To many, he was a heroic cham­pion of the dis­en­fran­chised; to oth­ers, a cruel tyrant. Fol­low­ing Fidel Cas­tro’s death in Novem­ber, we asked five his­to­ri­ans to of­fer their ver­dicts on the Cuban leader’s life and le­gacy

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Cas­tro was a rev­o­lu­tion­ary who sym­bol­ised his age. In De­cem­ber 1956, he re­turned from ex­ile in Mex­ico, de­ter­mined to over­throw the dic­ta­tor­ship of Ful­gen­cio Batista, Cuba’s Amer­i­can-backed strong­man. Ar­riv­ing on 2 De­cem­ber aboard the Granma, Cas­tro boldly pre­dicted that “we will be free or we will be mar­tyrs”.

It was a cry that res­onated with the times: 1956 saw a his­toric vic­tory for AfricanAmer­i­cans in Mont­gomery, fol­low­ing a year-long boy­cott of the city’s seg­re­gated buses, while, in South Africa, tens of thou­sands of women took to the streets of

Pre­to­ria to de­nounce apartheid.

The year also ush­ered in in­de­pen­dence for Su­dan, Tu­nisia, Morocco and the Gold Coast – the first sur­ren­der of colo­nial power in sub-Sa­ha­ran Africa – and wit­nessed a pop­u­lar upris­ing against Stal­in­ist rule in Hun­gary. In the decade that fol­lowed Cas­tro’s triumphant march into Ha­vana, in January 1959, the Cuban Revo­lu­tion proved an in­spi­ra­tion for Black Power ac­tivists, op­po­nents of the war in Viet­nam, South African free­dom fight­ers, Latin Amer­i­can rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies, and rad­i­cal stu­dents in Britain, Europe and the United States.

Cas­tro’s death at the end of a year whose high­lights (so far) in­clude Brexit and the elec­tion of Don­ald Trump, is a re­minder that, to­day, the forces of his­tory appear to be march­ing to a very dif­fer­ent beat.

Si­mon Hall is pro­fes­sor of mod­ern his­tory at the Univer­sity of Leeds, and the au­thor of 1956: The World in

Re­volt (Faber and Faber, 2016)


His­tory will re­mem­ber Fidel Cas­tro pri­mar­ily for the Cuban mis­sile cri­sis of 1962, dur­ing which he acted as the pawn of Nikita Khrushchev’s Soviet Union, in what in ret­ro­spect was a mad­cap scheme to sta­tion hos­tile nu­clear weapons only 90 miles from the United States. He will be re­mem­bered for over­throw­ing a pro­foundly cor­rupt pro-Amer­i­can dic­ta­tor­ship un­der Ful­gen­cio Batista, which he pro­ceeded to re­place with his own Marx­ist-Lenin­ist, anti-Amer­i­can regime that soon came to rely on ter­ror and de­ten­tions to sur­vive.

The abortive Bay of Pigs op­er­a­tion un­der­taken by CIA-backed Cuban rebels in 1961 to try to over­throw Cas­tro will be re­called as one of the low­est mo­ments of the Kennedy ad­min­is­tra­tion. Cas­tro’s in­ter­minable five-hour-long speeches to the Cen­tral Com­mit­tee of the Com­mu­nist party will also be re­mem­bered (though ob­vi­ously not their con­tent). So will the way he at­tempted to desta­bilise var­i­ous south­ern African coun­tries in the 1960s and 1970s in an at­tempt to ex­port revo­lu­tion. And let’s not for­get that hi­jack­ers and ter­ror­ists of all ide­olo­gies yelled the phrase “Take me to Cuba!” since he of­fered un­ques­tion­ing sanc­tu­ary for them there.

When in 1980 Cas­tro al­lowed em­i­gra­tion from the port of Mariel, more than 125,000 peo­ple were so des­per­ate to leave that they risked their lives in of­ten un­sea­wor­thy ves­sels to es­cape a coun­try that was by then a poverty-stricken Marx­ist hell-hole, al­beit one with rel­a­tively high lit­er­acy rates and univer­sal health­care. With an average in­come of $19 per month, noth­ing to read that wasn’t ap­proved by the Com­mu­nist party, some 8,600 peo­ple ar­rested and de­tained with­out proper trial in 2015/16, and no free elec­tions for over half a cen­tury, his­tory will con­clude that Cas­tro’s death could not come quickly enough for his peo­ple.

An­drew Roberts is a his­to­rian and the au­thor of books

in­clud­ing El­egy: The First Day on the Somme (Head of Zeus, 2015)


Fidel Cas­tro’s im­pact on the world was both pro­found and mul­ti­di­men­sional. By 1970 he stood as a spokesman for the de­vel­op­ing world, a role model for the peo­ple of Latin Amer­ica, the leader of the so-called NonAligned Move­ment, a li­ai­son be­tween rev­o­lu­tion­ary move­ments across the globe and the Krem­lin, a thorny nui­sance for the US gov­ern­ment, the sym­bolic coach of one of the world’s most com­pet­i­tive and daz­zling sports pow­ers, and an ar­tic­u­late ad­vo­cate in the United Na­tions for eco­nomic em­pow­er­ment of the world’s poor at the ex­pense of the rich. Si­mul­ta­ne­ously, he ruled in Cuba as a petty, self-ab­sorbed and com­pul­sive tyrant, who re­sponded bru­tally to Cubans on the is­land who dared to re­ject his so­cial­ist vi­sion. He seized prop­erty, slammed shut the doors of the na­tion’s re­li­gious in­sti­tu­tions and drove hun­dreds of thou­sands from their home to other lands.

