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The War According to Castro: La victoria estratégica/La contraofensiva estratégica

In the summer of 2010, a longstanding question was finally resolved. Fidel Castro had then been living in seclusion for almost four years, since the acute intestinal illness which struck him in August 2006 effectively ended his political career (although power was not officially transferred to his brother Raúl until 2008). During those years, various members of Castro’s personal circle had testified that he was alive and even well, but the irregular appearance of a series of editorials – styled as Reflections of the Commander in Chief – remained the primary sign of life. Then, on the 27th of July 2010, a new Reflection appeared announcing the publication of Castro’s military memoir, La victoria estratégica, and heralding a second volume to appear at a then-undetermined future date. Together with a series of public appearances by Castro and the resumption of his interactions with the press – national and international – this was conclusive proof that not only was he alive, but that he did not intend to enjoy a quiet retirement.

La victoria estratégica was launched in Cuba on the 2nd of August 2010, and the second volume – entitled La contraofensiva estratégica – followed just over a month later, on the 10th of September. The speed with which both volumes appeared was surprising, but perhaps even more so was the suggestion of a new, reflective phase in Castro’s written output. His last substantial work had been published between the beginning of his seclusion and the official end of his presidency: Biografía a dos voces, an extended interview with the journalist Ignacio Ramonet, based on over 100 hours of conversation conducted between 2003 and 2005. First published in Madrid in 2006 and reissued in 2007 with further revisions and an additional chapter on France, Biografía a dos voces was released in English as My life: a spoken autobiography. The English subtitle was particularly accurate. Although many of the stories told to Ramonet were familiar from previous interviews (particularly the interview with Frei Betto first published in 1985 as Fidel y la religión), Biografía a dos voces was the first and only work in which the autobiographical details of Castro’s life were given centre stage rather than invoked as anecdotes in support of an overarching analysis or argument. It was, and still is, the nearest we have to a comprehensive memoir by Castro.

Whereas Biografía a dos voces covers the scope of Castro’s life and career from his birth in 1926 to 2005, the narrative of these two recent volumes is tightly – although unevenly – focussed. Apart from a brief, schematic autobiographical introduction, the sole focus of La victoria estratégica is the final offensive conducted by the Cuban Army against the rebel troops active in the Sierra Maestra, under Castro’s direct command on the First Eastern Front, between the failure of the general strike in April 1958 and the final Battle of Las Mercedes in August of the same year. The bulk of its 855 pages are occupied by a detailed narrative written by Castro and incorporating selections from contemporary letters and broadcasts, supplemented by photographs, facsimiles, colour maps and an appendix detailing the various weapons used in the conflict. (My copy, bought in Cuba in early 2011, is missing most of the maps.) By contrast, most of La contraofensiva estratégica – which picks up the narrative on the 14th of August 1958 and continues until the 1st of January 1959 – is composed of a selection of communications, speeches and notes from the various battles of the last stage of the campaign, interspersed with brief passages of narrative. In his introduction, Castro states that this approach reflects a contrast in experience:

I will not attempt to narrate every event day by day, because I would still not be finished many months later. I will only speak of those in which I participated, but only enough to explain the contents of this book… (La contraofensiva estratégica, p. viii) [All translations in this review are my own — KJM]

Which other factors might have played a part in this – pressure of time, for example, or simply available energy – is an interesting question but one that is unlikely to be answered at the current time. What is certain is that La victoria estratégica extends considerably on the brief and patchy narrative of the revolutionary war presented in Biografía a dos voces in a way that La contraofensiva estratégica does not, even though Castro himself defines the former in his introduction as the “preamble to that other [book], as yet unwritten, about the rapid and crushing rebel counteroffensive which brought us to the gates of Santiago de Cuba and to the definitive triumph of the Cuban Revolution” (p. xxxvi). Accordingly, and in spite of the author’s intentions, it is La victoria estratégica which is the primary focus of this review.

