Fidel Castro, the illegitimate son of a successful Creole sugar plantation owner, was born in Cuba in 1926. He was a rebellious boy and at the age of thirteen helped to organize a strike of sugar workers on his father's plantation.
Both his parents were illiterate but they were determined that their children should receive a good education and Fidel was sent to a Jesuit boarding school. Although he disliked the strict discipline of the school, Fidel soon showed that he was extremely intelligent. However, except for history, he preferred sports to academic subjects. Fidel was good at running, soccer and baseball, and in 1944 was awarded the prize as Cuba's best all-round school athlete.
After he had finished his education Castro became a lawyer in Havana. As he tended to take the cases of poor people who could not afford to pay him, Castro was constantly short of money. Castro's experience as a lawyer made him extremely critical of the great inequalities in wealth that existed in Cuba. Like many other Cubans, Castro resented the wealth and power of the American businessmen who appeared to control the country.
In 1947 Castro joined the Cuban People's Party. He was attracted to this new party's campaign against corruption, injustice, poverty, unemployment and low wages. The Cuban People's Party accused government ministers of taking bribes and running the country for the benefit of the large United States corporations that had factories and offices in Cuba.
In 1952 Fidel Castro became a candidate for Congress for the Cuban People's Party. He was a superb public speaker and soon built up a strong following amongst the young members of the party. The Cuban People's Party was expected to win the election but during the campaign. General Fulgencio Batista, with the support of the armed forces, took control of the country.
Castro came to the conclusion that revolution was the only way that the Cuban People's Party would gain power. In 1953, Castro, with an armed group of 123 men and women, attacked the Moncada Army Barracks. The plan to overthrow Batista ended in disaster and although only eight were killed in the fighting, another eighty were murdered by the army after they were captured. Castro was lucky that the lieutenant who arrested him ignored orders to have him executed and instead delivered him to the nearest civilian prison.
Castro also came close to death in prison. Captain Pelletier was instructed to put poison in Castro's food. The man refused and instead revealed his orders to the Cuban people. Pelletier was court-martialed but, concerned about world opinion, Batista decided not to have Castro killed.
Castro was put on trial charged with organising an armed uprising. He used this opportunity to make a speech about the problems of Cuba and how they could be solved. His speech later became a book entitled History Will Absolve Me. Castro was found guilty and sentenced to fifteen years in prison. The trial and the publication of the book made Castro famous in Cuba. His attempted revolution had considerable support in the country. After all, the party he represented would probably have won the election in 1952 had it been allowed to take place. Following considerable pressure from the Cuban population, Fulgencio Batista decided to release Castro after he had served only two years of his sentence. Batista also promised elections but when it became clear that they would not take place, Castro left for Mexico where he began to plan another attempt to overthrow the Cuban government.
After building up a stock of guns and ammunition, Castro, Che Guevara, Juan Almeida, and eighty other rebels arrived in Cuba in 1956. This group became known as the July 26 Movement (the date that Castro had attacked the Moncada barracks). Their plan was to set up their base in the Sierra Maestra mountains. On the way to the mountains they were attacked by government troops. By the time they reached the Sierra Maestra there were only sixteen men left with twelve weapons between them. For the next few months Castro's guerrilla army raided isolated army garrisons and were gradually able to build-up their stock of weapons.
When the guerrillas took control of territory they redistributed the land amongst the peasants. In return, the peasants helped the guerrillas against Batista's soldiers. In some cases the peasants also joined Castro's army, as did students from the cities and occasionally Catholic priests.
In an effort to find out information about Castro's army people were pulled in for questioning. Many innocent people were tortured. Suspects, including children, were publicly executed and then left hanging in the streets for several days as a warning to others who were considering joining Castro. The behaviour of Batista's forces increased support for the guerrillas. In 1958 forty-five organizations signed an open letter supporting the July 26 Movement. National bodies representing lawyers, architects, dentists, accountants and social workers were amongst those who signed. Castro, who had originally relied on the support of the poor, was now gaining the backing of the influential middle classes.
Fulgencio Batista responded to this by sending more troops to the Sierra Maestra. He now had 10,000 men hunting for Castro and his 300-strong army. Although outnumbered, Castro's guerrillas were able to inflict defeat after defeat on the government's troops. In the summer of 1958 over a thousand of Batista's soldiers were killed or wounded and many more were captured. Unlike Batista's soldiers, Castro's troops had developed a reputation for behaving well towards prisoners. This encouraged Batista's troops to surrender to Castro when things went badly in battle. Complete military units began to join the guerrillas.