For nearly six decades he held tena­ciously to a Marx­ist-Lenin­ist vi­sion that re­jected the mar­ket, re­lied on cit­i­zens’ dis­trust of one an­other to en­sure con­form­ity, re­stricted move­ment on the is­land and pro­hib­ited travel abroad, re­warded his obe­di­ent fol­low­ers with mo­ral and ma­te­rial re­wards, and pun­ished dis­si­dents by deny­ing them ba­sic com­forts.

A com­mon thread run­ning through his poli­cies was the ef­fort to de­velop a rev­o­lu­tion­ary ‘con­cien­cia’ (con­science) among his peo­ple, to erad­i­cate pre-rev­o­lu­tion­ary at­ti­tudes, and to mould a ‘new Cuban man’. Sadly, new at­ti­tudes, in­clud­ing those re­gard­ing the role of women, the cen­tral­ity of man­ual labour, and a rev­o­lu­tion­ary ed­u­ca­tion, gen­er­ally failed to ma­te­ri­alise and the rev­o­lu­tion­ary vi­sion faded as the Cuban econ­omy de­te­ri­o­rated and a hope­less­ness cast a shadow over the is­land.

Julie Bunck is pro­fes­sor of po­lit­i­cal sci­ence at the Univer­sity of Louisville

He in­spired ev­ery­one from Black Power ac­tivists to South African

IUHHGRP ÀJKWHUV In 1980, more than 125,000

cubans fled what had be­come a poverty-stricken Marx­ist hell-hole

Si­mul­ta­ne­ously, he was an ad­vo­cate for the world’s poor, and a petty and com­pul­sive tyrant

land re­form, ed­u­ca­tion and health­care firmly on the agenda. It also mo­bilised thou­sands to take up arms, be­liev­ing they could em­u­late Cas­tro’s suc­cess.

By launch­ing mil­i­tary in­va­sions, vi­o­lent counter-in­sur­gency cam­paigns or re­formist pro­grammes de­signed to im­mu­nise the re­gion from Cuba, those who feared Cas­tro’s ex­am­ple made him far more pow­er­ful than he might oth­er­wise have been. In­dif­fer­ence was sim­ply not an op­tion.

How­ever, his­tory des­per­ately needs to put Cas­tro in con­text to un­der­stand his im­pact. For too long, the po­tent nar­ra­tive of the heroic guer­rilla (be­lieved by ad­mir­ers and en­e­mies alike) that Cas­tro so ably pro­moted has ob­scured far more com­plex and longterm causes of the Cuban Revo­lu­tion.

Cas­tro was a man of his times, who chan­nelled wide­spread de­sire for change. His revo­lu­tion ad­dressed press­ing prob­lems and pro­vided an al­ter­na­tive to mod­er­ate re­form ef­forts cut short by elites and CIA-backed mil­i­tary coups. As well as re­mem­ber­ing him for chang­ing the world, we need to re­mem­ber the rea­sons his ac­tions and ideas res­onated as pow­er­fully as they did.

Tanya Harmer is as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor in the depart­ment of in­ter­na­tional his­tory at the Lon­don School of Eco­nom­ics and Po­lit­i­cal Sci­ence


Fidel Cas­tro will be re­mem­bered in strik­ingly dif­fer­ent ways. To many Cubans he will be re­garded as the fa­ther of the Cuban

Revo­lu­tion who, with courage and skill, de­feated the ef­forts of its mighty Amer­i­can neigh­bour to over­throw him at the Bay of Pigs in 1961, sur­vived sev­eral CIA as­sas­si­na­tion plots, and sus­tained the revo­lu­tion for half a cen­tury. His sup­port­ers will also point to his suc­cess in en­hanc­ing the qual­ity of life for Cubans by es­tab­lish­ing free and univer­sal ed­u­ca­tion and med­i­cal care.

To many in the west, not least the many Cubans who fled their home­land for the

United States af­ter the revo­lu­tion, he will be viewed largely as a cor­rupt, ne­far­i­ous dic­ta­tor who failed to in­tro­duce democ­racy in Cuba and to up­hold ba­sic hu­man rights. His record on the econ­omy was unim­pres­sive too, es­pe­cially once Soviet aid di­min­ished at the end of the Cold War. The ad­vent of the Cuban mis­sile cri­sis, the most dan­ger­ous episode of the Cold War, would not have taken place had Cas­tro not ac­cepted Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s re­quest to de­ploy mis­siles in Cuba. Most trou­blingly, at the height of the mis­sile cri­sis, Cas­tro urged Khrushchev to launch a nu­clear strike on the United States if Kennedy au­tho­rised an in­va­sion of Cuba.

Re­flect­ing on the early days of the revo­lu­tion, when many in Cuba and else­where hoped Cas­tro would bring pro­gres­sive, en­light­ened, demo­cratic lead­er­ship to Cuba af­ter the cor­rupt dic­ta­tor­ship of Batista, Cas­tro seems to pro­vide proof of Lord Ac­ton’s fa­mous dic­tum: “Power tends to cor­rupt and ab­so­lute power cor­rupts ab­so­lutely.”

Mark White is pro­fes­sor of his­tory at Queen Mary Univer­sity of Lon­don

Cas­tro seems to pro­vide proof of the dic­tum: “Power tends to cor­rupt and ab­so­lute power cor­rupts ab­so­lutely”

Cas­tro re­ceives the ac­claim of sup­port­ers just be­fore en­ter­ing Ha­vana dur­ing the Cuban Revo­lu­tion, January 1959

A Cuban refugee in Miami watches Pres­i­dent Kennedy ad­dress­ing Amer­ica dur­ing the Cuban mis­sile cri­sis, Oc­to­ber 1962

Cuban ex­iles con­gre­gate on the streets of Miami to cel­e­brate Cas­tro’s death, 26 Novem­ber 2016

US coast guards res­cue Cuban refugees from their cap­sized raft in the Florida Straits, Au­gust 1994

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