A few pages into David Landau’s stirring account of how the Cuban Revolution impacted the lives of one family, I found myself remembering a long-ago New Year’s Eve 1958.
I was hanging out with two other neighborhood teenagers, Kevin Drew and Jim Taylor, in our Washington, D.C., neighborhood. Jim had a small transistor radio — then the cutting edge of high tech — and not long after midnight a news bulletin announced that Fulgencio Batista, longtime dictator of Cuba, had fled the country in the face of a popular uprising.
Fidel Castro, a charismatic insurgent leader with known, but largely unreported, leftist links, was poised to make his triumphal entry into Havana. The New York Times — which had published a series of shameless puff pieces about Castro — couldn’t have been happier.
Nor could Jim and Kevin, both cheering Fidel as a heroic freedom-fighter. As a young current-events junkie with a skeptical streak, I wasn’t so sure. “Hold the applause,” I said. “Come back in a year and tell me what you think then.”
It didn’t take a year to change their minds. Castro’s mass executions, his rabid Marxist and anti-American rants and his dictatorial ways soon opened the eyes of most Americans, Bernie Sanders and friends excepted. But the damage was done, and the world, especially the long-suffering Cuban people, have paid a terrible price for more than 60 years now.
In “Brothers,” David Landau, a veteran observer of Cuban and Latin American affairs, tells a big story by focusing on a small cast: two brothers and the people and events that touched their lives.
The brothers, Mr. Landau writes, “were not heads of state or anything close. In life they had their dreams of glory. But now, if they could speak from the beyond, they would only ask for truth. Even in going for glory, they were obsessively faithful to the facts. And they paid a high price for their scruples. The least one can do in a story about them is to apply the same standard of truth.”
It’s a high standard, but the author meets it. At the heart of his story is the Family Rivero. The father, nicknamed “Riverito” (1904-75), was a self-made man who rose from rural poverty to become a top journalist and dean of the Havana press corps (even under Batista, one of the most vigorous, sophisticated and diverse in Latin America).
His beautiful wife, Delia (1912-83) — a tiger mother if ever there was one — would prove herself a tower of strength for both husband and sons, Emilio, nicknamed “Emi” (1928-2016), and Adolfo (1935-2011). The Latino Brothers Karamazov of our story were both talented, smart, values-driven young men, but with entirely different personalities and perspectives.
Emi, already a successful attorney in 1958, was a dashing, confident extrovert, a rugged free spirit with an instinctive appreciation for individual liberty. Adolfo, still in college and an earnest convert to Communism, was a bespectacled brooder, a born true believer driven by an impersonal ideology.
To mix Russian metaphors, Adolfo was a bit like Boris Pasternak’s Strelnikov in “Doctor Zhivago,” an intrinsically decent man consumed by a destructive ideal that rejects personal humanity as “sentimentalism.” Unlike Strelnikov, Adolfo lived long enough to see his error in a step-by-step disillusionment with Castro, Soviet Communism and collectivist ideologies in general.
Meanwhile, Emi, after risking his life on the front lines to topple Batista, was quick to recognize the new evil of Castro’s brutal brand of megalomaniac Marxism and fought the new tyranny with as much courage and integrity as he had the old one. That struggle eventually led to imprisonment and at one point, when questioned by a member of Castro’s security forces, Adolfo actually suggested that his brother should be shot as a traitor.
After spending nearly two decades as a political prisoner in Castro’s jails, Emi, who never recanted and endured incredible suffering, emerged unbroken and made it to America.
There are no perfect endings in an imperfect world; from time to time, there are just resolutions. A disillusioned Adolfo, declared a non-person by the Castro regime, became a human rights activist and, like his brother before him, was imprisoned.
In the end, with help from friends and family, he also made it to the U.S. where both brothers shared their fascinating stories with the author. Mr. Landau provides a lucid narrative thread weaving their lives into the turbulent times they lived through.
The moral? As David Landau reminds us, “… ordinary, decent people … are in constant peril from forces like the ones that haunted the Riveros. But the qualities on display in that family will prevail against any effort, no matter how skillful or determined, to take one’s humanity away.”
• Aram Bakshian Jr., a former aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, has written widely on politics, history, gastronomy and the arts.
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BROTHERS: FROM TIME TO TIME
By David Landau
Pureplay Press, $26.97, 329 pages