From Biran to Revolutionary Firebrand
A Review by Mimi Whitefield
Young Castro: The Making of a Revolutionary
by Jonathan M. Hansen
Simon & Schuster, June 2019, 512 pages
Before he died on Nov. 25, 2016, Fidel Castro told his brother Raúl that he wanted no statues erected in his honor nor any streets, roads or squares named after him.
For the man who ruled Cuba for more than five decades such tangible remembrances are unnecessary anyway. For better or worse, his presence still looms large in Cuba. His words appear regularly in state-run media and are constantly evoked in speeches by government officials.
In his new book, Young Castro, Jonathan M. Hansen neither explores the legacy of Fidel Castro nor his place in history. He doesn’t judge his actions in seizing power for a half century or his hard left turn toward Communism.
Instead, Hansen delves into the historical events, the personal relationships and the personality traits that helped shape a young Castro when he was on the cusp of becoming Fidel Castro, one of the most charismatic but polarizing personalities of the 20th century.
Castro’s formative years are what interest Hansen and he essentially ends his chronicle as Castro marches triumphant into Havana on Jan. 8, 1959, although he ties up some loose ends in the epilogue about Castro’s conversion to Communism.
Hansen fills out personal details and adds new layers of complexity to a life whose narrative has often been shaped and manipulated to serve the purposes of the Cuban Revolution. He asks readers to suspend their image of the bearded revolutionary, the dictator, their idea he was “communist at conception.”
“The reward for doing so may not be a more likeable Castro but one whose aspirations, accomplishments and failures make sense in light of the political and economic conditions that inspired and constrained them,” Hansen writes.
He begins his chronicle in Galicia where Fidel’s father Angel was born in abject poverty. A flinty determination takes Angel from a downtrodden soldier who fought on the Spanish side during the Cuban War of Independence to a wealthy landowner in Birán, a speck of a village in the eastern Cuba province of Holguín.
As a boy Castro spent long days on horseback exploring Birán and environs and was known for his fearlessness and penchant for trying to fix things—his own way, of course.
In his early years, Castro was an indifferent student, Hansen tells us, but he had a photographic memory, something that stood him well at the University of Havana, then a hotbed of political activism. Castro put in very little time in the classroom yet managed to pass his law school exams by studying on his own.
After a flirtation with violent gangs associated with political bosses, Castro discovered a better way to distinguish himself at the university was through organized politics rather than the thuggery of the gangs. During the tumultuous times of the late 1940s, the national press began to take notice of the charismatic student political leader.
Hansen draws a nuanced portrait of a complex young man. Castro was at once sympathetic to the plight of the poor and had a knack for getting along with the campesinos he grew up with. But he was also impetuous, defiant, audacious “bordering on recklessness” and single-minded even when his plans had little chance of success and clashed with prevailing wisdom.
He and his fellow revolutionaries, for example, had assembled only a small cache of antiquated weapons, had little ammunition and some factions of his group bailed at the last minute, but Castro insisted the attack on the Moncada Barracks in Santiago de Cuba had to go forward.
Though it failed, it is commemorated as the beginning of the revolution that eventually ousted Fulgencio Batista.
Castro never cared much about earning a living, depending on his parents to support him, his wife Mirta Díaz-Balart and their young son, while he concentrated on his revolutionary activities.
In the end it wasn’t Castro’s infidelities nor the countless nights he spent away from home while he was enmeshed in politics that ended his marriage to Díaz-Balart, but rather what he considered her betrayal, writes Hansen. While listening to the radio in prison, he learned she had been dismissed from a no-show job in the Batista government. “Castro couldn’t imagine Mirta ever taking a job in the government of his sworn enemy— no matter how strapped she was for cash,” writes Hansen.
Mining letters in the Castro archives to Díaz-Balart and journalist Luis Conte Agüero, Hansen shows how Castro agonized over the news and first assumed it was another Batista plot to destroy him and that Mirta had been slandered. But Hansen writes Castro concluded his wife had been “seduced” by her family and their long-standing ties to Batista.
Conte, who later broke with Castro and went into exile, urged reconciliation with Mirta, but Castro writes to his then-friend in July 1954 that he had decided to file for divorce, a decision Castro said he took “as a man who places duty to the homeland and the love of its ideals above all other sentiments.”
