Tuesday, 4 January 2011

RATB Reviews: Fidel & Che by Simon Reid-Henry

A review of Fidel and Che: A Revolutionary Friendship, by Simon Reid-Henry, Hodder & Stoughton, 2009, Hardback, pp467, £20/Paperback pp480, £8.99p.

by Helen Yaffe, written for RATB, June 2009.

Simon Reid-Henry’s book provides a plot that is brimming with adventure, intrigue and sensation, understandably so, given that it is about two of the 20th century’s most iconic characters; Fidel Castro and Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara. Fidel was born in 1926, to a Spanish migrant who made good and became a landowner in eastern Cuba. Che was born two years later to a liberal middle-class family in Argentina. As the author points out ‘it was not inevitable that they should meet’ (p19), but the story of their different childhoods, the circumstances leading to their encounter, the revolutionary project which they shared and the tragedy in which their partnership ended serve as a metaphor for a tumultuous period of world history.

The Cold War was close to boiling over, independence struggles were sweeping through the colonies, newly independent states pursued their own coalitions and interests, and animosity between the Soviets and the Chinese was deepening into a split which drew a wedge between communist parties around the world. The Cuban Revolution brought socialism to the western hemisphere, triggering guerrilla movements throughout Latin America while the United States was increasingly bogged down in Vietnam. The narrative weaves the lives of Fidel and Che through this minefield of international history. A lot of background information is presumed.

Reid-Henry pulls together the best myths and anecdotes from the plethora of published material on Fidel and Che, including biographies, interviews and the memoirs of those who have basked in the reflected glory of their association with these revolutionary icons. He also uses archive material from Cuba, Russia, the US and Germany. The author does not discriminate between these sources, leaning equally on the recollections of their soldiers-in-arms and the hearsay of their fervent opponents. In Fidel’s case this includes wealthy school peers who were later dispossessed by the redistribution measures of the Revolution. It is not until one-third into the book that our two protagonists meet, in Mexico in 1955, and their friendship, which is the main plot of the story, begins.

The fast-paced narrative reads more like a novel than a historical account. This makes it exciting and eminently digestible, but it is also its weakness. Having created their characters, novelists have the luxury of dissecting their psyche and asserting their motives. An historian uses different skills, balancing objectivity with empathy, to analyse their protagonists, not impose their own reason upon them. Reid-Henry echoes the stereotypes of many commentators from outside Cuba who do not share the political or ideological commitments of the revolutionaries themselves; they explain developments, decisions and policies as expressions of psychological impulses or character traits. Che is a restless idealist or dogmatist, who left Cuba because he rejected the direction the revolution had taken, while Fidel is a control freak whose ‘principal objective [was] to maintain power, to stay in control no matter what.’ (p379). Fidel appears utterly irrational – if it was power and influence he wanted, his ‘political ambitions’ (p55) could have been better served by the graft and patronage in pre-revolutionary Cuba, than by risking his life and sacrificing all his comforts, turning the country upside down and building socialism in the heat of the Cold War.

Reid-Henry’s narrative twists to fit the history into this schema – throughout the book we are told that the two are ‘falling out’ but a few lines later they are an intimate double-act; radicalising the revolution, adopting socialism, asserting Cuba’s independence from the USSR and China, rejecting ‘peaceful co-existence’ and advocating armed rebellion against imperialism throughout the world. It is no easy task to tell the history of a revolutionary project through the spectrum of a friendship. It leads Reid-Henry to lose perspective and claim, for example, that after January 1959 when the revolutionaries seized power ‘a war of some sorts had to continue if they were to sustain that partnership they had established in the mountains.’ (p208), and that their decision for Che to participate in guerrilla struggle abroad ‘was a solution that held out promise of salvaging their personal relations despite their growing personal differences.’ (p303) As an historian of the Cuban revolution and ‘student’ of Guevara’s political and economic ideas, I am not convinced by the suggestion that preserving their friendship took precedence over the revolutionary project. It is the two-man view of history.

Despite the tendency to sensationalise, this is a gripping and animated introduction to the making and shaping of the Cuban Revolution from the perspective of its two most famous leaders. It provides an insight into the impact and significance which this small Caribbean island has had on the real world in which we all live.

Dr. Helen Yaffe is the author of Che Guevara: The Economics of Revolution, Palgrave Macmillan, 2009. Dr. Simon Reid-Henry is a lecturer in Geography at Queen Mary, London and his new book is The Cuban Cure: Reason and Resistance in Global Science, ISBN-10: 0226709175.