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The constant revolutionary


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On February 19 Cuban leader Fidel Castro announced his resignation from the presidency, ending one of the longest and most controversial leaderships in recent political history. Castro was an instrumental player in many historically important events and has divided opinion worldwide with his methods and political legacy.fidel castro

On his resignation, we asked students what they thought of the Cuban leader and found a large absence of knowledge about his life and legacy.
The National Student features team set out to answer your most asked questions about Fidel Castro.

Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz was born on August 13, 1926 and was the President of Cuba and leader of the Communist Party of Cuba, holding power in the country between 1959 and 2008. In 1965 Castro became the First Secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba and over saw the transformation of Cuba into a one-party Socialist republic.

On July 31, 2006, after undergoing intestinal surgery from an undisclosed digestive illness, he transferred his responsibilities to the First Vice-President, his younger brother Ral Castro. On February 19, 2008, five days before his mandate expired, he announced he would neither seek nor accept a new term as either president or commander-in-chief.

How did Castro become involved in politics?
Castro's political life began while he studied law at the University of Havana. On starting at the university in 1945 he soon became embroiled in political activity on campus. At this time student politics reflected the volatile nature of politics in Cuba, with it being dominated by gang-like, fractious action groups often involved in violence to further their political causes.

In 1947, becoming increasingly interested in social justice, Castro joined the newly formed Partido Ortodoxo, created by Eduardo Chibs in response to government corruption and lack of reform. The group's primary aims were the establishment of a distinct national identity, economic independence and the implementation of social reforms - policies which would later shape Castro's presidency. Castro saw Chibs as his mentor and worked hard for him. In 1951, following a failed run for president Chibs shot himself in the stomach during a radio broadcast. Castro was present and accompanied him to the hospital where he died. His involvement with Chibs shaped Castro's political ideologies and political drive.

By 1950, Castro, having graduated with a law degree, was practicing law and had become well known for his passionately nationalistic views and intense opposition to the influence of the United States in Cuba. He had become a candidate for the Cuban parliament when General Fulgencio Batista led a coup d'tat in 1952, successfully overthrowing the government of President Carlos Pro Socarrs and canceling the election.

After trying to oppose Batista through legitimate political means Castro decided that the only way to depose him was through revolution.

How did Castro and the Communists come to power?
Fidel Castro and the Communist Party of Cuba came to power following a guerrilla invasion of the country in December 1956. Castro took part in the revolution which overthrew Fulgencio Batista as part of the 26th of July Movement alongside his brother Ral Castro, Camilo Cienfuegos, and the Argentinean revolutionary Che Guevara.

The Cuban Revolution also refers to the ongoing implementation of social and economic programs by the new government since the overthrow of the Batista government.

Following the revolution Castro and the Communists grabbed control of the nation by nationalizing industry, expropriating property owned by Cubans and non-Cubans alike, collectivising agriculture, and enacting policies which Castro claimed would benefit the economically dispossessed.

How has he managed to rule for so long without being deposed?
The point of legitimacy of Castro's time in power has been a hot topic of political debate. From the time of the revolution the Communist Party of Cuba moved through the process of making Cuba a one-party socialist republic, denouncing political opposition as 'counter-revolutionary' and against the best interests of the country. Opponents characterise Castro as a dictator, claiming that he has not risen to power through open, public elections, and some contend that his rule is illegitimate because the socialist system itself was not established through what they considered to be legal means.

Indeed there is evidence of violent suppression of political opposition in Cuba. Thousands of political opponents to the Castro regime have been killed, primarily during the first decade of his leadership. Some Cubans labeled "counter-revolutionaries", "fascists", or "CIA operatives" were also imprisoned in poor conditions without trial. Military Units to Aid Production, or UMAPs, were labour camps established in 1965 to confine "social deviants" including homosexuals and Jehovah's Witnesses to work "counter-revolutionary" influences out of certain segments of the population. The camps were closed in 1967 in response to international outcries.

Professor Marifeli Prez Stable, a Cuban immigrant and former Castro supporter has said that "There were thousands of executions, forty, fifty thousand political prisoners. The treatment of political prisoners, with what we today know about human rights and the international norms governing human rights... it is legitimate to raise questions about possible crimes against humanity in Cuba."

Castro acknowledged that Cuba holds political prisoners, but argued that Cuba is justified because these prisoners are not jailed because of their political beliefs, but have been convicted of "counter-revolutionary" crimes, including bombings. Castro portrayed opposition to the Cuban government as illegitimate, and the result of an ongoing conspiracy fostered by Cuban exiles with ties to the United States or the CIA.

Though changes to the Cuban Constitution of 1992 decriminalized the right to form political parties other than the Communist Party of Cuba, these parties are not permitted to engage in public political activities on the island.

Supporters of Castro portray him as a charismatic leader whose presidential authority has been acquired through legitimate elections, and many believe that his policies and reign in power have benefited the nation massively.

Has there ever been any opposition to his reign in Cuba?
Opposition to Castro's rule inside Cuba itself has largely been unofficial and illegal but outside the country groups in the United States and elsewhere have consistently opposed his rule through a variety of peaceful and violent means.

Most opposition comes from the Cuban-American exile community now residing in the US, in particular in Miami, Florida where historical ties with Cuba are the strongest.

The Cuban-American population are in part represented by the Cuban-American lobby which lobbies the US government to maintain the US trade embargo on Cuba and to push the Cuban government for change.

Anti-Castro groups have been linked to numerous acts of violence outside Cuba, many in South Florida. Bombings in the US began in the 1970s and carried on into the 1990s. Targets have included the Mexican Consulate in Miami, the Venezuelan Consulate, an American Airways Charter company which arranges flights to Cuba, and the Miami Cuban Museum of Art and Culture which was targeted after an auction of paintings by Cuban artists. In 1992 Human Rights Watch released a report stating that hard-line Miami exiles have created an environment in which 'moderation can be a dangerous position.'

