Tocayo: A Cuban Resistance Leader’s True Story.
by Antonio Navarro.
Sandown Books. 270 pp. $14.95.
The exile memoir is not normally the most valuable guide to the history of a revolution. The defeated have too many failures of their own to explain and excuse; distance—both emotional and intellectual—is often impossible to maintain; few authors of this kind of book really possess the ability to relate their own story to the larger process through which they have lived. The literature of the Cuban revolution suffers from all of these deficiencies in greater than usual measure, possibly because so many who now oppose Castro were at least for a time in his party.
A cursory glance at the life of the author of these recollections would not encourage one to expect them to advance much beyond the limitations of the genre. The son of a poor but respectable family, Antonio Navarro married fortuitously into one of the island’s leading families and became a major executive in his father-in-law’s textile manufacturing empire. Both personally and—in a guarded way, it is suggested—in a business sense Navarro’s in-laws were deeply involved with the dictator Fulgencio Batista; Navarro and his wife Avis were habitués of Havana’s smart embassy set; but they were not “political” in the sense that, like most wealthy Cubans from 1898 on, they preferred to concentrate their energies in business, social life, and foreign travel, and allow the task of governing to fall into the hands of successive generations of corrupt, self-seeking politicos and “generals.”
With the advent of Castro to power in 1959, Navarro and his family found an entire way of life rapidly swept away, and with it the family fortunes. With his wife safely in Miami, he entered the underground resistance to Castro (under the nom de guerre “Tocayo”), and beneath the cover of a sugar-merchandising business, assisted in the rescue of various democratic opposition leaders. He was eventually arrested and detained under extremely harrowing psychological conditions, finally able to escape to the United States through the personal intervention of an old friend who had become Foreign Minister of Brazil. Today he lives in Florida and is the executive of a major multinational corporation.
Tocayo is not, however, an idealized reconstruction of a vanished past or a lament for lost privilege, still less one more tiresome disquisition on how Castro “betrayed” his own revolution. Instead, it is an extremely intelligent and sensitive account of those crucial months between 1959 and 1962—that is, between the fall of Batista and the consummation of a marriage between Castro’s personal revolutionary organization and the Communist party, and the subsequent realignment of Cuba internationally with the Soviet Union. Navarro takes us back to that moment when the outcome of events could not be known, and thus strips away the veneer of inevitability which subsequently envelops (and masks the truth about) so many historical developments.
Specifically, Tocayo charts four cardinal points crucial to the course of the Cuban drama. The first is an account of the last moments of the old Cuba, and of the confusion, hopes, and illusions that attended the new as it came to birth. Here Navarro combines some extremely mordant observations about the ancien régime with an acute awareness of the submerged currents of class and racial resentment which Castro effectively exploited. At the same time, he tries to explain the peculiar relationship between the ramshackle political structure in Cuba, which owed much to four hundred years of Spanish military rule, and the far more modern economic culture which modeled itself as much as possible on the United States. It was this anomalous link between two worlds which created a serious vacuum of legitimacy in Cuban society—a vacuum which Castro was able to fill without ever articulating a coherent political program. In a society without politicians capable of realizing concrete goals, Navarro suggests, people transferred their expectations to the limitless horizons offered by a messiah.
This leads to a second theme: the conflicting reactions among the Cuban upper class to the new order of things. While most of Navarro’s friends’ parents, his father-in-law, and his own aunt and uncle responded to the Castro revolution by taking refuge in a cynicism toward Cuban politics generally, or lapsed into a sort of reflective (but inactive) opposition, Navarro and many of his contemporaries found themselves swept up in the wave of idealism and enthusiasm which engulfed the island. Legend has it—and Castro himself never tires of repeating it to foreign visitors with expressions of genuine hurt and disappointment—that Cuba’s “radicalization” was the natural consequence of a blind resistance by the island’s elite (and the United States) to the smallest reforms he tried to institute. Navarro’s detailed account of his and his friends’ attempt to collaborate with the revolution should put some of this fantasy to rest.
