Revolutionary talks at York of ‘secret life’

York’s Centre for Research on Latin America and the Caribbean (CERLAC), York University Bookstore and publisher John Wiley & Sons recently hosted a talk by Cuban revolutionary and author Enrique Oltuski. Here is an account of the event, written by Marshall Beck of CERLAC, and Alison Beatch, York MES student.

“On Oct.17, York hosted a high-ranking minister of the Cuban government and one of the leading figures of the Cuban revolutionary struggle of the 1950s – a man recently denied a visa to the US because he is considered a terrorist by the Bush administration.

Enrique Oltuski came to plug his newly-published book: Vida Clandestina: My Life in the Cuban Revolution. This autobiography, written in the style of an historical novel, chronicles his “path to the revolution” and his dangerous “double-life” as an employee of Shell Oil by day and a leader of the urban underground struggle by night.

“Oltulski spoke to the gathering in Founders’ Assembly Hall with disarming humility and informality, using passages from his book to launch into reminiscences on his past and its relevance to the present. The son of Jewish-Polish immigrants to Cuba, Enrique grew up in a upwardly-mobile family that ran a prosperous chain of shoe stores. Like most well-positioned Cubans of the time, he studied in the United States, where he also landed a lucrative position that funded his playboy lifestyle. Knowing, however, that his friends in Cuba were engaged in a political struggle against the Batista dictatorship, Oltuski was unhappy in his selfish existence and chose to return home: to a new job, and to a secret life as an underground fighter.

“Oltuski conveyed effectively a sense of the youthful idealism that motivated him and his fellow combatants to risk their lives and renounce their privileges in the hope of building a better society – an aspiration he acknowledged to be a work still in progress. In describing the urban guerrilla movement of Havana he touched on such details as the publishing of a secret newspaper, the smuggling of ammunition under women’s skirts, and of the “executions” by ambush of members of the state security forces who were known to be torturers and killers.

As the struggle gained momentum and Oltuski became the head of the revolutionary 26th of July Movement in Santa Clara, he finally came into contact with the guerillas from the East. He recounted his first encounter with Ernesto “Che” Guevara, with whom he later worked in government, as the first of many instances of prolonged political debate. His re-telling of their heated arguments on such issues as agrarian reform again captured a sense of that moment of passionate optimism.

While his comments on the present situation in Cuba were unfortunately limited, Oltuski responded to all questions with apparent frankness. Defensive of the revolution’s aims and accomplishments, he also recognized it as a project not yet fully realized. Perhaps, indeed, his focus on the past and its promises was intended as a call for the recuperation of that spirit of hope and of commitment to the pursuit of a better future. This certainly seemed to be the case as he told the students present how it was people of just their age and station in life that had led the historic struggle of which he played a part.”