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Before Night Falls-Reinaldo Arenas

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The Cuban Revolutionary war has been viewed through different lenses, typically dependent upon which side of history the viewer falls on.  Fidel Castro’s march through Havana after the exit of Fulgencia Batista was paraded as the era of change that Cuba needed in order to break out from Yankee imperialism and the iron grip of organized crime.  The charismatic and bearded leader introduced a new pride in Cubans with promises of true revolution and equality for all.  Today, nearly sixty years later, we know that did not happen and the true number of people persecuted under his rule may never be known.  Reinaldo Arenas (1943-1990) was just one of thousands of exiles who were able to leave the island they called home to escape relentless persecution because of their sexuality and literary beliefs.  And when he took his own life on December 7, 1990,  an end came to a short but painful life in which he never truly found peace.  Before his death he made it a goal to complete this autobiography as a sort of farewell gift to those who knew him or his work.  His death was no accident and Arenas explains himself that he will in fact leave this world as his choosing.  Twenty-seven years have passed since his death but his story is remarkable even today.  The book was adapted into a screenplay  by Julian Schnabel and the film starred Javier Bardem and Johnny Depp.  Both are great actors but as good as the film may be, the only person who told Arenas’ story the best was Arenas himself.

The author begins the book by taking us back to his childhood in Cuba, in particular his village of Holguín where he was born into a village of poverty where he and his closest siblings had no shoes and sometimes ate the earth.  The descriptions of the poverty that could be found in his village are shocking but an accurate portrayal of life in small villages just decades ago.   At a young age, he realizes he is a homosexual and his sexual orientation will be a major factor in almost all of the events that take place throughout the rest of his life.  They are also central to everything in the book.   Stories of the persecution of homosexuals in Cuba under the Castro government are well-known but those outside of Cuba may not know just how much.   In a society where all were supposed to be equal, the blatant harassment and discrimination of gay men and women contradicted the revolutionary ideology.  Nevertheless, from Arenas’ words, it does seem at times as if homosexuality was as common as heterosexuality.  His encounters with men are spontaneous, dangerous and also numerous. And his descriptions of his encounters and what he witnesses are graphic and not for readers that are uneasy with explicit sexual dialogue.

As a writer, Arenas also possessed another quality which made him an enemy of the state.  He explains himself that Castro does not like writers, either those for or against the government and the suppression of  free thought, speech and works of literature is present everywhere as big brother cracks down in Orwellian style manifested in the classic 1984.  Informants, mail-opening and surveillance were tools of the trade as ordinary citizens lived under a microscope where everyone was suspected of being counter-revolutionary and forced to live on meager rations with nearly no income.  In fact, their lives stood in stark contrast to the opulent lifestyle enjoyed by Castro and his subordinates.  In short, it was the classic totalitarian state despite of the image projected by the Castro regime.  Cuban exiles will readily agree with this but even in Cuba, there are those who believed in Castro and still do.  The debate will go on for an eternity.

Arenas realizes that his sexual orientation and writing have made him a target and he knows it is just a matter of time before the authorities come for him.   They do and his incarceration in Cuban jails makes up the central part of the book.  His descriptions of life in Cuban prisons defy belief and it is a miracle that anyone survives.  Towards the end of the book, he admits that he never fully healed from prison and that no one ever does.  But he remains strong in the face of adversity as authorities do their best to break his spirit and turn him into informant.  When he finally puts prison behind him, he troubles are over as he has to earn a living but is known to the State and known in society as part of a group of people who are often ostracized. He knows he must get out of Cuba, but the questions remains as to how he will do it.  A chance event in Peru changes his life and the lives of thousands of other Cubans and when he finally steps foot on U.S. soil, the next phase of his life begins but not long before it tragically ends.

Although this is Arenas’ autobiography, he tells the story of the lives of many people close to him, all struggling to find peace and happiness in a society which represses anything an everything.   Scene and scene of debauchery and tragedy play out by characters just short of despair. Their stories and Arenas’ life reveal the facade behind the triumphant revolution which replaced on dictator with another who was at times even more brutal towards his own citizens.   In a cruel twist of fate, Castro outlived Arenas and many other Cuban exiles depriving them of the chance to see Cuba after Castro.  The future will tell if Cuba will every truly be free but as the nation moves towards that goal, then it is best served to remember the stories of those who have suffered and Arenas who through his words, one of Cuba’s loudest voices.