As the title suggests, La victoria estratégica is really a book about strategy. It is not a record of experience in the sense that Guevara’s campaign diaries are; the visceral immediacy of Pasajes de la guerra revolucionaria, with its wounded bodies and its moments of intense physical and emotional sensation, is not present here. Castro’s narrative is bound to disappoint any reader looking for personal revelation; the heart of the matter is a minute dissection of the strategic decisions, outcomes and – sometimes – failures of the final months of the Sierra Maestra campaign. The progress of each battle is laid out day-by-day, with frequent cross-referencing – the number of simultaneous actions makes a simple linear narrative impossible – and copious detail about the number of combatants, the number and type of weapons, the spoils and the casualties. (What is missing from Castro’s tally is an account of the combatants who joined the Rebel forces during these months, swelling its ranks from dozens to hundreds; save for a few prominent exceptions, such as former Army officers Carlos Durán Batista, Gómez Oquendo and Castro’s old University classmate José Quevedo, this process is left largely unexplained.)

Politics is a muted presence in this narrative, and any hint of Marxist-Leninist ideology is entirely absent. The conflict is presented entirely as a matter of national self-determination, something that is, arguably, perfectly consistent with Castro’s own self-representation then and now; even so, the national rhetoric in this text is largely limited to the transcripts of Radio Rebelde broadcasts which are liberally reproduced throughout. By the same token, there is little about the personal and political conflicts which surfaced within the ideologically diverse 26th of July Movement, except where they impinge directly on the implementation of military strategy. Even Huber Matos earns only a brief condemnatory aside, although his alleged decision to retreat early during the final siege of Las Mercedes is treated in considerable detail. Those Castro judges to be praiseworthy are praised lavishly; at other times the silence is telling. This is not a denunciatory document per se, but it is always worth noting the omissions.

A particularly notable omission concerns Che Guevara, who occupies a prominent role in the wartime narrative of Biografía a dos voces. There, Castro’s disclosures in response to Ramonet’s gentle questioning reveal a more complex assessment of Guevara’s capacities as a military leader:

They say that he perhaps had too much of a risk-taking character.

He was very daring. Sometimes he preferred a troop overloaded with mines and other arms. Camilo [Cienfuegos], in contrast, preferred a lighter troop. Che tended to overload himself. And sometimes he could have avoided some combat, but didn’t. That was another difference with Camilo. Che was brave, but he also took too many risks; for that reason I sometimes told him, ‘You are responsible for the troops who go with you’. (Biografía a dos voces, p. 203)

This is no mere aside. Castro goes on to link Guevara’s supposed personality trait to the role he was assigned in the Sierra Maestra, stating: “Che would never have survived that war without this control over his bravery and his fearless disposition. Look, when the enemy’s final offensive arrived, neither Che, nor Camilo, nor any of those leaders was in the front line. I sent Che to the recruits’ school…” (ibid.) If Guevara’s role was indeed determined by such considerations, there is no hint of it in La victoria estratégica, which deals precisely with that final offensive. Indeed, apart from the notes of humour and occasional anger which come through in the two men’s correspondence, Guevara’s presence in La victoria estratégica is not especially vivid and his mistakes, if any, are not mentioned.

First-person narratives are rarely entirely consistent, and Castro’s does not always remain guarded, even in the absence of a sympathetic interviewer. Scattered through the text are brief lyrical interludes in which Castro takes on the role of omniscient narrator, such as this extract from Chapter 7:

From their positions, the rebels poised for ambush listened to the advance of the first soldiers; they heard their conversations and their shouts. They experienced the strange, mixed feeling of knowing that a still-invisible enemy was coming closer, one to which their eyes had not yet given a comforting human dimension. (La victoria estratégica, p. 188)

