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Vida Clandestina: My Life in the Cuban Revolution
     

Vida Clandestina: My Life in the Cuban Revolution

by Enrique Oltuski, Thomas Christensen (Translator), Eduardo Torres-Cuevas (Foreword by)
 
Vida Clandestina is the first U.S. publication of the dramatic memoir of an important Cuban revolutionary who led a dangerous double life from 1952 to1959. Educated at University of Miami, then a high-ranking manager and engineer for Shell Oil, Enrique Oltuski was also a leader in the urban guerilla 26th of July Movement in Havana and Santa Clara, risking his

Overview

Vida Clandestina is the first U.S. publication of the dramatic memoir of an important Cuban revolutionary who led a dangerous double life from 1952 to1959. Educated at University of Miami, then a high-ranking manager and engineer for Shell Oil, Enrique Oltuski was also a leader in the urban guerilla 26th of July Movement in Havana and Santa Clara, risking his life to join forces with Che Guevara and Fidel Castro, and working at the highest level of the Cuban government in the forty-three years since.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Castro's Deputy Minister of Fisheries and Merchant Marine recounts his role as a secret revolutionary among the middle classes in the cities and plains of 1950s Cuba.
Born the son a well-to-do shoe manufacturer in central Cuba, sent to Miami to study engineering in the early '50s, Oltuski was groomed to be a solid member of Cuba's upper-middle classes. Despite his parents' best efforts and his father's protests that a revolution was no place for Jews, however, Enrique was a revolutionary at heart, dedicated to social justice and the overthrow of military dictator Batista. After his graduation in 1954, Oltuski joined the movement in earnest, first in Miami, where he attempted to secure arms for the struggle, and then in Cuba, where as a traveling executive with Shell Oil he was perfectly placed to spread propaganda, organize strikes, and plant the occasional bomb. The author rose through the ranks to join those who had contact with the revolution's superstars, Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. Oltuski's less glamorous station was in the plains, where he and his comrades were kept busy "collecting money, supplying arms and clothing, committing acts of sabotage, executing enemies, producing underground newspapers, recruiting and organizing member of the revolutionary movement." Through his tale of secret meetings, assignments, commutes, and endless discussions of revolutionary theory, Oltuski is able to elucidate the messy progression of the uprising; woven among the sometimes dry political details are the author's recollections of youthful partying, womanizing, and marriage. We end the story with our man in place as an utterly unqualified buy highly enthusiastic minister of communications; an epilogue noting his current position attests to his political staying power.
A rare and valuable insider's take. (&75,000 as/promo; author tour) (KIRKUS Reviews, July 1, 2002)

How could Enrique Oltuski's well-written memoir of his double life during the Cuban Revolution not be compelling? The son of Polish-Jewish immigrants, his relatives consumed in the Holocaust, the young Oltuski chafes at his comfortable middle-class life in Havana and, still a teenager, burning with nationalist fever, finds himself drawn into the revolutionary conspiracies against the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. From the outset, he's living on parallel planes. During a stint at the University of Miami, his public persona has him dating the exotic daughters of the Latin American oligarchy while in his "underground" life he's trying to buy arms for the revolution back home.
After college he takes a high-ranking day job with Shell Oil Co. but devotes his real passions to organizing the guerrilla movement in Havana and to collaborating closely with Che Guevara and, of course, Fidel Castro. Right up until the day of the revolution's triumph, neither the police authorities nor even Oltuski's parents know of his secret role as "Sierra"--a key organizer of the rebellion.
This memoir's greatest strength is in leading the reader deep behind the scenes into the rivalries and alliances that arose between Castro's Rebel Army fighting in the mountains and the often chaotic network of insurgents in the less glamorized urban underground. The factional divisions that would soon after the revolution erupt in blood and betrayal and leave Castro standing alone and unchallenged are all sketched here in their embryonic state. But in those heady days of the late '50s, the cream of Cuban youth was united against a Batista regime that they viewed as a clumsy and repressive extension of the foreign (namely, American) domination of their island nation.
Oltuski's crisp recounting of the dreams and ideals that drove the Fidelista revolt abruptly ends with his being seated as a cabinet minister at age 28 in the first revolutionary government. "I swung around in the giant chair to look out the large window," he writes of his first day in office. "Life went on, and I thought, 'What the hell do I do now?'"
Least satisfying about this book is that it covers only the period of the revolutionary war. Oltuski went from his position as minister of communications to working five years at the side of Guevara. And he's spent the last 31 years as deputy minister of fisheries, where he continues at age 72.
This begs a second volume of memoirs, one that details how those early passions wound up ossifying into the sort of regime under which he holds the same high post for three decades and the jefe maximo is shooting for a neat half-century alone in power. What stories Oltuski could tell us about compromise, disillusionment and realpolitik!
Today's Cuba, of course, doesn't permit that sort of writing, especially from within its own borders and certainly not from one of its government ministers. In the most inauthentic passage of the book, Oltuski writes: "People also always ask me what will happen to the Cuban government and society when Fidel dies. The answer is nothing. Nothing will happen...." Fat chance. (Marc Cooper Is the Author of Pinochet and Me: a Chilean Anti-memoir. Copyright 2002 Los Angeles Times)