ISBN-10: 0140157654
ISBN-13: 978-0140157659

Revolution Within The Revolution: Women and Gender Politics in Cuba 1952-1962-Michelle Chase

23937036The Cuban Revolution has served as a blueprint as a successful campaign for independence from imperialism.   Fidel Castro (1926-2016),  Ernesto Che Guevara (1928-1967) and Raul Castro (1931-) became legendary figures in Cuba and around the world.  Raul is remaining member of the trio and is currently the President of the Council of State of Cuba and the President of the Council of Ministers of Cuba following Fidel’s retirement in 2008. In March, 2016, United States President Barack Obama made a historic visit to the island in an effort to restore severely strained diplomatic relations between the two nations. Time will tell if Washington and Havana continue down that path.

When Fidel Castro died in December, 2016, he joined the ranks among the now deceased leaders from the Cold War Era.  Raul remains carrying the Castro name and the torch of the revolution.  As fascinating as the revolution is, there are many stories that have never been told.  Che’s march in Santa Clara and Fidel’s triumphant march into Havana are typically referred to as the shining moments of the movement.  But upon closer inspection as Michelle Chase shows us, a revolution took place within the revolution. Examining the importance of women and gender politics, Chase shows the revolution from the view of the female revolutionary and the struggle of women prior to and post-revolution. Admirers of the Castro brothers and Guevara might be tempted to believe that the Cuba became a glorious paradise following Batista’s overthrow.  But the reality is that women waged their own battle to achieve equality and a voice in Cuban society.

When we think of the Cuban revolution, we often conjure up the image of the Barbudo, the bearded guerrilla fighter in the jungles of the small Caribbean island.  In truth, behind the heroic figures, were women who saw the revolution as a chance to transform Cuban society and prove that they had just as much courage, will and goals as their male counterparts. To reinforce the importance of women in the effort, Chase revisits the events prior to Batista’s fall as young Cubans began to form resistance groups opposed to the tyrannical dictator supported by the United States.   And interesting, the effort was far more widespread than  the Twenty Sixth of July Movement which is the default resistance group examined in books, magazines and documentaries.   Women participated in this group and many others in the effort to establish a free Cuba.  Their voices and stories come alive in this book to enlighten even the most serious student of the revolution. I found the book to be significant for it touches of a largely unknown topic outside of Cuba.

Where the book shines is in its unfiltered examination of Cuba post-revolution. There is no glorification of Castro here.  We see what was happening and the effect on everyday Cubans.  And without women, there was no way Cuban society could have continued to function.    Also highlighted in the book are the areas in which the revolution was failing its citizens.  Even today, Cuba is still in need of much reformation but is still constrained under the banner of revolution.  We can only guess as to what will happen after Raul Castro leaves office for the final time.   Regardless of how or when he leaves office, it is imperative that we remember the lives and efforts of the Cuban women, who marched, carried signs, put their lives on the line and challenged the establishment.  Today they are grandmothers and great grand-grandmothers.  But there was a time in their lives where they took part in one of the 20th Century’s greatest events.

ISBN-10: 14 le69625008
ISBN-13: 978-1469625003

Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life-Jon Lee Anderson

20180602_215622 On October 8, 1967, Ernesto “Che” Guevara (1928-1967) is executed by the Bolivian army after he is captured in failed attempt to spread revolutionary ideology throughout Latin America.  He leaves behind a widow and five children.   Since his death he has become the icon for revolution and his image can be found on items such as lighters, coffee mugs, t-shirts,  posters and even the graduation caps of high school and college students throughout the world.  Students of Marxist-Leninist ideology and guerrilla conflict look to his writings, speeches and quotes as inspiration.  And although forty-eight years have passed since his death, his name continues to spark admiration, disdain and curiosity.

Recently, President Barack Obama visited Cuba in an effort to repair the strained relationship between two countries that share a long history.  And while the embargo is still official U.S. policy towards Cuba, their meeting did serve as a sense of change for future generations.  I couldn’t help wonder, had Che been with us, what his thoughts would be about the recent developments.  Often seen as the “hardliner” of the Castro regime, the Argentine doctor turned guerrilla fighter was one of the most important participants in the Cuban revolution and a staunch opponent of any form of U.S. aggression and intervention in Cuban affairs.

