Lillian Guerra. Heroes, Martyrs, and Political Messiahs in Revolutionary Cuba, 1946-1958. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018. 370 pp. $40.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-300-17553-0.
Reviewed by Ilan Ehrlich (Bergen Community College)
Published on H-LatAm (June, 2019)
Commissioned by Casey M. Lurtz (Johns Hopkins University)
Cuban history is rife with longed-for leaders who perish prematurely and longer-lived figures who rule but disappoint. Lillian Guerra’s Heroes, Martyrs, and Political Messiahs in Revolutionary Cuba revisits prominent members of both groups from the mid-twentieth century, sorting through the untimely deaths of Eduardo “Eddy” Chibás and José Antonio Echeverría, the sordid but often shrewd dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, and a political messiah-in-the-making, Fidel Castro. Chibás promoted the notion that an upright politician could ensure the rule of law, political independence, and dignity for all Cubans. Echeverría promised to rectify the errors of University of Havana revolutionaries (among them Chibás) in 1933 by opting for immediate elections after toppling a dictatorial government. Batista claimed to bring peace and stability through reluctant participation in a "bloodless coup" supported by the silent majority of Cubans. Lastly, Castro would achieve Cuban brotherhood through education and healthcare for all the island's citizens. Guerra offers effective antidotes to the fables of Batista and Castro while providing a window into the heartfelt desire among ordinary Cubans for a savior.
As the most gifted orator of his generation, a riveting showman, democrat par excellence, and probably the only Cuban politician who became poorer in public office, Chibás represents a tantalizing starting point for the book. However, it must be pointed out that most Cubans recognized that Chibás was reprising the role of Ramón Grau San Martín in the 1930s. During Grau’s provisional presidency between September 1933 and January 1934, his so-called 50 Percent Decree wrested local jobs from Spaniards, Jamaicans, and Haitians and opened them to natives, which formed the basis of his motto, “Cuba for the Cubans.” Further, Grau’s abolition of the Platt Amendment guaranteed him unmatched anti-imperialist credentials. As for democracy, Grau’s Auténtico party of the mid-1930s featured elected officers on the national, provincial, and local levels. Chibás had seen this up close as a member of the Auténtico party’s executive committee. By 1947, he believed Grau was lost and sought to rescue the Auténtico party of his youth via the new Ortodoxo party. Honest Ortodoxos would not only shun graft and respect Cuba’s 1940 constitution, they would fulfill neglected promises to Cuban peasants by providing sanitary latrines, potable water, and concrete floors in their huts. Guerra’s claim that Eddy’s suicide in 1951 “radically transformed Cuba’s future” (p. 73) is compelling, but there is evidence he had already succeeded given that Cuba’s president in 1952 would have been either Carlos Hevia or Roberto Agramonte—both of whom were men of integrity.
Instead, Batista toppled Cuba’s democratically elected government on March 10, 1952. Guerra narrates this “untold story” using previously unknown sources, including a confidential intelligence report from Carlos Hevia’s papers, and demonstrates that Batista had begun planning a coup by late January. This debunks the oft-repeated myth that Batista was recruited by military officers disgusted by President Carlos Prío’s toleration of gangsters. In fact, Guerra’s treatment of Batista abounds with revelations. Among these is his expedient alliance with the island’s communists, who were allowed to disseminate a newsletter on high-quality paper during an era of official censorship. In addition, Cubans noticed that communist higher-ups such as Blas Roca were indulged while pro-democracy leaders were murdered or persecuted. To broaden his support, Batista cultivated Afro-Cubans via a $500,000 grant for the island’s societies of color and funding a beach for blacks who were routinely excluded from existing resorts. Many Afro-Cubans, who viewed Batista as one of their own, rejoiced. The black journalist David Grillo thus observed that the March 10 “revolution” was notable for its “physiognomy” (p. 98). Batista, who had grown up poor, inaugurated Cuba’s first mass literacy campaign and dispatched well-equipped health units to the countryside, both of which benefited disproportionately poor Afro-Cubans. These policies offer proof for continuity in Cuban history rather than the myth of rupture favored by Fidel Castro, who later co-opted these methods.
As a young sergeant stenographer during the 1930s, Batista had joined the revolutionary ABC during President Gerardo Machado’s dictatorship, and he knew Cuba’s youth would oppose him after his coup two decades later. The architecture student José Antonio Echeverría, the book's most poignant martyr, cited this parallel in a November 1955 speech, declaring, “Fulgencio Batista, the Cuban people meet here to say get out! Or are you going to wait until they throw you out like they did to Gerardo Machado?” (quoted, p. 169). The bold, charismatic Echeverría represents another in a long list of painful what-ifs in Cuban history. One could argue that his failed assault on the presidential palace in March 1957 was more momentous than Chibás’ suicide. Had Batista been executed and Echeverría’s goals of immediate elections and full press freedom been realized, a return to Cuba’s 1940 constitution (which Chibás revered) would have seemed likely. Echeverría’s martyrdom proved especially wrenching for this reason.
Fidel Castro’s 26th of July Movement was now the chief revolutionary alternative. Castro’s own brushes with martyrdom were already legendary. His 1953 attack on the Moncada barracks and December 1956 voyage from Mexico to Cuba’s Sierra Maestra mountains on a leaky yacht were testaments to his determination. Castro had worshiped Chibás and adopted a similar messianic style. But as Guerra shows, he was more ruthless. The shooting of alleged traitors in territory controlled by his 26th of July Movement, often based on rumors or hearsay, provides a glimpse into post-1959 reprisals. Among the victims was Olga Suárez, a pharmacist and mother of three who was breezily condemned as a chivato, or informant. Her anguish shortly before facing death is captured in a harrowing photograph by the freelance journalist Andrew St. George. Nonetheless, Castro ensured that more-heartening stories, such as the building of hospitals and schools in neglected rural areas, found a wide audience. Ever the clever propagandist, he often lent his telescopic rifle to rebels being photographed to give the impression that his followers were superbly equipped and would soon triumph.
Heroes, Martyrs, and Political Messiahs is a treasure trove for anyone curious about Cuba in the 1940s and 1950s, an era routinely ignored or obscured by myth. Guerra is a gifted storyteller and relentless researcher whose work abounds with fascinating micro portraits, such as that of Fabio Grobart, a Bialystok-born communist agent who infiltrated Cuba in the early 1920s and spread Soviet influence on the island for decades. Guerra’s portrayal of “girl guerrillas” in Castro’s ranks recalls the female revolutionaries of the 1930s and is yet another instance of continuity. On a final note, this study radiates an engagingly human quality. Details abound, such as the near telepathic bond between José Antonio Echeverría and his brother Alfredo, or the desperate weeping of Haydée Santamaría, whose brother and boyfriend had been tortured and killed after the Moncada attacks, that illustrate the toll of revolutionary heroism. Guerra writes half as an historian and half as a Cuban American with nagging questions. The answers she has found represent an impressive contribution.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-latam.
Ilan Ehrlich. Review of Guerra, Lillian, Heroes, Martyrs, and Political Messiahs in Revolutionary Cuba, 1946-1958.
H-LatAm, H-Net Reviews.
|This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.|