Fidel Castro – a man, loved or loathed by millions of Cubans at home and abroad – is unquestionably one of the most influential figures in the history of Cuba. From his formative early years to his revolutionary military campaigns to his decades as president, Castro left an indelible mark on the island nation that will endure for decades to come.
Castro was born in 1926, the son of a wealthy Cuban sugarcane plantation owner. He was one of seven children his father had with his second wife, who was once his servant.
His political awakening came in college, as an interest in student activism led to opposition to U.S. intervention in the Caribbean. Castro’s involvement in leftist causes deepened in the late 1940s following violent clashes between authorities backing Cuba’s right-wing government and student demonstrators. During this period, he also discovered the writings of Karl Marx and other influential socialists and communists.
Following a failed law career, Castro’s revolutionary politics crystallized in the early 1950s with his opposition to the Batista regime. After several years of recruiting members and fighters, he led his first attacks on the government in 1953. Castro and many of his fellow rebels were soon caught and imprisoned. He remained in prison until 1955, when the Batista government released him to generate good publicity. He and others fled the country, where they planned further actions against the government.
Castro and other allied left-wing groups fought years of bloody revolutionary battles, ending in 1959 with Batista’s overthrow and exile. He was appointed Prime Minister that same year and began an aggressive campaign to reform the island. This involved seizing and nationalizing plantations and other key aspects of the Cuban economy, a move that drew ire from many Western nations, including the United States.
Castro consolidated his leadership over the following years, imprisoning and expelling political opponents and other undesirables. The now socialist country existed with the strong backing of the Soviet Union, which saw it as a key presence close to the United States. The island was the center of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, centered on Soviet missiles based on the island.
Castro remained in power through the 1960s and 1970s, despite economic troubles and international strains. He officially began serving as President of Cuba in 1976, during a period marked by multiple military interventions in Africa. Castro also made Cuba an influential player in South and Central America’s leftist politics.
Castro’s final decades ruling Cuba were defined by the transition from a Soviet-backed Cold War world to one of the 21st century. Following health issues in the 2000s, Castro stepped down in 2008, turning most government authority over to his brother Raúl. He continued to be a notable figure in Cuba, though he made fewer public appearances in the years following his retirement. Fidel Castro died in November 2016, aged 90.