In few other countries is the weight of recent history as conspicuous or oppressive as in Cuba. Mothballed by 40 years of embargo and isolation, the island lives the historic significance of its revolution on a daily basis, revering a secular pantheon of key dates, icons and martyrs. Cubans are taught to think of the triunfo as a turning-point, a moment from which the island not only won its long overdue independence, but entered modern history.
Central to the revolution's particular mística is the official Cuban interpretation of the events leading to the overthrow of General Fulgencio Batista's dictatorship in December 1958. This process is viewed almost exclusively in terms of a guerrilla campaign waged against the regime from the Sierra Maestra mountains and masterminded by Fidel Castro and Ernesto "Che" Guevara. From a handful of armed insurgents, so this version goes, the rebel army grew into a large, disciplined force capable of defeating a professional army in conventional warfare. The protracted military assault on Batista's government thus created the instability that allowed for the final insurrection in towns and rural regions across Cuba.
The romantic image of the young guerrillas did much to popularise the revolution both in Cuba and further afield as well as validating the pivotal position held ever since by Fidel and his fellow guerrilla and brother, RaNol. It also tended to reduce the importance attributed to other aspects of the revolutionary struggle and other tactics adopted by Castro's 26th of July Movement (M267). Particularly, the primacy ascribed to Guevara's theory of the foco or rural-based insurgency lessened the perceived role of the M267's urban underground, a network of revolutionary militants and organisers located far from the Sierra Maestra in Havana, Santiago de Cuba and other cities.
Based on unprecedented access to the classified records of the M267, Julia Sweig examines the relationship between the sierra (the mountain-based rebel army) and the llano (the urban operatives) between November 1956 and July 1958 as the revolutionary movement gathered impetus, faltered, and finally accelerated towards victory. Her book is in some sense a revisionist attempt to re-evaluate the contribution made by the llano to the revolution's success, but it is also a detailed account of the complex, and often unhappy dynamics between the barbudos in the mountains and their civilian colleagues.
As far as Castro and Guevara were concerned, the role of the llano was primarily to raise money, buy weapons, and supply them to the guerrilla army. In reality, the urban M267 leadership had to confront many more issues and problems than simply logistical and security ones. For unlike those in the mountains with their clear-cut strategic goals, city-based activists such as Frank Pa!s and Armando Hart were confronted with many simultaneous and often contradictory challenges. Not only did the llano deal with fundraising and the supply of materiel but it also had to deal with a whole range of competing interest groups and organisations within the anti-Batista opposition. While Castro sent directives and refined ideological positions, the foot soldiers of the urban underground were in daily contact with other revolutionary groups, unions, exiled politicians, the US embassy and the myriad expressions of "civil society".
Sweig's narrative emphasises how the tension between llano and sierra , punctuated by ill-tempered letters and allegations of tactical blundering, ran alongside the wider question of how the M267 related to these other political groupings. Castro's organisation wanted, of course, to appear non-sectarian and receptive to anti-Batista coalitions, but in reality intended to lose none of the hegemony that it believed its guerrilla campaign had earned. A series of meetings and pacts with the old-style political parties, the Communist PSP, professional groups and assorted exiles involved the M267 in a balancing act between tactical advantage and damaging compromise.
This lucid account shows not only what risks were taken by the llano leadership (Pa!s was assassinated, Hart imprisoned), but also how strategic misjudgements almost torpedoed the revolutionary movement. An abortive general strike in April 1958, combined with a disastrous armed uprising around Santiago, revealed how a splintered M267 vacillated between contradictory notions of mass working-class action and vanguard-led violence and sabotage. After this damaging fiasco, Sweig writes, Castro took firm control of the movement, imposed the doctrine of guerrilla-led insurrection, and thus "the urban underground had finally been relegated to the revolution's rearguard".
It is arguable whether this book is "the compelling revisionist history" that its blurb claims for previous historians have already reassessed the part played by the urban underground in the overthrow of Batista. But access to the Cuban archives has undoubtedly provided the author with a wealth of information on a neglected dimension of the revolution, revealing in great detail just how dangerous, chaotic and complex the business of insurrection really is.
James Ferguson is a writer and publisher specialising in Latin America.
Inside the Cuban Revolution: Fidel Castro and the Urban Underground
Author - Julia E. Sweig
ISBN - 0 674 00848 0
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Price - £20.50
Pages - 248