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Fidel Castro

Fidel Castro (left) makes a point during the Cuba's 6th Party Congress session in 2011; his brother Raul looks on.

Sven Creutzmann/Mambo Photo/Getty Images

Fidel Castro ruled Cuba with an iron fist from the time he was swept into power during the 1959 Cuban Revolution until 2008, when he resigned as president due to ill health.

Although he is reviled by many of his countrymen for bringing communism to Cuba, he retained favor with most of Cuba's poor for his social reforms and his magnetic personality [sources: Bream, McKinley, Jr.].

When Castro came into power, Cuba was a young country, having obtained independence from its Spanish colonizers in 1898 [source: Bream]. Castro overthrew dictator Fulgencia Batista with military force to win leadership of the island, promising to hold elections and restore the Cuban constitution. Citizens enthusiastically supported him. But Castro reneged on those promises and brought strict communism to Cuba, allying the country with the Soviet Union and becoming bitter enemies with the U.S. Although the Soviet Union supported Cuba during its existence, the Cuban economy has always been dismal. There's little industry in the nation, and today, with the Soviet Union no longer in existence, Cuba runs mainly on the money coming in from tourism and remittances from exiles [sources: Bream, McKinley, Jr.].

Amazingly, no matter what happened over the years, Castro's support remained strong at home. Cubans were proud that he didn't kowtow to the powerful United States or submit to the allure of its popular culture, as so many countries did. Quite the contrary: Castro blamed the U.S. for most, if not all, of Cuba's economic woes. To his credit, Castro established free health care, reduced racism and provided free education for all through college. Now Castro's younger brother, Raúl, is in charge. It remains to be seen if Cubans will be satisfied with their dreary economy with a less-charismatic person leading them [source: McKinley, Jr.].

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