The best biographies that peek behind Cuban myths

Ilan Ehrlich Author Of Eduardo Chibás: The Incorrigible Man of Cuban Politics
By Ilan Ehrlich

Who am I?

I was weaned on Cuban stories by my Havana-born mother and first visited the island in 1998. Since then, I earned a PhD in history from the Graduate Center, City University of New York–where I studied twentieth-century Cuban politics. While conducting research in Havana and Miami, I confirmed that legends were imbibed with the same fervor as café cubano. All histories are marked by tall tales, but Cubans are governed by theirs, inside and out, more than most. 

I wrote...

Eduardo Chibás: The Incorrigible Man of Cuban Politics

By Ilan Ehrlich,

Book cover of Eduardo Chibás: The Incorrigible Man of Cuban Politics

What is my book about?

Some thought Eduardo “Eddy” Chibás was insane. His followers, including young Fidel Castro, felt he was Cuba’s best chance for an honest president. Chibás hosted the island’s most popular radio show,  hurled himself into crowds after speeches, and fought eight duels. He urged Cubans not to sell their votes, to expose corrupt officials, and to know their rights enshrined in the 1940 constitution – the most democratic and progressive in Cuba’s history. His suicide in August of 1951, begat numerous what-ifs.  Did Chibás shoot himself in the belly because he expected to live? Did his death clear the way for a  military coup in March of 1952, led by Fulgencio Batista? Did his tragic fate inspire the 1959 Cuban  Revolution? 

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of José Martí: A Revolutionary Life

Why this book?

José Martí is Cuba’s secular saint who represents all things to all Cubans. He was the idol of Cuba’s first generation to come of age in independent Cuba, during the 1920s, who were taught he was a Christ-like figure who sacrificed himself for Cuban independence. Fulgencio Batista adored him, Fidel Castro revered him, and anti-communist Cuban exiles worshiped him. Even so, Martí was largely unknown on the island during his lifetime and at the time of his death in 1895. This biography of Martí depicts him as a human as well as a hero. 

José Martí: A Revolutionary Life

By Alfred J. López,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked José Martí as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Jose Marti (1853-1895) was the founding hero of Cuban independence. In all of modern Latin American history, arguably only the "Great Liberator" Simon Bolivar rivals Marti in stature and legacy. Beyond his accomplishments as a revolutionary and political thinker, Marti was a giant of Latin American letters, whose poetry, essays, and journalism still rank among the most important works of the region. Today he is revered by both the Castro regime and the Cuban exile community, whose shared veneration of the "apostle" of freedom has led to his virtual apotheosis as a national saint.

In Jose Marti: A Revolutionary Life,…

Book cover of Fulgencio Batista: From Revolutionary to Strongman

Why this book?

Fulgencio Batista is an all-purpose villain in post-1959 Cuba. On the island, he is portrayed as a corrupt and bloody despot who ignored prostitution in towns, desperation in the countryside, and gave free reign to U.S. companies, American tourists, and the mafia. Cuban exiles, many of whom prospered during his rule, see things differently. Cuba counted a large middle class, access to American cars and radios, and one of the highest literacy rates in Latin America. Argote-Freyre’s biography adds much-needed complexity. Batista was a self-made man, born in poverty, and racially mixed. He rose to a  position of power via smarts, cunning, and ruthlessness but also preserved legal gains for workers, and used the military to provide educational and medical services for poor Cubans. 

Fulgencio Batista: From Revolutionary to Strongman

By Frank Argote-Freyre,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Fulgencio Batista as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Pawn of the U.S. government. Right-hand man to the mob. Iron-fisted dictator. For decades, public understanding of the pre-Revolutionary Cuban dictator ""Fulgencio Batista"" has been limited to these stereotypes. While on some level they all contain an element of truth, these superficial characterizations barely scratch the surface of the complex and compelling career of this important political figure. Second only to Fidel Castro, Batista is the most controversial leader in modern Cuban history. And yet, until now, there has been no objective biography written about him. Existing biographical literature is predominantly polemical and either borders on hero worship or launches…

Book cover of Give Me Liberty: The True Story of Oswaldo Payá and his Daring Quest for a Free Cuba

Why this book?

