The publication of Mario Llerena’s memoirs is a welcome event for students of contemporary Cuba. This is not a “new” work insofar as an earlier draft, deposited by the author at the Hoover Institution, has been available to scholars for several years. The earlier manuscript has been consulted and cited with profit, among others, by Hugh Thomas, who has now written the foreword to the published edition, and more recently by Ramón L. Bonachea and Marta San Martín in their important narrative of the Cuban insurrection.
Llerena, an expatriate professor and political writer of Presbyterian background, resigned from the faculty of Duke University and returned to Cuba weeks after Batista’s coup of March 10, 1952. His hope was to resettle in his native country and participate in some meaningful fashion in the political life of the island. After some dalliance with reformist but ineffectual opposition groups, he joined or, perhaps more appropriately, was drafted by Fidel Castro’s 26th of July movement. The year was 1956 and his first task was to draft a programmatic manifesto for the hitherto ideologically inarticulate organization. The resulting document, Nuestra Razón, begun in Cuba but published in Mexico in July of 1957, backdated to November of the preceding year, has been cited as evidence of the 26th of July’s social-democratic position during the early phase of the struggle. In fact, however, Nuestra Razón reflected its author’s rather than the movement’s views. It therefore received limited circulation and virtually no explicit endorsement from the sierra leadership. Apparently, Castro preferred maximum rhetorical appeal and a minimal programmatic commitment as shown by his own “Manifesto to the People” of March 12, 1958.
Of greater moment to Castro’s eventual triumph was the author’s effective performance as the 26th of July’s public relations man abroad until his resignation from the movement in the summer of 1958. At the root of Llerena’s disenchantment lay what he perceived as the 26th of July’s “radicalization.” He notes two crucial milestones in this process. The first was Castro’s decision to divorce the movement from all the other anti-Batista organizations in December 1957. It was a move that, ironically, Llerena himself had urged earlier in the belief that the 26th of July movement, like so many other revolutionary organizations in the past, might drift down the melancholy road of Cuba’s wasteful politics but which now evinced Castro’s dictatorial proclivities. The second, and more significant, was the apparent decision to steer the revolution toward the extreme left reached at the Sierra Maestra in March of 1958 and, naturally, kept under wraps until after the triumph.
Llerena’s evidence for this conspiratorial hypothesis, of course, is purely conjectural since he was not in Cuba at the time and was not privy to such alleged deliberations. In fact, his relationship to the movement’s leadership (read the Fidelista inner circle) was that of an often perplexed outsider; on anticipation of the perplexity of the Cuban middle class that made the “unsuspected revolution” possible.
This, however, should not obscure the numerous virtues of this work. The events in which Llerena participated are lucidly presented and scrupulously documented. The appendixes, including the full text of Nuestra Razón, are telling and useful, and so are the illustrations which include photocopies of Castro’s letters to the author. A section of capsule biographies of the 26th of July movement’s figures from 1956 through 1958 is especially valuable. Finally, the style is vivid and moves at a fast clip. Now that it has finally appeared in print, this sober and informative work should become standard reference for historians of the Cuban Revolution in its insurrectionary phase.