Words are the Weapons, the Weapons Must Go: The Cuban Revolution and the American Left

By Patrick IberApril 28, 2016

Words are the Weapons, the Weapons Must Go: The Cuban Revolution and the American Left

Fighting over Fidel: The New York Intellectuals and the Cuban Revolution by Rafael Rojas

What was the Cuban Revolution? A series of events in Cuba, plainly: the defeat of the dictator Fulgencio Batista and the triumph of the guerrilla armies at the beginning of 1959, the agrarian reforms, the literacy campaigns, the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, the missile crisis in 1962, the death of Che Guevara in Bolivia in 1967, the socialization of small business in 1968, the failed 10-million-ton sugar harvest of 1970, the Mariel boatlift, and so on. Without a doubt, the Cuban Revolution was the most important event (or perhaps process) in Cuba’s 20th-century political history.

But it was also an important event in intellectual history, and it is this aspect that Rafael Rojas’s new book asks us to consider. Artists, writers, and intellectuals in New York are Fighting over Fidel’s subjects, and they engaged with the Cuban Revolution not as a matter of lived experience but as a matter of intellectual concern. For these figures, the Cuban Revolution was, above all, an inspiration for those who were seeking some sort of left-wing “third way” between capitalism’s indignities and the drab socialism of Eastern Europe. The desire for a viable alternative was so strong that people projected their hopes onto Fidel Castro and Cuba. But by the beginning of the 1970s, no matter where they began, nearly all of them were disappointed.

Rafael Rojas is a prolific historian of Cuban literature and culture. Born in 1965, Rojas left Cuba for Mexico in 1991 to begin doctoral work at the Colegio de México. By the end of the 1990s, his criticism of the Cuban political system began to create problems with authorities there, and he was issued a special passport given to those who are considered exiles. Working from Mexico City, he is the author of many book-length essays, several of which have won important prizes; Fighting over Fidel, however, is the first to be translated into English. American readers who hear the words “Cuban exile” and fixate on the conservative community in Miami might expect Fighting over Fidel to be some sort of polemic excoriating the naïveté of sympathizers of the revolution. But it is nothing of the sort. If Rojas’s oeuvre has a subject, it is the recovery of alternative political and intellectual traditions in Cuba’s past, including small-r republican ones, social democratic ones, and even alternative left visions to the one that came to dominate both politically and intellectually in the years since the Cuban Revolution. Fighting over Fidel, then, extends Rojas’s broader project by examining alternative lefts not in Cuba itself, but in the New York left’s engagement with Cuba.

Cuba and the United States have been official enemies for more than 50 years now. Because of this, narratives of the inevitability of hostility between the two countries predominate. But, as Rojas and other authors have reminded us, this was not the original condition of the US-Cuban relationship. The historian Van Gosse, for example, has emphasized how Cuba’s revolutionaries appealed to midcentury American proponents of masculinity, inspiring sympathy for this rebellion and even recruiting active volunteers in 1957 and 1958. Nor were the governments immediately at odds: when Castro visited the United States in April 1959, as William LeoGrande and Peter Kornbluh recently documented, he had a secret meeting with the CIA in which he agreed to receive intelligence on international communism. Rojas begins Fighting over Fidel with Castro’s visit to Princeton University that same April, where he gave a speech describing his ideology as a democratic humanism that could be shared both by Latin America and the United States. “When our goals are won,” he reassured those worried about communist influence, “Communism will be dead.”

In saying this, Castro was offering his audience an interpretation of the Cuban Revolution that was compatible with mainstream liberalism in the United States. Castro’s representatives in New York before the triumph of the revolution, such as Mario Llerena, worked to establish the democratic and anticommunist nature of the revolution, and their efforts were reinforced by influential reporting in The New York Times by Herbert Matthews, who had visited Castro in the Sierra Maestra during the guerrilla struggle, and by Ruby Hart Phillips, the paper’s Havana-based correspondent. Times coverage remained sympathetic to the revolution until early 1960.

In this relatively friendly environment, the intellectual that the Cuban government wanted to represent its character to the outside world was the writer Waldo Frank, contributor to both The New Yorker and The New Republic, author of the novel The Unwelcome Man and nonfiction books including Virgin Spain and South American Journey. Frank had been involved with Latin-American politics and culture for several decades. After a brief time in the Communist Party in the early 1930s, he became an advocate of the spiritual union of North and Latin America and a defender of the progressive “humanist” left. Frank first visited Cuba in October 1959 and was offered a contract to write a portrait of the island by the Cuban government’s Department of Cultural Relations. After 18 months of research and interviews, he produced a manuscript entitled Cuba: Prophetic Island. By 1961, when the work was done, the climate had changed. Increasing tensions with the United States and closeness to the Soviet Union meant that the anticommunist, “humanist” thinkers were scorned on the island, and some had even been jailed or exiled.

Nevertheless, Frank’s book is generous to Castro and the revolution. Of the guerrillas’ triumphant march to Havana in January 1959, where they were cheered and joined by many peasants, Frank writes:

[A]s they marched the hot and hungry miles upon Havana (which most of them had never seen) a voice rose from them — FIDEL — and became a marching song: FIDEL! FIDEL!