To some, Cuba is a plucky, embargo-defying success story, with top educational and medical systems – the latter of which ensures Cubans live longer on average than Americans. Hoffman’s biography of Oswaldo Payá lays bare the regime’s darkest depths. As a young man, Payá was harassed and persecuted for his Catholic faith. He later devised the Varela Project, which sought to legally change Cuba’s 1976 constitution and allow democratic freedoms. Payá remained an outspoken critic of Cuba’s one-party state and refused to leave despite constant threats from state security agents. In 2012, they ran his car off the road and he was killed in the ensuing crash.  

Give Me Liberty: The True Story of Oswaldo Payá and his Daring Quest for a Free Cuba

By David E. Hoffman,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Give Me Liberty as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From the Pulitzer Prize–winning Washington Post reporter David E. Hoffman comes the riveting biography of Oswaldo Payá, a dissident who dared to defy Fidel Castro, inspiring thousands of Cubans to fight for democracy.

Oswaldo Payá was seven years old when Fidel Castro seized power in Cuba, promising to create a “free, democratic, and just Cuba.” But Castro instead created an authoritarian regime with little tolerance of free speech or thought. His secret police were trained to crush dissent by East Germany’s ruthless Stasi.

Throughout Cuba’s 20th century history, the dream of democracy was often just within reach, only to be…

Book cover of Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba: The Biography of a Cause

Why this book?

Foreign ventures, typically U.S.-owned, dominated Cuba’s pre-1959 economy. They often gouged Cuban consumers, mistreated Cuban employees, meddled in politics, and supported dictators. The  Bacardí Company, by contrast, was an innovative, well-run, and homegrown success story that relied on Cuban capital and expertise. The company also looked after its workers, offering retirement and sick pay, and an eight-hour workday before being legally obliged. In addition, Bacardí provided housing loans and profit-sharing options. Bacardí executives were noted for their honesty and competence. For this reason, Bacardí Chairman Pepín Bosch was recruited by President Carlos Prío to serve as his treasury minister. 

Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba: The Biography of a Cause

By Tom Gjelten,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In this widely hailed book, NPR correspondent Tom Gjelten fuses the story of the Bacardi family and their famous rum business with Cuba's tumultuous experience over the last 150 years to produce a deeply entertaining historical narrative. The company Facundo Bacardi launched in Cuba in 1862 brought worldwide fame to the island, and in the decades that followed his Bacardi descendants participated in every aspect of Cuban life. With his intimate account of their struggles and adventures across five generations, Gjelten brings to life the larger story of Cuba's fight for freedom, its tortured relationship with America, the rise of…

Book cover of Our Rightful Share: The Afro-Cuban Struggle for Equality, 1886-1912

Why this book?

This is only a biography in the loosest sense, one of Afro-Cubans from the year slavery was abolished until an ugly racial massacre that claimed thousands of innocent victims. In 1892, José Martí famously declared that “There is no racial hatred because there are no races.” The following year he wrongly predicted that “In Cuba, there will never be a racial war.” Cuba’s independence myth was founded on the idea that there would be no white or black Cubans, only Cubans. Yet in 1912, two Afro-Cuban politicians, Pedro Ivonet and Evaristo Estenoz, both veterans of Cuba’s independence struggle, some of their followers, and thousands of Afro-Cubans in the wrong place at the wrong time, were massacred in a frenzy of racial hatred.

Our Rightful Share: The Afro-Cuban Struggle for Equality, 1886-1912

By Aline Helg,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Our Rightful Share as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In Our Rightful Share , Aline Helg examines the issue of race in Cuban society, politics, and ideology during the island's transition from a Spanish colony to an independent state. She challenges Cuba's well-established myth of racial equality and shows that racism is deeply rooted in Cuban creole society. Helg argues that despite Cuba's abolition of slavery in 1886 and its winning of independence in 1902, Afro-Cubans remained marginalized in all aspects of society. After the wars for independence, in which they fought en masse, Afro-Cubans demanded change politically by forming the first national black party in the Western Hemisphere.…

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