The Americas 60.4 (2004) 667-668
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Julia Sweig begins this important book by challenging the "conventional wisdom," first elaborated in the influential writings of participant Ernesto "Che" Guevara, that "a handful of bearded rebels with a rural peasant base single handedly took on and defeated a standing army" (p. 1). More specifically, Guevara's own antagonism toward the llano, the urban underground within Fidel Castro's 26th of July Movement (M26-7), has helped perpetuate the view of a sierra-llano rivalry between the radical guerrilla in the Sierra Maestra and the middle-class, clandestine militia in the cities. Historians have hardly swallowed these myths whole, noting a variety of contingencies and different actors that facilitated and might have diverted the seemingly inexorable path of Fidel Castro to power. But no scholar before Sweig has so carefully reconstructed the relation of the urban and rural components of the M26-7. In addition to her considerable narrative skill, her success in this endeavor owes much to her access to documents newly released by the Cuban government, particularly the letters exchanged among leaders of both fronts.
Sweig argues that from November 1956 to April 1958, major decisions about political alliances, resource allocation, and overall strategy against the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista were made by the lesser known figures of the urban underground (such as Frank Pais, Armando Hart, René Ramos Latour, Faustino Pérez and Marcelino Fernández), rather than by Castro and other key sierra leaders. Sweig minimizes the differences between the llano and the sierra during this period: though some tensions occurred over the purchase, smuggling and division of arms, for the most part, leaders of the llano and sierra came from similar backgrounds, moved back and forth between rural and urban fronts, and developed and coordinated common and parallel strategies, even while acknowledging Castro's primacy among leaders of a loosely organized movement. The relative isolation of the sierra, the difficulty of communication, and the multiple tactics pursued by the M26-7 as a whole gave the llano a considerable degree of autonomy from the sierra for much of the rebellion. Particularly interesting, though not central to her argument, is the crucial role that several women (Celia Sánchez, Haydée Santamaría and Vilma Espín) played as intermediaries between the llano and sierra, and as leaders in their own right.
Llano leaders took the lead in negotiations with opposition political and civic leaders, culminating in the Sierra Manifesto and the short-lived Pact of Miami in 1957, which Sweig presents as pragmatic attempts by the M26-7 as a whole to gain arms, legitimacy and assure dominance within the anti-Batista opposition. But the heart of the book focuses on the llano's strategy of urban insurrection, a violent campaign of sabotage and assassination that helped paralyze the Batista regime politically and economically, and that culminated in the general strike of April 9, 1958. Instead of triggering a massive uprising and dealing a death blow to the regime, the strike fizzled out in Havana and most cities, due to the lack of arms, the fear and ambivalence of the urban population, the reluctance of llano militants to [End Page 667] forge strong alliances with communist labor leaders and other middle class opposition groups, and the massive repression unleashed in response by the Batista government, which decimated the ranks of llano militants.
Contrary to many accounts, Sweig shows that Castro and the leadership in the sierra, in spite of the objections of Guevara, acquiesced in supporting the general strike, a reflection of the importance of the llano within the M26-7 structure; but in the aftermath of the failed general strike, Castro quickly moved to centralize his own and the sierra's authority, convinced finally that the only way to topple Batista would be to defeat his army in battle. Indeed, in the next eight months, Batista'...