Now the Cuban deputy minister of fisheries and merchant marine, Oltuski was one of the more elusive members of the Original Cuban guerilla group led by Fidel Castro. A middle-class Jew educated in the United States, he became a leader of the urban underground while continuing to work as an executive of Shell Oil. This autobiographical description of the revolution recounts his double life as a respected member of the Cuban elite while at the same time he was organizing urban resistance in Havana, raising money for the revolution, and even beginning an underground newspaper. The book is an interesting read, with a large number of stories that have never been told. It provides additional insight into this period of Cuban history, which has recently received significant attention with the opening of Cuban archives and the publication of accounts written by the leaders of the revolution. (Library Journal, September 15, 2002)

Library Journal
Now the Cuban deputy minister of fisheries and merchant marine, Oltuski was one of the more elusive members of the original Cuban guerrilla group led by Fidel Castro. A middle-class Jew educated in the United States, he became a leader of the urban underground while continuing to work as an executive of Shell Oil. This autobiographical description of the revolution recounts his double life as a respected member of the Cuban elite while at the same time he was organizing urban resistance in Havana, raising money for the revolution, and even beginning an underground newspaper. The book is an interesting read, with a large number of stories that have never been told. It provides additional insight into this period of Cuban history, which has recently received significant attention with the opening of Cuban archives and the publication of accounts written by the leaders of the revolution. This book will be of interest to libraries with Latin American and Cuban collections.-Mark L. Grover, Brigham Young Univ. Lib., Provo, UT Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Castro’s Deputy Minister of Fisheries and Merchant Marine recounts his role as a secret revolutionary among the middle classes in the cities and plains of 1950s Cuba. Born the son of a well-to-do shoe manufacturer in central Cuba, sent to Miami to study engineering in the early ’50s, Oltuski was groomed to be a solid member of Cuba's upper-middle classes. Despite his parents’ best efforts and his father's protests that a revolution was no place for Jews, however, Enrique was a revolutionary at heart, dedicated to social justice and the overthrow of military dictator Batista. After his graduation in 1954, Otulski joined the movement in earnest, first in Miami, where he attempted to secure arms for the struggle, and then in Cuba, where as a traveling executive with Shell Oil he was perfectly placed to spread propaganda, organize strikes, and plant the occasional bomb. The author rose through the ranks to join those who had contact with the revolution's superstars, Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. Oltuski's less glamorous station was in the plains, where he and his comrades were kept busy "collecting money, supplying arms and clothing, committing acts of sabotage, executing enemies, producing underground newspapers, recruiting and organizing members of the revolutionary movement." Through his tale of secret meetings, assignments, committees, and endless discussions of revolutionary theory, Oltuski is able to elucidate the messy progression of the uprising; woven among the sometimes dry political details are the author's recollections of youthful partying, womanizing, and marriage. We end the story with our man in place as an utterly unqualified but highly enthusiastic minister ofcommunications; an epilogue noting his current position attests to his political staying power. A rare and valuable insider's take. $75,000 ad/promo; author tour

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780787961695
Publisher:
Wiley
Publication date:
08/26/2002
Edition description:
1ST
Pages:
336
Product dimensions:
6.30(w) x 9.47(h) x 1.09(d)

Related Subjects

Read an Excerpt


Chapter 1

Batista's Coup d'État

I looked up from the drawing and stared out the window of my classroom. On benches under the trees, students sat and talked or read between classes. I looked back at the drawing board. I took out a T-square and went over the plan: the parking was off; not enough cars would fit. I would have to redo part of it to enlarge the parking lot. I scanned the drawing, trying out different proportions, reviewing the requirements. No use! My head was pounding, and sweat was pouring off of me. I checked my watch: the bell was about to ring. I lit a cigar and stared out the window again.

