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.
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.