On 16 October, 1953, Fidel Castro gave an impassioned speech while on trial for his role in the Moncada Barracks attack. The speech was entitled, ‘History will absolve me.’ Having studied law at Havana University, Castro represented himself at the trial, and being a skilled propagandist, used this platform to spread his message of revolution against the capitalist dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, the then president of Cuba.
The speech’s title demonstrates that Castro fervently believed in his role as a shaper of history; a role defined by his focus on the bigger picture and his constant struggle to bring global revolution, even at the expense of lives and liberty. It was this bigger picture that came to define Castro’s legacy. A legacy of being remembered as a thorn in the USA’s side, as the Red Devil on their doorstep, but also as a champion of Marxist Leninism, of socialism and equality. His supporters saw him as David fighting the Goliaths of the USA and imperialism.
As a defining player in the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, it was his invitation to the Russian Premier, Nikita Khrushchev, to house nuclear warheads in Cuba (thus giving the USSR the capacity to launch a nuclear strike upon the Western Hemisphere) that brought the world to the brink of nuclear annihilation. His aggressive attitude towards these missiles eventually frightened Khrushchev into reconsidering.
Castro’s supporters will point out that this is but one of his many sides. Alternatively, Castro offered unwavering commitment to ending colonialism in Africa and Latin America. Nelson Mandela acknowledged the debt that South Africa owed to Cuba for helping to end Apartheid through the deployment of Cuban troops in the Angolan Civil War.
His harshest critics are quick to point out his human rights record in Cuba: arrests and executions without trial, no free elections, and a population all too familiar with poverty and hunger. However, in light of crippling US sanctions and the US objective of toppling Castro’s regime, is he solely to blame? Indeed, it is his relationship with the US that is most documented; a relationship defined by failed CIA assassination attempts and conflict.
Upon Castro’s death, the question of Castro’s legacy has once again been raised. Was he a brutal dictator who desolated Cuba, or a revolutionary fighting a corrupt capitalist system? The verdict is still out, but Oliver Stone, the producer of Castro’s biographical film Commandante, says this about Castro’s legacy, ‘Fidel knows he won. They didn’t intimidate him. He never backed down. He fought and died on his feet and not on his knees’. Whether history will indeed absolve Castro, however, remains to be seen.