2006-09-06 / Front Page

Author relates life story of Cuban leader Batista


Staff Writer

Frank Argote-Freyre
Frank Argote-Freyre It was difficult to tell who was more excited seeing Frank Argote-Freyre's book siting on a shelf at Barnes & Noble, the author himself or his daughter, Amanda, 10.

Either way, the experience was amazing, according to the author.

Argote-Freyre, 46, of Freehold Borough, is an assistant professor of history at Kean University, Union. He recently saw his first book, "Batista," published by Rutgers University Press.

The book, a labor of love for the author, who referred to the writing process as "giving birth," took years of research, which included several trips to Cuba, the country of origin of his own father and of Fulgencio Batista as well. His research included more than 20 oral histories, Cuban newspapers, memos and a selection of Batista's personal documents.

Argote-Freyre said he had limited access to Cuban documents and found some history through church and school records and by visiting the rural area where Batista lived. He visited the tombstone of Batista's mother, spoke with family members and had access to valuable family photos.

His research also included visits to the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum in Hyde Park, N.Y., the Harry S Truman Presidential Library and Museum in Independence, Mo., and the Dwight D. Eisenhower Library in Abilene, Kan. He also did research at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

In his book, Argote-Freyre tries to dispel some of the stereotypes of the man who is considered a crucial figure in Cuban history - stereotypes such as "pawn of the United States government," "right-hand man to the mob" and iron-fisted dictator."

For decades, according to the author, public understanding of Batista has been limited to these stereotypes. While on some level they all contain an element of truth, the superficial characterizations barely scratch the surface of the complex and compelling career of the man who was eventually removed from power during the Cuban Revolution led by Fidel Castro.

Argote-Freyre's work author uncovers a Batista with strengths and weaknesses, a man who had a career marked by accomplishments as well as failures.

According to Argote-Freyre, the flight of his own family from Cuba in the late 1950s and early 1960s led him to explore the period prior to the Cuban Revolution and drew him to the subject of Batista.

This book, Volume One, focuses on Batista's role as a revolutionary leader from 1933 to 1934 and his image as a "strongman" in the years between 1934 and 1939.

Argote-Freyre said people write books for two reasons: to answer personal questions and as a scholar to look at a period in history which has been ignored and then to bring it to life. His own personal reasons included the fact that his father was born in Cuba and worked as a railroad conductor in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Like Batista, he was a brakeman for the railroad.

As a historian and as a scholar, Argote-Freyre wanted to write about something that had not been written about before.

"Nothing serious had been written about Batista, the question is why not? The interpretation of the period of the 1930s and 1940s looked like it was in a cold war freezer," he said.

According to the author, history is not something that is dead, history is alive.

"History frames the ideology that we use to justify why we support our nation and our government. The ideology within us frames our acceptance and gives us the rationale about what makes our country special," he said. "The interpretation of that period is crucial. The more debased, the more corrupt, the more decadent this period, the more glorious is the triumph of the revolution."

The book began as Argote-Freyre's doctoral dissertation in 2004 and has been reworked to make it more accessible and more readable to the public. He spoke of the Cuban revolution and said the revolution was fought in order to cleanse the ills of the period. He said that for 30 or 40 years, Batista was depicted as a stereotype "stick figure."

"He was literally the poster boy for a failed right-wing dictatorship," the author explained.

The stereotype of how Cuba is depicted in that period overlooks the rich social and cultural traditions, he said.

Argote-Freyre said, "No one wants to only write about the worst period in someone's life," and according to reviews from Publishers Weekly, Argote-Freyre did not do that. The review lists the author's treatment of Batista as "balanced, judicious and fluently written," and said the biography offers an "important and long overdue reassessment of a crucial figure in Cuban history."

Argote-Freyre focuses on the man, his military career and how, although he came from abject poverty, he came to be such a powerful figure in Cuba with only a fourth-grade education.

The author recently returned from Florida where, he said, the response to his book was very good.

The author is living his philosophy of life right now, one he tries to instill into his students.

"Don't opt for whatever will make you money. Those people are the walking dead. I wake up excited about what I'm doing. It's an exciting adventure and I love it," he said. "Do what you love and find a way to make a living at it."

Argote-Freyre lives with his wife, Carrie, and their children, Amanda, 10, and Andrew, 7.

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