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'¡Cuba Libre!' review: Tony Perrottet's colorful page-turner captures history's 'unlikely' revolution

Fidel Castro in the streets of Santa Clara,

Fidel Castro in the streets of Santa Clara, Cuba, in 1959. A new book by Tony Perrottet chronicles Castro's "improbable revolution." Photo Credit: Magnum Photos/Burt Glinn

¡CUBA LIBRE!: Che, Fidel, and the Improbable Revolution That Changed World History, by Tony Perrottet. Blue Rider Press, 367 pp., $28.

Sixty years after the Cuban Revolution deposed dictator Fulgencio Batista and installed revolutionary leader Fidel Castro, it’s still hard to believe that the audacious rebellion actually worked. There’s no reason it should have — the rebels were outmanned, outmatched and outgunned, going up against a strong army backed up by the United States.

The story of the yearslong guerrilla war would beggar belief if it had been the product of an author’s imagination. So it’s no surprise that Tony Perrottet’s new chronicle of the rebellion, “¡Cuba Libre!: Che, Fidel, and the Improbable Revolution That Changed World History” reads like a novel — it’s a fascinating page-turner that captures “history’s most unlikely revolution” in all its wild absurdity.

Perrottet sets the scene with an account of how Cuba found itself in a bloody battle for its soul. He profiles José Martí, the 19th-century poet who agitated for Cuban independence from Spain and who served as an inspiration for young Fidel Castro. He also explains how Batista rose to power from humble roots as the son of a plantation worker and a teenage girl.

Castro, by contrast, grew up in privilege. His wealthy parents raised him in their mansion, until, unable to control the young man, they shipped him off to a Jesuit boarding school. He was a talented student, intelligent and curious, but his antics quickly earned him the nickname “El Loco, ‘the crazy one.’”

Despite his upbringing, Castro quickly developed an interest in politics and a hatred of Batista. He spearheaded a doomed mission to take over a military barracks in Santiago that, in Perrottet’s estimation, had “elements of both Shakespearean tragedy and a Three Stooges skit.” The unsuccessful raid ended with eight of the rebels killed in the attack and more than 20 executed afterward.

After serving 19 months in prison for the attack, Castro decamped to Mexico City to lick his wounds and regroup. It was there he met a handsome young physician from Argentina, Che Guevara, who shared his leftist politics, and the two, along with about 80 other supporters, hatched a plan to invade Cuba in a “decaying sixty-three-foot tub” of a boat.

The Cuban military quickly made short work of the would-be revolutionaries, killing or arresting about 60 of them. The remaining band took to hiding and recruiting new members, launching periodic guerrilla attacks, and slowly wearing down Batista’s troops.

The climax of the revolution came in the final months of 1958, culminating in the Battle of Santa Clara. After the rebels captured the city, Batista fled to the Dominican Republic. Castro celebrated with a two-hour speech at a Santiago hotel, proclaiming, “For the first time, the people will have what they deserve. . . . This war was won by the people!”

Perrottet provides enough context for the reader to understand what came before the revolution, but doesn’t get too bogged down in history, including only what’s relevant to the story of how a relentless dictator came to be deposed by a small group of scrappy rebels that included “kids just out of college, literature majors, art students, and engineers.”

The book focuses more on the revolutionaries and their operations than their politics, perhaps because, as Perrottet notes, Castro "wanted power above all else; ideology came a distant second. In fact, nobody in the Movement was plotting a socialist utopia. In 1953, Cuba without Batista was dream enough."

While much of “¡Cuba Libre!” necessarily focuses on Castro and Guevara, it also spotlights some of the lesser-known rebels who made the revolution possible. Among them were Celia Sánchez, a “blur of nicotine-fueled energy . . . whose lifetime of experience . . . infused the rebellion and at many key moments kept it alive,” and Don Soldini, "a loudmouthed Staten Island kid from a radical family," one of many Americans who traveled to Cuba to offer their services to Castro and his crew.

Perrottet does an excellent job capturing the absurdities that came with the revolution. He opens the book with the story of Castro’s remarkable appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in 1959, following performances by acrobats, Irish singers and a stand-up comedian. After Castro’s interview, Perrottet writes, “the show rolled on to its next variety segment: a fashion show for poodles.”

Interesting times require interesting authors to do them justice, and Perrottet proves himself more than up to the job. "Cuba Libre!" brings history to life with thorough research and wildly addictive writing.

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