Castro heard it. This was no Roman military triumph. This was orders from the people. […] Castro was thus figuratively carried to Havana by the people.

In Cuba: Prophetic Island, Frank denies that the revolution was communist in nature and castigates the US-backed invasion at the Bay of Pigs. He argues that Cuba, and Castro in turn, represent Latin America and its ambitions. Yet at the same time, his book is framed as a warning to Castro to keep the revolution on the nationalist, humanist, and anticommunist path that Frank himself favored.

The Cuban government paid out Frank’s contract but refused to print the book as planned. In the meantime, the revelation that the Cuban government had paid Frank in the first place caused his English-language publisher to cancel its deal with him. Instead, the book was brought out in English by the small left-wing publisher Marzani & Munsell, which operated with financing from Moscow. In Spanish, it was published only by the Buenos Aires–based Losada. There, many leftists found it inspiring: the writer Julio Cortázar wrote that reading it made him decide to support the Cuban Revolution. Yet in Cuba, it couldn’t be read at all, and in the United States, conservatives attacked Frank as a Castroite stooge, damaging his reputation. Though he lived until 1967, Cuba: Prophetic Island was the last book Frank published during his lifetime.


Waldo Frank’s case was emblematic of the disappointments and alienation of the non-Marxist left with the course of the revolution. But it was typical in the sense that Cuba had become so important a symbol that discourse around it took on multiple meanings. Frank’s book was viewed differently in Havana, in Washington, DC, and in Buenos Aires, where its words were embedded in very different conversations.

Post-Revolutionary Cuba inspired the emergence of “New Left” politics around the world, including in the United States. Many of the Beat poets, for example, were generally drawn to admiration for Cuba and even its active defense. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Amiri Baraka (known then as LeRoi Jones), and Allen Ginsberg all joined the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, a group founded by Waldo Frank and Carleton Beals that argued against US intervention in the country. (Fair Play for Cuba was, in turn, partially financed by the Cuban government.) In Cuba, Ginsberg’s Howl was published in Lunes, the cultural supplement to Castro’s movement newspaper, Revolución.

But if Cuba inspired many around the world to fight to explore expanded ideas of freedom, the country’s domestic reality did not always correspond to their goals. The ecumenically leftist Lunes was shuttered by the Cuban government in late 1961, and Ginsberg mourned it in verse: “Cut up the world, and / You’ll see the right answer / Words are the weapons, / the weapons must go!” Revolutionary Cuba’s notion of freedom had more to do with national sovereignty than the liberation from social and sexual repression the Beats were after. In Cuba, marijuana was illegal, and homosexuals were considered deviant and sometimes placed in labor camps. When Ginsberg first visited the island to serve on a literary prize jury in 1965, he spoke out against homophobia in the revolution while commenting on the beauty of Che Guevara. Cuban State Security put him on the next available flight out of the country — to Prague. “After Ginsberg’s expulsion from Havana,” Rojas writes,

the image of Cuban socialism as an intolerant and repressive system became consolidated in Ginsberg’s memory. […] [O]n his way to the Havana airport after his forcible removal from the Riviera hotel, he asked the police why he was being deported and what laws he had violated. He observed that the response given to him by the Cuban agents — “You’ll have to ask yourself that” — was similar to what Dean Nicholas McKnight at Columbia University had told him “when I got kicked out for staying overnight in my room with Jack Kerouac.” […] Ginsberg also recalled Haydée Santamaría [the head of the cultural agency known as Casa de las Américas] telling him that “too many gays were making public spectacles of themselves and seducing impressionable young boys.”

Like Waldo Frank before him, Ginsberg found that he had pleased neither side. After he was ejected from the country by Cuban secret police, the FBI and CIA opened files on him for having made the trip at all.

It was not only artists and writers who traveled the road from inspiration to disenchantment. As the revolution declared itself first socialist and then communist, many Marxists, especially those already disappointed with existing socialism in Eastern Europe, perceived in Cuba a new set of possibilities. Paul Sweezy and Leo Huberman, in their own book on Cuba, and in the publications of Monthly Review Press, defended the socialist nature of the revolution, and the right of Cuba to opt for socialism and align itself with the Soviet Union if it so chose. The one criticism that they put forward — that the revolution was being “bureaucratized” — they thought could be solved by the influence of Che Guevara. In 1967, Monthly Review Press published Régis Debray’s Revolution in the Revolution?, which popularized Guevara’s ideas about the possibility of fomenting revolutions with small groups equipped with small arms. Debray made the case for an original Cuban contribution to Marxism-Leninism. “Under certain conditions,” he wrote, “the political and the military are not separate, but form one organic whole, consisting of the people’s army, whose nucleus is the guerrilla army. The vanguard party can exist in the form of the guerrilla foco itself. The guerrilla force is the party in embryo.” But while Cuba had supported guerrilla insurgencies throughout Latin America, a series of failures (including Che’s in Bolivia) and the tensions that such support created with the Soviet Union caused it to move away from those policies. Rojas, building on the work of the Argentine historian Néstor Kohan, reveals that Monthly Review received and published criticism in 1968 of Guevara and Debray’s theses about social transformation that were probably authored by members of the Cuban Communist Party itself, who called Debray’s ideas sectarian as part of their increasing alignment with the Soviet Union after 1968.

