Wednesday, Apr 25, 2018
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Book review: Castro's yanqui

William Morgan may be the most intriguing person ever to have grown up in Toledo. He certainly had a colorful life, even if much of it was a series of spectacular failures. Though he came from a more than respectable Old West End family, he managed to be a bad boy right from the start.

Eventually he dropped out of school; got mixed up with hoodlums, and joined the Merchant Marine at 15. He was soon thrown out. After a few years of running with gangs of toughs, he managed to join the army.

That ended when he went AWOL, overpowered a guard, escaped from custody, and ended up spending three years in federal prisons. That was followed by carnival work as a fire swallower and two bad marriages, one of which was (naturally) to the snake handler. Then he started running guns.

Had he died at 29, he would have been nothing but a small-time hood, probably barely rating much notice in The Blade. But by the time he did die, a month before his 33rd birthday, he was internationally famous.

For William Morgan had, bafflingly, become a major player in Fidel Castro's Cuban revolution. He fought in the jungles with Castro's men, and by all accounts exhibited great skill and bravery. He marched arm and arm with Castro through the streets of Havana when the revolution triumphed in 1959.

For once in his life, he was an enormous success. He was the only foreigner other than the Argentinian Che Guevara to be given the rank of Comandante. Eight months after the revolution, he even eclipsed Che for a time.

That came about when the wily Morgan managed to trick Rafael Trujillo, the despised dictator of the Dominican Republic. By posing as a double agent, he convinced both Americans and Trujillo's men that he had turned against Castro. The result was international humiliation for Trujillo and star status for William Morgan, the boy who failed at everything he had tried in Toledo.

Yet though he never turned against Castro, Fidel turned against him. Following the revolution's triumph, Morgan, in another odd twist, became passionate about - frog farming. He settled down with his third wife, the Cuban-born-Olga and began raising thousands of frogs for export. He seemingly had no interest in politics, yet he was vocally anti-Communist.

Fidel Castro had yet to declare that he was a socialist, let alone a Communist. But suddenly in October, 1960, William Morgan was arrested, tried for treason on what were clearly trumped-up charges. He faced a firing squad calmly and bravely, on the date of his conviction, March 11, 1961.

Yet the question remains : Who was William Alexander Morgan really?

Was he a double agent? A mixed-up adventurer? Whose side was he on? Why was he drawn to the Cuban Revolution? Did he pose any actual threat to Fidel Castro, and if not, what were Castro's motivations in having him shot?

The Americano is, surprisingly, the first full-length book on Morgan, written by Aram Shetterly, an American who lives in Mexico and runs artists' exchange programs. Though valuable, and gripping in parts, in other places it is choppy.

Yet it is a beginning at unraveling an enigma. Shetterly raises the interesting possibility that the humiliated Trujillo demanded Morgan's death as the price of selling Cuba cut-rate rice. Perhaps. But Castro also knew that Morgan was firmly anti-Communist, charismatic, and a capable fighter who marched to his own drummer. It isn't difficult to imagine him leading an effective counter-revolution, or to be a symbol of hope if he were to be merely jailed.

What we do know is that with William Alexander Morgan, every possible answer raises more questions. Five years ago, after a series of stories in The Blade, Castro promised Toledo Congressman Marcy Kaptur he would send Morgan's body home. Yet that still hasn't happened. Does the long-dead Yanqui still have the power to strike fear into Castro's heart?

The author concludes properly that "No matter who tells (Morgan's) story, against him or with him, it ends with courage." This book is a start at telling that story, one which might (Hollywood take note) make a far better movie.

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