Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz was born on August 13, 1926, and is the current President of Cuba. He attended Catholic schools before graduating from the University of Havana with a degree in law. 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.
On the 26th of July in 1953, Fidel Castro launched an attack on the Moncada army barracks. It failed, and most involved were killed or captured. Fidel was captured and given a trial, which he used to make his famous speech, "History Will Absolve Me". Sentenced to 15 years, he was pardoned after just two. He then went into exile in Mexico, where he trained and assembled the 26th of July Movement. He gained support from Che Guevara and others before leaving aboard the Granma to invade Cuba in 1956.
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 hold 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. Ten days after the Revolution both Fidel Castro and Dwight D. Eisenhower issued a statement with a similar ring of conciliation. In Washington Eisenhower stated his earnest hope "that the people of that friendly country . . . so close to us in geography and sentiment," could "through freedom find peace stability, and progress."
The CIA director Allen Dulles, in testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, stated, "When you have a revolution, you kill your enemies. There were many instances of cruelty and oppression by the Cuban army, and they have the goods on some of those people. Now there probably will be a lot of justice. It will probably go much too far, but they have to go through this."
The era of good feelings lasted less than a week. Castro had become increasingly irritated by criticism of the trials, particularly in the American and Mexican press. The Bar Association in Mexico City had sent a strongly worded letter to the Cuban National College of Lawyers, protesting against the large number of executions. On January 15, Fidel Castro entered the lobby of the Havana Hilton. As usual he found a crowd of well wishers. Flattery accomplished more with Castro than with the President or the Cabinet. When guards tried to push back the crowd, he stopped them. "El pueblo! The people! Let the people see me. Let me talk with them." Then someone raised the question of the purge trials and the possibility of American intervention. Castro fumed. If the United States sent marines into Cuba, he said, 200,000 gringos would die.
At the time the Eisenhower administration had no intention of intervening and would soon send an ambassador to Havana who would seek to improve relations with the revolutionary government and with the rebel 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.
The Eisenhower administration initially welcomed Castro to power, but President Eisenhower snubbed Castro when he visited Washington in April, 1959. Castro met instead with Vice President Richard Nixon. Castro would never forgive the United States for treating him like a second-class leader of a third-world nation. In May 1960, Cuba and the Soviet Union resumed diplomatic relations, and Cuba began importing Soviet oil. When American-owned refineries in Cuba refused to refine the oil, Castro confiscated the facilities. In response to that and other nationalizations of U.S. properties in Cuba and to Castro's growing friendship with the Soviet Union, the United States placed an economic embargo on Cuba in October 1960. This was two years before the naval blockade of 1962.
Just before Eisenhower leaves office in January, 1961, the U.S. government breaks diplomatic relations with Havana. 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.