Widely hailed as a liberator, Castro proved to be a charismatic leader who was often ruthless when politically challenged. He proceeded to collectivize agriculture and to expropriate native- and foreign-owned industry. He instituted sweeping reforms in favor of the poor, disenfranchising the propertied classes, many of whom fled. In Dec., 1961, he declared himself to be a Marxist-Leninist and veered the revolution toward the Soviet Union and the socialist block, though his regime was and remained more of a personal dictatorship than a collective Communist one. Tensions with the United States steadily grew. In 1961, the United States organized an invasion of Cuban exiles at the Bay of Pigs (see Bay of Pigs Invasion). A year later, the world came to the brink of nuclear war when the Soviet Union placed nuclear weapons capable of reaching the United States on the island (see Cuban Missile Crisis). The crisis was defused following negotiations between the superpowers and the removal of the missiles. For Castro, it was a humiliating, though temporary, defeat.
Castro's goal of extending the Cuban revolution to other Latin American countries suffered a setback with the capture and death (1967) of “Che” Guevara in Bolivia. The Cuban revolution nonetheless remained influential, both in Latin America and the developing world. Pro-Castro groups appeared throughout Latin America, and the Sandinista revolution triumphed in Nicaragua in 1979. Later, Castro inspired Hugo Chávez, who became president of Venezuela in 1999. From 1975 to 1989, he also sent troops to support the socialist government of Angola.
Castro's government improved health care and education, but it also was politically repressive and economically dependent on the Soviet Union, and many Cubans continued to live in poverty. The Cuban economy came to depend on the sugar crop and billions of dollars in Soviet aid, although Castro maintained political independence from the Soviet Union. In 1980, Castro opened the port of Mariél and encouraged dissidents (and criminals) to leave. Tens of thousands of Cubans left for the U.S. mainland on makeshift rafts and boats; most were granted political asylum by the United States.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Cuba entered a crisis period. Popular unrest grew in the face of extreme austerity measures. In desperate need of foreign capital, the regime opened Cuba somewhat to foreign investment, promoted tourism, and took other measures to ease the crisis, while clamping down on dissent. In mid-2006, Castro underwent surgery and stepped aside as president and party leader temporarily; his brother Raúl
See his memoirs (2 vol., 2012, in Spanish); his
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