It was early March, 1952--only three months until summer vacation at the University of Miami. Then I could go back to Cuba. I pictured the airplane making its descent to Rancho Boyeros Airport. Soon the coastline would appear and then Havana, block after block of streets and buildings, as orderly as a map. Then bright green fields of sugarcane, studded with royal palms, the rows interrupted by fields.

I would go straight to Santa Clara, the capital of the province of Las Villas in the central part of Cuba, about two hundred miles east of Havana. I would stay home a few weeks, get spoiled by my mother. I would spend the day in bed, reading the many books I had acquired over the course of the year.

Afterward I would start going out, visiting my friends. We would spend evenings in the park, talking about a thousand things: school, politics, girls. Then a month in Varadero: the beach and nights at the Bolera.

And what was I doing here? Whatever possessed me to go to school in the North? How could I have left Cuba!

The bell rang. I packed up my drafting tools, rolled up the drawings, and went down the stairs. Beyond the shade of the huge trees, the glare of midday awaited me. The street was in the sun. I hurried along to the student apartment I lived in just a block and a half away. When I got there, the living room was full of students, most of them Cuban. They were all silent, listening to the radio.

My roommate Manolo, a young man from Havana, turned to me and said, "Did you hear the news? Batista has taken power!"


* * *

In those days there was no large or vocal community of Cuban exiles in Miami. Only a few Cubans were living there at that time, most of whom were young and impoverished. They had come to the States in the hope of finding more economic opportunities to improve their financial condition than they could in the oppressive, corrupt, and discriminatory society of Cuba. And of course there was also a handful of Cuban students, such as myself and my friends, who were studying at the university.


* * *

Two days later, the Cuban students were still talking about Batista's coup. I joined a group standing around the living room sofa. At its center, Manolo was leafing through Bohemia, a magazine just in from Cuba. It had pages of pictures. There was one of officials at the presidential palace surrounded by tanks. Another was captioned, "The president leaving the palace." It showed President Prío--who had been a distinguished student leader in his youth but had become just another corrupt politician when he achieved office--with a worried expression. During those terrible moments, he looked ridiculous wrapped up in a teenager's sweater. His brothers Paco and Antonio were with him. For some reason Prío was smiling in one of the pictures.

Manolo finished looking at those pages and started reading the section "On Cuba."

The third Sunday of Carnival, with its popular celebrations, was over. Just after midnight, on the 10th, the Havana night seemed quiet as usual.

But it didn't last: some people were not sleeping. Shortly after 2 A.M. a pair of cars pulled out of a well-known estate in Arroyo Arenas. The first car held armed men in civilian clothing; in the second, accompanied by an army officer, was a medium-sized, dark-skinned man dressed in sports clothes.

"What a son of a bitch!" someone shouted.

Manolo continued reading:

A few blocks before arriving at the Columbia National Military Headquarters--where the general staff of the army was located--the mystery man ordered the escort car preceding him to stop, telling his companion:

"Captain Robaina, we'll change cars here."

"But General, they're expecting us to be in this car . . ."

"Yes, but we'll take the other." The order of General Fulgencio Batista was carried out before the vehicles drove on.

His co-conspirators inside the garrison--lieutenants and captains--welcomed their old boss, who did not conceal his emotion, his gratitude for their show of enthusiasm.

Manolo read on, interrupted constantly by comments and exclamations from his companions.

At 4 A.M. the presidential palace learned that Batista was at the military base. Paco and Antonio Prío hurried to alert their brother, quietly sleeping in La Chata, the presidential retreat on the outskirts of Havana where he usually spent the weekend with his family. A few minutes after five, a worried-looking Carlos Prío arrived at the palace, accompanied by his brothers and several friends and government officials.

All of them realized the gravity of the situation, and each offered his advice to the shaky president.

"What you should do, Carlos," one suggested, "is move your government to some province that is still loyal and put up a fight.

The people will follow you." Shouts of opposition went up, arguments arose, and Prío looked around the group indecisively.

"Gentlemen," said Eduardo Suárez Rivas, "let us think carefully before we act."

"What a bunch of jerks!" Everyone talked at once. Manolo yelled, "Let me go on."

