Castro's Cuba Turns 50

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Jan. 1, 2009 marks the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution. Led by a young Fidel Castro, the revolution wrenched power from the American-backed Batista regime. Today, Cuba remains the only communist nation in the Western hemisphere, making Castro one of the most polarizing figures of modern times.

NPR's Tom Gjelten, who spent decades reporting on Cuba, takes a look back.

A Timeline: The Cuban Revolution At 50

Cuban flag

A Cuban flag flutters above Revolution Square in Havana. Adalberto Roque/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Adalberto Roque/AFP/Getty Images

1959: Fidel Castro takes command of Cuba after seizing control from dictator and U.S. ally Fulgencio Batista. Making a grand entrance into power, Castro led a massive army of thousands into Havana as part of his unveiling of a new government.

1961: U.S.-backed Cuban exiles invade the island on Playa Giron (also known as the Bay of Pigs Invasion). Also in 1961, Castro declares Cuba a socialist state.

1975: Cuban troops join alongside Angolan soldiers who are fighting against South African forces.

1980: More than 100,000 Cubans, among them freed convicts, flee to the U.S. The exodus becomes known as the Mariel boatlift.

1991: The collapse of the USSR, a primary and political trade partner, prompts Soviet military officials to leave Cuba.

1992: The Cuban Democracy Act of 1992 takes effect. The legislation rebukes the Fidel Castro regime, cites a "consistent disregard for internationally accepted standards of human rights and for democratic values," and hardens the U.S. embargo on Cuba. The United Nations would later repeatedly condemn the embargo.

1994: The U.S. agrees to allow 20,000 Cubans to enter the U.S. each year. In return, Cuba halts its open migration policy that enables thousands of refugees to escape the island's poor economy.

1996: Cuban fighter jets shoot down two Cessna planes belonging to the American anti-Castro group Brothers to the Rescue. The planes were on a humanitarian mission to aid Cuban refugee rafters crossing into the U.S.

1998: Pope John Paul II visits Cuba, marking the first papal visit for the island nation. Speaking at a Mass in Havana, the faith leader calls for the release of Cuban political prisoners.

2000: Elian Gonzalez, who was rescued a year earlier in a failed attempt by his family to flee from Cuba to the U.S., is reunited with his father in Washington, D.C., after an international custody battle.

2007: For the first time in nearly 50 years, Fidel Castro does not attend Cuba's annual Revolution Day parade. Speculation grows about the leader's state of wellness.

2008: At age 81, an ailing Fidel Castro resigns as the world's longest-serving president. He transfers power to his brother, Raul Castro.

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Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba

by Tom Gjelten

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