One of the most important and controversial political figures of the 20th century, Fidel Castro imposed divisive and often devastating Marxist ideology on his countrymen as leader of Cuba from his overthrow of General Fulgencio Batista in 1959 to his retirement in 2008. Born Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz at his father's farm in the village of Birán, Cuba, he was the son of sugar cane farmer Angel Castro y Argiz and his mistress, Lina Ruz Gonzalez, who was also his maid. Due to his family's wealth, he was able to study at several private Jesuit schools, where he showed considerable intellect but more interest in baseball than his classes. At 17, he was formally recognized by his father, who had divorced his first wife and married Gonzalez, and legally changed his surname to Castro. His political career was launched after his graduation from law school at the University of Havana in 1945; steeped in a growing atmosphere of Cuban nationalism and anti-imperialism, he soon put political speak into action and attempted his first coup in the Dominican Republic. The 1947 expedition, which sought to overthrown the country's ruler, Rafael Trujillo, was a failure, but he soon turned his attention to anti-government actions in Colombia. That same year, he joined the anti-communist party Partido Ortoxodo and became dedicated to unseating General Fulgencio Batista, who was fomenting a coup to take over the Cuban government. His concerns proved correct: Batista took over Cuba and canceled all upcoming elections, which thwarted Castro's plan to join the Cuban congress. He attempted to overthrow Bastita with a 1953 raid on military barracks, which led to his capture and a 15-year prison sentence. He was freed two years later due to an amnesty deal, and with his brother, Raul, traveled to Mexico, where he met Argentine revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara, who became one of his most trusted advisors. They returned to Cuba in 1956 and were immediately met by Batista's soldiers, who slaughtered most of their group; Castro and Guevara fled to the Sierra Maestra mountain range, where they launched a series of guerilla attacks against Batista while also building their own agrarian-based government. He finally succeeded in overthrowing Batista in 1959 and was sworn in as Cuba's prime minister that same year. Under his rule, Cuba's government adopted Communist policies and strove to distance itself from the United States by reducing payments to foreign companies and signing a trade agreement for oil with the Soviet Union. By 1961, the United States had broken off relations with Castro, and attempted to overthrow him in a disastrous attempted invasion that resulted in the death of hundreds of Cuban exiles trained by the Central Intelligence Agency. Tensions reached near-apocalyptic levels in 1962, when the Soviet Union began constructing a missile base in Cuba to defend the island against a future U.S. assault. President John F. Kennedy sent Navy warships to search any vessels headed for Cuba, leading to thirteen days of negotiations that held the world in breathless anticipation. The U.S. and Soviet Union agreed to withdraw their military presence from the area, leaving Castro to focus his efforts outside of the superpowers. For much of the 1960s and 1970s, Castro supported various efforts to overthrow imperialistic forces in Latin America, Asia and Africa. He also maintained an iron rule over his own people, providing them with new schools and universal health care while also crushing civil liberties and executing dissidents. Castro's regime underwent financial turmoil in the early '90s after the collapse of the Soviet Union; unemployment skyrocketed, spurring Castro to seek international investment and even reach out to the United States by legalizing the dollar and encouraging the thousands of Cubans who had fled to American to return and start businesses. Health problems plagued Castro in the new millennium, and eventually forced him to turn over control of Cuba to his brother, Raul in 2008. He remained active as an ambassador for visiting foreign leaders, including Pope Benedict in 2012, though he did not meet with President Barack Obama, the first U.S. commander-in-chief to visit Cuba in nearly a century. On November 25, 2016, Castro died at the age of 90, drawing nine days of mourning from Cuban residents, as well as celebrations around the globe from Cuban exiles.
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