At 7:30 A.M., a committee from the Students Federation (known as the FEU) arrived at the door of the presidential palace. They were worried about the national situation. The delegation of students was anxious to speak with the president:

"Mr. President, as you know the FEU has sometimes disapproved of your acts and has often criticized your government, but we are here today to offer our help. The university, faithful to its revolutionary tradition, must uphold democratic rights, and so we will support you."

Prío seemed moved by their generous offer, but made some vague response. One of the student leaders asked:

"Mr. President, are you going to lead the fight?"

"Yes, I am going to fight, of course."

"Do you have a plan to develop resistance?"

"We are studying the situation."

The students pressed him: "Mr. President, we are here to discuss ways to resist the takeover. We don't have any weapons. They should be distributed at the university. We want to fight!"

Carlos Prío tried to shake off his inertia: "Yes, that's right, we will send guns where they're needed." The students set off for the university.

The telephone rang: a long-distance call. Prío took it. Then, without emotion: "The city of Matanzas still supports us."

"Let's get out of here!" A hysterical shout from Paco Prío.

Prío was stunned again. Finally they left. The head of the palace guard asked for instructions. One of Prío's aides answered in a low voice: "Do not fight."

Prío then left the presidential palace, sought refuge in a foreign embassy, and finally left the country, heading for Miami.

"Holy Mary, what faggots!" Again everyone talked at once.

Manolo turned the page. Closeups of Batista. More photos. The Havana candidate for governor, Partido Accion Unitaria leader Alberto Salas Amaro, talking to Batista. General Batista surrounded by sympathizers. Papo, son of the new head of the state, standing by his father, wearing a smug smile. The first meeting of the new cabinet at the military headquarters. Batista giving them a little lecture. Politicians and friends arriving on the scene. The wife of General Batista, with several friends, entering the garrison. The offices of the general staff, all abustle.

All of us were truly disgusted with what we saw. Once again the forces of corruption, greed, and violence had been victorious in our nation.


* * *

We had founded a fraternity not too long before. Superficially a social group, it brought together students from every country in Latin America. Our hero was the great South American revolutionary Simón Bolívar, and our objective was to unite all the Latin peoples of the continent into a great nation or federation of states. The organization had certain conspiratorial aspects. Some members came from the highest ranks of the Latin American bourgeoisie. Others, like me, came from backgrounds that had been originally quite humble but had gradually achieved the wealth, status, and education that led us to cross the line in social standing and qualify for a North American university.

My parents had married in Poland when they were nineteen years old. Cousins who had already emigrated to Cuba wrote to them about the beauties of the island and the opportunities for work. As Jews in Poland, they were discriminated against and isolated in ghettos, so they left for the New World, arriving in the year 1929.

My father, Bernardo Oltuski, was an enterprising man; in Cuba, beginning as a simple shoemaker, he rose to become the owner of several shoe factories, retail stores, warehouses, and tanneries. His brand of footwear was distributed all over the country, and he had as many as two hundred employees. He was never a millionaire, but he had achieved some hundreds of thousands of dollars in capital, which was a huge amount of money at that time. Because upper-middle-class people were accustomed to sending their children to study "in the North," I went along with the idea and came to the University of Miami in Florida, where the weather was similar to that of Cuba.

We Latin American students were split in two groups: the majority, from the upper class, were reactionaries and recalcitrant Catholics; the minority group, which I led, was middle class, containing business and professional people. What united us was a strong nationalistic sentiment, our language, our customs, and the distance from home.


* * *

A few days after Batista's coup, I was straightening the bow tie on my dinner jacket when I heard Manolo's croon: "Let's go, let's go, let's go, get into the conga line, get into the conga line... "

We got into Roberto's Oldsmobile convertible and drove off. We were going out with the three Urdaneta sisters. They were daughters of a former minister of Pérez Jiménez--the horrible Venezuelan dictator who had stolen millions. Mr. Urdaneta had bought a small palace on Biscayne Boulevard, joined the flourishing Miami social scene, and became a developer, building new homes on the islands around the city.

I had some qualms about dating the Urdaneta sisters. But they were so pretty! Tonight I was taking Ana, the oldest sister, who was twenty, almost as old as me, at twenty-two. There was an unspoken affection between us. We waited in the living room for the girls to come down. Finally they appeared at the top of the stairs.

It was the usual fraternity party. A lot of drinking and fooling around. A few people were already dancing. The band started playing "Autumn Leaves," and Ana and I got up to dance. We made a smooth couple, dancing with eyes closed, just barely avoiding bumping into the other couples. The music stopped, and I took her hand and led her out to the garden.

