Before Fidel Castro died in 2016, he asked that no statues or monuments be erected in his honor. His grave at Santa Ifigenia Cemetery in Santiago de Cuba consists of a simple granite boulder marked by a small plaque, emblazoned with a solitary word: FIDEL.
My father’s generation, which came of age during the Cold War, thought Castro was a totalitarian madman, on par with other mid-twentieth-century communists. But who was Castro really, and what was he faithful to?
In spring 2004, I made my first scholarly trip to Cuba. I was there to attend a workshop on the Cuban military, and I hoped to make connections for a book I was writing on the history of the United States naval base at Guantánamo Bay. The Cuban scholars I met were cordial and welcoming, despite open hostility between our two governments. I returned home with fresh leads and promises of future assistance.
The spirit of good will evaporated two years later, when the Bush administration greeted news of Fidel Castro’s illness and cessation of power with euphoria and predictions about the imminent collapse of Cuban communism. For the next few years, Cuba remained all but closed to American scholars, forcing historians like me to finish our books with other sources.
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I went knocking on the doors of Cuba’s archives again in 2013. This time I had a biography of the young Castro himself in mind. I had seen hints in my previous works of a complex man inspired by the idea of a Cuba free and independent of foreign rule and dedicated to the well being of all its people. I wanted to explore those hints in light of the internal and external forces that shaped him. I did not know what I would find, but I sensed that it could be revealing.
I was granted access to Castro’s papers in Havana, to interviews with former colleagues and family members, and to historical sites from his young life in 2014, as the island was experimenting with a limited private sector and Cubans themselves were reassessing the revolution and reimagining what it might yet become. If there was more to Castro than met the eye, Cubans themselves seemed eager to see it.
The Castro I discovered doesn’t align with the views of authorities on either side of the Florida Straits. He began his political career as a critic of the political corruption and foreign domination that had undermined the Cuban Republic since its founding in 1902. In political campaigns during the 1940s and ’50s against the Ramón Grau and Carlos Prío Soccarás governments and eventually the Fulgencio Batista dictatorship, Castro lobbied for and defended the civil and political liberties his revolutionary government would later suspend.
At the time, his commitment to individual liberty was balanced by a platform of social liberties derived partly from Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, which included universal access to education, medical care, steady employment, and a decent standard of living (the first two of which his revolution would be credited with achieving in Cuba for the first time). He was also driven by a desire to end Cuba’s subservience to the United States and to develop local, national and international markets, all of which adds up to what might best be labeled liberal nationalism.
Castro was hardly the only person calling for social and political reform in midcentury Cuba, but he would stop at nothing to achieve it, putting him on a collision course with establishment politicians, United States economic and strategic interests, and eventually Batista, whose March 1952 coup d’état deposed President Prío Socarrás and plunged the country into military dictatorship.
Cubans greeted Batista’s coup with a collective shrug. But Castro took Batista to court, arguing that the coup violated the 1940 Constitution. His suit was tossed out. The government suspended constitutional guarantees intermittently in the ensuing years and imposed strict censorship. Violence ensued, as the Batista government cracked down on civil protest. Dismayed by what he regarded as Cubans’ indifference to the Batista dictatorship, Castro led a group of young men on a failed attack against a major military barracks in July 1953, which led to his arrest.
At his ensuing trial, Castro delivered a soaring vindication of constitutionalism and individual rights. Cuban law made military dictatorship illegal, he argued. In the face of dictatorship, the Constitution provided citizens a lifeboat, namely, the right to resist tyranny. He spent the next 20 months in jail, boning up on guerrilla warfare while honing his political platform.
When Castro was released from jail in May 1955, he went into exile in Mexico, only to set sail for home late the next year, along with 82 Cuban rebels. Their ship, the Granma, ran aground on Cuba’s southwestern coast, and the group was ambushed by Batista’s army. Castro was among the 14 who somehow survived the botched landing.
To avoid further bloodshed, Castro and his army counterpart, General Eulogio Cantillo, agreed to stop fighting, join forces, and occupy the eastern provinces. Cantillo sped to Havana to arrest Batista and his henchmen. He reneged on the agreement when he arrived in the capital, conniving with the United States embassy to allow Batista and his cronies to flee the country with hundreds of millions of pesos in their possession.
“This is going to cost us heavily,” Castro predicted, with the fugitives “launching propaganda against the revolution and stirring up trouble for the foreseeable future.” Sabotage and terrorism against the revolution began that very week, just as Cuba’s new military, with Raúl Castro in command, began the summary execution of alleged war criminals.
Looking back on these events just days before the Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961, a United States government report asserted that the Eisenhower administration had supported the war against Batista and embraced the revolution’s platform of social and economic reform. But long before Castro led his guerrillas into Havana in January 1959, Washington had concluded that the revolution must be halted.
Fidel Castro talking with parents of some of the American prisoners held hostage for food and supplies by the Cuban government after the abortive invasion at the Bay of Pigs in 1963.
Once launched, the allegation of betrayal took on a life of its own, transforming a liberal nationalist hemmed in by the Manichaean logic of the Cold War into the diabolical dictator our fathers first described. The betrayal trope lives on today, with the Trump administration and its allies in Miami exploiting evidence of Cuban support for Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro to make Cuba pay for Castro’s original sin. But by enabling us to see the origins of this enduring clash as less one-sided, as even tragic, this history provides a way for Cubans on both sides of the Florida Straits to bridge the divide, and perhaps lay the groundwork for reconciliation.
A cleareyed sense of the young Fidel Castro, and his Social Democratic aspirations for Cuba, would provide a shot in the arm to the move toward partial privatization and the larger process of Cubans revisiting the revolution, while relegating a Cold War caricature to the dustbin where it belongs.