President of Cuba, communist revolutionary, and implacable foe of U.S. foreign policy, Fidel Castro began his life on a sugar plantation in eastern Cuba. The son of wealthy, landowning Cubans, Castro attended several Catholic preparatory schools before entering the University of Havana in the late 1940s. Graduating with a doctorate in law in 1950, Castro's plans for a career in public service were cut short by General Fulgencio Batista's 1952 coup d'etat that returned the former dictator to power. Castro tried to challenge the legitimacy of the Batista regime in court, but his case was dismissed. Believing that the Batista government would only respond to force, the young revolutionary staged an attack against an army installation in Santiago de Cuba on July 26, 1953. After a two-year imprisonment for masterminding the scheme, Castro fled to Mexico where he organized a group of freedom-fighters.
Returning to Cuba late in 1956 with his brother, Raul, and their close associate, Ernesto "Che" Guevara, Castro established a base of operations in the Sierra Maestra Mountains of eastern Cuba. There he trained and indoctrinated soldiers in preparation for a guerilla campaign that reached its culmination in December 1958 when Batista was driven from Havana. Castro had seized the reins of power in Cuba but, despite his reputation as a left-wing nationalist, there was no indication at this early date that Castro was a communist who wanted to join the Soviet orbit. The Eisenhower administration greeted Castro's rise to power with cautious optimism, formally recognizing his government and hoping to utilize longstanding political, economic, and cultural connections with Cuba to ensure the continued presence of a dependable ally in Havana.
By the election of 1960, however, the White House had come to regard Castro as the most dangerous revolutionary in the Third World and authorized the CIA to make plans for his ouster. Not only had Castro begun to nationalize American businesses in Cuba, but his government had shown a willingness to foster good relations with the Soviet Union - a development that the Eisenhower administration regarded as unacceptable. The loss of millions of American investment dollars and the flood of anti-Castro refugees who were beginning to arrive in the United States made it difficult to avoid taking a position on the Castro regime. While JFK criticized Eisenhower for allowing a dangerous communist to come to power ninety miles from American shores, Nixon was compelled to defend the policies that he had publicly supported throughout his vice-presidency. Popular pressure to take a stand against Castro helped influence JFK's decision to authorize a CIA-sponsored invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs in April 1961. The Bay of Pigs invasion was an unequivocal disaster for President Kennedy, the CIA, and the Cuban refugees who took part in it. The insurgent rebels were crushed by forces loyal to Castro and the fiasco permanently poisoned relations between Washington and Havana. A year and a half later, Cuba again occupied American headlines when Kennedy announced that the Soviet Union had begun to install nuclear missiles on the island with Castro's permission. When JFK chose to blockade the island until the Soviet premier, Nikita Khrushchev, agreed to withdraw the missiles, the Cuban Missile Crisis helped confirm the popular American attitude that Castro was an international pariah who uniquely threatened the security of the United States. Despite the passage of more than four decades, Cuba continues to remain outside the scope of U.S. diplomatic relations and Fidel Castro continues to govern as its president.
Sources: Sebastian Balfour, Castro (New York: Longman Publishers, 1995), passim; Joseph M. Leonard, Castro and the Cuban Revolution (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999), passim; Robert E. Quirk, Fidel Castro (New York: Norton & Co., 1993), passim; "Newsmaker Profiles: Fidel Castro." Cable News Network. Internet on-line. Available From http://www.cnn.com/resources/newsmakers/world/namerica/castro.html; "Biography: Castro (Ruz), Fidel." Biography.com. Internet on-line. Available From http://search.biography.com/print_record.pl?id=4444.
Recommended citation: Eleanor Roosevelt, John Kennedy, and the Election of 1960: A Project of The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers, ed. by Allida Black, June Hopkins, John Sears, Christopher Alhambra, Mary Jo Binker, Christopher Brick, John S. Emrich, Eugenia Gusev, Kristen E. Gwinn, and Bryan D. Peery (Columbia, S.C.: Model Editions Partnership, 2003). Electronic version based on unpublished letters. .
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