Skip to main contentAccess keys helpA-Z index
Latin America & Caribbean
Middle East
South Asia
Last updated: 02 August, 2006 - Published 14:06 GMT
Email a friend Printable version
Fidel Castro - the great survivor

Fidel and Raoul Castro
Fidel (left) handed temporary power to his brother Raoul (right) on Monday night.
Fidel Castro has run Cuba for so long that most of its people have known no other leader.

A thorn in Washington's side for much of his 47-year rule, the United States has tried hard to get rid of the world's longest-serving leader, but President Castro has outlasted nine American presidents.

He was born in 1926 to a wealthy, landowning family. A high academic achiever, he received a Jesuit education and was voted his school's best athlete in 1944. He graduated from Havana University as a lawyer in 1950.

But he rebelled against his privileged background, shocked by the contrast between his own comfortable lifestyle and the dire poverty around him.

Havana - an American playground

One issue that incensed the young radical was the influx of Americans who used Havana as a gambling and vice playground.

Poster in Cuba
A generation of Cubans have known no other leader.

He took up arms against the regime of President Fulgencio Batista in 1953. Aiming to spark a popular revolt, Mr Castro led more than 100 followers in a failed attack on the Moncada military barracks in the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba. Fidel and his brother Raul survived, but were imprisoned.

Amnestied after two years, Mr Castro continued to campaign against the Batista regime while in exile in Mexico, and established a guerrilla force known as the 26 July Movement.

His revolutionary ideals attracted support in Cuba and in 1959 his forces overthrew Batista, whose regime had become a byword for corruption, decadence and inequality.

Cuba's new rulers - who included the legendary Argentine revolutionary Che Guevara - promised to give the land back to the people and to defend the rights of the poor.

Fidel Castro insisted his ideology was primarily Cuban, but the expropriation of American property created tensions with Washington and he was snubbed by US President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

A cuban reads the official newspaper Gramma
Cuban media is state-controlled.

He claimed it was Washington's rejection that forced him into the arms of the Soviet Union and its leader, Nikita Khrushchev. Cuba became a Cold War battleground.

Bay of Pigs

In April 1961, the US attempted to topple the Castro government by recruiting a private army of Cuban exiles to invade the island. At the Bay of Pigs, Cuban troops repulsed the invaders, killing many and capturing 1,000.

In 1962, the Cuban missile crisis brought the world to the brink of nuclear war, and Fidel Castro became America's number one enemy. The CIA tried to assassinate him - more than 600 times, according to one Cuban minister.

One CIA scheme was getting him to smoke a cigar packed with explosives. Another was a plan to make his beard fall out and ridicule him.

A US economic embargo forced President Castro to rely on Russia for aid and trade.

He managed to put Cuba at the head of the newly emerging Non-Aligned Movement. Yet, in Africa especially, he took sides, sending his troops in to support Marxist guerrillas in Angola and Mozambique in the 1970s.

After the Soviet Union

The collapse of the Soviet Union hit President Castro's revolution hard and the economy suffered badly in the 1990s.

Woman in Miami
Miami is the home of Cuban exiles who have left the country over the last 47 years.

Chronic shortages of consumer goods and foodstuffs became the norm, and thousands of Cubans sought to escape to Florida by sea, in a crushing vote of no-confidence in their leader. Even his own daughter Alina Fernandez preferred a life of exile as a dissident in Miami.

President Castro has used US hostility as a reason to reject democratic reforms to his one-party state. But Cuba under his rule has made impressive social strides, with its universal free health and education systems the envy of the region and many much wealthier Western nations.

Fidel Castro became famous for his lengthy diatribes against American power and still retains his ability to rattle the US, which has recently become concerned about his close relations with oil-rich Venezuela, run by his great friend Hugo Chavez.

While some Cubans undoubtedly detest Castro, others genuinely love him. He is the David who stood up to the Goliath of America.

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites
Email a friend Printable version
^^ Back to top
  BBC News >> | BBC Sport >> | BBC Weather >> | BBC World Service >> | BBC Languages >>