The American Comandante
Fighting With Castro for Cuba's Freedom
By Aran Shetterly
Algonquin. 300 pp. $24.95
Presidents have term limits; dictators don't. This only partly explains why Fidel Castro has outmaneuvered, outfoxed and outlasted every American president for almost half a century. But it's safe to say he's in his final decade now, and every publishing house wants to have a fresh Cuba book out the day he dies.
For many years, Cuba books were sweeping accounts of the country and its novel system. Some of the cracks have been filled by recent titles, including The Man Who Invented Fidel, about Herbert Matthews, the New York Times reporter who interviewed Castro in the Sierra Maestra mountains, and The Boys From Dolores, a look at Cuba through the eyes of Castro's classmates from his Jesuit youth.
The Americano, the latest entry in the Fidel sweepstakes, tells the story of a shiftless Ohioan who was so intrigued with the notion of a guerrilla war for freedom that he abandoned Toledo for Havana and joined one of the three major forces seeking to topple dictator Fulgencio Batista. His name was William Morgan, and, inspired by Matthews's romantic accounts of the revolution and his own misery at home, he arrived in the Caribbean's Sin City in early 1958, just shy of 30. His rise and fall over the next three years mirrored the larger trajectory of the Cuban revolution: nearly universal enchantment, followed by festering disillusionment.
The son of an electric company executive, Morgan was a cut-up as a youth. His classmates thought him mischievous and restless. Biographer Aran Shetterly calls him simply "a teenage thug." After dropping out of high school, he became a Merchant Marine deckhand, then enlisted in the Army, which shipped him to Japan. He spent most of his time in the brig for twice going AWOL and once beating up a guard. At 22, dishonorably discharged, he returned to Ohio a failure.
Morgan was a drifter for much of the '50s, taking odd jobs and working for lowlifes. In Florida he met anti-Batista Cubans and took part in supplying weapons to rebels on the island. He married, but this didn't affect his thuggery or wanderlust, two qualities he took with him to Cuba.
Midway through the 1957-59 revolution, three major forces were battling Batista's military. The mainly middle-class Revolutionary Student Directorate was based in Havana. Castro's 26th of July Movement occupied the eastern mountains. And the Second National Front of the Escambray (SFNE), called "semi-gangsters" by Cuba historian Hugh Thomas, dominated the island's midsection.
Tethered neither to ideology nor to any particular strategy, Morgan ended up with the semi-gangsters, and the Americano's very gringo appearance, coupled with his attempted Spanish and his sense of humor, endeared him to his compañeros. The fact that he could handle a submachine gun helped. He rose to the rank of comandante, trained incoming recruits, married again -- this time to a comrade in arms -- and headed his own SFNE military column, the Tigers of the Jungle.
The Americano's strength lies in explaining how the three anti-Batista forces constantly jockeyed for supremacy and influence; Castro eventually beat out the others by dint of both strategy and force of personality.
Morgan was far from the only U.S. citizen fighting Batista on the island. As many as 25 North Americans, including a few sailors from the Guantanamo Bay Naval Station, signed on with the revolution during its final years. In Cuba, Morgan "found a place where he could flourish," writes Shetterly. "He had reinvented himself as a Cuban hero."
Once Castro took over, the Americano was awarded a retinue of bodyguards and a P.R. man, and he lived in a fancy house abandoned by a wealthy family. His daily wardrobe usually included four weapons. Working undercover for Fidel, he faked counter-revolutionary sentiments to flush out anti-Castro sympathizers, a successful operation for which he was admired by the public in general and by Fidel in particular. His chosen job in the new government was raising bullfrogs in the Escambray, which -- ever a dreamer -- he saw destined for restaurants, gift shops and cattle troughs. Soon, fearful of the anti-democratic drift of Castro's government, he became a genuine counterrevolutionary, a commitment for which he was jailed. His Caribbean adrenalin rush ended March 11, 1961, when he was executed by firing squad.
Shetterly nicely weaves FBI, CIA and State Department files on Morgan into his narrative. He should have been as careful with other material. In his most egregious error, he misreports the circumstances and date of the celebrated photograph of Che Guevara, then bases a theory about Che and Morgan on his mistaken story.
As for Morgan, his story has spilled over into the 21st century. Back in the '50s, the State Department stripped him of U.S. citizenship for signing on with a foreign army. Four months ago, at the urging of his since-remarried Cuban widow, who now lives in the United States, that citizenship was posthumously restored. ·
Tom Miller is the author of "Trading With the Enemy: A Yankee Travels Through Castro's Cuba." His 10th book, "How I Learned English: 55 Accomplished Latinos Recall Lessons in Language and Life," will be published later this month.