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The Cuban Conundrum

INSIDE THE CUBAN REVOLUTION: Fidel Castro and the Urban Underground, By Julia E. Sweig, Harvard University Press: 254 pp., $29.95 THE CUBAN REVOLUTION AND THE UNITED STATES: A History in Documents, 1958-1960, Edited by Mark Falcoff, U.S. Cuba Press: 452 pp., $32

July 21, 2002|LOUIS A. PEREZ JR. | Louis A. Perez Jr. is the author of numerous books on Cuba, including "On Becoming Cuban: Identity, Nationality and Culture," and teaches at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

After more than 40 years of confrontation with the United States, Fidel Castro remains in power, defiant and determined to outlast one more hostile administration in Washington. Ten years after the collapse of socialism in Eastern Europe, at a time when the United States projects power across the globe virtually uncontested, the Cuban government, a mere 90 miles away, amends its constitution to proclaim the inalterable character of socialism on the island. The resolve and resilience of Cuba's leaders in the face of decades of unrelenting pressure from Washington remains a source of perplexity and pain to U.S. policymakers.

Debate and dispute, of course, have long characterized the U.S. response to Castro's Cuba. In the Cuban revolution, one comes face to face, at one time and in one place, with issues of enduring vitality and moment: power and powerlessness, dictatorship and democracy, nationalism and imperialism, the quest for social justice and the economic imperative. These issues prompt, on every side, vigorous partisanship. Detachment and disinterest are almost impossible.

Cuban history is similarly implicated, of course, and especially those facets of the Cuban past that bear most directly on the present. One such debate involves Castro's 26th of July movement (named for the date in 1953 that saw his ill-fated attack against a military barrack) and the armed insurrection against the government of president-turned dictator Fulgencio Batista.

The debate is over which of the two components of the 26th of July movement--the civilians who fought in the urban underground, or llano, or the soldiers who made up the guerrilla columns in the mountains, or sierra--played the more decisive role in toppling Batista.

It is a debate that is at the heart of the complicated social and class composition of the broad-based opposition to Batista. Understanding this debate helps to illuminate the purpose to which power was put after the 1959 ouster of Batista. As Julia E. Sweig makes clear in "Inside the Cuban Revolution," the llano was made up principally of middle-class professionals seeking to restore civil liberties and free elections guaranteed by Cuba's 1940 constitution. The sierra, on the other hand, represented by Castro, was composed of peasants and workers and sought a thorough-going egalitarianism based on social justice. The sierra prevailed, and many of the llano fled into exile, claiming that the revolution had been betrayed and that a liberal democratic program, rooted in a return to law, had been subverted by a radical socialist whose principal objective was his own power.

In a thoughtfully argued and carefully researched book, Sweig, a senior fellow and deputy director of the Latin America Program at the Council on Foreign Relations, provides what will almost certainly be the standard account of the Cuban insurrection for years to come. Using a wide range of archival records and manuscript sources, including important Cuban materials, Sweig successfully explores the complex and often contradictory relations between the llano and the sierra. She pays attention more to similarities than to differences and, by emphasizing collaboration and coordination, provides a coherent and cogent explanation of the astonishing success of Castro's movement. Keenly aware of the larger historical context which gives her tale meaning, Sweig shows how Castro held together the disparate elements of his often-fractious movement while providing considerable insight into his personality and the politics that often divided his followers.

Mark Falcoff, a longtime commentator on Latin American affairs, is interested in Castro's ideological disposition and its origins. "The Cuban Revolution and the United States" addresses the debate over why, when and how Cuba became aligned with the Soviet Union. Some observers insist that Castro was driven into the Soviet camp by hostile U.S. policy. Others, like Falcoff, argue that he rose to power disposed, if not determined, to align Cuba with the Soviet Union, that he was probably from the outset a communist--or at least a fellow traveler--and that his decision to seek ties with Moscow was unrelated to U.S. policy.

To this end, Falcoff has assembled a "history in documents" of U.S.-Cuban relations between 1958 and 1960. His book is made up of State Department documents (all of them previously available in an officially published government volume). It is designed to tell "the real story," namely, as Falcoff asserts, that "Castro's decision to take his country into the Soviet bloc was not a reaction to specific American policies but part of a grand design which proceeded according to its own imperative."

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