MARCH 29, 2019
AUTOGRAPHS HAVE VIRTUALLY VANISHED as sought-after artifacts and encounters, with maybe book signings as exceptions. A selfie is now the required record of a moment spent with the famous. Non-business letters are also essentially extinct now that emails, texts, and direct messages govern most of our social exchanges. But for earlier generations, writing to someone you admire and requesting an autograph was a simple gesture of appreciation, an attempt to form a tiny bond to those you love and idolize. Andy Warhol treasured Shirley Temple’s signed photo, presaging his aesthetic treatment of Hollywood celebrity. Before rising to power, Hitler requested Mussolini’s autograph, auguring their disastrous future alliance. Tony Perrottet’s dishy new book on the Cuban Revolution reveals that a 12-year-old Fidel Castro wrote Franklin D. Roosevelt with a request too, but the young Jesuit school boarder didn’t want the American president’s signature — Castro wanted a 10-dollar bill. The request was refused, in a small way perhaps foreshadowing decades of political and economic strife between a rebellious David and his mighty Goliath to the north.
Before the Cold War–era showdowns, Fidel, his brother Raúl, and Che Guevara had the despised dictator Fulgencio Batista to overthrow, with all odds against them. According to Tony Perrottet, their struggle became “history’s most photogenic revolt,” ornamented with red-and-black armbands and set against the lush backdrop of the Sierra Maestra mountains. A rebel compound that included cabins, gardens, a clinic, and a press office became what Perrottet refers to as a “Sierra Shangri-la,” the center of the rebels’ “independent jungle republic.” There, a bearded band of ragtag rebels managed a movement to topple the venal dictatorship and do away with American control over the island’s economy.
¡Cuba Libre!: Che, Fidel, and the Improbable Revolution That Changed World History focuses not on Fidel’s consolidation of power and the beginning of socialist reforms but rather on the insurrection itself — covering events including the legendary assault on the Moncada Barracks, the near failure of the Granma landing, and the movement’s victorious march to Havana. Perrottet’s story zips through budding rebel romances, enormous supply chain problems, and the rebel fighters’ firsthand accounts of their brutal battles with government troops. The ever-poetic Che, for example, referred to one army ambush as a “symphony of lead.”
Born in Australia and based in New York, Perrottet is an accomplished travel writer with adventures in Iceland, Tasmania, and Zanzibar under his belt. Yet as a historian, he bucks the current nonfiction trend in which authors repeatedly insert themselves into their narratives. His lively, gossipy account steps back and allows the characters to speak for themselves, be they icons like Che or under-discussed figures like Joel Iglesias.
War histories always risk becoming tiring catalogs of names, dates, and sites. Instead, Perrottet’s juicy jungle opera unfurls briskly, conjuring for the reader a sense of how the rebel victory was won. Avoiding the hagiographical impulses of other historians, Perrottet’s tale remains grounded in the crude phenomenological texture of everyday life in the Sierra: near-constant digestive problems, bloody feet, the stench of unwashed bodies, and loathsome, omnipresent insects.
Humor abounds throughout the book too. A section on the affairs of the heart and the disorders of the bowels is titled “Love in the Time of Diarrhea.” Although men and women were in close quarters, there was little privacy and space for intimacies. Grimy bodies, muddy terrain, and revolutionary asceticism were hardly potent aphrodisiacs. Despite the grueling privations, they endured, and rebel romance nonetheless flourished. Fidel, Raúl, and Che all found partners during the mountain campaigns. Che used a fleeting one-on-one moment in the midst of a dangerous firefight to tell his comrade and future wife, Aleida March, about a growing desire for her. It was, she remembered later, “hardly the ideal moment for such a confession.”
While rebel days were filled with searching for food and preparing for battle, Perrottet also reflects on the bureaucratic tedium of revolution. In a letter to an aide, Fidel managed his realm through the meticulous directives of a sous-chef: “Tomorrow have them fetch the cheese. Today, they’re bringing honey; it’s for dessert. Sugar has to be divided. The box must last for two weeks.” Che’s remedy for camp boredom was reading, while others learned languages. Sympathetic farmers were taught how to read by rebels with time to spare.
All that activity became the wiring and mechanics underneath the hood of the red vehicle that was “The Movement.” Its surface needed to glisten and shine as it rushed toward its date with history. So, alongside rifles and pistols, public relations became the movement’s powerful weapon. Fidel sought well-choreographed interviews with journalists hungry for scoops, and when Batista’s soldiers surrendered to Che at the pivotal Battle of El Jigüey, Fidel demanded documentation: “Not one photo has been taken of anything. Could you do something about this?” In other words, Fidel understood branding. The struggle was showbiz, and his revolution would be televised.
