Primer: Castro's Cuba

On Feb. 19, 2008, Fidel Castro resigned as Cuba's president, formally ending his 49-year rule, after temporarily ceding power to his brother, Raúl Castro, for health reasons 19 months earlier. The following primer offers an overview of the Caribbean nation that has been an island of Communist rule since Castro's rise to power in 1959.

Key Places

Design by Brian Cordyack and Daniel Chou,; Editing by Jefferson Morley and Amanda Zamora,


Fidel Castro has ruled Cuba with an iron fist since ousting dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959. His Communist government has built an egalitarian but poor society for the country's 11 million inhabitants while tolerating no public political opposition or independent media. An estimated one million Cubans live outside the country.

The economy is tightly controlled with most forms of private enterprise forbidden. Scarcity of basic foodstuffs and commodity goods is widespread, especially for those without access to U.S. dollars. Education and health care are free. Statistical measures of health and education are above average by regional standards. The economy has been growing in recent years, thanks to European tourism, cheap oil supplied by Venezuela, and discovery of nickel and oil deposits.

Cuba is a multiracial society with half the population having both Spanish and African roots. The largest organized religion is the Roman Catholic Church. Sects that combine native African religions and Roman Catholicism, are popular. Evangelical Protestant groups have grown in recent years. Since 1992, the constitution has recognized freedom of religious observance.

Cuba's relations with the United States are poor. The two governments do not have diplomatic relations and only very limited commercial relations due to a U.S. trade embargo which has been in effect since 1962. Cubans have limited opportunities to come to the United States, and the numbers of Americans visiting the island has declined in recent years as the Bush administration has tightened the ban on travel to the island.

--Jefferson Morley, Staff Writer

Frequently Asked Questions

» Who is Fidel Castro?

Fidel CastroAfter 47 years in power, Castro is one of the longest serving heads of state in the world. He orchestrated a national rebellion in Cuba from 1953 to 1959 that deposed military strongman Fulgencio Batista and brought a leftist government to power. Castro aligned Cuba with the Soviet Union and transformed the island into a one-party communist society. More on Fidel »

» What is the latest news on Castro's health?

On Feb. 27, 2007, Castro made his first live comments since his summer 2006 hospitalization, saying on Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's radio talk show that he felt "more energetic." Months before, Castro failed to appear for the start of a delayed celebration of his 80th birthday, set to coincide with the Dec. 2 anniversary of the revolution. Castro spent his Aug. 13 birthday recovering from surgery for intestinal bleeding. His health has visibly declined in recent years. In October 2004, Castro fell in public after making a speech, fracturing his left knee and right arm and raising questions about his condition. U.S. intelligence officials claim he is suffering from Parkinson's Disease, a claim Castro has dismissed. Latest headlines »

» Who are the key figures in Castro's government?

Raul CastroFidel's younger brother Raúl Castro, 75, has assumed powers of the presidency. He normally serves as defense minister and commander of Cuba's Revolutionary Armed Forces. Raúl Castro has a reputation as a Communist hardliner and played a leading role in implementing economic reforms in the early 1990s. More on Raúl »

Ricardo AlarconRicardo Alarcón, 67, is the president of the Cuban National Assembly. As the former Cuban ambassador to the United Nations, he is the most experienced Cuban official in dealing with the United States. He is the third-most-powerful figure in Castro's government after Fidel and his brother.

Felipe RoqueFelipe Pérez Roque, 41 , is the foreign minister and the youngest of senior Cuban officials. He spent seven years maintaining Castro's personal schedule.

Carlos Lage (not pictured), 54, is vice president and Cuba's top economic policymaker. He is credited with overseeing the renovation of Cuba's electrical grid.

» What is the succession plan in the event of Castro's death?

The Cuban constitution designates Raul Castro as Fidel's successor. As long-serving officials, Alarcón and Pérez Roque are expected to retain power and influence in economic and foreign policy.

» How are the Cuban people likely to react when Castro dies?

Castro, as the only leader most Cubans have ever known, is likely to be widely mourned when he passes. Some have predicted street protests or massive efforts to travel to Miami in the event of Castro's death, but many Cuba observers doubt this. Cuban security forces have effectively prevented street protests and thwarted independent political action in the past. The unanswered question is whether those dissatisfied with the Cuba's hobbled economy will feel emboldened by Castro's passing.

» What are Cuba's relations with the rest of Latin America?

Cuba has especially strong ties to Venezuela and Bolivia, where elected governments share Castro's vision of a Latin America independent of U.S.-backed capitalism. Cuban doctors and teachers working in these countries help solidify Cuba's popularity. Cuba's poor human rights record has drawn criticism from other Latin American countries, but most Latin nations also oppose the U.S. trade embargo on the island.

» What is the status of U.S.-Cuba relations?

Poor. The two countries have not had formal diplomatic relations since 1961. The United States trade embargo was imposed in 1962 and has been made more comprehensive over the years, though exceptions have been granted to some U.S. food suppliers. Contacts between the people of the two countries are severely limited. Most Cubans cannot obtain visas to leave legally. Most Americans are prohibited from traveling to Cuba. Even Cuban Americans can only visit relatives once every three years.

» What plans has the U.S. made for a post-Castro Cuba?

After Castro came to power, the United States pursued an unofficial policy of trying to assassinate him as part of its efforts to overthrow his government. In recent years, U.S. policy has stressed a desire for a democratic Cuba with an elected government and a market economy.

In 1996, the U.S. Congress passed legislation forbidding recognition of any post-Castro government that included Raul Castro. The act also mandates a host of conditions for U.S. recognition of Cuba, including disbanding of the current security forces, announcement of elections and compensation for Americans whose property was nationalized after 1959.

In 2003, President Bush created a Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba. The commission's reports in 2004 and 2006 provided detailed plans for U.S. assistance to a post-Castro government on the condition that it agree to the legalization of political parties, freeing of political prisoners, freedom of the press and implementation of free-market reforms.

Sources: Staff and wire reports, U.S. State Department,, United Nations Infonation; United Nations Development Programme; Miami Herald.

Web Resources

» Helms-Burton Act (PDF)
Legislation outlining official U.S. policy toward Cuba.

» Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba
Created by President Bush in October 2003 with the goal of planning for "Cuba transition from Stalinist rule to a free and open society."

» Granma
Online international edition of Cuba's state-run newspaper.

» CIA World Factbook
Country profile on Cuba.

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