Sunday, November 18, 2007

Read: El Americano

This week’s book is El Americano by Aran Shetterly. It’s a fascinating story about a young American, William Morgan, who walked into the Escambray and joined the SNFE, the Second National Front of the Escambray, the other arm of the revolution. He rose to the level of Comandante, the only foreigner other than Che to do so, and became something of a revolutionary hero. He was also instrumental in foiling a large conspiracy to overthrow the early Castro regime. Like many, he became disenchanted with the regime he had helped bring to power. Although the book is a bit vague about what the rebels who took to the Escambray to combat Fidel actually did, Morgan was implicated, arrested and executed. That in a nutshell is Morgan’s tale.

I’ve gotten to the point where I find myself vetting authors politically as I read these books about Cuba. For instance, checking the back cover, I see the author is another Harvard man. Then I note that he ran an exchange between artists in Maine and Cuba and now resides in Mexico City. It creates an impression heightened when I read sentences such as the following:

About Che and Morgan:
Che’s serious and determined image would become a symbol of revolutionary valor around the world, whereas the story of the courageous trickster Morgan would fade from the record of the Revolution.

About the populace:
The Cuban people believed that, together with the Rebels, they would make their country better. They hungered for a virtuous political culture that would root out the corruption, the prostitution, the violence, and the gambling, which had dogged their country for so long. (Thank you Francis Ford Coppola.)

Alas, this is a sanitized version of the revolution. The executions: well, the victims all deserved to die. They were torturers and murderers. No mention of cruelties, of children executed. The people into whose homes the barbudos moved: they were Batistiano oppressors of the masses. Castro wasn’t already a Communist, he turned, partially as a result of American blunders (for a truer examination of Castro’s “Communism,” I recommend Brian Latell’s After Fidel). In the end, all the old shibboleths are here.

Still, there is the story of Morgan. A ne’er do well, juvenile delinquent who had experienced trouble with the school authorities, the law, the army, he walked into the Escambray and his brief years of glory without an actual design. That is, if the book is to be believed. His experiences there, Shetterly tells us, turned him into an altruist, deeply committed to the Cuban people. Compared to all the other actors, Morgan comes across as brave, clean, strong, and American in the finest sense of the word. Surprisingly, the book is at its strongest in fleshing out the assorted characters around Morgan, his fellow revolutionaries in the mountains. They are the ones who come across as complex human beings, whose fate we care about.

Overall, however, in part because other than a gift for leading men, there doesn’t seem to have been that much complexity to Morgan, and in part because the perspective here precludes a real examination of what came after the triumph of the revolution, the whole story reads like a movie that has been filmed through a stocking, filtered. Would I recommend it? Yes, if you know your history. The story is interesting; the writing serviceable. What is my problem with it? To the uninitiated, it helps perpetuate all the usual talking points. In the end, I am left with the impression of waste, of what the story could have been.

Caveat: Max Lesnick appears a number of times, always in a positive light.

Cross-posted at Babalublog


Aran Shetterly said...

Dear Sirs,

First, thank you for taking the time to review my book "The Americano."

However, I have to say, that I think you misrepresent it's "take" on the revolution. One of the reasons I wanted to write the book, apart from Morgan's amazing tale, was to "show" not "tell" the revolution. I interviewed scores of people on all side of the debate, read books and articles from all angles, and presented this particular story as clearly as I could.

The point that the revolution has been airbrushed here is almost silly: I talk about the executions in great detail, about the tribunals that were sad excuses for trials, and in the end, we see a man executed who did not have blood on his hands.

What I do, and what most writers about Cuba do not do, is allow the readers to make their own judgements. Rather than put damning adjectives everywhere, just tell it. 20/20 hindsight is easy. Getting a feel for how complicated choices were in the moment is a much more difficult task. And, keeping an open, less judgmental mind when looking at people who were trying to do the right thing, even if it ended up being wrong in the end, is even harder.


Aran Shetterly

rsnlk said...

Thank you for addressing my humble comments, even if we disagree. I mean it sincerely. I understand the amount of effort entailed in a work like yours.

However, I am forced to stand by my commentary. That there are errors of fact, I know. The ones I didn't mention or missed were pointed out to me, none too gently, on the other blog where the book note was published. I will copy and paste your comments on that one also. The URL is

If you note, I recommended your book to those who know the history and are not going to develop apoplexy at a different perspective. It is a fascinating story, and I am grateful that you made it widely accessible, but therein lies my problem with the work.

Take the smallest of inaccuracies, one of the quotes I highlighted in the post,the one which reads

"They hungered for a virtuous political culture that would root out the corruption, the prostitution, the violence, and the gambling, which had dogged their country for so long."

True, they presented themselves as bearded paragons of civic virtue. But you make it seem as if all of Cuba was a cesspool of prostitution, violence, and gambling, instead of a portion of the capital most Cubans did not frequent. This is important because Americans, as a general rule, have no idea what Cuba was like preRevolution, except what they read. Anyone under the age of fifty would have very little knowledge of the actual conditions. And historians have bought into the Castroite myth of the horrible Cuban past, despite a plethora of statistics to the contrary. All feed into this thinking that Cubans aren't that bad off compared to...say, Haiti or Mali, a perception that minimizes the absolute and utter devastation the revolution has wrought upon the island. This is obviously important to me, as well as to public perception of Cuban Americans and Cuban policy. And that's just one point.

I am not so unsophisticated as to demand nasty adjectives for the fidelistas. I do know that there are very many other, more subtle ways, to skew the reader's perception. If you are really interested and have not done so already in what was obviously exhaustive research, I would invite you to visit the Morgan section at, particularly the following:

Again, thank you for your commentary, and if I can just get you to stop and think with what presuppositions about Cuba, the revolution, approached the book, what you had been taught, I will be content, even if you ultimately don't agree with my perspective.