This book is an outstanding contribution to Cuba’s contemporary history. The task facing the editors was quite impressive. Fidel Castro is a mercurial and polemic figure, who is still in power and continues to make long and, at times, important speeches. To make a meaningful selection among this vast material is already difficult, but to write an introduction covering Castro’s life until 1959, avoiding clichés and political partisanship, searching deep in old Cuban publications, is indeed remarkable. Almost all previous attempts had been disappointing failures. Until this book, Castro’s biography and bibliography was basically formed by propaganda and journalism; this is the first scholarly approach. By providing those interested in the Cuban revolution with enough information and facts about Castro to begin forming their own opinion, the editors have started to fill an important historical gap. We hope that in future works they will expand their study to complete a task that they have so successfully begun.
Naturally, the Introduction is the most attractive part of the book. It is easier to read Castro’s speeches than to understand the historical background of his words. The editors have devoted one hundred and nineteen pages to bring the reader an essential profile of the man and his social and historical environment or, as Ortega y Gasset would have said, his “circunstancia.” The best homage to the quality of the work is the frustration of the reader when the editors suddenly stop and leave Castro’s biography at the very moment he reaches power.
Of course, there are shortcomings too. In the Introduction two are the most noticeable: the failure of the editors to grasp the entire picture of pre-Castro Cuba, and some tinge of “romanticism” when dealing with some aspects of Castro’s life. The first point is evident in some historical errors and in some hasty or unbalanced conclusions on certain episodes of Cuba’s past. The editors should take note, for example, that the “thirteen young radicals and intellectuals” who protested against public corruption in 1923 (p. 7) could not have been “members of the newly founded Communist Party” because the party was not founded until 1925. Furthermore, contrary to their assertion, in that period the Cuban Communist Party, as the other parties in Latin America, was far from being “nationalistic” in its outlook. After 1935, the party itself attributed many of its “mistakes” to its lack of understanding of the emerging Cuban nationalism. The ABC was a political organization totally independent of the Student Directory of 1930, and consequently was not founded, as they assert (p. 9), because of a split among the rank and file of the students. Sumner Welles did not remain in Cuba only twenty days after the establishment of the Cuban revolutionary government of 1933 (p. 11); Welles stayed for more than three months and set the scene for his successor, Caffery, by opposing the revolutionary government in every possible way.
These relatively minor mistakes contribute to the lack of balance in some of the pictures and conclusion of the editors. By stressing only the violent episodes during Grau’s government, for example, they give the impression of complete anarchy or chaos during his term (1944-1948) and go as far as to say, “Cuba’s government began to be ruled by terrorist elites” (p. 21). If they expand their sources, they will be able to see how exaggerated that assertion is. They follow the same tendency when studying the conditions at the University of Havana in 1945-49. By looking at it through Castro’s actions and involvements, always related to the so-called “action groups,” they fail to mention many other groups devoted to the improvement of studies at the University and the general tendency toward a more peaceful and scholastic atmosphere during that same period.
When they begin to deal directly with Castro’s life, the editors show their real strength. True, they still “romanticize” a little and repeat some puerile anecdotes—Fidel as a child threatening his father with burning the house if he was not sent to school; Fidel in high school always talking with the humble employee listening to their problems and agonies—taken from very dubious sources, but the bulk of their research is wide and solid, and they manage to avoid empty generalizations about “charisma” and “destiny.” The fascinating reading becomes more mature as it moves from Castro’s childhood into his revolutionary struggle. One is even tempted to say that it seems as if the editors began their work with an image of Castro–Fidel the heroic revolutionary fighter—and ended with another—Castro the shrewd and implacable politician.
This is, perhaps, the most valuable contribution of the book. With few conjectures and rigorous research, the editors show us the many aspects of Castro’s fife, particularly the ambivalence of his personality. That Introduction will force many people to reconsider their opinion on Castro’s character and on the reasons for his victory. Through it we not only can see Castro the tenacious revolutionary, the leader capable of mobilizing hundreds of young Cubans for an almost suicidal attack against a military barrack, the indomitable guerrilla leader who held his ground and his faith when everything seemed lost, but also the violent and ambitious young man who, well before Batista reached power, was already involved in the shooting and killing of political enemies. The Fidel who spoke and acted as a redeemer of his people, and the Castro who deceived his supporters (“Deal with the people artfully and with a smile . . . there will be enough time later to crush all the cockroaches together” on p. 58), accepted money from old politicians, signed pacts he had no intention to follow and moderated his programs to offer a façade of respectability. He was willing to sacrifice anything for his ideals, and to break any resistance or to crush any individual or group—even equal to his own militancy—who could menace his road to power.
Even from that brief summary of Castro’s fife, we can also perceive how unpredictable and fortuitous was his final victory. Castro’s tenacity was ever present, but how many unforeseen factors and circumstances helped him on his way! The editors pay due attention to a basic factor usually forgotten by students of the Cuban revolution: the weakness and corruption of Batista’s dictatorship and his wavering conduct. “Fulgencio Batista loved power and wanted to remain in office as long as possible. At the same time he longed for the support of the Cuban people. It was the irreconcilable paradox of an illegitimate ruler dreaming of legitimacy” (p. 61). The editors should have remembered that from 1935 to 1940, Batista had managed to do precisely that: to move from illegitimacy to legitimacy. What he failed to understand was the changing situation of 1952-58. Deprived of any semblance of justification to be in power, he tried to be a popular dictator. He never became popular, but he managed to be a mediocre dictator. He used enough repression to be hated, and allowed freedom enough for his enemies to go on fighting.
Then came some of the other significant events which could have changed the entire situation in Cuba: the tragic failure of the attack on the Goicuría barracks, the weakening of the “civilian” group of the 26th of July Movement as a result of the ill-conceived general strike of April 1958, the death of Frank País (the only leader who could have stood up to Castro), the collapse of the anti-Batista opposition inside the army and, above all, the tragic disaster of the Student Directory in March 1958, when they attacked the Presidential Palace and almost succeeded in killing Batista—a heroic deed that Castro immediately condemned—with the result that the entire leadership of the Student Directory was wiped out by the police. By November 1958 a chain of events had produced a complete polarization in Cuba, and Castro remained alone as the only alternative to Batista.
The role of the Cuban Communist Party is almost totally ignored by the editors. This is a curious omission that should have been corrected. Only by analyzing the situation in Cuba, the activities of the party and Castro’s ideological and political position, can one understand why men like Blas Roca and Carlos Rafael Rodríguez, who were once Batista’s supporters, are today important figures in Castro’s government.
A final note. The translation of Castro’s speeches deserves praise. The footnotes of the editors have few errors and are extremely helpful in clarifying events and names.