Book Notes: El Americano

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

10 thoughts on “Book Notes: El Americano”

  1. Once a person, who had the misfortune of meeting him, told me that Ernesto “Che” Guevara once said in Spanish of course, “The most powerful weapon we have is the lie.”

  2. “No mention of cruelties, of children executed”
    ..over a loaf of bread, in the case of one of Che’s most infamous executions. History is a bitch because in the end, the truth comes to light. And the evils, all recorded and waiting for a proper airing in Havana, will be read at quite a few trials for crimes against humanity.

  3. The book “El Americano” has little historical value. Shetterly is not a trained historian. The book was not published by an academic press. It begins with a “Cast of Characters,” an indication that Shetterly hopes to turn this into a movie. No serious history book begins with a “Cast of Characters.”
    “El Americano” contains a number of disturbing factual errors indicating that the author knows little about Cuban history and does not understand Spanish. For example, Gen. Maximo Gomez is erroneously named Jose Miguel Gomez (p. 54).The Directorio Revolucionario is misspelled (p. 35). Shetterly quotes someone as saying “Vamanos” (p. 158). The Spanish troops in Santiago de Cuba surrender in 1898 to Teddy Roosevelt, instead of Gen. Shafter (p. 60). The Platt Amendment is abrogated in 1933 instead of 1934. The errors go on and on.
    Although Shetterley listed Morgan’s widow, Olga, as one of the interviews for the book, Olga personally told me that Shetterly called her from Havana, while in the company of Eloy Gutierrez Menoyo, and she refused to speak to both of them. Olga described Shetterly as a “castrista.” That is probably why the author does not include her in the dedication of the book, although Max Lesnik and Menoyo are among those he dedicates the book to. This book is as worthless as the movie Shetterly hopes to make, which Olga’s widow wants no part of.

  4. Guys, check out the organization that Shetterly is on the board of. It’s listed in his biography on the back cover, the name is something like “Americans for truth.” If you go to the organization’s site you’ll see it is a Left-wing organization that idiolizes folks like Chomsky, Paul Roberson, Howard Zinn and a bunch of other radical Marxists – that should tell you all you need to know about Shetterly’s political pedigree. In the book, he also equates the FBI to Cuba’s Ministry of the Interior! Too bad that Morgan’s story had to be captured by someone like Shetterly.

  5. “Too bad that Morgan’s story had to be captured by someone like Shetterly.”
    You’re spot on, Mambi. And Professor, historical inaccuracy aside, if his intent is to make a movie, there will need be some serious rewriting for it to work artistically. As I stated in the post, the book leaves the reader oddly removed from Morgan. Your information about Olga’s refusal perhaps indicates one reason why.

  6. The photo of Morgan is credited here to The Real Cuba. It actually originated from my website. I should now. I got the photo from Olga and scanned it.

  7. All anyone needs to know about this book is to whom it is dedicated. At least the author leaves no doubt as to where he’s coming from, or what he’s aiming at.

  8. It’s true…if you know. particularly since he doesn’t use surnames in the introduction. My point is that your average reader wouldn’t.

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