda. One of his Cuban companions later said that it "was a hysteric, ambitious, and uncontrollable Fidel who acted in these events." Pursued by Colombian police, he and the other Cubans took refuge in the Cuban Embassy and were later flown back to Havana where Castro resumed his studies.

At the university, he was exposed to different ideologies. On the campus, more than anywhere else, the nation's problems were constantly debated. Theories of all sorts flourished. The authoritarian ideas of fascism and communism were widely discussed. But above all, the nationalistic program of Cuba's Partido Ortodoxo – economic independence, political liberty, social justice, and an end to corruption – captured the imagination of the students. The Ortodoxo party's charismatic leader, Eduardo Chibas, became their idol. Castro developed into a follower of Chibas, absorbing the latter's somewhat vague but puritanical ideology. He also married Mirta Diaz-Balart, a young philosophy student with whom he had one son. The marriage later broke up.

In 1950 Castro graduated and began practicing law in Havana. Law soon gave way to politics and revolutionary activities, however. He became a congressional candidate on the Ortodoxo party slate for the June 1952 elections, which, however, were never held. On March 10, 1952, Fulgencio Batista and a group of army conspirators overthrew President Carlos Prio's democratic regime and installed a military dictatorship.

For Castro violence seemed the only way to oppose it. He organized a group of followers and, on July 26, 1953, they attacked the Moncada military garrison in Oriente province. Castro was captured, tried, and sentenced to 15 years in prison. He defended himself in the trial, attacking Batista's regime and outlining his political and economic ideas, most of them within the mainstream of Cuba's political traditions. He cast himself as a follower of Jose Marti, Cuba’s independence hero and of Chibas and the Ortodoxo party’s ideology.

After being released by an amnesty in 1955, the untiring and determined Castro traveled to Mexico and began organizing followers in his 26th of July Movement to launch a rural insurgency to topple the Batista dictatorship. On December 2, 1956, with his brother Raul, and 80 men, he landed in Oriente province. After encounters with the army in which all but 12 of the expeditionaries were killed or captured, Castro fled to the Sierra Maestra mountains forming there a nucleus for a guerrilla operation. At the same time, urban opposition to the Batista regime increased. While Castro was in the mountains, an attack on the presidential palace on March 13, 1957 nearly succeeded in killing Batista. Castro criticized the attack, however, because he considered its leaders rivals. On April 9, 1958, his call for a national strike against the Batista dictatorship was a failure.

The government met terrorism with counter-terrorism. Political opponents were tortured and assassinated and most of the Cuban populace turned against Batista. Castro emerged as the undisputed leader of the anti-Batista opposition and his guerrillas extended their control over rural areas. Finally defections in the army precipitated the crumbling of the regime on December 31, 1958. Batista and his principal henchmen fled to the Dominican Republic.

On January 1, 1959 Castro and his July 26th Movement assumed power. He proclaimed a provisional government and held public trials and executions of "criminals" of the Batista regime. On February 15, Castro appointed his brother Raul commander of the rebel armyand later minister of the revolutionary armed forces in October.

Yet, Castro exerted an almost mystical hold over the Cuban masses. As Marti had done three quarters of a century earlier, and Chibas only a decade before, Castro lectured the Cubans on morality and public virtue. He emphasized his commitment to democracy and social reform, promising to hold free elections. Repeatedly denying that he was a Communist, he described his revolution as being humanistic and promised a nationalistic government, which would respect private property and Cuba's international obligations.

But, attempting to consolidate his support inside Cuba, Castro implemented sweeping reforms. First, he confiscated wealth "illegally" acquired by Batista's followers. Then, he substantially reduced rents, and in May 1959 passed an agrarian reform law that confiscated large holdings. Although the avowed purpose of this law was to develop a class of independent farmers, in reality the regime transformed the areas seized into cooperatives managed by a National Institute of Agrarian Reform. As time went by, cooperatives gave way to state farms, with most farmers becoming government employees.

Toward the end of 1959 a further radicalization of the revolution took place. This was accompanied by the defection or purge of revolutionary leaders and their replacement by more radical and oftentimes Communist militants. Castro, who had been publicly criticizing the United States from his first days in power, accused the Eisenhower administration of harboring aggressive designs against the revolution. In February 1960, Anastas Mikoyan, Deputy Premier of the Soviet Union, visited Havana and signed a Cuban-Soviet trade agreement, and soon after Cuba established diplomatic relations with the

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