The first American historian in a generation to gain access to the Castro archives in Havana, Jonathan Hansen was able to secure cooperation from Castro’s family and closest confidants, gaining access to hundreds of never-before-seen letters and to interviews with people he was the first to ask for their impressions of the man. A revisionist portrait of the early years of Fidel Castro, showing how an unlikely young Cuban led his country in revolution and transfixed the world.
Hansen brings imposing research and notable erudition to this account of Fidel Castro’s early life ... we learn much that we haven’t known before about the privileged young man who became a revolutionary ... We are left still uncertain exactly how Castro turned from the 'liberal nationalist' he was as a youth to what he became after 1959. Still, this is a gripping and edifying narrative.
... a portrait of Castro through the triumph of the Cuban revolution in 1959 that is measured and occasionally indulgent, meticulous and readable at the same time ... Hansen’s deep dive into Castro family history is particularly helpful and full of irony ... scholars and Cuban expatriates will quibble with Hansen’s characterization of the revolution’s radical turn ... The biggest question of the book, however, is its framing. In the wake of Castro’s death, what does it mean to read a biography that deals only with his youth? What are the consequences of skirting his nearly five controversial decades as Cuba’s commander in chief? ... Hansen is not a hagiographer, and parts of the book are unflattering and depart from official Cuban lore. But the decision to emphasize Castro’s original idealism is nonetheless striking, as it resonates in many ways with the efforts of Cuban institutions since his retirement in 2006, and especially since his death in 2016, to do the same. By contrast, Castro’s personal life after coming to power, together with many things about the government he led, remains a secret of state. Who knows how future biographers’ appraisals may change if those archives — assuming they even exist — ever open their doors?
The material is old hat, except for love letters written from prison and details contradicting established belief ... Hansen doesn’t bother with the bigger picture. He mentions, repeatedly, the goal for 'Cuba Libre' and independence. But he doesn’t explain the intellectual, cultural and historical context energizing that goal and making it believable, impossible though it seemed ... Hansen says Castro loved only one thing: the Revolution. He didn’t love Mirta, or Fidelito, or even Celia Sánchez ... For Castro’s quirks, the explanation is 'mood swings.' The century and a half of re-envisioning the human world is missing ... missed opportunity. Hansen makes the mistake of many otherwise well-intentioned academics in the North: They assume that only the North produces ideas that energize and transform, motivating sacrifice, driving dynamic creation not just of politics but of the vision that explains it ... Hansen’s flippant speculation is boring at best, but with the privileged access he had to Cuban documents, it is irresponsible.