The United States supplied Batista with planes, ships and tanks, but the advantage of using the latest technology such as napalm failed to win them victory against the guerrillas. In March 1958, the United States government, disillusioned with Batista's performance, suggested he held elections. This he did, but the people showed their dissatisfaction with his government by refusing to vote. Over 75 per cent of the voters in the capital Havana boycotted the polls. In some areas, such as Santiago, it was as high as 98 per cent.
Castro was now confident he could beat Batista in a head-on battle. Leaving the Sierra Maestra mountains, Castro's troops began to march on the main towns. After consultations with the United States government, Batista decided to flee Cuba. Senior Generals left behind attempted to set up another military government. Castro's reaction was to call for a general strike. The workers came out on strike and the military were forced to accept the people's desire for change. Castro marched into Havana on January 9,1959, and became Cuba's new leader.
In its first hundred days in office Castro's government passed several new laws. Rents were cut by up to 50 per cent for low wage earners; property owned by Batista and his ministers was confiscated; the telephone company was nationalized and the rates were reduced by 50 per cent; land was redistributed amongst the peasants (including the land owned by the Castro family); separate facilities for blacks and whites (swimming pools, beaches, hotels, cemeteries etc.) were abolished.
Castro had strong views on morality. He considered that alcohol, drugs, gambling, homosexuality and prostitution were major evils. He saw the casinos and night-clubs as sources of temptation and corruption and he passed laws closing them down. Members of the Mafia, who had been heavily involved in running these places, were forced to leave the country.
Castro believed strongly in education. Before the revolution 23.6 per cent of the Cuban population were illiterate. In rural areas over half the population could not read or write and 61 per cent of the children did not go to school. Castro asked young students in the cities to travel to the countryside and teach the people to read and write. Cuba adopted the slogan: "If you don't know, learn. If you know, teach." Eventually free education was made available to all citizens and illiteracy in Cuba became a thing of the past.
The new Cuban government also set about the problem of health care. Before the revolution Cuba had 6,000 doctors. Of these, 64 per cent worked in Havana where most of the rich people lived. When Castro ordered that doctors had to be redistributed throughout the country, over half decided to leave Cuba. To replace them Cuba built three new training schools for doctors.
The death of young children from disease was a major problem in Cuba. Infant mortality was 60 per 1,000 live births in 1959. To help deal with this Cuba introduced a free health-service and started a massive inoculation program. By 1980 infant mortality had fallen to 15 per 1,000. This figure is now the best in the developing world and is in fact better than many areas of the United States.
It has been estimated that in his seven-year reign, Batista's regime had murdered over 20,000 Cubans. Those involved in the murders had not expected to lose power and had kept records, including photographs of the people they had tortured and murdered. Castro established public tribunals to try the people responsible and an estimated 600 people were executed. Although this pleased the relatives of the people murdered by Batista's government, these executions shocked world opinion.
Some of Castro's new laws also upset the United States. Much of the land given to the peasants was owned by United States corporations. So also was the telephone company that was nationalized. The United States government responded by telling Castro they would no longer be willing to supply the technology and technicians needed to run Cuba's economy. When this failed to change Castro's policies they reduced their orders for Cuban sugar.
Castro refused to be intimidated by the United States and adopted even more aggressive policies towards them. In the summer of 1960 Castro nationalized United States property worth $850 million. He also negotiated a deal where by the Soviet Union and other communist countries in Eastern Europe agreed to purchase the sugar that the United States had refused to take. The Soviet Union also agreed to supply the weapons, technicians and machinery denied to Cuba by the United States.
President Dwight Eisenhower was in a difficult situation. The more he attempted to punish Castro the closer he became to the Soviet Union. His main fear was that Cuba could eventually become a Soviet military base. To change course and attempt to win Castro's friendship with favourable trade deals was likely to be interpreted as a humiliating defeat for the United States. Instead Eisenhower announced that he would not buy any more sugar from Cuba.
In March I960, Eisenhower approved a CIA plan to overthrow Castro. The plan involved a budget of $13 million to train "a paramilitary force outside Cuba for guerrilla action." The strategy was organised by Richard Bissell and Richard Helms. An estimated 400 CIA officers were employed full-time to carry out what became known as Operation Mongoose. Edward Lansdale became project leader whereas William Harvey became head of what became known as Task Force W. The JM WAVE station served as operational headquarters for Operation Mongoose.