The report also found significant responsibility by the US government at all levels.

The Cuban government alleges Miami-based exiles of organizing over 700 armed incursions against Cuba over the past 40 years such as Alpha 66's 1994 and 1995 machine-gun attacks on the Guitart Cayo Coco Hotel.

The most famous attempt to depose Castro was on April 17, 1961, when approximately 1,400 members of a CIA-trained Cuban exile force landed at the Bay of Pigs. The US publicly denied any involvement in the operation.

Documents released later show that US President Kennedy expected the Cubans to welcome the US invasion force with open arms, underestimating the support for Castro and the revolution. The Cuban armed forces repelled the invaders, killing many and capturing a thousand.

That December Castro announced Cuba's transition to Communism and the US started a trade embargo on the nation.

What has life been like in Cuba during this time, apparently the country has some of the highest literacy rates in the world, and so what has Castro done for Cuba and its people?
This is a point of much debate and some very conflicting viewpoints. Supporters and admirers of Castro's Cuba state that Cuba is a country built on the ideals of equality and the state works for the benefit of everyone. One of the great achievements according to supporters is the high-standard, universal health-care that Cubans can receive.

In 2006, BBC's Newsnight featured Cuba's healthcare system as part of a series identifying 'the world's best public services'.

The report said that, "Thanks chiefly to the American economic blockade, but partly also to the web of strange rules and regulations that constrict Cuban life, the economy is in a terrible mess: national income per head is minuscule, and resources are amazingly tight. Healthcare, however, is a top national priority." Cuba has one of the highest life expectancy rates in the world and a low child mortality rate.

Education in Cuba has also received universal praise. All education, at all levels, in the country is free of charge and state funded. In 2004 Cuba boasted a 100% literacy rate from both men and women.

Economically Cuba is in a poor state with much of the country living in poverty, but supporters highlight how well the state provides for the needs of its citizens.

Critics of Castro's regime state the majority of Cubans live in intense poverty, with no freedoms which are suppressed violently by the Castro regime. Dissident voices are often imprisoned and executed, as the government exacts total control. As mentioned earlier in this article Cuba's human rights record has been brought into question on numerous occasions. While Cuba is a signatory to the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights and its constitution protects the rights of Cuban citizens, treatment of those who oppose the government has caused alarm. Capital punishment is still commonplace in Cuba.

After the revolution religious freedoms were largely curtailed. For example, activities of Roman Catholics were restricted and Castro confiscated all property held by religious organisations. But in other areas Cuba has made some steps forwards. Since 1992 consensual sex between same-sex partners over the age of 16 has been legal, and although the government still does not recognise same-sex partnerships, Havana now has a vibrant gay scene. Women in Cuba have the same constitutional rights as men in all fields. Women currently hold 35% of the parliamentary seats in the Cuban National Assembly ranking sixth of 162 countries behind Rwanda, Sweden, Norway, Finland and Denmark on issues of female participation in political life.

On the subject of healthcare and education critics argue that the view that the outside world has of these services is manipulated by the state to create a positive impression. They say that the quality healthcare in Cuba is accessible only to tourists and foreign visitors, and normal Cubans are subjected to some of the worst and most squalid medical facilities in the world. They also claim that any figures coming out of Cuba on healthcare and education should not be believed as they are manipulated by the Cuban government.

What was Castro's relationship like with other world leaders?
Castro has famously had a strained relationship with Capitalist nations around the world, most famously the US. Castro has been a leading voice in denouncing their dominance of the American continent. The policies of US Presidents Dwight Eisenhower and John F Kennedy set Cuba and the US in conflict, a conflict that remains to this day.

However, in countries with similar political stances and anti-US policies Castro has been a welcome ally and respected politician.

Cuba's biggest ally came in the form of Soviet Russia, with them relying on Russian markets for trade and economic and military aid to help them ride the restrictions placed on them by the US. Castro's partnership with the USSR brought the world to the brink of nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, when Russian President Khrushchev conceived the idea of placing missiles in Cuba as a deterrent to a possible US invasion and justified the move in response to US missile deployment in Turkey. During the crisis in a personal letter to Khrushchev dated October 27, 1962, Castro urged Khrushchev to launch a nuclear first strike against the United States if Cuba were invaded, but Khrushchev rejected any first strike response.

Luckily a diplomatic solution was found to the crisis, and Russia removed their weapons from Cuban soil.

Castro has also had good relationships with other leaders around the world, often offering support to other socialist and revolutionary parties around the world, including the Marxist MPLA-ruled government against the South African-backed UNITA opposition forces in Angola in 1975, he supported the Sandinistas in overthrowing the Somoza government in Nicaragua in 1979.

Of Cuba's support in Africa, Nelson Mandela commented, "Cuban internationalists have done so much for African independence, freedom, and justice."

Castro has had an ever-changing relationship with countries in the Caribbean and South America depending which leaders were in power. In the poorer regions of South America and Africa Castro is seen as a hero, the leader of the Third World, and the enemy of the wealthy and greedy. On a visit to South Africa in 1998 he was warmly received by President Nelson Mandela. President Mandela gave Castro South Africa's highest civilian award for foreigners, the Order of Good Hope.

The president of Venezuela Hugo Chvez is a great admirer of Castro and Bolivian president Evo Morales called him the "Grandfather". In Harlem, he is seen as an icon because of his historic visit with Malcolm X in 1960 at the Hotel Theresa.

Castro has also had some close relations with the Canadian government and the European Union is currently Cuba's largest trading partner, with many European countries taking advantage of there being no US competitors in the Cuban market because of the embargo.

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