The Resilient Life of Fidel Castro

Here is the story of Fidel Castro, Cuba’s deeply controversial leader for 47 years and the man who stood defiantly against the west.

Feb 5, 2023By Greg Beyer, Assistant Editor; African History
the life of fidel castro
Fidel Castro in 1976, from Prensa Latina / Reuters, via NBC News

 

A resilient pillar of communist governance, Fidel Castro stood defiant against crippling sanctions, guiding his country of Cuba for 47 years. For some, he was considered a ruthless dictator, killing political opponents and suppressing free will in his country. To others, he was a liberator and a champion of the working class, promoting equality and equity. Because of these polarized opinions, he will always be a controversial leader. Nevertheless, he was an important figure who shaped his country and the world in the 20th and 21st centuries. Here is the story of Fidel Castro’s long life.

 

Fidel Castro’s Early Life

fidel castro young
Fidel Castro during his childhood, from OAH, via jonathanmhansen.com

 

Fidel Castro was born on August 13, 1926 on his father’s plantation near the town of Birán in the east of Cuba. His father was an immigrant worker who had fought in the Spanish-American War, and his mother was a servant who was also his father’s second wife. Fidel was one of six children, and at the age of six, he was sent to live with his teacher at a boarding school in Cuba’s second-largest city, Santiago de Cuba. He was baptized at the age of eight and subsequently was sent to a private school run by Jesuits.

 

Although interested in many subjects, he did not excel academically, and devoted much of his time to playing sports. In 1945, Castro began studying law and became politically active. He was passionately opposed to US foreign policy in the Caribbean and was harshly critical of the government of Cuba under the presidency of Ramón Grau. In 1946, he delivered a public speech, slating the president, and received much media attention, making front-page news in several newspapers.

 

In 1947, Fidel Castro joined and campaigned for the Party of the Cuban People (also called Ortodoxos), which came third in the subsequent election. The party was committed to exposing corruption, and Grau started to perceive Castro as a serious threat. Grau hired gang leaders as police officers, and student violence increased. Castro received death threats urging him to curb his political activities. In response, Castro started carrying a gun and surrounded himself with his own gangsters.

 

The Man Becomes a Revolutionary

fidel castro student
Fidel Castro during his days as a student, from OAH, via jonathanmhansen.com

Get the latest articles delivered to your inbox

Sign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter

 

In 1947, Fidel Castro joined an expedition to topple the right-wing government of Rafael Trujillo in the neighboring Dominican Republic. However, the expedition was called off, and Castro managed to evade arrest. Castro’s political role became more physical at this point. Taking a leading role in student protests, Castro was targeted and badly beaten by police. This did not stop Castro, and he continued his public speeches, which became progressively more leftist.

 

In 1948, Castro traveled to Colombia to take action against the conservative government, and upon his return, he participated in more protests in Cuba. In the same year, he married Mirta Diaz-Balart, a fellow student. She was from a wealthy family, and both her family and Castro’s family disapproved of the marriage. The marriage lasted until 1955, when they got divorced. Castro married again in 1980 to Dalia Soto del Valle.

 

fidel castro january 1959
Fidel Castro enters Havana on January 8, 1959, from Everett Collection Historical / Alamy Stock Photo, via History Today

 

Fidel Castro graduated in 1950 and went on to practice law. He stood as a candidate for the Party of the Cuban People for the 1952 elections, but this was interrupted by the coup led by Fulgencio Batista, which overthrew the government and canceled the elections. The Batista regime was resistant to legal methods to remove it, and Castro organized a rebel force of about 160 men to attack the military barracks in Santiago de Cuba. The attack, meant to spark an uprising, failed, and most of the rebel force was killed. He and his brother Raúl were arrested and imprisoned. After being released on amnesty in 1955, Fidel Castro went to Mexico and continued to campaign with other Cuban revolutionaries against the Batista government.

 

In 1956, Fidel Castro took part in a landing along with 80 others, including his brother and Che Guevara. The group was intercepted, and most of them were killed. The survivors (including Raúl and Che) fled to the mountains and waged a guerilla war against the Batista regime. Castro’s propaganda and Guevara’s leadership proved highly effective, and they won over incredible support. By January 1959, a small group of just 800 guerillas had caused such mayhem that Batista was forced to flee the country.

 

Fidel Castro as the Leader of Cuba

fidel castro bay pigs
Cuban exiles taken prisoner at the Bay of Pigs, via the BBC

 

Fidel Castro became head of the country’s armed forces, and after a few months, the interim president resigned, and Castro assumed control of the presidency. He won over much of the urban populace by promising to restore the 1940 constitution along with its civil liberties, but soon thereafter, he began a more hardline socialist approach to governance. Many industries were nationalized, and Castro implemented sweeping land reforms in which estates were appropriated.

