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When Havana Danced With Hope

HAVANA: The Revolutionary Moment, By Burt Glinn, Umbrage Editions: 128 pp., $39.95

July 21, 2002|STEVE WASSERMAN | Steve Wasserman is Book Editor of The Times. He has visited Cuba numerous times.

Nothing is as seductive as making history; taking pictures of it is nearly as intoxicating. Burt Glinn, a young American photographer, knew a good story when he saw one. He persuaded his roommate, Clay Felker, to lend him the money to hire a charter flight to Havana to witness what he felt in his bones was an epochal event. For Glinn, an intrepid 33-year-old member of the Magnum Photographic Cooperative since the start of his career in 1950, the revolution was just a shot away.

Glinn's photographs record the weeklong trek Castro and his men made as they emerged victorious from two years' combat in the remote Sierra Maestra and marched the length of Cuba on their way to Havana. As they rolled through province after province, city after city, en route to the nation's capital to proclaim their mastery of the island, Glinn snapped hundreds of photographs (of which more than 60 are reproduced in this book). They depict Castro and his men, weary with fatigue and near-disbelief stamped on their youthful faces, and a thronging populace beside itself with exhilaration. Eyes dance with hope; the radiant future beckons.

"Havana: The Revolutionary Moment" is about the eros of revolution. Not only were Castro and his barbudos better-looking than the corrupt politicians and gangsters they overthrew, they knew it, and it is easy to see, on the evidence of these iconic photographs, how it was that a "golden legend," as Regis Debray once called it, arose. It reduced the Cuban Revolution to a romantic fable of the charismatic Castro and his 12 apostles, whose numbers multiplied faster than players in a pyramid game and who, in only 24 months of guerrilla warfare, succeeded in toppling the tyrant Fulgencio Batista.

It is hard at this remove to apprehend the appeal that Castro exuded the moment he burst onto the international scene by spoiling Batista's 1959 New Year's Eve party. These photographs help, but they conceal more than they reveal. Understanding a revolt whose victory engendered passionate partisans on both sides of the Florida Straits is a daunting task. Most Americans, despite the passage of more than four decades, still know little about Castro beyond the fact that Castro, a bearded character once given to long cigars and longer speeches, has successfully survived Washington's persistent efforts to topple him from his island perch. Washington continues to brand Castro as a revolutionary brigand; American enmity, of course, benefits him enormously by permitting Castro to rationalize repressive rule as necessary for national defense. By now, however, the history of U.S.-Cuba relations reads like stale fiction: The plot is threadbare, the characters are caricatures.

It didn't, perhaps, have to turn out this way. Even the most cursory perusal of this book tells why. These photographs freeze a historic moment bursting with hope and possibility. The tyrant was gone and revolutionary idealism had yet to curdle into cynicism; nor had the effort to survive soured into despotism. Here are pictures of Sunday patriots, rebels with and without a cause, city girls flirting with shy guerrilleros, a general chaos engulfing a people in near-erotic tumult even as Castro seeks to hold a disparate movement together by the sheer force of his considerable personality and his demonstrated and widely admired willingness to risk his life in the fight against the dictatorship.

It was, of course, Castro's legendary eloquence, strength of character and unyielding commitment to action that drew men and women alike to his side. Personality trumped politics. It was this charismatic element--an element that infuses many of Glinn's pictures of Castro with a nearly electric charge still palpable after all these years--that caused the Cuban Communist Party, among others, to consider Castro, during the early years of the revolt against Batista, to be a dangerous extremist. Indeed, following his abortive attack on the Moncada barracks in Santiago de Cuba on July 26, 1953, it had condemned him as a "petit bourgeois adventurer" and refused to have anything to do with him until Batista's fall was imminent.

Others, like Che Guevara, were drawn to him, although Guevara, too, originally regarded Castro's movement as bourgeois, even while conceding that it was led by a man whose "image is enhanced by personal qualities of extraordinary brilliance." Later, Castro's willingness to embrace more radical solutions when necessary would continually surprise and please Guevara, as much as it dismayed the movement's moderates. The seduction of the 32-year-old Castro's flamboyant, nearly bohemian leadership, his spontaneity of spirit, were almost impossible to resist. He was virile, glamorous; in a word, sexy. He relied less on Marxism than on photogenesis to capture the minds and hearts of millions.

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