Fidel Castro, the former dictator of Cuba, died this past weekend at the age of 90. Here are five facts you should know about the long-ruling Marxist despot.
1. Castro was baptized a Catholic at the age of 8 and attended several Jesuit-run boarding schools. After graduation in the mid-1940s Castro began studying law at the Havana University, where he became politically active in socialist and nationalist causes, in particular opposition to U.S. involvement in the Caribbean. By the end of the decade he became interested in the writings of Marx and Lenin and the cause of revolutionary socialism.
2. During his law school days Castro began to adopt the practice of revolutionary political violence. In 1947 he journeyed to the Dominican Republic to participate in a failed attempt to overthrow of the country’s dictator, Rafael Trujillo. That same year Castro was also accused of instigating an assassination attempt on Cuba’s president, Ramón Grau. When in 1952 General Fulgencio Batista seized power, Castro began making plans to overthrow him too. Castro’s use of political violence continued even after he seized power. The Cuba Archive project has documented almost 10,000 victims of Castro between 1952 and today, including 5,600 men, women, and children who died in front of firing squads and another 1,200 in “extrajudicial assassinations.” Thousands more Cubans also died trying to flee his repressive regime.
3. In 1962, while still declaring his country to be merely a socialist state, Castro worked with Nikita Khrushchev, the leader of the Soviet Union, on a plan to install Soviet nuclear weapons on Cuban soil. When aerial reconnaissance detected them it sparked the 13-day (October 16 to 28) confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union known as the Cuban Missile Crisis. Castro wanted Khrushchev to threaten to use nuclear weapons if the United States attacked Cuba, but the Soviet leader refused and ultimately conceded to U.S. demands to remove all the missiles from the island nation.
4. Before Castro’s reign, notes the Financial Post, Cuba had an economy that grew throughout the 1950s with rising industrial and agricultural wages comparable to those in Europe. The country also enjoyed Latin America’s highest per capita consumption of meats, fruits and vegetables and had the high levels of ownership of cars, telephones, and radios. After Castro took power, though, the country’s wealth and living standards declined considerably. In 1959, when Castro took power, GDP per capita for Cuba was some $2,067 a year. Forty years later it had only risen to $2,307 (1999). When Castro turned over power to his brother in 2008 the rate was $5,382. (In comparison, the U.S. GDP per capita in 1960 was $3,000, $34,620 in 1999, and $48,401 in 2008.) Today, the market economy in Cuba is extremely limited and almost three-fourths of all Cubans (74 percent) work for the state.
5. Under Castro’s rule, the Cuban people faced several restrictions and violations of human rights. According to Human Rights Watch, Cuban citizens have been systematically deprived of their fundamental rights to free expression, privacy, association, assembly, movement, and due process of law. Religious freedom, in particular, was curtailed beginning in the 1960s. In 1976 the Constitution of Cuba added a clause making the country officially atheist and stating that it was “punishable by law to oppose one’s faith or religious belief to the Revolution.” Since 1992, restrictions have been eased, but the latest report by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom notes: “[R]eligious freedom conditions in Cuba deteriorated due to increased government actions and threats to close, demolish, or confiscate church properties. In addition, the Cuban government continues to harass religious leaders and laity, interfere in religious groups’ internal affairs, and prevent democracy and human rights activists from participating in religious activities.”