 

These actions led to a destructive relationship with the United States, which would seek his removal for the rest of his life. Instead of good relations with the United States, Cuba improved relations with the Soviet Union. By 1961, the US had completely severed ties with Cuba, secretly arming thousands of Cuban exiles to overthrow the Castro government. The American attempt, however, was a dismal failure as the landing of the exiles at the Bay of Pigs was crushed by the Cuban army. The following year, after receiving military aid from the Soviet Union, ballistic missiles were placed in Cuba, which led to the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962.

 

fidel castro speech
Fidel Castro in 1960, from Sovfoto/UIG/Getty Images, via Time

 

Fidel Castro expanded social services, making healthcare and education free while guaranteeing employment for every Cuban. He enacted these reforms as a dictator, and political dissent was brutally dealt with, causing much consternation among the former upper and middle classes. Economic prosperity, however, was difficult to achieve. Cuba relied chiefly on its prime export of cane sugar, and survived with much aid from the Soviet Union.

 

Castro’s attempts to support revolution in the rest of Latin America were failures, especially in the face of pushback from the United States, which supported anti-communist governments with financial aid and arms. In Africa, however, Cuban forces found success, especially in Angola, where they fought alongside the communist People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola during the Angolan Civil War. They fought against other Angolans as well as the South African Defence Force, which was waging war against the communists in Angola and pro-independence forces in South West Africa.

 

fidel castro cubans angola
Cubans in Angola, via Penn Political Review

 

The end of the Soviet Union in 1991 hit Cuba hard, as Fidel Castro lost the financial support he needed to stave off economic hardship in Cuba. Castro was forced to implement economic reforms and opened the Cuban economy to limited and tightly-controlled capitalism. Two years later, he suffered a PR blow when his daughter fled to the United States and spoke out against her father’s rule. Social unrest gripped the country, and Castro relented by allowing Cuban citizens to leave the country. In a mass exodus, thousands of Cubans emigrated to the United States.

 

In the early 2000s, Fidel Castro developed a deep friendship with Venezuela’s president, Hugo Chavez, and the two countries supported each other morally and economically. Venezuela provided oil to Cuba, which in return supplied medical help to Venezuela. The relationship was successful, and the Cuban economy received a significant boost, allowing Castro to double the minimum wage and raise pensions.

 

In 2006, Fidel Castro handed the reins over to his brother, Raúl, and two years later, he announced that he would not accept another term as president of Cuba. In 2011, he stepped down as secretary-general of the Communist Party of Cuba.

 

The Final Years of Fidel Castro

fidel castro 2014
Fidel Castro in 2014 on his 89th birthday, from Cuba Debate/EPA, via The Guardian

 

After his retirement, Fidel Castro’s health deteriorated. Nevertheless, he still met with foreign dignitaries and was active in communicating with the Cuban people, including through a Twitter account.

 

Castro sought peaceful relations and resolutions throughout the world and was instrumental in helping Colombia end its decades-long civil war. He condemned US intervention in Libya and called for restraint between the United States and North Korea in 2013.

 

China awarded Castro the Confucius Peace Prize for his efforts to attain peace during this era. He welcomed a normalization of relations between Cuba and the United States under Barack Obama, but he was wary of US intentions and refused to meet with Obama during the US president’s visit to Cuba, citing that Cuba “has no need of gifts from the empire.”

 

On November 25, 2016, Fidel Castro passed away. The Cuban government did not disclose the cause of his death, and his body was cremated the next day. The funeral procession traveled from Havana to Santiago de Cuba, retracing the steps in reverse of the Cuban Revolution, which started with Fidel’s birth in Santiago de Cuba and ended with his victory in Havana.

 

castro death havana
Mourners gather in Havana after the death of their leader, from AP, via the BBC

 

Fidel Castro was a prominent personality during the latter half of the 20th century. For many, his life is celebrated as a success for left-wing politics, as Cuba remains a socialist country that outlasted the Soviet Union and still exists in defiance of crippling western sanctions. For others, Fidel Castro represents a brutal dictator with much blood on his hands. There is no denying that his legacy is of a political nature, and as such, it is warped by proponents and opponents of his political beliefs.

Author Image

By Greg BeyerAssistant Editor; African HistoryGreg is an editor specializing in African History and prolific author of over 100 articles, with a BA in History & Linguistics and a Journalism Diploma from the University of Cape Town. A former English teacher, he now excels in academic writing and pursues his passion for art through drawing and painting in his free time.