A history of the ragtag group of rebels who took down a powerful dictator.
Smithsonian contributing writer Perrottet (The Sinner’s Grand Tour: A Journey Through the Historical Underbelly of Europe, 2011, etc.) recounts the often madcap efforts of a small band of guerrilla soldiers to overthrow Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista. At the forefront of this entertaining tale are two handsome, idealistic men, the Cuban Fidel Castro and the Argentinian Ernesto “Che” Guevara, and one sophisticated, elegant young woman, Celia Sánchez, Castro’s close friend and possible lover. The three, coming from respected, wealthy families, believed fervently in their mission to liberate the island from Batista’s military rule. In 1956, Castro and about 60 supporters gathered in Mexico City to train for rebellion. “Like an urban fitness camp,” writes the author, “they went on long walks up and down the tree-lined avenues,” and some men hiked in nearby mountains “with backpacks filled with stones.” They also devoted hours to studying “military theory.” Despite their determination, their training proved inadequate once they landed in Cuba and established their base in the inhospitable Sierra Maestra range. None of the “soft urban intellectuals” who made up the troop had ever seen the Sierra Maestra before, and they were unprepared for the torrid days and freezing nights, the relentless insects, and the slick, overgrown trails. As they hacked through the countryside with machetes, “every step became a battle.” Nor were they prepared to confront Batista’s army: In one battle, the rebels’ hand grenades—Brazilian army surplus—failed to go off, and a stick of dynamite fizzled. Perrottet smoothly follows the rebels as they gained hundreds of supporters and engaged in bold confrontations. Their successes were reported admiringly in the U.S., where articles portrayed Castro “as a cross between Pancho Villa and James Dean.” Despite his image as “the Robin Hood of Cuba,” however, Castro was a disorganized and moody leader; the guerrillas instead came to rely on Sánchez’s clearsightedness and practicality. By January 1959, against all odds, the rebels swept into Havana, victorious.
A vivid, well-researched history.