Reading List December 2005

Cuba Libre

Castro's least favorite books
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Persona Non Grata: A Memoir of Disenchantment With the Cuban Revolution, by Jorge Edwards, preface by Octavio Paz (1993). Edwards, a renowned novelist, was Chilean President Salvador Allende's man in Havana in the winter of 1970—1971, there to open an embassy and establish a diplomatic presence for the fledgling socialist government in Santiago. However, his friendship with the dissident Cuban poet Heberto Padilla provoked Castro to accuse him of "conduct hostile to the revolution" and to banish him from the island. His indispensable memoir first appeared in English in 1977.

Guerrillas in Power: The Course of the Cuban Revolution, by K. S. Karol (1970). A longtime editor at Le Nouvel Observateur, the Polish-born Karol is a survivor of both Nazism and the Soviet gulag. Still, a hardy idealism born of a lifelong commitment to democratic socialism prompted him to accept an invitation from Castro and Che Guevara to visit Cuba in the early 1960s and judge for himself the new experiment in social revolution. No writer before him had enjoyed such complete access to confidential government files and to Castro and his comrades. Karol wrote an honest book, sharply criticizing Castro for becoming a caudillo. In turn, Castro denounced him—inaccurately—as a CIA agent.

Is Cuba Socialist? by René Dumont (1974). Like Karol, Dumont was a sympathetic observer with democratic-socialist politics. A French agronomist with expertise in the developing and newly independent nations of Africa, he, too, accepted an invitation from Castro to witness and critique the revolution then in the making. Dumont was appalled by what he saw: Cuba's far from withering state, the militarization of its economy, the idolatry surrounding its overindulged "maximum leader." Refusing to lay blame on the U.S. embargo, Dumont declared that Castro himself was largely responsible for the failures of his revolution. Like Karol, Dumont was condemned by Castro as an agent of Washington.

Against All Hope: The Prison Memoirs of Armando Valladares (1986). An antidote for those with a tendency to romanticize revolutionary despots, Valladares's memoir makes for compelling reading. For refusing, on religious grounds, to display a revolutionary slogan on his work desk, Valladares was awarded twenty-two years of torment and imprisonment. His was the first book to detail the abuses meted out by Castro and his men to those who fall from favor.

Sent Off the Field: A Selection From the Poetry of Heberto Padilla (1972). This slim volume from the late poet (arrested in Havana in 1971 for, among other things, giving his Chilean friend and fellow writer Jorge Edwards "a negative view of the revolution") contains many of his most melancholy and incendiary verses—earning him Castro's enmity. It was not for nothing that Plato sought to banish poets from his ideal republic. Padilla's arrest and subsequent forced "confession" would prove a turning point for many writers worldwide who had previously sympathized with Castro. Marguerite Duras, Carlos Fuentes, and Susan Sontag, among others, expressed their "disquiet" even as they sought to remain loyal to the Cuban revolution. In time, however, they came to recognize that the dream was over.

Steve Wasserman, former editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review, is managing director of the New York office of Kneerim & Williams at Fish & Richardson, a literary agency. He has visited Cuba on numerous occasions, beginning in 1970.
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