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20 Years of Castro’s Revolution

The Unsuspected Revolution: The Birth and Rise of Castroism

by Mario Llerena
Cornell University Press, 324 pp., $12.50

Diary of the Cuban Revolution Seaver/Viking Press book next fall)

by Carlos Franqui
Reudo Ibérico (Barcelona and Paris) (to be published as a, 583 pp., $18.00

I

The writer who tries to face the full reality of Cuba takes a big risk, caught as he is in the crossfire between the eulogizers and the denigrators. If he writes in Spanish, and is associated with the Latin left, he becomes a victim of the sterile logic which classifies all criticism of Cuba as “giving arms to the enemy.” The taboo in the Hispanic world concerning the Cuban revolution is reminiscent of the old left-wing taboo against criticism of the Soviet Union. Among Spanish leftists (including the militant wing of the Communist Party) it is now acceptable to make the sort of criticism of the USSR that André Gide first did in 1936.

The Soviet myth has been demolished, but about Cuba many Spanish socialists and Euro-communists maintain a prudent silence, practicing self-censorship with an apparently untroubled conscience. The German poet and critic Hans Magnus Enzensberger points out that there exists among the left “the firmly rooted habit of people lying, knowing that they are lying.” The same prejudices George Orwell experienced in 1937 for his sober account of the Barcelona uprising during the Spanish Civil War are rampant in the Latin world concerning Cuba. Because of their sharp criticisms, intellectuals such as René Dumont and K.S. Karol have grotesquely been accused of being “paid CIA agents.”

In The Crack-up, F. Scott Fitzgerald observes, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” In judging what one reads on Cuba, this sort of intelligence at work appears to be rare. Most writers emphatically deny some part of Cuban reality. Paradise or concentration camp: such crude judgments falsify the complex and contradictory experience of twenty years of revolutionary government.

Mario Llerena’s personal account, The Unsuspected Revolution, is based on diaries kept at the time of Castro’s movement during the decisive period that began with Castro’s arrival from Mexico on the small ship Granma in December 1956, and ended just before the triumph of the revolution in January 1959. Llerena was one of a group of middle-class intellectuals who were shocked by the corruption, gangsterism, and arbitrariness of Batista’s Cuba and hoped for far-reaching social and political reform under a constitutional and democratic government.

I have been talking about my personal experience, but mine was not an isolated case. Thousands upon thousands like me throughout the island and abroad—professionals, teachers, students, white-collar workers, businessmen, industrialists—had been aroused to indignation by Batista’s destruction of the country’s constitutional system and then had been filled with hope by the prospect of a decent, constructive, democratic revolution such as the one in which Castro appeared to be engaged. These were the people who made Castro a national leader and gave their time, their efforts, their money, and frequently their lives for what they thought to be that kind of revolution.

The Unsuspected Revolution is an account of political disenchantment. Llerena presents himself as a disinterested idealistic reformer who almost unknowingly found himself on the crest of a full-fledged radical revolution, as a fellow traveler to the revolutionary group. Still, a certain tone of self-justification occasionally creeps into the account. Llerena describes certain personal episodes in great detail, while other events are glossed over. Llerena’s famous rivalry with Judge Manuel Urrutia, the reformist anti-Batista politician who was appointed president of the Republic the day Castro seized power, is given scant attention.

During 1957 and 1958 Llerena acted as the official spokesman of Castro’s Twenty-sixth of July Movement in North America. Along with other moderate reformers in the group, Felipe Pazos and Léster Rodríguez, Llerena negotiated the famous Miami Pact with exiled Cuban politicians who had become disillusioned with Batista. Llerena’s manifesto, Our Cause, emphasized that the movement was open to a variety of political tendencies. But by 1958 the movement had begun to take a more radical line, causing Llerena to back away and finally to resign from his official positions several months before the revolution triumphed.

Llerena emphasizes that the revolution was almost exclusively the work of a small, well-educated group drawn from the affluent Cuban bourgeoisie, which included Castro and his brothers, sons of landowners. The communists remained on the fringes of the revolution and didn’t start official negotiations with Castro until the spring of 1958 when the defeat of Batista was inevitable. Under Batista’s first government (1934-1944) the Communist Party had been officially in favor, participating in the government and gaining power over the labor unions through its control of the Cuban Confederation of Workers. During this long period the Cuban communists operated their own radio station and newspapers with complete freedom, but like all other pro-Moscow parties in Latin America, they remained isolated, unable to recruit a significant following.

They prospered only in the shade of someone else’s power—as they did for a time when Batista welcomed them as his political allies. As soon as they were left without special government protection, they returned to their usual isolated state. Neither the existing conditions, therefore, nor the considerable efforts of radical elements were ever sufficient to ignite the radical revolution in Cuba. Communism stirred to life again only when another propitious source of power arose on the political horizon.

