The death of Fidel Castro, what his legacy to Cuba has been, and how he should be remembered.

Richard Gott, historian, journalist and one of the few foreigners who met both Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, recounts his impressions of the 20th century revolutionary icon.
by: 
Richard Gott

Fidel Castro was one of the greatest global figures of the last century, a man who bestrode continents and was listened to by people all over the world. I first heard him speak in the Plaza de la Revolución in Havana in October 1963. He spoke in a very low, soft voice, hypnotic to listen to, and he spoke for hours and hours on end. I did not know at the time that this was standard Latin American practice, and in subsequent years I have heard many Latin American presidents of varying political hues make comparably long speeches, but none were so compelling as Fidel's.

I remember one black Cuban in the crowd telling me that Batista, the corrupt President that Fidel had overthrown, had also made lengthy speeches. He also reminded me that Batista, a mulatto and army typist by profession, had been popular with the black half of Cuba's population. Fidel immediately began implementing real change towards racial equality  in those years. He was an active proponent of civil rights for black people, both in Cuba and the United States. He closed down the Whites Only beach clubs, after Che Guevara's black bodyguard had been denied access to them in the first year of the Revolution, and he welcomed American Black Power refugees fleeing from repression in the United States, some of whom still live on in Havana to this day. He famously stayed at the Hotel Theresa in Harlem when denied access to a white hotel close to the United Nations building. He also re-established the Cuban population's slave roots in Africa, sending volunteer troops to fight in the wars in Guinea Bissau, in Angola and in Ethiopia. When Nelson Mandela was released from prison in South Africa, Mandela's first task was to fly to Havana to thank Fidel for his assistance in bringing down the apartheid regime. 

The day after hearing Fidel's long speech, I met Che Guevara, the man who had fought with Fidel in the Sierra Maestra during the revolutionary war and was to go on to fight in the Congo and to help promote comparable guerrilla wars in Latin America. Che was to die four years later, leading a guerrilla band in Bolivia, but in those days he was one of the small band of revolutionaries who were sought out by revolutionary enthusiasts from Europe and elsewhere who were ineluctably drawn to Cuba like moths to a candle. Che did not disappoint, talking like Fidel well into the night. I met him in the luxuriant gardens of the new Soviet Embassy, looking over the waters of the Atlantic where a US warship steamed up and down, keeping guard night and day.

Fidel's death, like Che Guevara's, is being mourned by people all over the world. Presidents and political leaders will flock to Havana to be present at his funeral celebrations. It will be the last time for many years before Cuba is again the centre of world attention. Fidel's signal achievement was to allow the Cuban people, in the memorable phrase of Mao Tse-tung, to "stand up". He put Cuba on the world map, never more so than in the "sad and luminous days" (Che Guevara's formulation) of the nuclear missile crisis in October 1962.

The missiles were placed in Cuba by Nikita Khrushchev and he was rapidly forced to withdraw them. It was seen at the time as a defeat for the Soviet Union, and it soon provoked the downfall of Khrushchev himself. Yet he had hoped to be able to defend Cuba from another US invasion, following on from the unsuccessful Bay of Pigs adventure of 1961, and in this he achieved what he had hoped to do. The United States did not dare to attack Cuba again.

In Britain, we have tended to see Fidel and Cuba through the myopic lens of the United States, a statesman and a country that refused to tug his forelock to its long-term imperial master. Yet Cuba had lived for centuries under the wing of a Spanish imperial controller before the United States had even been invented; it was no stranger to anti-imperial resistance. This strong sense of anti-imperialist nationalism, nourished over hundreds of years, was the bedrock of Cuba's defiance of the United States. It remains intact today and will last for decades to come.

Richard Gott is the author of Cuba: A New History (Yale University Press)