Revolutionary Hero, or Tyrant?
Born in 1926, Fidel Castro was the son of an immigrant landowner from Spain, who owned large estates on the eastern part of the island. As a youth, Mr. Castro attended Jesuit schools and then later enrolled in the University of Havana, where he received a law degree and later became involved in politics. A powerful and charismatic speaker, he soon emerged as a leader in the growing movement against dictator Fulgencio Batista. In 1953, a year after Batista seized power in a bloodless coup, Mr. Castro led an unsuccessful attack to seize the Moncado military barracks in Santiago de Cuba, the island's second largest city. A number of his men were killed and many others captured, including himself. After being released in 1955, Mr. Castro began organizing another effort to overthrow the Batista dictatorship. This time he was more successful. By the late 1950s, he was leading a large guerrila force based in Cuba's Sierra Maest mountains. Victory finally came in January 1959, and a triumphant guerrilla army, many of them bearded and wearing fatigues, marched into Havana. After seizing power, the new Cuban government began making major changes, collectivizing farms and nationalizing banks and industries, incluing more than $1 billion of US properties. Political liberties were suspended, and critics jailed. In taking these actions, Mr. Castro finally acknowledged what had become increasingly obvious: He was a Marxist, and intended to set up a communist state in Cuba. Cuba's new leader also made sure he would keep a tight rein on power, according to Cuba expert, Thomas Patterson:
From the very beginning he has tried to keep power and authority within his own hands. It's very much his revolution in that sense, and we speak of the Castro Revolution, not the Cuban Revolution.
Mr. Castro's policies put him on a collision course with the United States. Washington broks off diplomatic relations with Havana, and imposed a trade embargo. Then, in 1961, the US armed and directed a poorly conceived invasion of Cuba, which was easily defeated at the Bay of Pigs. Another confrontation developed in 1962, when the United States discovered Soviet nuclear missiles had been installed on the island. Moscow withdrew its missiles after the US naval forces set up a blockade of the island, thereby ending the most dangerous confrontation of the Cold War.
Following the Cuban Missile Crisis, Mr. Castro built up his armed forces to be among the most powerful in Latin America. Sometimes acting as a Soviet proxy, Mr. Castro sent his forces around the globe to support the spread of communism. Also in the 1960s and 1970s, he supported leftist guerilla movements in Latin America. At the same time, he established health care and education systems that helped put Cuba at the top of the developing world in literacy and reduced infant mortality. These programs succeeded in part because of financial support from Moscow. By the time the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Cuba had been receiving up to $6 billion in Soviet subsidies. The disappearance of these subsidies devastated the Cuban economy, forcing the Cuban government to undertake some reforms, such as allowing limited private sector activities, legalizing the use of the dollar, and seeking foreign investment. Even these limited activities, however, were resisted by Mr. Castro.
Mr. Castro's brand of socialism proved unworkable. By the end of the 1990s, only Cubans with dollars could buy good food, medicines, and other necessities. Mr. Castro blamed the situation on the US embargo, and while many Cubans agreed with him, they also blamed communism for many of the countries economic problems. Mr. Castro never ceased his opposition to capitalism, or to the way that the world had changed in response to the collapse of the Soviet Union and Eastern European communism. At the time of his death, Mr. Castro had held power for longer than any leader in Latin America.