Head of the Cuban Communist Party and leader of the Cuban revolution, Fidel Castro is one of the major world figures of the second half of the 20th century. One of the longest-lived heads of state in modern times, and one of the most controversial, Castro was born out of wedlock on August 13, 1926, a few kilometers south of the Bay of Nipe in then-Oriente province (present-day Holguin) in eastern Cuba. His father, Angel Castro y Argiz, was a Galician immigrant and owner of a large sugar estate; his mother, Lina Ruz Gonzalez, was a servant in Angel’s house and, after Fidel’s 17th birthday, Angel’s second wife. As an adult, Fidel grew estranged from his parents, maintaining close relations mainly with his younger brother Raul, who also became one of the revolution’s premier leaders.
Graduating from the Jesuit high school Belen in Havana in 1945, Castro entered the University of Havana the same year. In 1947 he joined the moderately reformist and anti-imperialist Orthodox Party (Partido Ortodoxo), led by Eduardo Chibas. In 1948 he traveled to Bogota, Colombia, for a student conference being held alongside the ninth meeting of the PanAmerican Union. There he witnessed and participated in the extraordinary events of the Bogotazo, in which liberal leader Jorge Gaitan was assassinated and Bogota erupted in massive street violence. The events are considered to have had a major impact on his thinking on the role of violence and popular insurrection in sparking social change.
Returning to Cuba, he married Mirta Diaz Balart, daughter of a wealthy Cuban family. He earned his law degree in 1950 and joined a small firm in Havana whose work focused mainly on the poor. Intensely interested in politics, he became a parliamentary candidate in 1952, only to see the elections cancelled following the coup by General Fulgencio Batista.
Determined to challenge the regime, he and his brother Raul plotted and carried out an assault on the Moncada barracks in eastern Cuba on July 26, 1953. The assault proved a military defeat but a political victory, with his four-hour “History will absolve me” speech at his October 1953 trial propelling him into national prominence. Imprisoned for less than 20 months of a 15-year sentence (released in May 1955 in a general amnesty), he went into exile in Mexico and began organizing his 26 July Movement, composed of Cuban exiles and other Latin Americans, including Ernesto “Che” Guevara.
Forming the nucleus of a guerrilla army, he and his followers returned clandestinely to eastern Cuba on December 2, 1956, where for the next two years they waged a guerrilla war against the Batista regime. Seizing power on January 1, 1959, he was still vague about his ideology, which by his public statements could be characterized as broadly nationalist and focused on issues of social justice. From 1959 to 1961 the revolution radicalized and became integral to the cold war. In December 1961 he announced, “I am a MarxistLeninist.” Since 1959 he was the undisputed leader of the Cuban revolution and government—revered by some, despised by others (especially the Miami-based cuban exile community)—and renowned for his volcanic energy, hours-long speeches, and hands-on leadership style. In early 2007 his death appeared imminent, but he remained in power until his resignation in February 2008.
- Gott, Richard. Cuba: A New History. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004;
- Thomas, Hugh. Cuba: The Pursuit of Freedom. New York: Harper & Row, 1971.