Robert Quirk, author of three prizewinning works on the Mexican Revolution and director of Latin American studies at Indiana University, has written not only a psychologically acute “portrait of Fidel Castro from the palette of [Castro’s] own words” but a definitive summary of twentieth-century Cuban history in the context of Soviet-Cuban relations, Soviet-American relations, and the U.S. political events that contributed to the Cuban state of affairs. Quirk also takes into account the predominant economic factor that shaped Cuban history, the monoculture of sugar: when the United States stopped buying, the Soviet Union stepped in to fill the void.

In support of Thomas Carlyle’s thesis that history is based on the lives of heroes and hero-worshipers, Fidel Castro, El Máximo Líder of the Cuban Revolution, was destined to play a crucial role, involving his country militarily in the liberation movements of Africa’s nonaligned nations and influencing Cold War events by defying his powerful northern neighbor. Illegitimate son of an uncultivated patrón in the provincial backwater of Camagüey, Fidel was an outsider, a rebel given to violent outbursts of temper, who never outgrew his opposition to authority figures. Pampered and looked after by women—his mother, his sisters, and later his “right arm,” Celia Sánchez—he was never able to sustain a long-term relationship. The six-foot-tall, bearded hero in a country of short men appeared as an “almost Christlike” figure to Cubans who lined the streets of Havana to greet the barbudos on January 8, 1959. When he addressed the masses at Camp Columbia, former military headquarters of Fulgencio Batista, a white dove symbolic of peace came to rest on the shoulder of his olive-drab fatigues. Yet a lifelong fascination with firearms led him to assemble the most powerful army and air force in Latin America. (In Quirk’s view, Castro became a Communist only after the United States refused to supply Cuba with weapons.) Lionized by Soviet leaders, Castro had more honors lavished on him than any visitor to Russia since the time of the czars. Yet Quirk predicts that in the long view of history, Castro will be considered not only “arrogant” but “irrelevant.”

More than a decade in the writing, this study supersedes and surpasses the monumental opus of British author Hugh Thomas, Cuba: The Pursuit of Freedom (1971). It is the definitive work to date: balanced, objective, and well documented with a wide range of sources in endnotes and informative footnotes. If there is one notable omission, it is that Quirk—after four visits to the island and research in the remote Galician village where Angel Castro, Fidel’s father, was born—never succeeded in meeting Castro himself. Hence his portrait loses some of the immediacy of character found in the reportage of Tad Szulc, Herbert Matthews, Richard Eder, Georgie Anne Geyer, and photobiographer Lee Lockwood, who recorded intimate hours spent with their subject in the Sierra Maestra and elsewhere.

Instead, Quirk bases his account on an exhaustive analysis of the Maximum Leader’s speeches, materials in the collection of the Biblioteca Nacional de Cuba, and a wide range of published sources. These include declassified documents from U.S. government departments and agencies now available under the Freedom of Information Act; Foreign Broadcast Information Service daily reports; early scholarly works by Rolando Bonachea and Nelson Valdés, Andrés Suárez, and Carmelo Mesa-Lago, and by the European socialist intellectuals René Dumont, K. S. Karol, and Régis Debray; personal memoirs of Carlos Franqui, former editor of Revolutión, the Nicaraguan poet-priest Ernesto Cardenal, the writer Teresa Casuso, and others; and works written from the vantage point of the U.S. Embassy by Philip Bonsai and Earl E. T. Smith, balanced by an insider’s view of the State Department’s tragic blunders in Latin America by Wayne Smith, former head of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana.

In a rare profile in 1977, Castro admitted, “a man should not remain in office too long, lest he became arrogant.” Some 40 years after the attack on the Moncada barracks, Castro suggested that he might step down if the United States ended the economic blockade. But he failed to mention a possible successor, and two weeks later he was “elected” to another five-year term as president of the Council of State. In the author’s words, “By all appearances, the Maximum Leader would see Cuba destroyed before he gave up his power and his prerogatives.”