Even though these letters have previously been published, in Hansen’s hands they provide revealing clues to Castro’s personality. As the years passed and Castro consolidated his power, the details of his domestic life were treated almost as state secrets on the island and the back story of his marital troubles is not well-known in contemporary Cuba.
So it is with other details of Castro’s personal life. “Literature on Fidel Castro and his family is at once sparse, contentious and polemical. Even ordinary birth dates are the source of heated debate,” Hansen writes in the notes to his book.
In his quest to illuminate Castro’s formative years, Hansen [not only used existing literature but also traveled to Cuba, Mexico, Miami and other U.S. locations to do personal interviews with 31 people, including Castro’s sister Enma. For the perspective of interview-shy Castro sister Juanita, in exile in Miami, he relies on her 2009 book Fidel y Raúl, mis hermanos: La historia secreta.
To prepare his meticulously researched book, Hansen was given rare access for a U.S. historian to the Castro archives in Havana, and, shortly before her death, Naty Revuelta, a socialite/revolutionary collaborator whose brief affair with Castro resulted in a daughter, also agreed to share her correspondence with Fidel.
This treasure trove of letters written while Castro was imprisoned on the Isle of Pines following the Moncada Barracks attack reveals Castro’s evolving political doctrine and vision for the future of Cuba. The pair, says Hansen, fell in love through their correspondence.
Revuelta kept Castro supplied with a steady stream of requested reading materials from FDR’s New Deal, French literature, and Kant to history tomes, Marx’s Capital, and works by Felix Varela and other independence forefathers. Castro made good use of his time in prison, teaching classes to fellow revolutionaries and preparing History Will Absolve Me for publication.
When Castro became a Communist has fueled debate for more than half a century. Though Castro read Marx and Lenin in prison, Hansen says there is no real evidence that Castro favored Communism until he was confronted with the choice of the survival of the revolution or forging a Soviet alliance.
While still in the Sierra, Castro told a Spanish journalist, “I hate Soviet imperialism as much as Yankee imperialism. I’m not breaking my neck fighting one dictatorship to fall into the hands of another.”
Castro knew that the United States would have preferred the success of another revolutionary faction and that it harbored fears he was a Communist. For Hansen, Castro’s conversion was a self-fulfilling prophecy, “The U.S. government later tried to prevent his taking power, compelling Castro to seek support from the Soviet Union.”
One of the strengths of Hansen’s book is the case he makes that the Cuban Revolution with Castro as its leader easily might not have happened. Throughout his early life, Hansen writes, Castro showed an uncanny ability to escape consequences that could have meant the end of his revolutionary aspirations and a quite different course of history. “The odds against Castro surviving to win and lead the Revolution appear preposterous in retrospect,” says Hansen.
From his escape from an ill-fated mission to overthrow Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo during his student days to the assault on the Moncada Barracks, Castro nimbly avoided potential disaster.
During the July 26, 1953 assault, the rebels who were taken captive were executed and their deaths disguised to make it look like they had fallen in battle. The Castro brothers, who escaped but were later arrested, avoided such a fate because instead of being taken to the Moncada Barracks, where they surely would have been executed too, they were sent to the city jail. Once convicted, Castro ended up serving only 20 months of his 26-year prison term, and later, while in exile in Mexico City, Castro and members of the July 26 Movement escaped deportation after their cache of weapons was discovered. Such a deportation likely would have been a death sentence.
When they finally set sail for Cuba aboard the Granma with 82 men in a boat built for eight, Castro “should never have survived a botched landing; once ashore, he should never have eluded the government ambush that reduced the [force] to 14; once in the mountains, he should never have outfought Batista’s military; once victorious, he should never have outlasted innumerable U.S.-backed plans first to deny him victory, then to overthrow his government, finally to assassinate him,” writes Hansen.
For Hansen, it is that sheer force of personality and Castro’s unflagging belief that only he could bring about a Cuban revolution that help explain how the boy from Birán became a revolutionary firebrand known around the world.
In the end, Castro’s one true love was the Cuban Revolution, and there would be no other rival in his life. “Cats have nine lives. Castro had nine times nine,” writes Hansen. “But we make our own luck, as the saying goes, and Castro was a maestro. He believed he was chosen.”
Mimi Whitefield, a freelance Latin American correspondent, covered Cuba for the Miami Herald for more than a dozen years and has made many trips to the island. In 2017, she was awarded the Maria Moors Cabot Prize for her Cuba coverage.