Born the son of a sugarcane farmer in 1926, Fidel Castro Ruz grew up to become one of the world's most recognisable faces at the helm of communist Cuba.
But despite decades of U.S. sanctions against his country and a host of (allegedly CIA-sponsored) assassination plots against his person, Castro is still the world's longest-serving political leader.
Castro became interested in politics while studying law in Havana. In 1953, he attempted to overthrow the repressive regime of General Fulgencio Batista by leading an assault on the Moncada military barracks. The attack failed and he was imprisoned. Batista declared an amnesty in 1955 and Castro went into exile in Mexico.
He returned to Cuba in 1956 and led a guerrilla war against Batista's forces. By 1959, Batista had fled and Castro was head of state, prime minister and leader of the armed forces. He nationalised U.S. farms and businesses and began to court the Soviet Union. Angry and alarmed, Washington responded with economic sanctions. A CIA-sponsored coup attempt in 1961 was foiled when an invasion force of Cuban exiles was defeated at the Bay of Pigs by government troops.
A year later, Castro intensified his anti-U.S. stance and allowed the Soviet Union to station nuclear missiles in Cuba. The resulting superpower stand-off almost caused a nuclear war. Since then, Cuba and the United States have been at daggers drawn.
Under Castro, Cuba benefited from significant amounts of Soviet aid, allowing the country to build well-regarded health and education systems. But the centrally controlled economy performed poorly and Cubans had no real freedom: the Communist Party was the only political group allowed to exist. Human rights activists condemned Castro for imprisoning thousands of dissidents. Despite these criticisms, Castro was - and still is - popular with many Cubans, who see him as a revolutionary father.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Castro allowed some economic reforms and permitted Pope John Paul II to visit the island.