Sidney Gottlieb of the CIA Technical Services Division was asked to come up with proposals that would undermine Castro's popularity with the Cuban people. Plans included a scheme to spray a television studio in which he was about to appear with an hallucinogenic drug and contaminating his shoes with thallium which they believed would cause the hair in his beard to fall out.
These schemes were rejected and instead Bissell decided to arrange the assassination of Castro. In September 1960, Richard Bissell and Allen W. Dulles, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), initiated talks with two leading figures of the Mafia, Johnny Roselli and Sam Giancana. Later, other crime bosses such as Carlos Marcello, Santos Trafficante and Meyer Lansky became involved in this plot against Castro.
Robert Maheu, a veteran of CIA counter-espionage activities, was instructed to offer the Mafia $150,000 to kill Fidel Castro. The advantage of employing the Mafia for this work is that it provided CIA with a credible cover story. The Mafia were known to be angry with Castro for closing down their profitable brothels and casinos in Cuba. If the assassins were killed or captured the media would accept that the Mafia were working on their own.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation had to be brought into this plan as part of the deal involved protection against investigations against the Mafia in the United States. Castro was later to complain that there were twenty ClA-sponsered attempts on his life. Eventually Johnny Roselli and his friends became convinced that the Cuban revolution could not be reversed by simply removing its leader. However, they continued to play along with this CIA plot in order to prevent them being prosecuted for criminal offences committed in the United States.
In 1961 Eisenhower retired and the problem of dealing with Castro was passed on to the new president, John F. Kennedy. The new president continued with Eisenhower's policy of trying to assassinate Castro. This became known as Operation Freedom and was placed under the control of Robert Kennedy.
In the three years that followed the revolution, 250,000 Cubans out of a population of six million left the country. Most of these were from the upper and middle-classes who were financially worse off as a result of Castro's policies.
Of those who stayed, 90 per cent of the population, according to public opinion polls, supported Castro. However, Castro did not keep his promise of holding free elections. Castro claimed the national unity that had been created would be destroyed by the competing political parties in an election.
Castro was also becoming less tolerant towards people who disagreed with him. Ministers who questioned the wisdom of his policies were sacked and replaced by people who had proved their loyalty to him. These people were often young, inexperienced politicians who had fought with him in the Sierra Maestra.
Politicians who publicly disagreed with him faced the possibility of being arrested. Writers who expressed dissenting views and people he considered deviants such as homosexuals were also imprisoned.
When John F. Kennedy replaced Dwight Eisenhower as president of the United States he was told about the CIA plan to invade Cuba. Kennedy had doubts about the venture but he was afraid he would be seen as soft on communism if he refused permission for it to go ahead. Kennedy's advisers convinced him that Castro was an unpopular leader and that once the invasion started the Cuban people would support the ClA-trained forces.
On April 14, 1961, B-26 planes began bombing Cuba's airfields. After the raids Cuba was left with only eight planes and seven pilots. Two days later five merchant ships carrying 1,400 Cuban exiles arrived at the Bay of Pigs. The attack was a total failure. Two of the ships were sunk, including the ship that was carrying most of the supplies. Two of the planes that were attempting to give air-cover were also shot down. Within seventy-two hours all the invading troops had been killed, wounded or had surrendered.
At the beginning of September 1962, U-2 spy planes discovered that the Soviet Union was building surface-to-air missile (SAM) launch sites. There was also an increase in the number of Soviet ships arriving in Cuba which the United States government feared were carrying new supplies of weapons. President John Kennedy complained to the Soviet Union about these developments and warned them that the United States would not accept offensive weapons (SAMs were considered to be defensive) in Cuba.
As the Cubans now had SAM installations they were in a position to shoot down U-2 spy-planes. Kennedy was in a difficult situation. Elections were to take place for the United States Congress in two month's time. The public opinion polls showed that his own ratings had fallen to their lowest point since he became president.
In his first two years of office a combination of Republicans and conservative southern Democrats in Congress had blocked much of Kennedy's proposed legislation. The polls suggested that after the elections he would have even less support in Congress. Kennedy feared that any trouble over Cuba would lose the Democratic Party even more votes, as it would remind voters of the Bay of Pigs disaster where the CIA had tried to oust Castro from power. One poll showed that over 62 per cent of the population were unhappy with his policies on Cuba. Understandably, the Republicans attempted to make Cuba the main issue in the campaign.
This was probably in Kennedy's mind when he decided to restrict the flights of the U-2 planes over Cuba . Pilots were also told to avoid flying the whole length of the island. Kennedy hoped this would ensure that a U-2 plane would not be shot down, and would prevent Cuba becoming a major issue during the election campaign.
