In a 1959 letter sent from the Mudd Manuscript Library, the University’s chapter of the American Whig-Cliosophic Society invited Fidel Castro to speak at the University during his upcoming visit to the United States.
Fidel Castro, the Cuban revolutionary who governed Cuba as Prime Minister from 1959 to 1976 and then as President until 2008, while simultaneously serving as First Secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba between 1961-2011, died on Nov. 25, 2016.
Jack A. Ossorio from the American Affairs office quickly replied by telegram, “gratefully acknowledge[ing]” the invitation and adding that he hopes Castro will be able to accept despite his “extremely busy schedule.”
Ultimately, Castro accepted the invitation and spoke at Wilson (now Corwin) Hall on April 20, 1959. His speech was strictly invitation-only. In his speech, Castro aimed to debunk what he characterized as “conventional lies” about revolution using examples from the Cuban Revolution that had ended earlier that year: “Many people believed that revolution was impossible unless people were hungry. Many people believe revolution impossible against modern armies which had tanks and guns.” He described the Cuban Revolution as “a revolution for social justice” for all classes and distinguished it from the Russian Revolution by claiming that unlike the Bolsheviks, the Cuban revolutionaries had the support of the majority of the population, and would have no need to shore up their rule with “force and terror.” He also reassured his audience that Cuba would soon hold free and fair elections.
In a lecture on Bomb Power and Containment during the Cold War, history professor Joseph Fronczak said that the University's students received Castro enthusiastically: witnesses claimed that the campus was like a “circus” during Castro’s visit. He added that students “took to the streets” upon Castro’s arrival on campus, creating a “parade-like” atmosphere. Some students even set off cherry-bombs in the streets to commemorate the event.
After Castro’s 1959 visit, he largely fell out of contact with the University, leaving faculty and students alike to study his actions and his legacy. Adrián López-Denis, a lecturer in the University’s Latin American Studies and Resident Director of the Princeton in Cuba study abroad program, said that Castro’s relationship with the University, and indeed with America, is mired in a “misplaced obsession” with his legacy, and particularly his involvement in the Cuban Revolution. He added that Castro’s death is a “nonevent,” and that the fact that people are worried about what its impact will be is an example of the disproportionate focus on Castro’s influence: “a very old, sick man died in Cuba. Nothing was built or destroyed, nothing was created, nothing really happened. We can characterize a lot of the emphasis placed on Fidel Castro as part of an obsession that is a little bit misplaced. We should concern ourselves with events that actually affect people's’ lives as opposed to this emphasis, which could potentially become a smokescreen rather than a framework for useful discussion on what to do in Cuba or how to move forward in Cuba-United States relations. It’s not that I love him or I hate him; I’m not taking a side. I think it’s a good idea to focus on other issues that really matter and free ourselves from this obsession.”
López-Denis said that in his classes on Cuba, he tries to discuss Cuban foreign policy without “judging” Castro or “revising history” to place his at its center. He added that overemphasizing Castro’s role in Cuban history distorts that history and diminishes actions of other Cubans: “The main thing is to remove ourselves from all the metaphors that exaggerate the relative importance of Fidel Castro and, by doing that, minimize the contributions of hundred and thousands and millions of other Cubans. We have an obsession with great men and leaders, and epic histories, we have this obsession with figures as symbols. Fidel Castro said that history will judge him, and that is not something that we need to do. We don’t need to judge him, he’s not that important, he’s not what history should be about. Even judging his work is perhaps giving him too much importance. We need to study what is going on without putting him at the center of it of a story that he is not the center of . . . It’s not about his legacy, it’s about a bunch of Cubans doing things for better or worse. He didn’t cut the sugar canes he didn’t build the hospitals. This is a part of history that cannot be used to discuss whether he was a good guy or whether he was evil. Reducing the history of Cuba to the history of its revolution, and then reducing the history of its revolution to the history of Fidel Castro is a mistake that we need to stop perpetuating.”
López-Denis asserted that part of the “obsession” with Castro’s legacy comes from an ideological urge to judge his actions: “My advice would be that if you want to understand the Cuban Revolution don’t do it by passing judgement on Fidel Castro, stop this obsession with his legacy . . . The revolution is a very polarizing historical process with very polarizing positions and I think that the polarization is one of the big obstacles to thorough understanding, defend or attack an ideological position that has nothing to do with Cuba in particular. People who don’t like socialism can say “Look at what happened in the Cuban Revolution, it failed!” and people who like socialism can say “It’s great! Look at how good the education and health is!” In order to get that kind of easy ideological takeaway, you have to simplify history. Understanding the revolution is further complicated by the fact that Fidel Castro was a polarizing figure, so not only is he leading the extremely polarizing historical process of the revolution, but within that, he’s an extremely polarizing figure. You need to move away from the polarizing elements to understand the revolution’s complexity.”
López-Denis described the Princeton in Cuba study abroad program as way for students to study Cuba through a new lense and challenge some of their preconceptions about its history: “When my students and I got to Cuba to study abroad we definitely don’t go there to try to understand Fidel Castro. The issue here is that there’ a particular American brand of obsession with Fidel which comes from the U.S.’s proximity to Cuba.” He said that this “brand of obsession” always generates the same set of “big questions” about Cuba: “What about Hemingway? What about the nuclear crisis? And of course, what about Fidel Castro?” López-Denis added that these aren’t pressing issues for the common Cuban person, but rather the curiosity of a “political tourist” that “forces Cubans to reenact, over and over again, the past for the consumption of foreigners, even if it's not necessarily what Cuban want them to know about Cuba in order to become participants in constructing a new country.”
López-Denis said that ultimately, that University students trying to predict Cuba’s future should avoid dwelling on Castro’s legacy, and instead try to gain a better understanding of the current issues considered most important by the Cuban people.