The Story of Cuban Revolutionary and "Yankee Comandante" William Morgan Airs on PBS Tonight

Although the history of the Cuban Revolution is a subject rarely found in schoolbooks, it’s a subject very familiar to the people of Miami. In one way or another, we’ve heard the stories of how a young Fidel Castro rose to power by overthrowing the unwanted Fulgencio Batista and most of our families are living the aftermath of that change.

Throughout the revolution, there were multiple key players and aside from Castro himself, another well known leader was Che Guevara. However, those are just two of the names that gained fame — there was another commander fighting against Batista for the Cuban people whose name was essentially erased from history. That is, until now.

Then there's the story of William Morgan, an American playboy who ended up in Cuba fighting for the Cuban people. Morgan's story has often been told, but nowhere better than in the book Yankee Comandante: The Untold Story of Courage, Passion, and One American’s Fight to Liberate Cuba by the AP's Mitch Weiss and the Miami Herald's Michael Sallah — which followed a series of stories in the Herald in 2007. In 2012, the New Yorker's David Grann wrote a follow-up piece that described Morgan's biography as a “story of love, revolution, and betrayal.” That was the tipping point that led Cuban filmmaker Adriana Bosch onto her journey of writing and producing her latest documentary for PBS, American Comandante.

On the phone with New Times, Bosch comments on how Grann’s article was the seed that planted the idea for the documentary. 

“I was on a flight between Boston and LA and I picked up a copy of the New Yorker and I saw this story of William Morgan,” says Bosch. She instantly thought it would make a great documentary, but after the long flight, the thought escaped her. It wasn’t until March 2014 that Mark Samels from PBS approached Bosch with the same idea about turning Morgan’s story into a more visual medium.

Bosch had heard of stories of Morgan when she was a child growing up in Cuba, but to her, he was always more of a mystical creature than a real man. Everyone on the island was aware of Morgan, says Bosch, “I particularly knew of him through my aunts, one of my aunts would always talk about him: he was this handsome, blonde, blue-eyed American — this sort of mythological figure — that was fighting in the mountains.

“He was really like Che Guevara. We kind of looked at them both — at least in that moment — at first in the same light: foreigners who were fighting for us.”

One of the key players in the story of Morgan is his wife, Olga Rodriguez. The two met on the island when Morgan first arrived from Ohio. He was a commander and she was a student activist and young guerrilla fighter — it was love at first revolution. “We knew that we couldn’t do the documentary without her; the way into William Morgan was Olga.

“When we first started this project, Olga had already been contacted and was under contract by George Clooney, who at the time was working on a feature film based on Grann’s article. So we had to convince Clooney to release her [from her contract] so she could come and talk to us.” Bosch got on a plane to meet the aging widow in Toledo in order to better explain the project to her. “Me being Cuban and understanding her story from that point of view was, I think, very important for her.”

In the end, after uncovering layer upon layer of Morgan and his life, Bosch still sees the man as a myth. “His story if the quintessential American tale of a man who reinvents himself. A man who finds himself in a very difficult place and goes somewhere he can reject his past and become someone new. And he becomes heroic in doing that, and not only does he get the rank of Comandante, but he is hailed, in a sense, as a savior of the Cuban Revolution.”

American Experience: American Comandante
Premieres tonight, November 17, on WPBT2 at 9 p.m. To check local listings, visit pbs.org.

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