In the case of his father-in-law’s textile mills, Navarro had received personal assurances from both Castro and the new Minister of Industries, Ernesto (“Ché”) Guevara, that there was no political or economic reason to think they would be expropriated. Yet within weeks, a government “interventor” had arrived to take charge. When Navarro appealed the matter to Castro in the only way he could—by cornering him at an embassy reception—he received the astonishing reply, “I don’t do everything that gets done in this country. Don’t forget that.” Guevara was more honest. After keeping Navarro waiting all night for an interview (the minister’s nocturnal habits were one of his many peculiarities), Guevara received him nearly at dawn and responded to his story with the suggestion that he read Franz Kafka’s novel, The Trial. In other words, as far as the revolution was concerned, the fact of guilt or innocence was largely irrelevant.
This point is germane to the third theme of the book—the gradual identification of the Cuban revolution with Marxism-Leninism. Castro sympathizers often assert that the eventual political configuration of the regime was determined by economic and social imperatives (for example, land reform). Navarro believes that this is precisely the opposite of the truth. Communism appealed to Castro, he says, because, with its holistic view of economic and political life, it held out the prospect of unlimited power. Communism also offered the Cuban leader a cadre of disciplined sympathizers to carry out the humdrum tasks of day-today administration for which Castro’s bohemian associates were temperamentally unsuited. In this, even many of the old elite concurred; as one mill owner remarked to Navarro, “You could always count on the Communist members of the union leadership; they were responsible.”
From which it follows that the deterioration of U.S.-Cuban relations after 1959 operated basically apart from American choices and actions. This point has already been amply documented in the work of Theodore Draper and in the memoirs of Ambassador Philip W. Bonsai, but Navarro is able to add a useful psychological and cultural dimension to the discussion. “There is something about a leftist revolution in a developing country,” he writes, “which, like a Greek tragedy, has a quality of inevitability; it has to commit itself eventually to a major ideological current and to the country which most prominently endorses it and has the resources to help the little brothers.”
It was not merely that the U.S. business and political communities found Castro’s “reforms” unpalatable, or that the Soviets were searching for a beachhead in the Western hemisphere, but that Castro himself—Jesuit-trained, and as Spanish as he was Cuban—possessed an acute distaste for the distinctive hallmarks of American political culture: pluralism, discussion, disagreement, debate. “Whoever opposed Castro’s policies,” Navarro explains, “was not against his ideas, he was against Castro, and therefore against the people . . . love me, love my ideas; hate my ideas, hate me.”
Finally, Navarro turns to the growth of a resistance movement in Cuba, and in so doing brings to light certain points which seem somehow to have slipped through the interstices of popular recall. In the first place, the leadership of the anti-Castro forces in 1961-62 was drawn largely from democratic circles, particularly the labor movement, where the populist, left-of-center Auténtico party had long held sway. (Most of Batista’s collaborators fled immediately after the fall of the dictator and were not conspicuous in the subsequent clandestine resistance.) Second, by no means all of the operatives in the underground came from well-to-do backgrounds; as in the government camp itself, the counterrevolution drew together people from the working class, peasantry, and the liberal professions. Third, although the CIA was active in organizing an invasion of exiles, in Cuba itself, if Navarro’s experience is any guide, the anti-Castro movements operated more or less autonomously. In other words, the resistance was no invention of the United States.
These pages force one to consider how active and widespread that movement was, and how anxiously it waited upon an invasion of exiles to signal the moment for a general uprising. In retrospect this seems naive, yet at the time it did not appear as outlandish as it does today. While the circle of totalitarian control was steadily closing, Navarro reveals that as late as 1961 there were many Cubans, including professed partisans and functionaries of the regime, who hoped for something else. The logical site for a landing—in central Cuba—was rejected by Washington for bizarre reasons since outlined in Peter Wyden’s book, The Bay of Pigs. When the force failed to establish a foothold at the site eventually selected, and President Kennedy’s nerve failed him, thousands of courageous men and women within Cuba were abandoned to Castro’s secret police; Navarro simply had the good fortune to have been evacuated some time before.
One cannot help reflecting, too, on the role of some of Navarro’s friends—men who left a secure existence in Florida to fight for their country, some to die on the beaches. Here was a class of playboys who suddenly learned their civics lessons, but too late. Had they diverted a fraction of their potential idealism and capacity for sacrifice into the island’s public life a few short years before, the whole history of Cuba, and indeed of the Western hemisphere, might have been different.