Fidel Castro has died at age 90.
Whether or not you agreed with Fidel Castro’s politics, he had an impressive rise to power. Castro was responsible for establishing the first Communist state in the western hemisphere, beginning what would become a nearly five-decade reign as leader of Cuba, not far from US shores.
Castro was born Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz on August 13, 1926 in the small eastern village of Biran. His father was a wealthy sugarcane farmer; his mother worked as a maid to his father’s first wife.
Fidel’s father reportedly would not recognise him as his own son until Fidel turned 17, when his father ditched his first wife and married the maid.
Castro received a Roman Catholic education through high school. He later excelled as an athlete and went on to law school at the University of Havana, where he would find an interest in politics.
A more radical bent would soon emerge, when Castro joined an anti-corruption Orthodox Party movement in 1947 that tried and failed to overthrow Dominican Republic dictator, Rafael Trujillo.
Castro graduated college in 1950, and opened a law office. Two years later, he launched a bid for Cuba’s House of Representatives, but the election never happened. Cuban dictator, Fulgencio Batista squashed it after staging a coup and seizing power in March 1952.
From there, Castro would discard any further attempts at legitimate party politics, launching his own offensive with more than 100 men who stormed the Moncada army barracks in 1953. “From that moment on, I had a clear idea of the struggle ahead,” Castro said in a 2006 book, My Life: A Spoken Autobiography.
That attack failed, many of the men died, and Castro was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
Batista ordered Castro released from prison in 1955, after which, Castro ended up in Mexico, where he would plan another coup attempt. The next year, Castro, plus 81 men including Ernesto “Che” Guevara, and Fidel’s brother, Raul sailed to the eastern coast of Cuba. They were ambushed. The Castro brothers and Guevara fled into the country’s southeastern mountains.
Following a series of offensives between 1957 and 1959, Castro would seize control from Batista in January that year, and solidify his power grab in July.
Early on, Castro gained the support of many Cuban citizens with promises to restore political and civil liberties. But later, Castro began to take a more radical tone, nationalizing American businesses on the island, and further angering the US with an increasingly anti-American rhetoric, and aligning with the Soviet Union in a 1960 trade deal.
The US officially cut all diplomatic ties with Cuba in January 1961.
By April that year, the US government armed about 1,500 Cuban exiles to try and overthrow the regime at the Bay of Pigs. It failed. Cuba and the Soviet Union later strengthened their partnership.
In 1962, the Soviet Union began secretly placing ballistic missiles in Cuba that were capable of firing nuclear weapons into American cities. That ushered in the Cuban missile crisis. Both the US and Soviet Union later stood down when the former agreed to remove its missiles stationed in Turkey and the Soviet Union removed its weapons from Cuba.
Meanwhile, Castro instituted a one-party government, gaining control over all aspects of Cuban life. While that drove away many of Cuba’s upper and middle class citizens, Castro expanded the country’s social and educational services, free of charge, to all economic classes.
Castro’s economic power was further concentrated, but that didn’t bode well for the Cuban economy, which failed to gain momentum. The country became increasingly dependent on Soviet policies while, at the same time, enduring the squeeze of a United States trade embargo.
1976 — Cuba created the National Assembly, Castro became president of that body’s State Council.
1980s — Castro was recognised as one of the prime rulers of unaligned nations. And while the country still had strong ties to the Soviet Union, Castro regularly hinted his willingness to restore diplomatic ties with the US if the US ended the trade embargo.
The Castro regime later released some 125,000 immigrants to the US, which overwhelmed America’s immigration officials.
STANDING BY THE SOVIET UNION
Later in the 1980s, Castro held his ground on the strict tenets of Communism, even as Mikhail Gorbachev began employing democratic reforms that allowed some countries to break ties with the Soviet bloc.
1991 — in response to the Soviet Union’s collapse, and the loss of subsidies from the regime, Castro tried to stem his country’s subsequent economic decline by implementing some free-market policies. It was a tempered move; Castro still maintained tight control over life in Cuba.
1993 — the tide began to shift when Castro’s daughter, Alina Fernandez Revuelta, went to the US to seek asylum. She then publicly denounced her father and his regime’s policies.
The next year, Cuba saw its largest anti-Castro uprising in 35 years, leading to another large release of people — more than 30,000 — sent to the US on makeshift boats and rafts. It’s been called Cuba’s largest exodus since the “freedom flotilla” of 1980.
Cuba’s insular policies began to thaw a bit in 1998, when Pope John Paul II became the first pontiff to visit the nation. Pope Benedict would follow more than a decade later.
2003 — Castro was confirmed as president for another 5-year term. Now in the waning years of his rule, Castro oversaw several initiatives that led to a major crackdown on independent journalists, dissidents and activists, and a strengthening of ties with Venezuela. The Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas was birthed from that, in which Cuba sent health professionals to Venezuela in return for discounted oil.
2006 — Castro handed provisional control of Cuba to his brother, Raul, while Fidel reportedly recovered from a major intestinal surgery. That was the first time he surrendered control of his power in 47 years.
He would not return.
In 2008, when the National Assembly prepared to reconfirm Fidel as Cuba’s leader, he declined in a letter. At that point, he hadn’t been seen publicly for nearly two years. The letter was posted to the Communist Party’s website, Granma, in which Castro said, “I do not bid you farewell. My only wish is to fight as a soldier of ideas.”
Castro would make several more public appearances in 2010, but officially stepped down from the Communist Party of Cuba in 2011, leaving the younger Raul Castro to introduce possibly the most significant change in Cuba since the 1960s, reaching a deal with the Obama administration to reinstate diplomatic ties with the US.
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