Fidel Castro was born on 13 August 1926 in the south-eastern Oriente Province of Cuba. He was the son of a successful sugar planter. Castro studied law at the University of Havana. He intended to run in elections scheduled for 1952, but the government was overthrown by General Fulgencio Batista and the elections cancelled. Castro rejected democracy and declared himself in favour of armed revolution. In 1953, Castro and his brother Raúl led an unsuccessful rising against Batista and Castro was sentenced to 15 years in prison. He was released under an amnesty and fled to Mexico, where he was joined by an Argentinean Marxist Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara.
In 1956, Castro and Guevara landed in Cuba with a small band of insurgents, known as the ’26th of July Movement’, and began a guerrilla war against the government. In December 1958, Castro launched a full-scale attack and Batista was forced to flee. In February 1959, Castro was sworn in as prime minister of Cuba and announced the introduction of a Marxist-Leninist programme adapted to local requirements. Thousands of Cubans went into exile, mostly to the United States.
Antagonism grew with the US and the Americans imposed economic sanctions on Cuba in 1960. Relations reached crisis point with the CIA-sponsored Bay of Pigs invasion by Cuban exiles in April 1961, which failed. Castro then secretly allowed the Soviets to build sites for nuclear missiles in Cuba, leading to the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, when the US and the Soviet Union came very close to war.
Despite his dictatorial style of government and ruthless suppression of opposition, Castro remained popular in Cuba. Many Cubans benefited from the free education and healthcare programmes he introduced. Cuba received considerable economic support from the Soviet Union. In 1976, Cuba’s National Assembly elected Castro President.
Through the 1970s and 1980s Castro emerged as one of the leaders of the non-aligned nations, despite his obvious ties to the Soviet Union. However, the end of Soviet aid in 1991 led to a continued economic crisis in Cuba. Some foreign investment has been allowed, especially in tourism, and the money sent home by exiled Cubans is crucial. Castro stood down as President of Cuba in 2008 – passing the baton to his younger brother Raúl Castro.