5 Questions About: Heroes, Martyrs, and Political Messiahs in Revolutionary Cuba, 1946-1958

We ask authors of books reviewed in Oral History Review to answer 5 questions about why we should read their books. In our latest installment of the series, Lillian Guerra discusses Heroes, Martyrs, and Political Messiahs in Revolutionary Cuba, 1946-1958.

Read David Olson’s review of Heroes, Martyrs, and Political Messiahs in Revolutionary Cuba, 1946-1958 online and in upcoming issue 47.1 of OHR.

What’s it about and why does it matter?

First off, you should know that elevators in Cuba are extremely slow or simply don’t work, so this elevator pitch of my book might be slightly longer than expected. I was initially inspired to write this book back in 2006 when I was trying to figure out how to start Visions of Power, a book about the post-1959 Cuban revolutionary process. Silly me! I thought—like most historians of Cuba–that I knew what had actually happened in the 1950s and that it would really only comprise a chapter at most. I was planning on retelling the old story—the story that still gets told by some historians who have not necessarily delved into the newly opened archives of Eddy Chibás or Carlos Marquez-Sterling in Cuba’s National Archive, as I luckily have. That old story purports that civil society was mostly dead or on its last legs with Cubans feeling apathetic, demoralized, or simply complicit with the status quo under Batista. It also sells short their reactions to the democratic opening that the 1940s represent. A quick look at the existing literature revealed that most historians seemed to be looking backward from the triumph of Fidel Castro’s guerrillas in 1959 and seeing almost everything that came before as either a preface to that or a factor contributing to that. The urban underground of the Revolution against Batista and the role of the labor movement have become central to new, deeply researched works on the 1950s by such scholars as Michelle Chase and Stephen Cushion. However, I could not find a deep exploration of multiple political paths Cubans were taking in response to events beyond their control—such as Batista’s coup—or that were hidden from them—such as Raúl Castro’s secret rise in the Cuban Communist Youth and 1953 family-financed tour of Eastern Europe. One of the reasons for the narrowness of our focus is the impenetrability of the binary that has overwhelmed most studies of Cold War Cuba, before and after 1959.

For example, it turns out that the most prolific and meticulous analyst of the dictatorship era of Fulgencio Batista was none other than the dictator Fulgencio Batista himself! The man “wrote” or co-wrote five memoirs, some of which are packed with facts and figures that are not so much wrong per se as intentionally distorted. The other great narrative that seemed to consume all others is best represented in a phrase Fidel Castro used in 1959; that phrase later generated not only a book by the same title but a whole slew of official historical interpretations and ideological pedagogy used in the revolutionary school system and press: todo comenzó con Moncada [everything began with Moncada]. Of course, that was Fidel’s own assault on the Moncada military barracks of Santiago on the 26th of July 1953, an event that two years later, launched his own movement, the 26th of July Movement.  In short, there was some work to do. 

I would like to think that my book will open a floodgate of subsequent research, not only into the 1940s and 1950s but also the 1930s. It was in the Revolution of 1933 and the first US-backed coup of 1934 by Fulgencio Batista that the makings of successive years can be found. For now, I would say that Heroes, Martyrs, and Political Messiahs’ primary contribution is to reveal the extraordinary breadth of civic action and citizen political consciousness that arose in the 1940s and took flight, despite all possible obstacles arrayed against it, in the period after 1952 when Batista launched his second coup. Cuba did not have one leader in January 1959: it had an island full of leaders in the citizens themselves. 

What is the significance of the book? It is one of a tiny number of scholarly works that researches the events, people, ideas, vibrant civil society and political culture of the 1940s and 1950s from the perspective of the citizenship. I also very deliberately rely on a source-driven method of research and analysis, that is, I try to position myself in the moment of the events and see the players before they became important. Heroes, Martyrs, and Political Messiahs does not take outcomes as inevitable. It attempts to reveal the history that might have been as well as the history that was.

How does oral history contribute to your book?

