Two books on Castro's Cuba
My Life in the Cuban Revolution.
By Enrique Oltuski. Wiley. 276 pp. $24.95
INSIDE THE CUBAN REVOLUTION:
Fidel Castro and the Urban Underground.
By Julia E. Sweig. Harvard Univ. Press. 302 pp. $29.95
Reviewed by Jorge I. Domínguez
Oltuski tells the story of his transformation from University of Miami fraternity boy to organizer of the urban insurgency wing of Fidel Castro’s revolutionary 26th of July Movement in Cuba, where he contributed to the overthrow of Fulgencio Batista’s government in 1959. Sweig focuses on the same urban insurgency, but she writes about the collective experience of the young men and women, Oltuski among them, who fashioned the movement.
Revolutionaries make revolutions, both authors agree, and their actions are more important than social and economic conditions in directing the course and outcome of revolutions. But the authors differ on the relative importance of leaders and followers. That difference is one of the central issues in the understanding of large-scale acts of political violence over time throughout the world.
Oltuski, who is now Cuba’s deputy minister of fisheries, remains an unreconstructed believer in the primacy of leaders. "I think to change, or even to evolve history, it’s not enough for the popular conditions to exist," he writes. "You also need the man who strikes the spark and knows how to lead the people along the right path in the midst of as complex a situation as a revolution." In his view, Castro has been such a leader, and the Cuban Revolution is unimaginable without him.
By contrast, Sweig, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, argues that the late-1950s "battle for Cuba’s future was a power struggle . . . as much within the opposition as against the Batista dictatorship." Revolutionary Cubans acted in concert, she argues, and those in the urban areas did more than those in the countryside to weaken Fulgencio Batista’s grip until about eight months before his fall. Castro’s eventual triumph resulted from many factors, including accidents. Sweig acknowledges his many skills but insists that he did not tower over events all along. Many other revolutionaries also made this revolution.
Oltuski and Sweig concur on the significance of the urban underground. In doing so, they dispute the position taken by the official historian of the Cuban Revolution, Ernesto (Che) Guevara, who maintained that Castro-led guerrillas in the mountains were the architects of revolutionary victory. Guevara failed twice when he tried to implement his theories of rural revolution elsewhere, first in the Congo and then in Bolivia, where he was killed in 1967. Oltuski and Sweig demonstrate that Guevara was wrong about revolution in Cuba as well.
These books disappoint because they focus solely on the urban underground of the 26th of July Movement (named for the date of a major attack on a barracks). One learns little about other revolutionary movements, such as the Revolutionary Directorate and the Second Front at the Escambray Mountains, whose acts of violence also contributed to Batista’s overthrow. And one learns nothing about the state’s collapse from within. Six months before Batista fell, Fidel Castro and his brother Raúl commanded only some 400 guerrillas. The Batista regime imploded from a combination of military unprofessionalism, inadequate training, weaponry unsuitable for guerrilla warfare, the theft of war supplies, and inept strategic decisions.
The books are very well written, however, and they convey a lively sense of battle and commitment, chance and tragedy, human foibles and heroism. Whereas Oltuski simply relates his own tale, Sweig has conducted impressive archival and other primary research, employing documents newly declassified by the Cuban government. Her analysis is thorough, careful, and nuanced, and the book will likely become the key work on the subject.
–Jorge I. Domínguez