How should history remember Fidel Castro?

Fidel Castro (1926–2016) became Cuban premier on 16 February 1959 and to many, he was a heroic champion of the disenfranchised; to others, a cruel tyrant. Five historians offer their verdicts on the Cuban leader’s life and legacy

Fidel Castro addresses delegates of the General Assembly of the United Nations in New York, September 1960. (Photo by Tommy Weber/AFP/Getty Images)

Five historians offer their verdicts on Fidel Castro, who died in November 2016…

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He inspired everyone from Black Power activists to South African freedom fighters” – Simon Hall

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 African-Americans 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)

In a cloud of smoke, a gloating Fidel Castro and his cigar meet the Press in June, 1961 after increasing the ransom for 1,173 prisoners captured by Cuban forces in the April Bay of Pigs invasion. An American "Tractors for Freedom," committee journeys to Havana to offer $2.5 million-worth of agricultural tractors for their release but Castro sends them away with a demand for $28 million worth. The prisoners are finally released in December, 1962, for $53 million in medical supplies. (Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone/Getty Images)

“In 1980, more than 125,000 Cubans fled what had become a poverty-stricken Marxist hell-hole” – Andrew Roberts

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.

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CUBA - OCTOBER 22:  Prime Minister Fidel CASTRO giving a radio and televised speech during which he speaks about the measures taken by the United States regarding Cuba. In fact, following the shipment of Soviet Union missiles to Cuba during the Cold War, the United States announced a blockade of the island.  (Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)

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 £15 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)

“Simultaneously, he was an advocate for the world’s poor, and a petty and compulsive tyrant” – Julie Bunck

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 Non-Aligned 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.

How is the image of revolutionary Che Guevara commodified? Alex von Tunzelmann explores. (Photo by Francois ANCELLET/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

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

“Castro’s challenge to global capitalism was far more enduring than the Soviet Union’s” – Tanya Harmer

Fidel Castro changed the world, defying the logic of global power and geography. From a small island, 90 miles from Florida, the revolutionary regime he led posed a radical challenge to the United States, global capitalism and colonialism. Remarkably, this challenge proved far more consistent and enduring than the Soviet Union’s. In Africa, Castro’s troops fought against colonialism and apartheid South Africa. In Latin America, the Cuban Revolution’s example transformed politics and society, putting long-standing questions of 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 long-term 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

President Kennedy holds a press conference shortly before the failed 'Bay of Pigs' invasion of Cuba. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

“Castro seems to provide proof of the dictum: ‘Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely'” – Mark White

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

These responses were compiled by Matt Elton.

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This article was first published in the January 2017 issue of BBC History Magazine