Fidel & Che: A revolutionary friendship, By Simon Reid-Henry
A new biography describes how the Cuban Revolution was ignited by the spark between its two iconic leaders
Sunday 18 January 2009
This gripping double biography describes the full-blooded friendship of two utterly different individuals. Differences can often mean separation. Yet, in the case of these two leaders, they rapidly fused into an unrivalled and irreversible complementarity. Theirs was an unfaltering and instinctive camaraderie, forged by a joint commitment to end what they perceived as the neo-colonialism of economic dependency. This would become their combined revolutionary project and, indeed, the backbone to the Cuban Revolution.
The book begins by tracing the two revolutionaries' respective origins. Fidel Castro was born in Oriente, the impoverished eastern region of Cuba with a vibrant culture immersed in rum, dancing and cockfighting. Yet for all its excitement, the community's crippled and faltering economy made a profound and permanent impression on the young Fidelito. His resulting social conviction, along with an extreme personal ambition and trademark persuasiveness, armed him for "a sort of verbal warfare", a persistent method of attack that would prove instrumental in toppling the Batista regime some years later, in 1959. But not without an indispensable sidekick ...
Ernesto "Che" Guevara's family, though of noble Argentine stock, are described as "uncompromising heretics when it came to the conventions of their class". Che, it seems, took this cultural iconoclasm a step or two further. Whereas his mother "had her hair bobbed like a boy's [and] smoked and crossed her legs in public", Che would travel across Latin America on a moped, fall in with a band of Cuban exiles in Mexico, only to find himself aboard a Cuba-bound boat a year later shouting: "Viva la revolución!" Wilful? Just a little.
However, such spontaneity is more easily understood in the context of his idealist philosophy. For Che Guevara there was no "foreign" in Latin America. It was with this vision of solidarity that he was able to endure the physical battering he received in his first two years in Cuba. Undeterred by a government ambush on arrival (in which he was shot in the neck and lost 69 of his 82 comrades) Comandante Che would go on to orchestrate a two-year guerilla campaign in the Sierra Maestra, second only to Castro himself.
The intense, often "cloying" experience, as Simon Reid-Henry puts it, in the Cuban mountains only served to further revolutionise the two men, and, indeed, to bring them closer together. In the ensuing years they collaborated in a series of often unpredictable international manoeuvers that would stun the world of international politics.
To a large extent, their successes were owed precisely to their different attributes. Indeed, with Che's unswerving idealism and Fidel's machiavellian political foresight, the two men would repeatedly establish a point and counterpoint of revolutionary harmony. As Reid-Henry neatly conveys, this benefit was clear to both men. For instance, in reference to Fidel's early intentions for the shape and nature of the revolution's leadership, Reid-Henry comments: "Whatever question marks had hung over Che's continued stay in Cuba certainly appeared to have been solved by 9 February, when Fidel passed a law making him a naturalised Cuban citizen. The law applied to all people who had fought against Batista for more than two years and who had held the rank of Comandante for one: in effect, none other than Che himself."
Naturally, there are limitations to our understanding of other people's relationships and this book proves no exception. Here, this is exacerbated by the paucity of commentary by Castro himself on the subject of his 12-year friendship with Che. As Reid-Henry suggests, this effective silence is indeed surprising. One is left in no doubt as to Castro's political genius. It could be merely that the former president of Cuba continues to see political advantage in declining to divulge more information. Yet perhaps his resistance is best explained by reference to the biographer's own hypothesis, that Fidel and Che were compañeros (friends) first and foremost. Why should he divulge such personal information?
Although we cannot know everything about their relationship, this new biographer has given more substance to the ghostly flicker that it has been up to now. This is a scholarly, deeply impressive work, none the less so for being Reid-Henry's first book. It is rigorously sourced, containing recently declassified CIA material, as well as archival and personal interview material from Havana, Washington, Moscow, Miami, Princeton, Boston, London and Berlin. Owing to this thorough scrutiny, Reid-Henry is able to describe his protagonists with a familiarity both engaging and authoritative. The credibility of his evidence and his analysis, together, make this book more than just another interesting double biography. Fidel & Che is the artful deconstruction of a friendship "whose secrets hold the key to understanding some of the most significant events of the 20th century".
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