Castro Ruz, Fidel
(b. Biran, Cuba, 13 Aug. 1926)
Cuban; leader of anti-Batista rebellion 1953–9, Prime Minister 1959–76, President 1976–2008 The son of a Galician sugar planter in eastern Cuba, Castro progressed through Catholic schools to study law at Havana University in 1945, where his involvement in the politically confused and murky world of student politics included a 1947 attempt to overthrow the Dominican dictator Trujillo, and, in 1948, membership of the newly formed nationalist Ortodoxo Party, for which, in 1952 (after graduating in 1950, and entering a law practice specializing in poor people's cases), he became a congressional candidate.
When Batista's March coup prevented those elections, Castro and others attacked the Moncada barracks in Santiago, on 26 July 1953, hoping to galvanize resistance. Castro was arrested, tried, and sentenced to fifteen years on the Isle of Pines, where he organized what became the 26 July Movement, based on his own 1953 defence speech, ‘History will absolve me’. Released in 1955, Castro went to Mexico, where he met Ernesto Che Guevara, continued to organize the domestic resistance, and trained a small invasion force.
In December 1956, that invasion (near Manzanillo, Eastern Cuba) took place with eighty-two men on the yacht Granma, but was easily defeated, eighteen rebels surviving in the near by Sierra Maestra, where Castro set up his base and where he remained until late 1958, waging guerrilla war, propagandizing, radicalizing his ideas, and so polarizing Cuban opinion that, when Batista fled on 31 December, he was the sole credible power in Cuba.
This radicalization accelerated after 1959, as Castro, Prime Minister from February, responded to internal, popular, and external pressures, and to his own radical and nationalist agenda. This persuaded him first to break with a hostile United States, then adopt a series of unorthodox policies and, despite his 1961 declaration of Marxism-Leninism, to distance Cuba from his new allies, Moscow and the Cuban Communists, differing especially over economic and Latin American policy. Cuba's unique version of Communism throughout the 1960s was partly attributable to his ideas.
The 1970s, however, saw greater orthodoxy and institutionalization and a reduction in his power as Moscow sought to control its wayward ally, yet his hand was again evident in Cuba's policies in the Third World, designed to gain international leverage and leadership.
The late 1980s saw him return to centre-stage, responding to Gorbachev, the collapse of Communism, and the resulting economic crisis with a characteristic mix of ideological radicalism (post-1986 ‘rectification’ partly seeking to revive 1960s ideas) and open pragmatism in a post-Communist world. The visit of Pope John Paul II in 1998 showed his openness but a further crackdown on dissidents in 2003 resulted in censure from the UN Commission on Human Rights, restrictions on US Cubans remitting money to family in Cuba (an important support for Cuba's fragile economy), and the halting of an EU visit. As relations with Russia cooled (the last Russian base in Cuba closed in 2002), Castro developed stronger links with Hugo *Chavez in oil-rich Venezuela and with the Chinese government. Indeed, Castro's leadership and survival always depended on that mix of ideology and pragmatism, together with finely tuned political skills and a sense of global politics. In July 2006 he was admitted to hospital with gastric problems, and his brother, Raúl, became acting President. The details of his illness were shrouded in mystery and he failed to appear at celebrations for the 50th anniversary of his return from exile in 2006 or on May Day or Revolution Day in 2007. In February 2008 his formal retirement was announced and Raúl became President.