Picked up El Americano by Aran Shetterly. It’s a fascinating story about a young American, William Morgan, who walked into the Escambray and joined the SNFE, the Second National Front of the Escambray, the other arm of the revolution. He rose to the level of Comandante, the only foreigner other than Che to do so, and became something of a revolutionary hero. He was also instrumental in foiling a large conspiracy to overthrow the early Castro regime. Like many, he became disenchanted with the regime he had helped bring to power. Although the book is a bit vague about what the rebels who took to the Escambray to combat Fidel actually did, Morgan was implicated, arrested and executed. That in a nutshell is Morgan’s tale.
I’ve gotten to the point where I find myself vetting authors politically as I read these books about Cuba. For instance, checking the back cover, I see the author is another Harvard man. Then I note that he ran an exchange between artists in Maine and Cuba and now resides in Mexico City. It creates an impression heightened when I read sentences such as the following:
About Che and Morgan:
Che’s serious and determined image would become a symbol of revolutionary valor around the world, whereas the story of the courageous trickster Morgan would fade from the record of the Revolution.
About the populace:
The Cuban people believed that, together with the Rebels, they would make their country better. They hungered for a virtuous political culture that would root out the corruption, the prostitution, the violence, and the gambling, which had dogged their country for so long. (Thank you Francis Ford Coppola.)
Alas, this is a sanitized version of the revolution. The executions: well, the victims all deserved to die. They were torturers and murderers. No mention of cruelties, of children executed. The people into whose homes the barbudos moved: they were Batistiano oppressors of the masses. Castro wasn’t already a Communist, he turned, partially as a result of American blunders (for a truer examination of Castro’s “Communism,” I recommend Brian Latell’s After Fidel). In the end, all the old shibboleths are here.
Still, there is the story of Morgan. A ne’er do well, juvenile delinquent who had experienced trouble with the school authorities, the law, the army, he walked into the Escambray and his brief years of glory without an actual design. That is, if the book is to be believed. His experiences there, Shetterly tells us, turned him into an altruist, deeply committed to the Cuban people. Compared to all the other actors, Morgan comes across as brave, clean, strong, and American in the finest sense of the word. Surprisingly, the book is at its strongest in fleshing out the assorted characters around Morgan, his fellow revolutionaries in the mountains. They are the ones who come across as complex human beings, whose fate we care about.
Overall, however, in part because other than a gift for leading men, there doesn’t seem to have been that much complexity to Morgan, and in part because the perspective here precludes a real examination of what came after the triumph of the revolution, the whole story reads like a movie that has been filmed through a stocking, strangely removed. Would I recommend it? Yes, if you know your history. The story is interesting; the writing serviceable. What is my problem with it? For the uninitiated, it helps perpetuate all the usual talking points. In the end, I am left with the impression of waste, of what the story could have been.
Caveat: Max Lesnick appears a number of times, always in a positive light.
Cross-posted at Ninety Miles Away