Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Americano

William Morgan was an adventure seeking misfit from the U.S in when he landed in Cuba in late 1957. In the next and final three years of his life he would become a senior rebel commander, save Fidel Castro's nascent revolutionary government from a foreign coup attempt, receive Cuban citizenship, and oversee agricultural development efforts before falling out of favor, facing a firing squad, being declared a traitor, and having his memory erased from both the Cuban and the American versions of the Revolution. This momentous period of Morgan's life, recounted in Aran Shetterly's The Americano, forms a thrilling plot. The personal drama of the man who would become the only foreigner, other than Che Guevara, to hold the rank of Comandante in Cuba's rebel army, is an enthralling narrative and so is the legacy of the man Cubans called El Americano.

People, nations, and governments define themselves through their history. History is a powerful ideological weapon and it is a battleground for ideologues. And the history of the Cuban Revolution is that movement's last open front. Despite being a leading figure in the actual fighting Morgan has been erased from the selective memories of partisans from all sides who cannot reconcile his fate with their preconceived worldview.

Morgan's legendary courage and personal dedication to Cuba libre helped defeat Bastista, he fought against a tyrant armed by his own government, foiled the attempt of another American backed tyrant to overthrow the Revolutionary government, and paid for it with his U.S citizenship. But he does not fit neatly with the Communist version of the Revolution either. He was an ardent opponent of Communism who paid for the support he gave anti-Marxist rebels in the Escambray Mountains with his life. Recalling the legacy of the man revered as a hero and reviled as a traitor to two different nations forces historians to separate opposition to an American backed tyranny from support for Fidel. For those who view every historical event in clear ideological terms that proposition is too uncomfortable to grapple with, it is much easier to forget.

In its title The Americano captures the essence of the man who attempted to belong to two radically different worlds and was ultimately rejected by both and in its pages it tells a story that flows like the script of an action movie. This entertaining account of one man's life and death exposes and challenges traditional approaches to the historical record while relating an intriguing, unexplored narrative.

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