Other groups of radicals also drew inspiration from Cuba but found themselves at odds with its reality in major or minor ways. Encounters with the Cuban Revolution and the experience of lived exile in Cuba for many black activists from the United States laid down foundations for their radicalization. Analogies between the black struggle and Cuba’s own were thrilling: Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver, in his letters from Folsom State Prison, called Muhammad Ali “the black Fidel Castro of boxing.” Cuba’s anti-imperialism, and its defense of revolutionary violence — and the fact that it was beyond the reach of the FBI — made it a natural inspiration for those who imagined radical forms of Black Power. Some, like Huey P. Newton, were self-declared socialists who thought that the Cuban model would be ideal for the black movement in the United States, and several, including Cleaver, Stokely Carmichael, and H. Rap Brown, lived on the island in the late 1960s, where they in turn influenced younger, critical sectors of Cuban socialism.

But there were also points of divergence that grew more significant as Cuban socialism moved closer to Soviet orthodoxy in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Carmichael, for example, thought that decolonization and antiracism should be a project of nonaligned states, not those in step with the USSR. Many black visitors testified to the ongoing racism within Cuban society. The revolution’s leadership was overwhelmingly white, and official antiracism made it difficult for Afro-Cubans to point out ongoing insufficiencies without being branded as counterrevolutionaries. And there was a fundamental tension between the socialist and Black Power projects that was expressed by H. Rap Brown: socialist nationalism emphasized racial integration, which was anathema to many advocates of Black Power.

Fighting over Fidel is drawn primarily from the close reading of published material, rather than archival digging. Its strength is in the perceptive analysis of public conversation, while its private revelations generally come from the work of others. (I was surprised to see a poorly cropped picture of my own hand on page 81, part of an archival photo of correspondence between Waldo Frank and the Cuban government that I sent to the author some years ago.) Nevertheless, one of Fighting over Fidel’s most striking discoveries is a single-issue magazine, Pa’Lante (“Forward”), released in May 1962 and edited by three Marxists: Howard Schulman, Elizabeth Sutherland Martínez, and Jose Yglesias. (Yglesias, a novelist and writer, is father to the novelist Rafael and grandfather to the journalist and pundit Matthew.) Pa’Lante’s creators claimed to constitute a League of Militant Poets and promised to publish guerrilla and socialist writing to “demolish the walls put up in fear in men’s minds.” They defended socialist realism in the arts, which had actually been rejected as official policy in Cuba. But the project’s creators and the revolution moved in opposite directions. While the revolution grew more sectarian, Pa’Lante’s editors became less so. Both Yglesias and Martínez (who remained a Marxist) visited Cuba and wrote books that criticized aspects of the new revolutionary culture, including its machismo, homophobia, and racism.

Considered together, the portraits of Fighting over Fidel are rich and erudite, and the book arrives at an important moment. In the last few years, Presidents Obama and Raúl Castro have taken significant steps toward the normalization of relations between the two long-hostile countries. Obama has loosened travel restrictions for Americans and has endorsed an end to the US economic embargo. In Cuba, small businesses have been allowed to reopen in some sectors. Political debate on the island, while still constrained by censorship and self-censorship, is quite robust in some places. Most of Cuba’s intellectuals, whether they live inside or out, acknowledge the need for major reforms to the “Cuban model.” As new paths are sought and chosen, Rojas’s work to intellectually recover alternative politics, long-suppressed, may prove an important tool for thinking about the future. The irony that this sort of work could only be conducted from outside of Cuba should not pass unnoticed.

But if most agree on the need for reforms to the “Cuban model,” it is also true that there is need to reform the US model of treating Cuba. For non-Cubans who care about the politics of the island, such as the figures who populate this book, the cumulative effect of reading through case after case suggests something about the perilous work of international solidarity. It was natural that various leftist and socialist intellectuals would take account of one of the most important left-wing projects to emerge in the 20th century. But they sometimes seemed to forget that Cuba did not exist for them, or as a projection of their own hopes. It was not a utopia (which, after all, means “no place”). Cuba was, and is, a real place, and not an idea. The leaders of the revolution decided that they had to act politically to survive, and in spite of many internal problems, and the deep hostility of its powerful neighbor, they have. International observers who expected Cuba to follow a path that corresponded to their own ideology were almost inevitably disappointed — but perhaps such disenchantment is the inevitable consequence of initial passion. The experiences of the many subjects of Fighting over Fidel suggest that the challenge of solidarity might be better met with less enchantment and greater understanding.


Patrick Iber is assistant professor of history at the University of Texas at El Paso and the author of Neither Peace nor Freedom: The Cultural Cold War in Latin America.

LARB Contributor

Patrick Iber is assistant professor of history at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He is the author of Neither Peace nor Freedom: The Cultural Cold War in Latin America, published by Harvard University Press in 2015 and winner of the 2017 Luciano Tomassini Latin American International Relations Award.


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