The account of women’s roles in the rebellion is perhaps the most exciting thread of the book. Perrottet highlights the often-overlooked role of Celia Sánchez, Fidel’s lover, close advisor, and a kind of chief operating officer of the revolution. She managed logistics and correspondence, while also acting as a balm to soothe Fidel and prevent his flagrant, rage-filled outbursts. Other female rebels and sympathizers crafted Molotov cocktails out of soda bottles, smuggled ammunition in baby strollers, and hid secret messages in their bras. Their contributions to the cause picked away at stale machista norms of the island.
On the frontlines, women had to fight for the right to fight. Perrottet explains how the Mariana Grajales Women’s Platoon — known as the Marianas — was created with Fidel’s earnest support. Skeptics persisted in their misogynistic doubts until the platoon baptized itself in battlefield blood. A rebel critic quickly apologized to Fidel: “When the order was given to advance, some of the men stayed behind, but the women went ahead in the vanguard.” The youngest Mariana was only 14 years old, but for her the logic for fighting was simple. In the movement, she said, “I found a reason to live, I found a reason to die.”
Herein lies a solution to the puzzle of how a ragged little group could topple a dictator with a US-supported war machine, a vast surveillance apparatus, and coffers filled with mob payoffs. Soldiers need a reason to leave their families, fight, suffer, and die. Aside from money and anticommunist scare tactics, Batista lacked a meaningful reason to rally his armies. Fidel’s movement, Perrottet shows, wielded the energizing purity of black-and-white, good-versus-evil fanaticism.
As Batista became more savage in his repression, the United States slowly backed away and endorsed his exile in Europe. Perrottet provides a fascinating peek at a despot’s last hours in power, clarifying the moment of abdication depicted in the iconic film The Godfather Part II. New Year’s Eve, 1958, was a swirl of champagne, cash bundles, firecrackers, and fired shots. Thanks to the national radio station, the soundtrack to the chaos in Havana, Perrottet explains, was Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony playing on loop. The reality proved to be just as cinematic as Hollywood’s take.
Perrottet’s narrative meshes well with pop culture’s current interest in the kind of antiheroes found in Breaking Bad, Boardwalk Empire, or Deadpool, or would-be heroes who descend into a miasma of their own pathos. In the Netflix series Narcos, Medellín cartel boss Pablo Escobar is initially celebrated as a “Robin Hood paisa” before becoming a hated narcoterrorist. So too was Fidel revered as “Robin Hood of the Sierra Maestra” in the glory days of his rebellion, Perrottet notes, when the virtue and fervor of the movement were so palpable and lauded abroad.
History brims with ironies. On the verge of victory, which writer procured an exclusive interview with Fidel? The celluloid Robin Hood himself, the original man in tights: Errol Flynn. By that point, however, he was “addled by vodka and morphine,” Perrottet observes, and trying to pass off his 16-year-old lover as his secretary. Yet somehow, as a Hearst correspondent, he was the only reporter with Fidel when Batista finally abandoned Cuba.
Things do fall apart, however, whether in Havana or Hollywood. Castro would become the island’s unquestioned ruler for decades, although Perrottet’s account just hints at the repressive communist police state to come and its ruinous economic policies. The finale of Perrottet’s jungle opera mentions the “megalomaniacal tendencies [Castro] was already showing” — impulses that in previous pages appeared only as bratty quirks or the anger management problems of a tropical apparatchik. Yet initially, many people in Cuba and in the United States hoped for a different outcome — the infamous Ed Sullivan TV segment in 1959 lavished praise on a triumphant Fidel, even comparing him to George Washington. The man who would defy 10 US presidents innocently promised, “You can be sure that Batista … will be the last dictator of Cuba.”
A lingering puzzle in Perrottet’s narrative is how so much early promise, goodwill, and pro-revolution fanfare could eventually evaporate, easing Cuba into the Soviet bloc. He includes the curious story of Raúl taking 48 Americans and two Canadians hostage in 1958. They were treated so well that a mining executive — a natural foe of any people’s revolution — told The New York Times upon his release, “Hell, a few days won’t hurt us. We are all rebel sympathizers anyway.” This episode was a very far cry from the enmity to come. By 1962, Cold War tensions triggered the Missile Crisis face-off that pushed humanity to the closest it has ever been to nuclear annihilation. Every US administration since then tried to push Cuba away from its communist government, until President Obama initiated a thaw in the relationship. More recently, the Trump administration has signaled its intent to ramp up the pressure on Cuba’s economy.
Today, the United States again quarrels with a socialist dictator to the south: Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro, heir to Hugo Chávez’s bellicose bluster and a United Socialist Party whose reforms were blessed by the Castro regime. So the specter of communism still somewhat haunts the Americas, although the attraction among youth is often more to the hope for a fair and just society than a diehard commitment to nationalizing industries. Currently in the United States, the Democratic House majority advocates policies that Republicans immediately condemn as socialist, although you will find essentially no elected Democrat willing to embrace other countries’ experiments with Marxism — certainly not what has been tried in Cuba and Venezuela. Instead, the iconography of the “photogenic revolt” that Perrottet documents so well is what perhaps still conjures romantic remembrance, stirring a hope that can be at once energizing and also naïve.