On September 27, a CIA agent in Cuba overheard Castro's personal pilot tell another man in a bar that Cuba now had nuclear weapons. U-2 spy-plane photographs also showed that unusual activity was taking place at San Cristobal. However, it was not until October 15 that photographs were taken that revealed that the Soviet Union was placing long range missiles in Cuba.
President Kennedy's first reaction to the information about the missiles in Cuba was to call a meeting to discuss what should be done. Fourteen men attended the meeting and included military leaders, experts on Latin America, representatives of the CIA, cabinet ministers and personal friends whose advice Kennedy valued. This group became known as the Executive Committee of the National Security Council. Over the next few days they were to meet several times.
At the first meeting of the Executive Committee of the National Security Council, the CIA and other military advisers explained the situation. After hearing what they had to say, the general feeling of the meeting was for an air-attack on the missile sites. Remembering the poor advice the CIA had provided before the Bay of Pigs invasion, John F. Kennedy decided to wait and instead called for another meeting to take place that evening. By this time several of the men were having doubts about the wisdom of a bombing raid, fearing that it would lead to a nuclear war with the Soviet Union. The committee was now so divided that a firm decision could not be made.
The Executive Committee of the National Security Council argued amongst themselves for the next two days. The CIA and the military were still in favour of a bombing raid and/or an invasion. However, the majority of the committee gradually began to favour a naval blockade of Cuba.
Kennedy accepted their decision and instructed Theodore Sorensen, a member of the committee, to write a speech in which Kennedy would explain to the world why it was necessary to impose a naval blockade of Cuba.
As well as imposing a naval blockade, Kennedy also told the air-force to prepare for attacks on Cuba and the Soviet Union. The army positioned 125,000 men in Florida and was told to wait for orders to invade Cuba. If the Soviet ships carrying weapons for Cuba did not turn back or refused to be searched, a war was likely to begin. Kennedy also promised his military advisers that if one of the U-2 spy planes were fired upon he would give orders for an attack on the Cuban SAM missile sites.
The world waited anxiously. A public opinion poll in the United States revealed that three out of five people expected fighting to break out between the two sides. There were angry demonstrations outside the American Embassy in London as people protested about the possibility of nuclear war. Demonstrations also took place in other cities in Europe. However, in the United States, polls suggested that the vast majority supported Kennedy's action.
On October 24, President John F. Kennedy was informed that Soviet ships had stopped just before they reached the United States ships blockading Cuba. That evening Nikita Khrushchev sent an angry note to Kennedy accusing him of creating a crisis to help the Democratic Party win the forthcoming election.
On October 26, Khrushchev sent Kennedy another letter. In this he proposed that the Soviet Union would be willing to remove the missiles in Cuba in exchange for a promise by the United States that they would not invade Cuba. The next day a second letter from Khrushchev arrived demanding that the United States remove their nuclear bases in Turkey.
While the president and his advisers were analyzing Khrushchev's two letters, news came through that a U-2 plane had been shot down over Cuba. The leaders of the military, reminding Kennedy of the promise he had made, argued that he should now give orders for the bombing of Cuba. Kennedy refused and instead sent a letter to Khrushchev accepting the terms of his first letter.
Khrushchev agreed and gave orders for the missiles to be dismantled. Eight days later the elections for Congress took place. The Democrats increased their majority and it was estimated that Kennedy would now have an extra twelve supporters in Congress for his policies.
The Cuban Missile Crisis was the first and only nuclear confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union. The event appeared to frighten both sides and it marked a change in the development of the Cold War.
Castro remained dependent on the support of the Soviet Union. Nikita Khrushchev was ousted from power on 15th October, 1964, but his successors, including Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov, Konstantin Chernenko and Mikhail Gorbachev provided aid to his government. However, after the fall of communism in the Soviet Union in 1989 this economic help came to an end.
In 1991 Cuba suffered an economic crisis. Its outdated and unrepaired equipment meant that sugar and tobacco production fell. At the same time Cuba could no longer rely on former countries in Eastern Europe to buy its goods. Castro suffered great embarrassment when his own daughter sough asylum in the United States in 1994.
In 2005, the CIA reported that Fidel Castro was suffering from Parkinson's disease. Other rumours suggested that he had terminal cancer. The following year he underwent intestinal surgery and on 31st July, 2006, he transferred his political responsibilities to his younger brother Raúl Castro.
On 19th February, 2008, Fidel Castro announced he would neither seek nor accept a new term as either president or commander-in-chief of Cuba.