A group of outsiders created the revolution, and their fuzzy ideology was the key to their triumph, for this neutralized the danger of direct intervention from the United States during the critical transition period. Before 1959 most of the movement’s leaders professed democratic and anticommunist views. (For a strong statement of them, one should consult the interview with Castro by Andrew St. George in Look, April 1958.) These ideas were dropped after the key leaders took power and on December 2, 1961, Fidel publicly embraced Marxist-Leninism.

Most of the writing on this remarkable shift, including Llerena’s, concentrates more on psychological interpretations of the leaders than on analysis of their actions and documents. Faced with the abrupt political change of the Great Leader, Llerena muses: “Who is Castro? Who is he really?” He first considers whether Castro could have been a Marxist-Leninist before the revolution, professing democratic beliefs merely as tactical camouflage on the road to power—a view Castro himself endorsed in his famous speech on December 2, 1961. But, Llerena asks, could it have been that Castro’s ideas during the period between 1955-1959 still were in flux, his only serious aim being to take power? Llerena favors this second hypothesis, seeing Castro’s actions during the preceding twenty years as “the product of the ever expanding ego in relation to the prevailing circumstances…. His actions are invariably geared to keeping him at the center of the world stage.” Llerena concludes:

Castro sees revolution not as a last resort but as a channel for self-expression—an escape valve for his accumulated resentments and hates. He actually needs revolution as the addict needs his drug…. Communism offered him the kind of stage and claque best suited to the cravings of his monumental ego.

Llerena neither examines the conditions surrounding Castro’s shift to overt Marxist-Leninism nor does he analyze the discussions we now know took place in the inner revolutionary circle. As a marginal figure in the movement, he can only guess at what went on among the top leaders when, because of the sweeping success of the guerrillas, the Twenty-sixth of July Movement became the determining factor in the fight against Batista and the movement’s leaders broke their tactical ties with traditional Cuban political factions.

After 1958 the public speeches of Castro and the other leaders of the movement were often skimpy and vague. “From then, until the Movement reached power in January 1959,” Llerena writes, “there was an ideological blackout. But few people seemed to notice.” Llerena, emphasizing Castro’s personal psychology, gives no sense either of the political struggle between two opposing factions that took place in the central leadership of the Sierra Maestra or of how Fidel emerged as the undisputed victor. For that, we must read Carlos Franqui’s Diary of the Cuban Revolution.

When I visited the Soviet Union in 1965, a historian of Spanish origin described to me a special room in a Moscow library that was devoted to anticommunist literature but had no books by Trotsky or Bukharin. Officially, the historian explained, these men never existed. Carlos Franqui’s obsession to conserve and protect the historic archives of the Cuban revolution from political manipulation thus seems entirely understandable. During the 1960s, Castro had entrusted Franqui with the preservation of the historic archives of the revolution Franqui had helped start. Later Cuba adopted the same methods of historic falsification used by the Soviet Union, and when Franqui publicly broke with Castro in the late 1960s, his own picture was blotted out of the famous victory photos, so many thousands of times reproduced, of Castro’s victorious entry into Havana. Fortunately for us, when Franqui went into exile he managed to get out of Cuba photocopies of letters, documents, and reports which had been in the archives under his care. In The Diary of the Cuban Revolution, Franqui has done rescue work of great importance.

Franqui had been involved in Cuban politics since he was a teenager, first joining the youth movement of the Cuban Communist Party in 1939, then quitting it to become one of the first members of Castro’s revolutionary movement. He led the clandestine Twenty-sixth of July Movement in Havana, was imprisoned by Batista in March 1957, and then went into exile in Mexico, Latin America, and the US; later he joined the guerrillas of Sierra Maestra, and when Castro took power he became director of Radio Rebelde and of the newspaper Revolucíon—the official organ of the Twenty-sixth of July Movement. Opposing dictatorial methods and defending artistic freedom, Franqui soon was considered “questionable”; he broke with Castro when Cuba backed the Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia in 1968.

Diary of the Cuban Revolution is an extraordinary montage of letters, documents, and taped discussions of the actual statements and recorded debates of the principal figures of the revolution during the struggle against Batista which began on July 26, 1953, and which triumphantly ended on January 1, 1959. Franqui’s documents help us to follow the transformation of a group of young hopeful bourgeois rebels into the political leaders of a formidable communist power. Several of the documents are already known, such as fragments of Che Guevara’s diary and the writings of Commander Efigenio Ameijeiras, both of them surprisingly literary in tone. But most of the material is fresh, including Castro’s fascinating taped recollections of his childhood and his personal account of his much discussed intervention in the political upheavals in Bogotà in 1948. Castro’s correspondence during his imprisonment on the Isle of Pines between 1953 and 1955 is of particular value. We learn, for example, of his admiration for Robespierre:

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