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Fidel Castro

Dr. Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz (born August 13, 1926) has been the ruler of Cuba since he became Premier on February 16, 1959 and President of the Cuban Republic on December 3, 1976.

Fidel Castro and his supporters wave the Cuban flag

Born in Biran[?], Holguin[?], Cuba, into a wealthy farming family, he was educated at Jesuit schools and then the Jesuit preparatory school Colegio Belen in Havana. In 1945 he went to the University of Havana[?] to study law, graduating in 1950.

Castro practiced law in a small partnership between 1950 and 1952. He intended to stand for parliament in 1952 for the Ortodoxo Party but the coup d'Útat of General Fulgencio Batista overthrew the government of Carlos Prio Socarras and canceled the election. Castro charged Batista with violating the constitution in court but his petition was refused. In response Castro organized a disastrous armed attack on the Moncada Barracks in Oriente province on July 26, 1953. Over eighty of the attackers were killed, and Castro was taken prisoner, tried, and sentenced to fifteen years in prison. (Castro used the closing arguments in the case to deliver "History Will Absolve Me" (http://www.marxists.org/history/cuba/archive/castro/1953/10/16.htm), a passionate speech defending his actions and explaining his political views.) He was released in a general amnesty in May 1955 and went into exile in Mexico and the United States.

He returned to Cuba with a number of other exiles as the 26th of July Revolutionary Movement. The group's first action was in Oriente province on December 2, 1956. Only twelve of the original eighty men survived to retreat into the Sierra Maestra Mountains and from there wage a guerrilla war against the Batista government. The survivors included Che Guevara, Raul Castro, and Camilo Cienfuegos[?]. Castro's movement gained popular support and grew to over 800 men. On May 24, 1958, Batista launched seventeen battalions against Castro in Operaciˇn Veran. Despite being outnumbered, Castro's forces scored a series of stunning victories, aided by massive desertion and surrenders from Batista's army. On New Year's Day 1959 Batista fled the country, and Castro's forces took Havana.

Initially the United States was quick to recognize the new government. Castro assumed the position of prime minister in February but friction soon occurred when the new government began expropriating property owned by American companies (United Fruit in particular), paying little compensation. In February 1960, Cuba signed an agreement to buy oil from the USSR. The United States broke diplomatic relations with the Castro government soon after.

The United States then sponsored an unsuccessful attack on Cuba. On April 17, 1961, a force of about 1,400 Cuban exiles, financed and trained by the CIA, landed in the south at the Bay of Pigs. The CIA's assumption was that the invasion would spark a popular rising against Castro. There was no rising, and what part of the invasion force made it ashore was captured while President Kennedy withdrew support at the last minute. Nine were executed in connection with this action.

Castro as a young revolutionary

Pope John XXIII excommunicated Castro on January 3, 1962. This was consistent with a 1949 decree by Pope Pius XII forbidding catholics from supporting communist governments. For Castro, who had previously renounced catholicism, this was an event of very little consequence, nor was it expected to be. It was however aimed at undermining support for Castro among Catholics. There is little evidence that it did, however.

In October, 1962, the Cuban missile crisis occurred. After the tensions were defused, relations remained mutually hostile, and the CIA continued to sponsor a number of assassination schemes over the following years.

In 1976, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, then Prime Minister of Canada, made one of the first state visits to Havana, Cuba by a Western leader during the height of the American blockade and personally embraced the Cuban leader. Trudeau gave him a $4 million gift, and arranged a loan for another $10 million. In a speech delivered by Trudeau, he said "Long live Prime Minister and Commander-in-Chief Fidel Castro. Long live [the] Cuban-Canadian friendship."

Castro consolidated control of the nation by further nationalizing industry, confiscating property owned by non-Cubans, collectivizing agriculture, and enacting policies to benefit workers. Many Cubans fled the country, some to Miami, Florida, where they established a large, active anti-Castro community. Because of the harsh embargo imposed by the United States, Cuba became increasingly dependent on Soviet subsidies to finance large improvements in Cuba's social conditions. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990 brought real economic hardship to Cuba.

Education and health care were made available to all, even those living in the remotest corners of the island. UNESCO statistics confirm that Cuba's rate of basic literacy is now among the highest in Latin America. Forty-four years later even those critical of the country's communist authorities are proud of what their revolution has done for the country's children.

Few Cuban children live on the streets - unlike in many neighbouring countries. Infant mortality rates are the lowest in the region (and slightly lower that those in the United States), health care is excellent and all receive free milk until the age of six. The Cuban media often highlight the contrast between contented Cuban children and their counterparts in BogotÓ, Los Angeles or Buenos Aires - dealing in drugs, dragged into prostitution or living in shanty towns.

Castro's leadership of Cuba has remained largely unchallenged, his supporters claim this because the masses -- whose living conditions they believe he improved -- rallied behind him. Castro's opponents believe his continued leadership is due to coercion and repression.

Supporters of Fidel Castro's regime point to Cuba's relatively advanced healthcare and educational systems as a success of his government since it came to power in 1959. Much of the post-revolutionary rebuilding of the country focused on children. Cuban life expectancy as of 2002 is only slightly lower than the USA's.

Critics of Castro's regime, however, believe that these advances were made possible only because of generous subsidies from the former Soviet Union and that now these subsidies have gone Cuba's economy is now in serious trouble. Additionally, critics suggest that Cuba's communist economic system also have contributed to Cuba's economic problems.

Supporters, however, point out that Cuba is subject to harsh American-led economic sanctions which they claim is the main reason for Cuba's economic troubles.

Critics also point to Cuba's human rights record and point out that many opponents of Castro's regime are imprisoned. And they also point to censorship, the lack of press freedom in Cuba, the lack of civil rights and the inability for a vote to result in someone other than Castro leading Cuba. Supporters reply that Cuba's human rights record is significantly better than many other countries in the Caribbean/Latin America region.

Castro hugs then-President Jiang Zemin of China, in 2003.

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