An American in Cuba
‘The Americano’ reveals unknown Cuban revolutionary


by Joe Foster

‘The Americano: Fighting with Castro for Cuba’s Freedom’ by Aran Shetterly. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill 2007. 300 pages.

If you take a close look at the cover of this book, The Americano, you can see a few of the most influential people of the 20th century. On the far left is Castro, the suit is Torrado, next comes Che looking as passionate as ever, then a couple of guerillas, and all the way to the right there: some frumpy-lookin’ American dude. Shetterly’s biography of this deceptively soft-looking American is one of the most exciting and fascinating books I’ve read in a while.

There were only two non-Cuban comandantes in the revolution to overthrow Batista; Che the Argentinian was one, and that frumpy white guy, William Morgan, was the other. As it turns out, Morgan may well have been the toughest fighter in the Revolution. Winning battle after battle against ridiculous odds, Morgan inspired the people of Cuba in a time when inspiration and fear walked arm in arm down the street. Morgan became a much-loved national hero, advising Castro and working to build a more equitable Cuba for the people whom he grew to love as family. He considered himself an American patriot, fighting despotism and communism with the zeal of the righteous. It was this zeal and hatred of communism that eventually earned Morgan a death sentence from the secretly communist Castro himself.

You see, Castro didn’t start out with the intention of ending where he did. According to the diaries and letters of Morgan and many others, the young Castro, the idealist, yearned for a social democracy that put the power to rule in the hands of the people, while those less fortunate were helped along by the state. It is thought that the temptations of power and the passionate machinations of Che Guevara whispering in his ear, along with sanctions from the United States and a sympathetic Russian market, eventually made Castro lose his way. Morgan insisted right up to the end that Castro was not, in fact, a communist. The politics and semantics of it all are overwhelming, but the reason you have probably not heard this story before is that Morgan and his friends were eventually considered traitors and Castro had them imprisoned or shot, their names slowly made to disappear. Once they saw what Castro was doing to the country, they began a subtle counter-revolution that eventually failed.

William Morgan, though, led the life of a hero. One story tells of Morgan facing down an airplane while standing on top of a building with a machine gun as his friends and fellow soldiers laughed hysterically. The pilot panicked and fled the scene while Morgan laughed and cheered. He trained his disordered group of youngsters how to fight in the jungle and live off the land. He personally stopped a counter-revolution staged by the Dominican Republic, the United States and a whole bunch of Batista supporters by playing the role of triple agent, playing all sides against each other until Castro came out on top with enough weapons to stay in power and enough money to begin a comprehensive land reform. He may or may not have worked for the CIA, but he most definitely played the CIA for a bunch of imperialistic fools on a number of occasions. Once the land reform thing happened, before Castro ruined it, Morgan helped set up a cooperative frog farm, of all things, which made millions selling frog legs to American restaurants and frog-leather goods to American consumers. The people involved, all previously poor tenement farmers, became relatively wealthy from their efforts. The surrounding area got roads and schools and hospitals as a result. Morgan was living the dream and helping the people who embraced him as a leader and friend.

Meanwhile, Che’s dreams of a communist state were coming closer to fruition. Morgan’s outspoken hatred of communism, and personal dislike of Che, became a bit of a political problem for Castro, especially as Morgan’s popularity increased. Morgan began running weapons and money to the mountains where a group under his command was forming to overthrow Castro unless he denounced communism. That picture, from the cover of the book, shows prominent Cubans walking arm-in-arm is a show of solidarity after the explosion of a large ship carrying weapons. It is thought that Morgan may have been involved, which may account for the fearful countenance as he watches Castro and Che march. He was arrested shortly after, and within a few months of waiting, was sentenced to death and shot on the same day. By all accounts, he died strong, proud and laughing.

With Cuba and Castro more and more in the news lately, it seems fitting that a book should come along now to give a better feel for the way Cuba was supposed to work out. Once Castro is gone, Cuba stands to be the center of some very serious political maneuvering and bloodshed. The political climate in Latin America coupled with the very personal enmity between the United States and Cuba should make for one hell of a struggle. Morgan was a charismatic leader, quick to laugh and tough as nails. His passion and strength would have served the Cuban people well in the next couple of years. •