WASHINGTON - Fidel Castro Ruz was born August 13, 1926, on a sugar plantation in eastern Cuba, the son of a Spanish immigrant landholder and a household servant. An intellectually gifted student, he attended Jesuit schools and later enrolled at the University of Havana where he received a law degree and also became active in politics. A powerful and charismatic speaker, he soon emerged as one of the leaders in the growing movement against the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista.
By the late 1950’s, Mr. Castro was leading a large guerrilla force based in Cuba’s Sierra Maestra Mountains, in the southeastern part of the country. Victory over Batista’s forces finally came in January 1959, and his victorious guerrillas, many of them bearded and wearing fatigues, marched into Havana.
His victory and triumphant entry into the Cuban capital captured the world’s attention. He soon steered the country toward communism - collectivizing farms and nationalizing banks and industries, including more than $1 billion worth of U.S. properties. Political liberties were suspended and government critics jailed.
Frank Calzon, a Cuban pro-democracy activist, says many of his one-time supporters became disillusioned and fled the island. “He is a man who made a lot of promises to the Cuban people. Cubans were going to have freedom. They were going to have honest government,” said Calzon. “They were going to have a return to the constitution,” said Calzon. “Instead, what he gave them was a Stalinist type of government.”
Mr. Castro fostered a close alliance with the Soviet Union, a policy that put Cuba on a collision course with the United States. Washington imposed a trade embargo against Cuba in 1960 and broke off diplomatic relations in early 1961.
In April of that year, the United States armed and directed a poorly-planned invasion by Cuban exiles, which was easily defeated at the Bay of Pigs. One year later, Cuba was at the center of a confrontation between Washington and Moscow over the placement of Soviet nuclear missiles on the island. A nuclear war was narrowly averted.
Following the Cuban missile crisis, Mr. Castro built up his armed forces and sent his troops around the globe to various Cold War hotspots, such as Angola. He also supported leftist guerrilla movements in Latin America in the 1960’s and 70’s in an attempt to spread communism in the hemisphere.
Former U.S. diplomat and Cuba expert Wayne Smith says Mr. Castro’s actions turned Cuba into an international player. “I think he will be remembered as the leader who put Cuba on the world map,” said Smith. “Before Castro, Cuba was considered something of a banana republic. It did not count for anything in world politics. Castro certainly changed all that, and suddenly Cuba was playing a major role on the world stage, in Africa as an ally of the Soviet Union, in Asia, and certainly in Latin America.”
At the same time, Mr. Castro established a health care and education system that lifted Cuba among the top nations in the developing world for high literacy rates and low infant mortality. These programs succeeded in large part because of financial support from Moscow. By the time the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990’s, Cuba had been receiving up to $6 billion a year in Soviet subsidies.
These achievements in social welfare came at the cost of human rights and democracy. Dissidents were thrown in jail and those who protested were often assaulted by pro-government mobs. “Fidel Castro kept power through fear, through the use of the secret police, through manipulating political forces, just like Stalin did or just like Hitler did,” said Calzon.
The disappearance of Soviet subsidies in the early 1990’s plunged Cuba into a deep depression and forced the government to enact some limited economic reforms, such as legalizing the use of the dollar and allowing tiny private businesses like restaurants to operate. But Mr. Castro resisted even these small steps toward a free market system and clamped down once the immediate economic crisis was over. He blamed Cuba’s economic troubles on the U.S. trade embargo and often presided over anti-American rallies in Havana to denounce the United States.
In his later years, Mr. Castro cultivated a strong friendship and alliance with Venezuela’s leftist president, Hugo Chavez. Together, the two men worked to counter U.S. influence in Latin America - and met some success in mobilizing anti-American sentiment in the hemisphere.
Another Cuba specialist, Thomas Paterson of the University of Connecticut, compares Mr. Castro to Chinese leader Mao Zedong, and believes he will be remembered this way.
“I think he will be remembered much as Mao Zedong is remembered in China as one who overthrew a corrupt, dictatorial system, who embodied the identity of his nation, who pushed out foreigners,” said Paterson. “At the same time, as is the case of the Chinese critique of Mao today, there will be a criticism of him as authoritarian, repressive and having imposed incredible sacrifices on the Cuban people.”