Cuba Scholars Respond to the Death of Fidel Castro

The death of Fidel Castro marks the end of an era. There are no simple obituaries for this man in American media; indeed, there is no way to talk about him in American culture without thinking critically about his role in history, his political power, and his relationship to the United States.

UNC Press has published an extensive list of outstanding books about the history, culture, and politics of Cuba. Many of the expert authors have been called on by media outlets in recent days both to respond to the death of an important political figure and to examine the political moment in which we now find ourselves. Here, we share their perspectives. We’ve included brief excerpts below; click the headlines to read the full articles.


After Surviving 600 Assassination Attempts & Outlasting 11 U.S. Presidents, Fidel Castro Dies at 90 – Democracy Now!

“Well, the world has lost one of the most famous leading and dynamic and dramatic revolutionaries who ever lived. He’s going to have a very controversial legacy, but it is indisputable that he took a small Caribbean island and transformed it into a major actor on the world stage, far beyond its geographic size. He stood up to the United States. He became the David versus Goliath, withstood all of the efforts to kill him, overthrow him. And that is what he will go down in history for, in many ways.”
Peter Kornbluh (co-author, with William M. LeoGrande, of Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations between Washington and Havana)

“What resonates in the world, at least as much as Fidel Castro, is the Cuban revolution. And the Cuban revolution itself is a historical process that comes out of 100 years of struggle. The Cuban revolution represents the culmination of Cuban history. And behind Fidel Castro, or perhaps even ahead of Fidel Castro, are a people, a people who have been struggling for self-determination and national sovereignty for the better part of a century. So Fidel Castro happens to be the person who has the capacity to summon and bring to fruition, in culmination, a long historical process.”
Louis A. Pérez Jr. (author of Intimations of Modernity: Civil Culture in Nineteenth-Century CubaThe Structure of Cuban History: Meanings and Purpose of the Past, and other books on Cuba)

How Fidel Castro maintained a communist stronghold – PBS

“Well, when he took power in 1959, he had two objectives — one was to totally reform Cuba’s corrupt and unequal social order, and the other was to gain independence from the United States. And in the early years, he made a lot of progress on both of these. He kicked the Americans out and he abolished capitalism in Cuba, replacing it with Soviet-style communism.”
William M. LeoGrande (co-author, with Peter Kornbluh, of Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations between Washington and Havana)

Fidel: What’s in a Name? – The National Interest

“His name itself was totemic. The cipher and symbol for a whole host of political dreams born and then, for many, broken; for new world imaginaries erected and slowly unspun; for the Manichean struggle of a small Caribbean island that dared to confront imperialism while consuming some of its own in the process: Fidel Castro was a man who bore an entire universe of meaning on his shoulders. Meaning, of course, that he had heaped there himself in conflating the island’s destiny with his own personalistic rule, an equation perfectly captured in the literal translation of his name—’Fidel,’ which in Spanish means ‘faithful.'”
Jennifer Lambe (author of Madhouse: Psychiatry and Politics in Cuban History)

The man Americans loved to hate – CNN

“Fidel is a metaphor. He is a Rorschach blot upon which to project fears or hopes. A prism in which the spectrum of colors refracted out has to do with light that went in. He is a point of view, loaded with ideological purport and political meaning. A David who survived Goliath. A symbol of Third World intransigence against First World domination.”
Louis A. Pérez Jr.

Will Fidel Castro’s Departure Be the Catalyst for Big Changes in Cuba? – The National Interest

“For more than fifty years, Fidel Castro was the bane of U.S. presidents—ten of them all together, beginning with Dwight D. Eisenhower and ending with George W. Bush. Not only did Castro openly defy the United States in its own backyard, he brought to life Washington’s worst Cold War nightmare about instability in Latin America.”
William M. LeoGrande

Hostility, Secret talks, regrets: Fidel’s Tumultuous Relationship with the U.S. –

“No foreign leader was more associated with conflict and confrontation with the United States than Fidel Castro. His legendary defiance and lengthy tirades against U.S. ‘imperialism’ became an integral part of his lengthy reign in power. He made a political career by appealing to nationalism, wrapping himself in the Cuban flag and ‘hitting the Yanquis hard.’ He aligned Cuba with the Soviet Union, Washington’s global adversary during the Cold War—an alliance that brought the world to the brink of nuclear annihilation during the 1962 missile crisis. Behind the scenes, however, the historical truth of Fidel Castro’s relationship with the United States is far more complicated.”
William M. LeoGrande and Peter Kornbluh

Will History Absolve Fidel Castro? –

“On trial in 1953 for leading a rebel attack on the Moncada military garrison in Santiago de Cuba, Fidel Castro, then a young lawyer, concluded his own defense by declaring, ‘Condemn me. It does not matter. History will absolve me.’ Now that the 90-year-old patriarch of Cuba has died, the time for history’s judgment has arrived.

“It’s tempting to echo Zhou Enlai, who, when asked in 1972 what impact the French Revolution had on Western civilization, famously replied, “It is too early to say.” Certainly, in Fidel’s case—and everyone called him Fidel, even his enemies—the broad outlines of his legacy are clear enough. By his own account, he made a revolution in pursuit of two goals: to gain real independence for Cuba, freeing it from the political and economic tutelage of the United States; and to introduce a measure of social justice to Cuba’s deeply corrupt and unequal social order.”
William M. LeoGrande

Fidel Castro: A Life—and Death—in Context –

“Notions of injured national pride, of humiliation and embarrassment—very emotional stuff, indeed—all attributed directly to the person of Fidel Castro, shaped the mindset with which the U.S. fashioned policy toward Cuba. Fidel had to be punished, and U.S. policy toward Cuba was nothing if not punitive: all Cubans would be punished until they did something about Castro.”
Louis A. Pérez Jr.

What Trump Misses about Cuba –

“If President Trump’s negotiators pound the table demanding political concessions from Cuba, it won’t get them far. Cubans don’t scare easily, having survived half a century of plots hatched in the United States to overthrow Mr. Castro—the Bay of Pigs invasion, the C.I.A.’s secret war, assassination attempts, economic embargo and threats of direct attack. None of that extracted concessions. A United States threat to close its embassy or cut off its citizens’ tourist travel won’t work any better.”
William M. LeoGrande