Only the hoariest among us remember when the Cuban revolution was chic and Fidel Castro was feted as a modern-day Robin Hood. In his fast-paced and highly entertaining book Cuba Libre!, Tony Perrottet spotlights the bright hopes that propelled the revolution and the herculean effort that enabled a ragtag band to defeat a dictator’s army of 40,000 in just over two years.
President Fulgencio Batista began a reign in 1952 that was remarkable for its corruption and brutality. Castro’s career as a rebel against Batista began a year later, with a failed attack on an army barrack. After his release from prison, Castro retreated to Mexico to plan further resistance. There he met and enlisted the Argentinean doctor Ernesto “Che” Guevara. With a band of 82 men, Castro returned to Cuba by sea in late 1956. A disastrous landing led to most of his troops being captured or killed. The few survivors took refuge in the rugged Sierra Maestra range and trained their eyes on distant Havana.
Perrottet relies on contemporary newspaper accounts and journals to depict the perilous living conditions in the mountains, explain the essential roles of female leaders and illustrate Castro’s genius in public relations. The victories against Batista grew slowly but inexorably and were, for the most part, chronicled sympathetically by the American media. Finally, Castro made his triumphant entry into Havana on January 8, 1959. His honeymoon with the U.S. lasted only a few months, until it became clear that he really did intend to reform the Cuban economy at the expense of those who had drained it.