When we came back, the party was in full swing. My fraternity brothers were in charge, and the band was playing Latin American music. I saw Manolo at the head of a conga line, which immediately surrounded me and separated me from Ana. We kept changing partners. One of the turns threw me together with Peggy.

"Enrique," she said, "I'll be waiting for you at home after the dance."

"I'm going with Manolo and Roberto."

"Bring them along, but only men."

"Only men for lonely women?"

"Yes, single men for single women." And she smiled with pleasure, in anticipation.

The party was almost over when Ana and I got back together. At our table there were a few jokes about our new relationships. When we dropped off the sisters, I passed along Peggy's invitation to Robert and Manolo.

"That American is too much!" Manolo declared, rubbing his hands together.

We put the roof of the car down and sped off to the south. The early morning air could not dry our sweaty faces. Robert stopped the car in front of the huge white building. We went into the house. There were several girls, and Roberto and Manolo stayed in the living room while I went to the kitchen in search of a drink. It was warm, and I went out to the large patio. A quiet splash caught my attention--somebody was swimming in the pool.

"Come on in!" I heard Peggy's voice.

"I don't have a swimsuit," I replied.

"That doesn't matter. Come on!" Peggy repeated.

I undressed quickly and dove into the water. When I came up, a body encircled me.


* * *

Now it was June, and the summer vacation was approaching. On one Sunday, my friends and I were watching a baseball game on television.

"Strike two!" the announcer said.

"Miñosa slugged it," Roberto exclaimed.

"Incredible! That black put a lot on the ball," said Manolo.

Between innings, Manolo said, "Gentlemen, vacation time at last. We were always talking about it, and now it's here. I'm looking forward to three months of fishing!"

"For what?" Roberto asked.

"Boy, all kinds of fish. But the one I like best is the marlin."

"This summer I am going to spend some time with you, Manolo," I said.

"Of course! We'll have some fun." He thought for a while. "If Batista lets us. There have already been some protests, and the University of Havana is fired up."

"Good, but I don't think it will go any further," Roberto said. "Batista is Batista. He'll crush them."

"Maybe you're right, " Manolo replied, "but what I want is to catch some marlin."

I couldn't contain myself: "Christ, what a conformist!"

Manolo gave me a surprised look. "Hey, watch it! And what have you done for the betterment of mankind lately?"

I felt an impotent rage. "Nothing . . . yet."

Roberto added, "That's what everybody says, but real revolutionaries are a different thing. They are extinct in Cuba." He gave me a scornful look. "Would you give up this fine life you lead?"

"Of course I would!" I said, excitedly. "Don't think my father was born rich. When he was young, he was just a shoemaker."

"And mine sold tobacco," Manolo said with a smile, "but I have acquired a taste for marlin fishing, and I'm not about to give it up."

Unlike Manolo, I grew more heated: "The life I lead has not sealed my eyes. This is an unjust society, and Batista has done what he has because many people are as lazy as you. You are the one who can't see straight!"

Manolo got serious: "God damn it, who do you think you are? You spend your life screwing around, and now you get all patriotic. You couldn't take candy from a baby."

"You shithead!" I shouted.

"Fag!" shot back Manolo.

"Son of a bitch!" We began to fight until friends separated us and things quieted down.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher
"Enrique Oltuski chronicles his fascinating life and his passionate and focused commitment to the Cuban revolution. He helps us understand this extraordinary historic event through the audacious daily acts which he and other had to perform under the watchful eyes of the established commercial, military, and governmental institutions." —Meryl Marshall-Daniels, president, Two Oceans Entertainment Group and past chairman and CEO, the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences

"A simple, direct account of the experiences of one young revolutionary. Anchored in the events of the time, the account underlines the fact that nobody is ever ready to make a revolution. Revolutionaries are ordinary people taking on tasks that are too big for them because they have to, and somehow muddling through." —Professor Richard Levins, associate, the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies, Harvard University

"Through this compelling narrative of his own experience, Oltuski tells his story from his own perspective, with his own dilemmas, painting the colors of reality with his own brush. He represents the idealism of a generation and the political brutality that came with it." —Ann Julia Jata, senior fellow and resident Cuban expert, Inter-American Dialogue, Washington, D.C.

Meet the Author

Enrique Oltuski is the Deputy Minister of Fisheries and Merchant Marine in Havana, Cuba.

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