ITS AUTHORS explain that The Winds of December "is a story of people -- rebels, Batista supporters, American officials and ordinary citizens -- who lived through those dramatic weeks of December 1958," that is to say, the dramatic final weeks of the Cuban Revolution. The authors' treatment of the period before December 1958, of the long struggle against the Batista regime, is a model of superficiality.

As for their focus -- the last five weeks of the revolution -- the result is, at best, uneven. Only an easily satisfied reader will conclude that because of this book he now understands Fidel Castro. As regards the other prominent figures of the movement (Che Guevara, Camilo Cienfuegos, Raul Castro, Celia Sanchez, to mention only a few), the reader's leap of faith will have to be even more impressive, given both the shallowness and the brevity of the treatment. Indeed, this is one of the most irritating aspects of the book. One ends with a fair knowledge of Rosa Rivero, the 15-year-old daughter of Batista's puppet president-elect, and of her affection for 17-year-old Emilio. One will have the feeling of knowing Connie Wollam, the wife of the American consul in Santiago, a most likable lady assuredly, justly dear to her family and friends, but completely irrelevant to an understanding of that historical moment. One will even have a degree of a acquaintance with the Paul Tannenbaum family, who spent one day in Havana (January 1, 1959) and understood nothing. Perhaps they have a place in a book that is "a story of people," but not when the main forces and leaders of the revolution are dealt with so dismally.

Still, The Winds of December has some positive aspects. While adding relatively little that is new, it presents a vivid picture of U.S. policy (or lack thereof) in those last frantic weeks: disarray, contradiction and sheer ineptitude; the rigid pro-Batista stance of Ambassador Earl E. T. Smith, an "ugly American" who represented the worst tradition of the State Department; the futile search for a nonexistent "third force." Mutatis mutandis, the scenario is reminiscent of the Carter administration's behavior during the agony of the Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua, and more recently still, of its stance toward El Salvador, where a phantom third force has suddenly been discovered.

The book is also strong in recounting the final collapse of the high echelons of the Batista regime and the pathetic efforts of a plethora of leaders of ineffectual "third forces" to rob Castro's 26th of July movement of its victory. The pathetic story of Tony Varona's attempts to improvise a Frente Guerrillero is particularly instructive when one recalls that in 1961 the Kennedy administration chose that same Tony Varona as one of the leaders of the ill-fated Bay of Pigs operation.

The book's style is reminiscent of a not altogether successful detective story. And while the authors have gathered some impressive sources -- notably in interviews -- their enthusiasm sometimes takes them beyond their evidence. Thus, they uncannily read the thoughts of a person they apparently never interviewed, William Wieland, then director of the State Department's Caribbean and Mexican section. Certainly Wieland, in the lengthy congressional hearings to which he was subjected after Castro's victory, never provided such gems as, "Wieland winced when he thought of that" and "as he often did, stared out of the window, his eyes fixing on the Christmas decorations of a restaurant across Virginia Avenue." Some will argue that these are useful devices for the writing of popular history; for others, however, these are unnecessary additions that only cheapen the story.

Before editing Diary of the Cuban Revolution, Carlos Franqui wrote Cuba: El Libro de los Doce, a series of interviews with six leading members of the 26th of July movement. Both Franqui's books deal essentially with the movement's struggle against Batista, but they were written under very different circumstances. In the early 1960s, Franqui, the former propaganda director of the 26th of July, and editor of Revolucion, the movement's newspaper, was a sort of official historian of the revolution. He now lives in Paris, having broken in 1968 with Castro's Cuba.

Franqui's Diary is a collection of letters, taped interviews and other documents, forming a patch-work history of Castro's movement from 1952 to January 1959. Some of these documents have already been published in previous books. Others appear for the first time, including a few that are extremely interesting, such as a December 14, 1957 letter in which Che Guevara defines his own political views and those of Fidel: "Because of my ideological background, I belong to those who believe that the solution of the world's problems lies behind the so-called iron curtain . . . I always thought of Fidel as the authentic leader of the leftist bourgeoisie, although his image is enhanced by personal qualities of extraordinary brilliance that set him above his class."

Franqui logically includes only a limited number of documents -- otherwise the book would run for several thousand rather than "only" 500 pages. We are not told what the criteria for selection are, but, judging from the context, the major if not the only criterion was availability: that is, those documents that Franqui succeeded in smuggling out of Cuba. These documents, however, do not provide an encompassing view of the struggle against Batista, or even of its most important segment, the 26th of July. They cover a few subjects of varying importance in depth; on other occasions they offer only tantalizing glimpses of issues crucial to an understanding of the struggle, and in some cases there are complete blanks (thus there is nothing on the 1958 overtures of the Cuban Communist Party to the 26th of July, and relatively little on the relation between the movement's guerrilla and urban sectors).

Franqui sprinkles "editor's summaries" throughout the book. His excessive economy of words will make reading through the maze of documents rather difficult, and eventually unappealing, for anyone who is not already quite familiar with the history of the period. The specialist, on the other hand, will find Diary of the Cuban Revolution a useful contribution, but one that is limited in scope, since Franqui's summaries are not only cursory, but also very poor analytically. They in no way shed light on those crucial subjects that the documents do not cover or barely mention.

Two elements connect these two books, otherwise so different. Not only in the superficial presentation of Dorschner and Fabricio, but also in Franqui's Diary, Castro justly emerges as the towering figure of the Cuban revolution. More importantly, while Franqui appears at times intent on disparaging Castro's role and belittling his character, the selection of Castro's letters shows him to be a warm-hearted and highly intelligent leader, human within the necessities of the struggle, eager to learn and, above all, to improve the lot of his countrymen.

The two books also agree in their portayal of U.S. policy. Both in the documents published by Franqui, and in Dorschner and Fabricio's account, the United States appears to have played a highly negative role, sowing bad seeds which would eventually bear disastrous fruit. This is particularly relevant today, when Washington seems to have chosen the same road in the present Central American drama.