Fidel Castro: Memories of a Lost Time


I am not going to try to assess Fidel Castro’s historical significance. I’ll leave that to people who know the history of Latin America better than I do. But I want to make one historical and a personal comment.
The New York Times subheads its decent story about Castro, “The Man Who Brought the Cold War to the Western Hemisphere.” That’s entirely untrue. Well before Castro and Che Guevara stepped on the world stage, the U.S. was involved in overthrowing governments in Latin America on the grounds that they were too close to “communism.”

In 1954, the CIA engineered a coup in Guatemala to overthrow its democratically elected social democratic government, whose labor reforms had run afoul of the United Fruit Co. In its place, the US installed a military dictatorship. Castro was the first Latin America leader to defy the dominance of American corporations in the region and to get away with it. That’s a big reason why he remains a hero in Latin America to people who have and had no love for Soviet communism nor supported the kind of dictatorship that Castro erected in Cuba.

The Cuban revolution was also hugely important to the development of a new left in the United States. It was the first crack in the façade that liberal Cold Warriors had erected to justify American intervention abroad in place in places like Guatemala and Iran and contributed to the early skepticism that many of us had about American intervention in Vietnam. In my own case, I’d trace my first inkling that something was wrong with US foreign policy to an article in the very early ‘60s that the New Republic (well before the Marty Peretz era) published about the Cuban revolution.

Castro was also the reason for my first big fight with my father over politics. He and my mother were visiting me in Berkeley in late 1964, I think, and my girlfriend and I had a photo of Castro, looking somewhat like Jesus, on the wall of our apartment. My father saw it and ripped it down. We didn’t talk for a year after that. He was sort of a Richard J. Daley Democrat, but I had never seen him agitated about politics before. I recall that just to say what a very big deal Fidel Castro was to people like me in the early 1960s.


John B. Judis is Editor-At-Large at Talking Points Memo. He was a senior editor of The New Republic and senior writer for The National Journal. He is the author most recently of The Populist Explosion: How the Great Recession Transformed American and European Politics (Columbia Global Reports, 2016). He has written six other books, including Genesis: Truman, American Jews, and the Origin of the Arab-Israeli Conflict (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2014), The Folly of Empire: What George W. Bush Could Learn from Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson (Scribner, 2004), The Emerging Democratic Majority with Ruy Teixeira (Scribner, 2002), and The Paradox of American Democracy: Elites, Special Interests, and Betrayal of Public Trust (Pantheon, 2000). He has written for numerous publications, including The New York Times Magazine, Mother Jones, and The Washington Post. Born in Chicago, he received his B.A. and M.A. degrees in Philosophy from the University of California, Berkeley. He lives in Silver Spring, MD.