Michael J. Bustamante is an assistant professor of history at Florida International University and a co-editor of “The Revolution From Within: Cuba, 1959-1980.”
How many biographies of a person are too many? Type “Fidel Castro” into a library database, and hundreds of books about Cuba’s long-omnipresent leader pop up. For American readers, the accounts of Tad Szulc, Georgie Anne Geyer and Robert Quirk from the 1980s and ’90s may be most familiar. But many other character assessments — fulsome and denunciatory — appeared in the years immediately following Castro’s improbable ascent to power in 1959.
Jonathan M. Hansen’s “Young Castro: The Making of a Revolutionary” thus joins a crowded field. It also follows countless paeans to and condemnations of the man (especially among Cubans on and off the island) published, chanted at rallies and tweeted in the 2 1/2 years since his death. For that reason, a fresh, deeply researched appraisal of his life is welcome, and even to be expected. Hansen, however, endeavors not to evaluate Castro’s time in government but to reintroduce us to Fidel Castro before he became the liberator/despot we thought we knew.
This is not an entirely new approach. In 1998, Deborah Shnookal and Pedro Álvarez Tabío compiled a series of Castro’s statements over the years about his childhood. Ignacio Ramonet, a French journalist, devoted considerable attention to Castro’s youth in an interview-based “spoken autobiography” published in 2006. But Hansen writes in a less adulatory mode, while at the same time betraying some of the giddy fascination that comes from being granted extraordinary access to his subject’s personal archive. The result is a portrait of Castro through the triumph of the Cuban revolution in 1959 that is measured and occasionally indulgent, meticulous and readable at the same time.
Hansen’s deep dive into Castro family history is particularly helpful and full of irony. Ángel Castro was a destitute Spanish soldier who came to Cuba to help maintain peninsular control over one of the last colonies in Spain’s formerly far-flung American empire. He fought the Cuban independence army that his son Fidel later idolized. When Cuba became independent under U.S. tutelage, Ángel reinvented himself as a rural capitalist, assembling significant landholdings in Cuba’s east and maintaining cordial relations with the American staff of a neighboring United Fruit Company plantation — a plantation his son’s government would nationalize. But he was also a paternalistic figure, opening his home to humble workers on his payroll and providing employment to those in need. It was in this environment that young Fidel picked up his sympathy for Cuba’s poor but also, arguably, the sense of entitlement that would later lead him to conclude he was uniquely capable of solving their plight.
Far from his father’s land, but with his financial support, Castro became the man who would take Cuba by storm. Still, his journey from out-of-place student at a prestigious Catholic school to political radical was by no means straight. In 1944, at the end of his high school career, Castro was selected to give a speech to church leaders denouncing the efforts of Cuba’s Congress to bring private-school education in line with anti-fascist ideals. (Havana’s Belén Jesuit Academy was a redoubt of pro-Franco Spanish priests, and Cuba had sided with the Allies in World War II.) Yet by 1948, Fidel had graduated from law school, participated in the rough-and-tumble world of the University of Havana’s political gangs, become a member of Cuba’s corruption-bashing Ortodoxo Party and even joined a pan-American movement to take down the Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo. He did all this while marrying the daughter of an elite family that counted among its friends the man he would later overthrow, Fulgencio Batista. Batista even gave them a wedding present.
Castro’s transition from budding politician to a leader of insurrection in the 1950s will be more recognizable to those versed in Cuba’s history. Still, Hansen’s narrative of this period benefits from access to never-before-seen letters Castro exchanged with lover Naty Revuelta while in prison after failing in his first attempt to topple Batista after the latter’s 1952 coup. Castro’s personal correspondence while an insurgent in the Sierra Maestra after 1956 illuminates his strategic thinking and at times imperious leadership style. At a certain point, though, the second half of the book becomes less a biography of the man and more an examination of the insurrection he led. Perhaps this is inevitable, as Castro’s inner sentiments and psychology are somewhat opaque in communiques dedicated to intergroup rivalries and military practicalities during the last months of his guerrilla campaign.
Hansen makes a convincing case that Castro’s political vision from the mid-1950s through his revolutionary victory in 1959 converged on the defense of political and social rights. His analysis of Castro’s reading list while in jail between 1953 and 1955 reveals a man who had read Marx but whose ideological reference points remained diverse. Still, scholars and Cuban expatriates will quibble with Hansen’s characterization of the revolution’s radical turn. In a brief epilogue, Hansen suggests that determined U.S. opposition to even moderate revolutionary rule after 1959 stacked the deck, sending Castro into Moscow’s arms and pushing him to prioritize Cuba’s sovereignty over civil liberties. This is not a new or unpersuasive argument, but it remains a controversial one that ignores other factors: Castro’s messianism, for one, or the strategic benefits of welcoming Cuba’s domestic socialists into the governing fold. Cuba’s original communist party had participated marginally in the anti-Batista armed insurrection, but it had a history of organization and hierarchy that would come in handy once he was gone.
The biggest question of the book, however, is its framing. In the wake of Castro’s death, what does it mean to read a biography that deals only with his youth? What are the consequences of skirting his nearly five controversial decades as Cuba’s commander in chief?
Hansen is not a hagiographer, and parts of the book are unflattering and depart from official Cuban lore. But the decision to emphasize Castro’s original idealism is nonetheless striking, as it resonates in many ways with the efforts of Cuban institutions since his retirement in 2006, and especially since his death in 2016, to do the same. By contrast, Castro’s personal life after coming to power, together with many things about the government he led, remains a secret of state. Who knows how future biographers’ appraisals may change if those archives — assuming they even exist — ever open their doors?
of a Revolutionary
By Jonathan M. Hansen
Simon & Schuster.
484 pp. $35