These episodes are rare, and they almost always concern the experience of others. On the whole, apart from the brief flashes of feeling sometimes present in the correspondence between leaders, the implicit boundaries of Castro’s narrative remain firmly in place. Only the introduction is substantially personal in nature, and it opens with a statement which clearly addresses the projected expectations of Castro’s readership:

I am obliged… to include a short autobiography of the first part of my life, without which the sense of [the narrative] would not be understood. I didn’t want to wait for the publication, one day, of the answers to innumerable questions I have been asked about my childhood, adolescence and youth: stages which made me into a revolutionary and an armed fighter. (p. ix)

In fact, the rather arbitrary autobiographical outline which follows does not bring anything new; Castro has already spoken of his childhood, youth and early political activity at considerably more length (and with far more complexity) in Biografía a dos voces. This only serves to reinforce the impression that personal matters are far from the main point of this narrative, whether they pertain to Castro himself or to the 26th of July Movement as a whole.

Is Castro’s account worth reading? For those readers exclusively interested in the personalities and ideologies of the 26th of July Movement, or those expecting a public autocritique, the answer is no. The interest of La victoria estratégica is arguably as tightly-defined as its narrative, but it still holds much to examine. To this reviewer, it is primarily valuable as an egodocument: perhaps the first example in all of Castro’s prolific textual output in which his identity as a military leader is very nearly disentangled from his politics. Others might read it for the insight into the mechanics of the Sierra Maestra campaign – from the acquisition and maintenance of weapons to the production and distribution of beef jerky – or the opportunity to engage with Castro’s retrospective assessment of his own strategic decisions. Uncritical supporters of the Cuban Revolution (or, conversely, those who approach it entirely apolitically) might simply read it as a historical reconstruction: the story of “how 300 overcame 10,000” (p. ix). Although its appeal is less broad than that of Biografía a dos voces and its remit more strictly defined, La victoria estratégica is nonetheless a document of considerable historical significance.

Kirsty Jane McCluskey is a PhD student in History at Queen’s University, Belfast.  Her research project, entitled “Revolutionary stories of childhood and youth: a comparative study of Trotsky and Castro,” compares the two men as authors in the context of a broader survey of revolutionary memoir in Russia and Latin America.

La victoria estratégica, Oficina de Publicaciones del Consejo de Estado: Havana 2010, paperback 855 pp., 978 9592741041

La contraofensiva estratégica, Oficina de Publicaciones del Consejo de Estado: Havana 2010, paperback 593 pp., 978 9592741058

La victoria estratégica is available internationally from Ocean Sur: 2011, paperback 636 pp., 978 1921700156.  An English translation, The Strategic Victory, will be available in 2012.


6 comments on “The War According to Castro: La victoria estratégica/La contraofensiva estratégica

  1. John
    November 23, 2011

    A very interesting and thorough review, thank you. At least nobody is disputing the authorship (yet?)- sorry for feeble joke after Shakespeare week. Thanks as ever, John.

  2. Pingback: Spotlight on the Wordpress Book Bloggers! « Randomize ME

  3. kirstyjane
    November 23, 2011

    Thank you very much, John — glad you liked it!

  4. Jackie
    November 24, 2011

    This must be an invaluable book, not only for those who are interested in Castro & Cuba, but for military scholars as well. Or anyone wishing to know how to mount a successful revolution when outnumbered.
    In the U.S. at least, Castro is present as such a negative figure, that I wonder if some of my countrymen would find themselves rooting for him as the underdog if they read this book? It would be more realistic to see him as a complex person with an intricate history.

  5. kirstyjane
    November 24, 2011

    Thanks very much, Jackie, for the kind and interesting comment. I must say, it is quite an education in the basics of strategy, logistics etc. This is a book I’d love to discuss with an experienced military historian.

    Well, you should be able to get the translation if you so wish as Ocean Press have a broad distribution in the US. If you do, I’d be delighted to hear your thoughts about it!

  6. Pingback: Two recent posts: Lula and Fidel « Kirsty Jane McCluskey

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