Fidel Castro before the bushy beard, military uniform, and icon status
The opening of Jonathan M. Hansen’s “Young Castro: The Making of a Revolutionary” is tropical and dramatic, shot in Technicolor: our intrepid author, acting on a tip from a friend, travels to a stately building in Old Havana to talk with a reclusive, venerable woman named Natalia (“Naty”) Revuelta.
He’s come to interview her about the love of her life, Fidel Castro. Her commitment to the project wavers back and forth. At one point she refuses to cooperate, but when Hansen shows her an old letter from her lover, her eyes fill up with tears. “That’s so Fidel,” she murmurs, “that’s so Fidel.” Abruptly, her mind changes: “She then stood up, entered her library, and returned with a thick stack of paper which she plopped down on my lap, punctuating the moment with a single, unceremonious word: ‘HERE.’” Hansen leaves with the precious bundle, and the rest is history.
Once he’s finished collecting the long-secret documents from Revuelta in the mansion on the hill, he gets down to business: He shapes his account to create as full a portrait as possible of Castro before he became a political icon of the late 20th century.
Hansen’s book is about Castro before he became a revolutionary icon with a bushy beard, dressed in military fatigues, who always seemed to be shouting. We recognize him as the defiant leader of Communist Cuba, frequent object of U.S. assassination plots, bane of the Kennedy administration, arch villain of the Cuban Missile Crisis. This figure looms over Hansen’s account and consistently heightens its fascination.
Hansen’s story starts well before Castro’s birth in August of 1926 and follows him through his relatively privileged childhood and his student experiences at the hands of the Jesuits. Castro becomes a voracious political reader and speaker during his time as a law student at the University of Havana, deeply involving himself in the protests and counter-protests that roiled the campus in the late 1940s. It was in these years that Castro became a committed revolutionary. All he needed was a revolution.
By the time he was arrested in 1953 for organizing an attack on one of General Fulgencio Batista’s Cuban military garrisons, he had found that revolution. In “Young Castro,” those two years in prison read like a deep personal transformation, when Castro’s already omnivorous reading expanded to authors like W. Somerset Maugham, A. J. Cronin, and Romain Rolland, and when, as Hansen puts it, he came to the “growing conviction that life was meaningless unless devoted to some higher purpose. He came to identify that purpose in Cuba’s unrequited dream of Cuba Libre.”
General Batista released Castro from prison in 1955, mistakenly believing that he and his cohorts posed no threat. By 1959, Batista was overthrown and Castro was prime minister of Cuba. The account of that remarkable insurgency in “Young Castro” makes for gripping reading.
In many ways, the most memorable impression is of a serious, passionate, constantly evolving man; even in his formative years, Hansen’s Castro is an impressive combination of revolutionary zeal and common-folk compassion. In his famous partnership with the Argentine Che Guevara, he’s the deeper, more contemplative one.
Likewise Hansen gives his readers a global thinker, someone who realized, from early in the consolidation of power on his tiny island, that he would need to step warily onto the world stage. “If Cuba’s alliance with the Soviet Union troubled U.S. officials, it unsettled Castro, too,” Hansen writes. “However much Cuba needed money and protection, it was never his intention to trade dependence on one imperial juggernaut for dependence on another, and [he] soon learned that condescension and a lack of reciprocity were not the province of Americans alone.”
In other words, in addition to being exhaustively thorough and gripping, “Young Castro” is also remorselessly sympathetic, far more so than Robert E. Quirk’s 1995 biography or Georgie Anne Geyer’s 1991 “Guerrilla Prince.” Nowhere in Hansen’s pages is the impulsive, autocratic oaf seen by many of Castro’s critics. The serial womanizer is largely absent from these pages as well. “Young Castro” gives no hint of the dictator who would run his country into the ground and make it a pariah state. Here we get the newly minted revolutionary, with the future unwritten before him.