In 1959, the world order was dramatically disrupted. On a small Caribbean island, a band of revolutionary guerrillas overthrew their military dictatorship and established a socialist government, right under the nose of the capitalist superpower, the United States.
Since leading the Cuban Revolution, Fidel Castro has become a worldwide symbol of communist revolution in Latin America, dressed in guerrilla fatigues with a Cuban cigar between his lips. Indeed, Castro oversaw a violent and immediate upheaval of Cuba’s society and economy for which he was both hated and cherished.
From revolution to retirement, here are 10 facts about the long-serving Cuban leader.
1. Fidel Castro was born on 13 August 1926
Born in Birán, a small town in eastern Cuba, Castro was the son of a wealthy Spanish sugarcane farmer. His mother, Lina, worked as a domestic servant for his father’s family and bore him out of wedlock along with his 6 siblings.
2. Castro studied law at the University of Havana
While studying, Castro became interested in leftist and anti-imperialist politics and joined the anti-corruption Orthodox Party. Castro soon signed up to be part of what was an aborted coup attempt against the Dominican Republic’s ruthless dictator, Rafael Trujillo.
After graduating in 1950 and opening a law practice, Castro also hoped to run for election to the Cuban House of Representatives only 2 years later. However, the election never happened. Cuba’s military dictator, Fulgencio Batista, seized power that March.
Castro responded by planning a popular uprising to depose Batista.
3. In July 1953, Castro led a failed attack on the Moncada army barracks in Santiago de Cuba
The assault failed. Castro was captured and sentenced to 15 years in prison while many of his men were killed. In memory of the Moncada attack, Castro renamed his group the ‘26th of July Movement’ (MR-26-7).
Batista, trying to counter his authoritarian image, released Castro in 1955 as part of a general amnesty. Now free, Castro travelled to Mexico where he met Argentine revolutionary Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara. Together, they planned a return to Cuba.
4. Castro was friends with iconic revolutionary Che Guevara
In November 1956, Castro and 81 others sailed aboard the Granma to the eastern coast of Cuba. They were immediately ambushed by government forces. Castro, with his brother Raúl and Che Guevara, hastily retreated to the Sierra Maestra Mountains with a few other survivors but almost no weapons or supplies.
5. Fidel Castro established the first communist state in the Western Hemisphere in 1959
In 1958, Batista tried to stop the guerrilla uprising with a massive offensive. Yet the guerrillas held their ground and launched a counterattack, managing to take control from Batista on 1 January 1959.
One week later, Castro arrived victorious in Havana to take over as Cuba’s prime minister. Meanwhile, revolutionary tribunals tried and executed members of the old regime for war crimes.
6. In 1960, Castro nationalised all US-owned businesses based in Cuba
Castro believed a country classed as socialist if its means of production were controlled by the state. The businesses he nationalised included oil refineries, factories and casinos (all high grossing industries). He did not offer compensation to the US owners.
7. Castro publicly declared himself a Marxist-Leninist in late 1961
At the time, Cuba allied more closely and depended more heavily on economic and military support from the USSR. Increasingly threatened by Castro’s alliance with the Soviets, Cuban exiles trained and funded by the CIA landed near the ‘Bay of Pigs’ in April 1961, hoping to overthrow Castro. Their plans ended in disaster, however, and those not killed were captured.
Castro freed them in 1962 in exchange for $52 million worth of medical supplies and baby food.
8. Cuba was radically transformed under Castro
From the moment he took control of Cuba, Castro implemented policies that abolished legal discrimination, brought electricity to the countryside, provided for full employment and advanced education and health care by building new schools and medical facilities. He also limited the amount of land one person could own.
However, Castro also closed publications that opposed his regime, jailed political opponents and did not hold regular elections.
9. Castro ruled Cuba for 47 years
As the father of the Cuban Revolution, Fidel Castro was leader of the small Caribbean island from 1959 to 2008. During this time, the US saw 10 presidents: Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
Officially, Castro held the title of premier until 1976 before a long term as president of the Council of State and the Council of Ministers.
10. Fidel Castro died on 25 November 2016, aged 90
His death was announced on Cuba’s state television and was confirmed by his brother Raúl. Castro had resigned in 2008 after undergoing serious intestinal surgery, handing control to Raúl, who became the first secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba (the country’s most senior political position).
Castro’s ashes were buried at Santa Ifigenia Cemetery in Santiago, Cuba.