Fidel Castro was one of the most prominent figures of the Cold War and an adversary of ten consecutive U.S. presidential administrations. After toppling the government of Fulgencio Batista in 1959, Castro, allied with the Soviet Union, implemented reforms in a number of areas, including the health and education sectors. However, his regime was also responsible for serious human rights abuses, including harsh crackdowns on dissent. This reading list considers the legacy of his nearly fifty years in power, including the Cuban Missile Crisis, the U.S. economic embargo, and the years following the Cold War.
The United States and Cuba are moving toward normalization of relations for the first time in more than fifty years. This Backgrounder looks at the complicated relationship and ongoing challenges.
Following Fidel Castro's ascent to power, U.S.-Cuba ties endured a nuclear crisis, a long-lasting U.S. economic embargo, and ongoing political hostilities, even as the two countries seek a rapprochement.
"Fidel’s brother Raúl Castro, the current president, is leading a gradual but, for Cuba, ultimately radical overhaul of the relationship between the state, the individual, and society, all without cutting the socialist umbilical cord," write Julia E. Sweig and Michael J. Bustamante.
Revolution and Human Rights
“The case of Cuba is not isolated case. It would be an error to think of it only as the case of Cuba. The case of Cuba is the case of all underdeveloped countries. The case of Cuba is like that of the Congo, Egypt, Algeria, Iran, like that of Panama, which wishes to have its canal; it is like that of Puerto Rico, whose national spirit they are destroying; like that of Honduras, a portion of whose territory has been alienated. In short, although we have not make specific reference to other countries, the case of Cuba is the case of all underdeveloped, colonialized countries.”
This 2009 Human Rights Watch report chronicles human rights abuses committed under Fidel Castro, propagated" to enforce political conformity" that continued under his brother and successor, Raul Castro.
Cuban Missile Crisis
CFR's James M. Lindsay compiles an extensive reading list on the Cuban Missile Crisis, including posts on each day of the crisis as it unfolded.
Fifty years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, scholars James G. Blight and Janet M. Lang argue that standoff was the result of Fidel's "fears and insecurities" following the unsuccessful Bay of Pigs invasion. The crisis, they write, has present-day ramifications, showing that "a small, determined revolutionary state, backed into a corner and convinced of its inevitable demise, can bring the world to the brink of catastrophe."
“I believe that the imperialists' aggressiveness makes them extremely dangerous, and that if they manage to carry out an invasion of Cuba—a brutal act in violation of universal and moral law—then that would be the moment to eliminate this danger forever, in an act of the most legitimate self-defense. However harsh and terrible the solution, there would be no other.”
"After I've seen what I've seen, and knowing what I know now, it wasn't worth it all." —Fidel Castro, to Atlantic journalist Jeffrey Goldberg in 2012.
U.S. Embargo and Cuba's Economy
Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Cuba lost 80 percent of its export market and its imports fell from $8 billion to $1.7 billion, creating an economic crisis known as the "special period." During this time, "obtaining enough food for the day became the primary activity for many, if not most, Cubans," writes Oxfam America.
This Economist piece argues that Fidel Castro, after handing over the reins to Raul Castro, "continued to slow the pace of change" even as Raul Castro took steps to decentralize economic decision on the island.
"The Cuban model doesn't even work for us any more."—Fidel Castro, to Atlantic journalist Jeffrey Goldberg in 2010.
"The embargo is Castro's best friend. It provides Castro an excuse for everything. Why do we still have to be harassing, you know, the mothers of the imprisoned? Well, because America's behind it. Why do we have to, you know, prevent the kind of relationships that we would like to see Cuba engage in in opening up and being more forward looking? Well, because we can't—you know, America is embargoing us."—Hillary Clinton, at a 2014 CFR meeting.
During the transition from Fidel to Raul Castro, Cuba expert Julia Sweig writes that the older Castro ended his rule "not with the expected bang, or even really a whimper, but in slow motion, with Fidel himself orchestrating the transition."
Journalist Alma Guillermoprieto reflects on Fidel Castro's fifty years in power, considering the revolution's early achievements—a literacy campaign, public health initiatives, and a food-rationing program that guaranteed food to every Cuban—before it's "slo-mo collapse."
Jonas Clark compiles articles on Fidel Castro written throughout the Cuban leader's tenure. He evokes the early days of Castro, "whose passionate, fiery performances were typically measured in hours rather than minutes."
Cuban dissident blogger Yoani Sanchez writes about Castro's diminishing stature in this op-ed: “The stuttering old man with quivering hands was a shadow of the Greek-profiled military leader who, while a million voices chanted his name in the plaza, pardoned lives, announced executions, proclaimed laws that no one had been consulted on and declared the right of revolutionaries to make revolution."
"To many, Fidel Castro was a self-obsessed zealot whose belief in his own destiny was unshakable, a chameleon whose economic and political colors were determined more by pragmatism than by doctrine. But in his chest beat the heart of a true rebel. “Fidel Castro,” said Dr. Henry M. Wriston, president of the Council on Foreign Relations in the 1950s and early ’60s, 'was everything a revolutionary should be,' ” writes Anthony DePalma.