Nearly forty years ago, Sandown Books published a fascinating, moving, and utterly compelling memoir called Tocayo, by Antonio Navarro.
The author was a Cuban refugee living with his family in New York City and a vice-president of W. R. Grace & Company at the time. Twenty years before, he had played a perilous role as a leader of the Cuban resistance movement operating under the code name tocayo (the word, meaning “namesake,” was in those days a widely familiar greeting among Cubans, thus lending it a high degree of anonymity); been jailed by Fidel Castro (a former personal acquaintance of his); and mysteriously released by El Caballo (“The Horse,” as Castro was known by his supporters) without explanation. Having prudently sent his wife and children into exile in Miami, he succeeded in escaping himself by small boat before Castro could have second thoughts and return him to prison—more likely worse. As literary editor at National Review, I was sent a review copy of the book by the publisher, read it, and decided to handle the job myself. The resulting review was a rave. Tony read it and kindly wrote me a note of thanks at my home in Wyoming, adding an invitation to meet him for dinner on my next trip to New York. I did so, and we shared a delightful meal together in midtown close by the Grace offices. We kept in touch for a while, but unfortunately never met again. Some years ago, I looked him up on the Internet and was saddened to discover that he had died in 2003 of heart failure at the age of 80 in Miami.
I reread Tocayo a year ago in connection with a literary project I had in mind, and found the book as thrilling—as well as superbly written—as I had all those decades ago. It has been on my mind again during the Democratic primaries last winter and subsequently, owing to Senator Sanders’ characterization of Castro’s Cuba as “not all bad,” and the recent public discovery that Representative Karen Bass (on Joe Biden’s short list as his vice-presidential choice before Biden chose Kamala Harris instead) was a member of the Venceremos Brigade in her younger days, and that she described Castro’s death in 2016 as “a great loss to the Cuban people.” Rather than correct herself or apologize for her remarks, Bass flippantly commented “Lesson learned. Won’t do that again.” What lesson would that be? That Fidel Castro in real life was a bloodthirsty monster, or that it is a mistake for a sympathetic politician to speak the truth about what she really thinks of him? Anyhow, she won’t do “that” again: You can bet on it.
Tocayo is the most gripping account I know of Castro’s coming to power after the fall of Batista and the early days of the Castro regime, when El Caballo was consolidating his control over the island of Cuba and making early experiments with his policies of mayhem, theft, torture, and murder. Navarro writes in his “Foreward,” “This is not a political book, although it is inevitably a book about politics. And about politics’ unfortunate companions: violence, terror and death. It is the personal story of an ordinary man, unprepared by training or inclination, turned revolutionary by force of circumstances in post-Castro Cuba. There is no spoon-feeding of any political position, no diatribes. As a reader you are simply exposed to the events and left to experience them and draw your own conclusions, if any.”
Tony Navarro was the scion of a wealthy Cuban family of politically liberal business people who detested Batista, welcomed his ouster and exile, and expected good to come from the change of regime. Tony himself had known Fidel at the Jesuit school they both attended, though Castro was four or five years ahead of him there. Consequently, he was prepared to give El Caballo benefit of the doubt until the truth about the man and his regime became brutally plain, and Navarro was compelled to face the truth about what was happening on his island. How would Bernie Sanders, Karen Bass, and their followers and admirers have responded in Navarro’s position? The question is a vital one. The United States in 2020 is not yet Cuba in 1958, but the similarities between the Fidelistas and Black Lives Matter, Antifa, the anonymous groups (many, apparently) in sympathy with them, and the Cancelistas as a body are clear and undeniable. American soil is fertile ground for a North American Fidelista movement imported from the Caribbean. At least one U.S. Senator, one U.S. Representative, and perhaps one sympathetic ex-U.S. President that we know of (so far) seem prepared to welcome one. Who knows how many other politicians, and how many ordinary citizens, are as well?