The more I began to think about Che, the more I realized that I needed to revisit his life story to get more of a sense of who he was and why.  And for those reasons, I took another look at the most comprehensive and extensive biography of Che’s life by author and journalist Jon Anderson Lee.   Che never wrote his own biography but instead penned several books about his experiences in the revolutionary campaign and articles in the journals El Cubano Libre (Free Cuban) and the Verde Olivo (Olive Drab).  His book Episodes of the Cuban Revolutionary War is among the best written about the campaign.   Others have published accounts of their memories of Che with his widow Aleida’s account ‘Remembering Che‘, the most intimate of all.   While he is seen as the icon for violent revolution, the real Che was extremely complex, highly intelligent and fiercely devoted to revolution with unwavering fanaticism in his beliefs of a new Latin America shaped by Marxist-Leninist ideology.

Through Anderson’s writing, we step inside Che’s life and witness the many obstacles and chance encounters along the way that allowed him to become a doctor, author, ambassador, guerrilla fighter, husband, father and unfortunately in some cases, executioner.   The true beauty in this book is its unbiased view of Che’s life and Anderson does a masterful job of being as neutral as possible even in face of some of Che’s least favorable actions, some of which would cause surprise and consternation among many today.  In life, it is always tempting to portray icons of the past in the most favorable light possible.  And although Che’s image has become a commercial success, what we learn in this book is that the real Che was no where close to believing himself a commercial icon and openly showed disdain for capitalist tendencies.

His actions will come under scrutiny for generations to come and his image and likeness will continue to be reprinted and used as a commercial too for entrepreneurs across the globe.  He will forever be loved, feared and hated, and his commitment to communist ideology combined with a fearlessness of using armed conflict are eerily similar to modern-day fundamentalism in various parts of the world.  Nonetheless, he is a critical part of Cuban and world history and one of the most important figures of the 20th century.   Anderson’s biography is the definitive account of the mythical Argentine revolutionary.

ISBN-10: 080213
ISBN-13: 978-0802135582

Episodes of the Cuban Revolutionary War (1956-1958)-Ernesto Che Guevara

che revolution.jpgFifty-six years have passed since Fidel Castro and his guerrilla army overthrew Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista and liberated the island from the grip of United States control.  Accompanied by his younger brother Raul and Argentine revolutionary Ernesto Che Guevara,  he marched triumphantly through the streets of Havana declaring a new Cuba.  In 1955 Guevara met Fidel and Raul in Mexico City in 1955 and enlisted his services in the revolution that is still the topic of debate and the cause of strain between Cuba and the United States.   As the new government was instituted, Guevara served as the island’s Finance Minister, President of the National Bank and chief judge at La Cabana prison.   He was a complex character who filled a myriad of roles and strictly devoted to his communist ideology.  He was a meticulous note taker and kept many journals of his experiences.  In this book are his memories of the Guerrilla campaign and triumph.

In 1953, Che graduated from medical school earning his doctorate degree.   His fame will always be him time in Cuba but it should not be forgotten that he was an excellent author with a sharp literary mind and of deep analytical skill.   His classic Guerrilla Warfare, is the textbook for revolutionary warfare against a stronger and more intimidating opponent.  His speeches about U.S.  foreign policy and the state of Cuba have been composed into the short but insightful Che Guevara Speaks.  Each book is phenomenal in its own right and recommended reading for students of the revolution and Guevara himself.

Che once said that “at the risk of sounding ridiculous, a true revolutionary is guided by great feelings of love”.  Love comes in many different forms and for Che, that meant commitment to ideology at the cost of personal sacrifice.    But never did he waver in his beliefs and as he explains in the book, the cause was not without problems or hardship and in some cases, extreme violence combined with executive decisions.   He was assigned the doctor of the group and eventually given his own command of troops. His efforts in the city of Santa Clara which proved to be the final nail in Batista’s coffin are well known. What is not often mentioned, is the day to day of the guerrilla fighters in the jungles of Cuba.  For some it may be hard to imagine a war taking place in a country so small but for Castro and his band of bearded figures, it was a matter of the survival of the nation.   As Fidel made decisions and the group of men plotted their fates, Che was there taking notes that are presented here to shine light on the struggle that was their daily lives.

