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Book Reviews: 'Fidel and Che' by Simon Reid-Henry; 'Fidel and Gabo' by Angel Esteban and Stephanie Panichelli

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By Mary Speck
Sunday, September 20, 2009

FIDEL AND CHE

A Revolutionary Friendship

This Story

By Simon Reid-Henry

Walker. 431 pp. $28

FIDEL AND GABO

A Portrait of the Legendary Friendship Between Fidel Castro and Gabriel Garcia Marquez

By Angel Esteban, Stephanie Panichelli

Pegasus. 304 pp. $26

Writers have idealized, vilified and analyzed him since he burst onto the international scene from Cuba's Sierra Maestra more than half a century ago. Is there anything left to say about Fidel Castro? Apparently there is. Two new books promise to unearth hitherto undiscovered facets of Castro's character by exploring his famous friendships: with the legendary (the word is almost obligatory here) Argentine guerrilla leader Ernesto "Che" Guevara and with Colombia's towering literary genius, Gabriel García Márquez, or Gabo.

Simon Reid-Henry's dual biography, "Fidel and Che," opens on the early November morning in 1956 when 82 men squeezed onto a shabby 63-foot yacht for the voyage from Mexico's Gulf coast to join an insurrection in Cuba. Of the original rebels only about 20 lived to fight Gen. Fulgencio Batista's government. The others died shortly after their overloaded, water-logged vessel, filled with seasick rebels, ran aground on a sandbar off southeastern Cuba. The coast guard quickly spotted the shipwreck and alerted Batista's forces. As the rebels sought cover in a swampy wasteland, the Cuban military gunned them down from air and sea, then moved in to capture and execute the survivors.

It was an inauspicious start that might well have been forgotten, like so many other failed rebellions in Latin America's long, sad history of repression and revolt. That it wasn't testifies to Castro's luck, determination and ruthless ambition. Of his lieutenants, none was more zealous than Guevara, a wandering physician and (unlike most of the rebels) a committed Marxist.

Reid-Henry tells his tale well, a bit too well. Details that might complicate the plot -- or tarnish his two revolutionary stars -- get only fleeting mention, if any. The author dismisses Guevara's responsibility for the summary execution of anywhere from several dozen to several hundred people as "swift revolutionary justice" and examines it no further. He sums up the public show trials that Castro instigated as a "terrible mistake," presumably because many foreign reporters reacted with revulsion as crowds filled Havana's stadium, jeering at the suspects and calling out for firing squads.

Nowhere has Reid-Henry airbrushed his portraits more carefully than in the final chapters on Guevara's disastrous expedition to Bolivia. He rejects the idea of a rupture between the two revolutionaries, though it is hard to see how Castro could have tolerated his charismatic friend's increasingly intemperate criticism of their Soviet allies. The attempt to start a revolution from scratch in Bolivia laid bare the heroic myth -- cultivated so assiduously (and self-servingly) by Castro and Guevara -- that a tiny band of guerrillas could spark mass rebellion. Bolivia's small farmers, impoverished though they were, wanted no part of it. Reid-Henry refrains from quoting Guevara's own candid analysis in his diary: "The peasant base has not yet been developed although it appears through planned terror we can neutralize some of them. . . . Not one enlistment has been obtained."

But Guevara's execution by the Bolivian military propagated his image -- emblazoned in decades to come on the T-shirts of would-be rebels around the world -- as a romantic martyr willing to die in a hopeless struggle. Castro's reputation has not fared quite so well. Nearly six decades in power -- which he finally ceded last year to his not much younger brother -- made him modern Latin America's most enduring dictator. Over that time nearly all the intellectuals and artists whose applause once helped invigorate Castro's revolution have grown disillusioned with his government's censorship, arbitrary imprisonments, executions and economic ineptitude.

The most notable exception is Gabriel García Márquez. In "Fidel & Gabo," Ángel Esteban and Stéphanie Panichelli examine the Nobel prize-winning writer's "legendary friendship" (as the subtitle puts it) with Cuba's dictator. The authors interviewed literary and political acquaintances of both men, though they never managed to speak with their two subjects. The result is a book that relies heavily on already published accounts and on the gossip the authors manage to elicit from the literati in Latin America and Europe.

The Colombian's evident fascination with heads of state -- he has palled around not only with Castro but also with Panama's Omar Torrijos, France's François Mitterand and Spain's Felipe González, among others -- demonstrates only that literary geniuses are not immune to the blandishments of power. We learn little about the inner reservations García Márquez may have had about Cuba's dictatorship.

Esteban and Panichelli scold García Márquez for failing to recognize, as they put it, that "the revolution is not perfect," and for insisting that there is no torture in Cuba . But they never grapple with the broader question, which goes beyond the personal foibles of García Márquez. Why in the latter half of the 20th century -- an era already scarred by the messianic ravages of larger-than-life leaders in Europe and Russia -- did so many intellectuals greet Castro's iron rule and utopian promises with such blinkered euphoria?

Mary Speck, a Washington Post editor, is a former correspondent in Latin America.


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