Fidel Castro: Biography, Facts & Timeline

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Explore the life and work of revolutionary Cuban Fidel Castro and test your understanding of revolutionary movements, the Cold War, and Cuban history.

The Beard that Changed the World

Fidel Castro is the former Prime Minister (1959-1976) and President (1976-2008) of Cuba. He was a noted revolutionary during the Cold War, the period from the 1950s to 1989 when the USA and the USSR fought for the supremacy of capitalism vs. communism. This war was never fought in the United States or the Soviet Union, but in smaller nations like Cuba to set up capitalist or communist governments. Castro was a Leninist-Marxist, believing in anti-imperialism, the use of professional revolutionaries to run government, the elevation of the working class, and a very strong central government that controls industry and business. He was the first Marxist leader of Cuba, and along with fellow revolutionary Che Guevara, led the revolution that overthrew the capitalist government and created communist Cuba. And he has that great beard.

Fidel Castro: the Man with the Beard
Fidel Castro

Lessons of the Law

Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruiz was born in 1926 as the illegitimate son of a wealthy farmer. His early life was one of substantial privilege. In 1945, he entered the University of Havana to study law and quickly became a strong advocate of anti-imperialism, meaning he opposed strong nations taking control of other nations as colonies or controlling them economically. Castro officially joined the Cuban socialist party in 1947 and became infatuated with the idea of revolution, even trying to help overthrow the government of the Dominican Republic that same year.

Back in Cuba, Castro became a lawyer and opened a clinic for poor Cubans. He continued to protest against the capitalism of Cuba, which many felt was letting the United States turn Cuba into their playground, with casinos for rich Americans and high poverty for the Cuban people. In 1952, Cuba's former president, General Fulgencio Batista, seized control of the government and began persecuting socialists in Cuba. Castro tried to sue the government several times. Having failed at this, he started looking for new ways to change Cuba.

Viva la Revolución

In 1952 Castro formed an underground group to fight Batista. On July 23, 1953 he took 165 revolutionaries to attack the Moncada barracks of Batista's army. The attack failed, and many rebels were caught and executed. Others, including Castro, were arrested. Castro renamed his group of revolutionaries the '26th of July Movement' and formed a revolutionary school in prison. After being released, Castro and his followers continued protesting the government, sometimes violently. In an election that was probably rigged, Batista was re-elected president and soon began arresting dissenters. Fidel and his brother Raúl, along with many supporters, fled to Mexico. There, they met the Argentine revolutionary Ernesto 'Che' Guevara. Fidel and Che built up support in Mexico, and in November of 1956 they took 81 revolutionaries to Cuba on a small yacht called the 'Granma'.

The 'Granma' landed in Cuba on December 2, and the revolutionaries fled to the mountains. In January of 1957 they overtook the military outpost at La Plata, where they spared the lives of the soldiers but killed the overseer, whom local peasants despised. This built relations between Cuba's working poor and the revolutionaries. Throughout the revolution, the people of rural Cuba sheltered and fed Castro's troops. Later that year, Castro and his followers issued their 'Sierra Maestra Manifesto' to the government and people of Cuba, a document that demanded a new government, agrarian reform, industrialization, and multiparty elections. In the mountains, the men of Castro's group grew long beards. These beards came to represent membership in the revolutionary cause. Castro reached out to the world press to justify his cause and was even interviewed by the New York Times.

Fidel Castro in 1959
Fidel Castro 1959

Batista Government Falls

The revolutionaries used guerilla tactics, meaning ambushing and retreating quickly rather than all-out combat. By 1958, they had forced the government out of the Sierra Maestra mountains and surrounding towns, and controlled their own hospital, schools, printing press, and cigar-making factory. Batista lost a lot of support from the Cuban people as the economy failed, and the U.S. stopped providing his troops with weapons. Batista tried launching an all-out war against Castro, but his army had no experience fighting guerilla warfare, and many of them defected to Castro's forces. In December of 1958 Batista fled to the United States, and Castro soon entered Havana. By February of 1959 Castro was sworn in as Prime Minister of Cuba and instituted a socialist government. Fearing U.S. invasion, Castro began building relations with the Soviet Union.

Cuba and the Cold War

Cuba quickly became wrapped up in Cold War politics. In April of 1961, the United States launched a force of pro-U.S.A. Cubans who had fled when Castro took power to overthrow him. This attack was called the Bay of Pigs Invasion, after the place where the forces landed. The United States military was supposed to provide support but never arrived and the invasion failed, to the embarrassment of the USA.

U.S. Plan for the Bay of Pigs Invasion
Bay of Pigs

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