Food rations, discipline, medical conditions and political factors all come into play making the life of the guerrilla a daily struggle between life and death.   Treasons and famine proved to be severe threats to the mission, recurring repeatedly throughout the book.  But in spite of both,  Castro is successful and through Che we see how and why that was so.   Towards the end of the book are extras by the publisher and they consist of Che’s letters to Fidel, his parents and many others. Also included is Che’s eulogy on the death of his close friend and revolutionary icon, Camilo Cinfuegos. The letters are a joy to read and I am sure that there were plenty others that have never been published that Che wrote.  The tragedy of his death in October, 1967 is that he left behind a widow, children and deprived us from other great books that I am sure he would have written throughout his life.   But it is our fortune that he left us with these writings and many others during his time on earth.

ISBN-10: 0873488245
ISBN-13: 978-0873488242

Remembering Che: My Life with Che Guevara – Aleida March

13236911In 1967, Ernesto Che Guevara (1928-1967) left Cuba for the last time as he engaged in his plan to spread social revolution across Latin America. Fueled by his beliefs in Marxist-Leninist ideology, he was determined to see Latin America free from the grip of Yankee capitalism.  On October 8, 1967,  he was executed by the Bolivian military following his capture several days later.  His death pushed him into martyrdom and to this day, he is by far, the most iconic revolutionary, both loved and loathed. His actions on the battle field and later as part of the Cuban Government have produced enough material for several books.  But what was often overlooked was his role as a husband and father. When he departed Cuba and began his final expedition, he left behind a wife and five children from two women.  His youngest child was an infant when he left.  His widow Aleida and his children have carried his legacy, never letting us forget who he was and what he stood for.

Che Guevara continues to arouse interest and actor Benicio Del Toro took on the role of Che in the 2008 biopic of the same name.  And as Cuba slowly moves closer to social reform and the end of the Castro regime, his name will arise in discussions about Cuba’s difficult past.  Many of the figures that took part in the Cuban Revolution are no longer with us, having departed this world for the next life.  Raul Castro remains one of the few from the old guard and carries the spirit of the revolution as he oversees the country that his brother transformed.

As much as I could go on about Che, the story at hand belongs to his widow Aleida and these are her recollections of her life with him.   The two met during the guerrilla campaign and were married in 1959 following Che’s divorce from his first wife Hilda Gadea (1921-1974) with whom he had a daughter, Hilda Guevara (1956-1995). Aleida would go on to give him four children, all of whom resemble their iconic father.  To the public, he was the key piece to the battle at Santa Clara which changed the war and to others, the man responsible for the executions at the La Cabana prison.  At home, he was dad and as Aleida shows us, a typical father trying to be a good husband who adores his kids.   Following the expulsion of Fulgencio Batista, Che took on several jobs, typically working from Monday through Saturday.  It has been said that he sometimes slept in his office. And even on Sundays, he worked for several hours before going home to his family.   For most women, this would have been too much, but for Aleida, she remained dedicated to her husband, his beliefs and the revolution they both took part in.

Those who might be looking for a revelation will not find it here.  The book is mainly about their life together as they bring several children into the world.  Che was dedicated to his cause and revolution is a part of their daily lives. Aleida’s anecdotes highlight many instances where his rigid beliefs interfered with their daily lives.  And to her credit, she never stopped loving him nor did she remarry after his death.

Undoubtedly, the crux of the book is how Che came to leave Cuba for the last time and how Aleida handled his decision.   Her disclosures about her feelings regarding Che’s decision to leave might surprise some readers.   She is very frank and clear in her thoughts but I could not help to think that she was beyond dejected to see him leave.  And for Che, leaving his family must have been one of the hardest decisions he had ever been forced to make.  Aleida very vividly and thoughtfully, explains how Che came to make that fateful decision.  Today we have the luxury of asking what if?  What if he had never left Cuba and stayed there with his family?  Would he have become the revolutionary icon that he is today?  We will never know those answers but through Aleida’s fond memories, we can see the other side of Ernesto Che Guevara.

ISBN-10: 0987077937
ISBN-13: 978-0987077936