Well, yesterday in history, at least. It was Revolution Day in Cuba. Over ten thousand gathered in the eastern city of Bayamo to hear Fidel Castro give his annual Revolution Day speech. Castro took the opportunity to brag about the island's health care system, remarking that thanks to new programs, more and more Cubans are reaching the age of 100. Always the joker, he reassured "our little neighbors to the north" that "they should not fear, for I am not planning to be in office at that age."
Whatever you think about Castro, it's clear that the Cuban Revolution he helped to foment qualifies as one of the major political events of the twentieth century. But while everyone knows the legend about Castro, his brother and Che Guevara stranded in the Sierra Maestra mountains, biding their time and organizing what was to become the final assault on the Batista regime, some scholars, unsatisfied with this one-sided (and officially-promoted) account, have begun to reconsider the roles of other, less well-known groups in helping to encourage the revolution.
Enter Julia Sweig, Nelson and David Rockefeller Senior Fellow for Latin America Studies and Director for Latin America Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. She is the author of Inside the Cuban Revolution: Fidel Castro and the Urban Underground, a book in which Castro and his mountain guerrillas (the sierra) take a backseat to members of the urban underground known as the llano. In the Introduction, Sweig explains how the origins of the sierra-llano historiographical dispute originated with none other than the good doctor himself, Ernesto "Che" Guevara:
Virtually all of the scholarly, historical attempts to tell the story of how Castro overthrew Batista start with Guevara’s emphasis on the rebel army or guerrilla war as the principal cause of Batista’s demise. Guevara delineates two competing camps within the 26th of July Movement: the sierra, the rebels in the Sierra Maestra, and the llano, the largely middleclass and professional Cubans running the urban underground in Cuba’s towns and cities. The sierra-llano rivalry, or the ideological, strategic, organizational, and political polarization between the armed rebels in the mountains and the clandestine militia in the cities, remains the leitmotif for subsequent accounts of how the 26th of July Movement seized power in January 1959.
Sweig is only able to tell this story due to the unprecedented access to previously-classified documents concerning Castro's 26 of July Movement she received from the Cuban government. Indeed, Sweig was the only scholar, inside or outside of Cuba, to gain such access. Inside the Cuban Revolution thus offers a look at the events of the late 1950s that you really can't get anywhere else. A picture of the Revolution much different from the official myth-making emerges, one in which the role of the llano becomes more significant than anyone outside the movement could have previously realized. A whole cast of characters surfaces whose names had been lost to history--middle-class urban professionals like Frank País, Armando Hart, Haydée Santamaria, Enrique Oltuski and Faustino Pérez, men whose crucial roles have only really become clear thanks to Sweig's historical sleuthing.
On the whole what emerges, as is often the case when new sources come to light, is a situation that now looks a lot messier than the official versions of the story would have us believe. Castro, while maintaining a central role, is nonetheless not the sole decision-maker in a movement characterized by uneasy cooperation between the urban and rural insurrectionists. This expansion of our historiographical horizons is what makes Inside the Cuban Revolution such an important book, one that will be read for a long time by people not content to be spoon-fed romantic stories about revolutionaries in the wilderness.
||| Read an excerpt from Inside the Cuban Revolution in which Sweig describes the three main myths her book overturns (pdf link).