This massive biography of Fidel Castro presents an unremittingly critical account of the Cuban dictator’s life from his birth to the date of the book’s publication. Relying primarily on published sources, author Robert E. Quirk concentrates most of his attention to the period after Castro overthrew the regime of Fulgencio Batista in 1959. The author presents only a perfunctory account of his subject’s antecedents, childhood, and education. Even Castro’s revolutionary exploits receive relatively little space. Quirk’s coverage of Castro’s career after his appearance on the world stage, however, is remarkably comprehensive.
Quirk adds nothing to the information concerning Castro’s parents contained in the many biographies of the Cuban dictator which preceded his. Although his account of Castro’s childhood draws exclusively on published sources, Quirk does add one new dimension to the familiar story of the spoiled rich boy who became a revolutionary. Quirk shows his subject as a bully, determined to force his will on everyone around him through whatever means necessary. Departing from several previous accounts of Castro’s life, Quirk argues persuasively that Castro never developed a real social conscience or any true sympathy for the underprivileged masses of Cuba during his adolescence or his college years. The young Castro in Quirk’s book is a bully who displays contempt for the rights and desires of anyone other than himself. According to Quirk, when Castro matriculated at the University of Havana in 1945, he displayed none of the characteristics of the charismatic natural leader often commented on by his admirers. Most of the other students regarded him as a pushy bumpkin and something of a clown. Although Castro tried desperately to bully his way to the top of campus politics, his peers usually laughed at his often- bizarre antics and his simplistic political positions. Castro’s speeches during his college years bitterly criticized the corrupt political regimes of Ramón Grau San Martin and Carlos Prío Socarrás. His own political views, however, remained relatively conservative. Despite Castro’s later pronouncements, the future dictator almost certainly never even read the works of Karl Marx during this period, much less converted to Marxist ideology.
Quirk does not comment, as some of his predecessors have done, on two characteristics Castro displayed during his college days that help explain his eventual rise to power: his seemingly superhuman energy when engaged in a project that interested him and his almost photographic memory, which enabled him to cram a year’s worth of studying into a few days. This last ability allowed Castro to pass his university examinations even though he was a poor student. Quirk also says very little about Castro’s marriage to Mirta Díaz Balart in 1948.
Castro’s first sojourn into revolutionary activity, according to Quirk and most previous biographies, resulted from his frustration at being unable to break into Cuban politics legally. After Batista’s coup d’etat in 1952, Castro began to conspire with other young people in Havana to overthrow the dictatorship. Quirk argues that Castro’s antigovernment activity derived from his desire to aggrandize himself, not from any real concern for the Cuban people. Castro and his small band of conspirators subsequently attacked the government military installation at Moncada in Oriente Province. Quirk portrays the attack as a poorly conceived fiasco in which Castro’s actions were less than heroic. Quirk gives only a brief account of Castro’s trial for his part in the failed attack. Although other accounts of his life have made much of Castro’s famous political manifesto La Historia me absolverá (1953; History Will Absolve Me, 1959) that resulted from a long statement during the trial, Quirk dismisses it as of relatively little importance.
Castro’s real education came during his subsequent imprisonment on the Isle of Pines. During several years of forced inactivity, Castro read widely from the works of philosophers and political ideologists, including Marx. Nevertheless, according to Quirk, Castro remained politically conservative. His letters and conversations from the Isle of Pines period offer no evidence that his readings had converted him to radical political or socioeconomic views. He emerged from prison determined to overthrow Fulgencio Batista, but only as a means of catapulting himself to national power. Quirk finds no indication that Castro had developed any real concern for the poor and downtrodden masses that Castro in his marathon speeches repeatedly pledged to “save” from the evil machinations of the capitalists and the imperialist United States government....
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