Oral history is essential because it was a starting point for a lot of the research I did. Since I could not rely on secondary sources or police archives to tell me about the specific actions and protests led by the student movement, for example, or the acts of sabotage carried out by the urban activists of the 26th of July underground, I learned about them first, mostly, by asking the people who participated or frequently, planned them. I then went from the oral accounts to the detective work of finding documentary sources that would elaborate, fill in blanks, or contradict. Then I would usually go back to my oral history informants and show them things I didn’t understand and boom! They would always have more to tell. The plot would thicken.

How did I get started?  Luckily, in 2008, film director Glenn Gebhardt asked me to interview a startling number of elderly, key players of Fidel’s movement and the early revolutionary government exiled in Puerto Rico, such as Carlos Franqui. I nearly fell over. The initial interviews on camera for Glenn and the Emmy-award-winning documentary The Forgotten Revolution made me realize the enormity of the task at hand. So, I spent from 2008 to 2012 writing Visions of Power in Cuba: Revolution, Redemption, and Resistance, 1959-1971 while conducting many of the interviews and gathering the personal and archival collections of my subjects to lay the groundwork for Heroes, Martyrs, and Political Messiahs.  When I finally received a couple of fellowships, I was able to return to doing more oral histories, more follow-up research, and of course, deepen my motherlode of documentation.

What do you like about using oral history as a methodology?

It is fundamental because so much of what one would normally discover simply by reading in a library or archive in Cuba is taboo. That is why so many documentary sources are unavailable, inaccessible or on the verge of disappearing due to deterioration. Let me say something about that as I want to emphasize the way in which oral history works for me and for Cuban history. That is, I start often by asking living people about the past, what they remember and asking not only why it matters, but why they simply could not admit it mattered at all under the Revolution. History is a very inconvenient creature in an ideological ecosystem that forces everyone to look forward for evidence of its legitimacy rather than look around them, in the present, or behind them, in the past. History is also a very inconvenient thing in a political system that criminalizes dissent and polices and rewards conformity, uniformity or, on all policies of state, unanimity.

Very few archival collections of the post-1933 era are open and available to researchers of Cuba; indeed, the massive collections of newspapers that Cuba’s National Library holds are still inaccessible and it is hard to even piece together the day by day events that explain things like the consolidation of corruption and impunity under the Auténticos and the congressional system’s desperate efforts to stop it in the 1940s. For decades after 1959, the history of the Republic was considered irrelevant on the island when it was not simply taboo. I encountered all kinds of obstacles to my work when I was in Cuba researching my dissertation and that was about the early Republic. You can imagine the 1930s-1950s era pertinent to 1959. No wonder basic collections at the National Archive such as the Secretaría de la Presidencia for post-1933 presidents remain closed: there has never been any political will at the level of the government to order their processing. The National Archive, like the National Library, mostly warehouses republican history as a result. The fact that hundreds of newspapers, radio stations, and even television stations abounded in the 1940s and 1950s could not even be mentioned (and it’s still fairly shocking to average islanders) because the official position of Fidel Castro’s government was very caricatured. Caricatures of the past before 1959 is what Cubans learned in schools, in the media, on television, and in government-sponsored forms of popular culture like music, until the reforms of 1991. How could there possibly have been such an expansive press if Cuba’s illiteracy rate was astronomical? Cubans ask. Wait, how come Cuba has only one newspaper today if it had dozens before the Revolution?  Knowledge of history is explosive because it changes not only how you think about the present, but it forces you act to rectify it.

Why will fellow oral historians be interested in your book?

Because the experiences, the pain and the trauma that so many of the revolutionaries, activists, and family members told me about were so raw, there is a sense of urgency to the narrative that lends, I hope, to the relevance and readability. Their stories belong together and needed to be told. Once I started writing, I often felt as if the stories were telling themselves.

What is the one thing that you most want readers to remember about the book?

I want them to be inspired by the courage and sense of moral outrage that drove thousands of Cubans to believe that their lives were not inevitable and their destinies were not determined by either Washington or a dictator. I want them to identify with Cuba and Cubans’ struggle to recover what they have reached for, almost grasped and lost so many times in the last century: freedom.