In Cuban-American mythology (from which, heaven forbid, no Cuban-American is permitted to stray), Fidel was a “brutal dictator” and the Cuban Revolution a horrendous Communist experiment summed up by repression and economic ruination. End of story!
It’s a laser-focused perspective that I was expecting Cuban-American historian Ada Ferrer to echo in her superb, imaginatively conceived new book, Cuba – An American History (Scribner, 2021; ISBN 978-1-5011-5455-3).
Her fluid, wonderfully nuanced, and captivating 560-page epic provides a sweeping history—from before Columbus’ arrival to the current day—told from a unique perspective: Cuba’s complex and tormented ties to the United States. Yet far from rehashing the well-worn story spun by Miami and Washington, once she reaches the 18th century Ferrer catalogs in eminently lucid and lively prose how Cuba’s relationship with the United States in the evolution and exploitation of the modern island nation demands a new reckoning.
Ferrer, a Guggenheim fellow and professor of Latin American and Caribbean Studies at New York University (and author of Insurgent Cuba: Race, Nation, and Revolution, 1868–1898 and Freedom’s Mirror: Cuba and Haiti in the Age of Revolution), proves remarkably sympathetic to the islanders’ viewpoint, in which the troubled, inextricable intimacy is dominated by ceaseless US voracity. “Cuba—its sugar, its slavery, its slave trade—is part of the history of American capitalism,” notes Ferrer.
“Cuban-Americans won’t like this book!” I mused, as I delved wholeheartedly into her profoundly informative, revelatory, and moving chronicle, which sets the stage perfectly for the entry of Fidel Castro and his socially progressive Revolution to Cubans’ rousing cheers. But that comes mid-way through the book.
Some of the already-published reviews (apparently not wanting to miss an opportunity to put down the Castro regime) seem to miss her expansively developed argument entirely. “Ferrer’s focus is on the Cuban people, the descendants of whom are calling for libertad,” writes Carrie Gibson in The Guardian (in reference to the July 11, 2021, demonstrations), skipping over the fact that Ferrer’s brilliantly-developed case is that libertad and democracía were the unrequited universal cry from the early 19th-century (with its massive U.S. involvement in slavery and the slave trade in Cuba) through to its inevitable denouement: the 1959 Revolution to topple brutal dictator Fulgencio Batista. Unrequited because the unequivocal, symbiotic relationship with the United States was always rapacious, and remains to this day live tragic theater. Says Kirkus Reviews: “Her chronicle is quintessentially ‘American’ because to know Cuba is to grapple with the sometimes intimate, sometimes explosive, always uneven relationship between the two countries.”
Ferrer’s lyrical historical narrative is interlaced with her personal tale of forced family transplantation (her parents fled Cuba in 1963 when Ada Ferrer was one year old). Still, she rises above her own “heavy inheritance.” Not here the bile that still burns a hole in the stomach of most Cuban-Americans. The reader is the better off for it.
“Revolutions breed history wars [and] the shaping of the Cuban past has long been contested terrain. Traversing it demands sober judgement and a steady hand,” suggests African-American scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr., of Harvard University.
In tracing the self-serving, heavy-handed, and frequently tragic imposition of United States hegemony, Ferrer’s remarkably balanced narrative sets the stage for a sympathetic and penetrating analysis of Fidel’s Revolution. The author is one of few Cuba specialists to understand how independence leader José Martí’s determination to prevent the USA from seizing Cuba and the islands of the Caribbean (which, of course, it effectively did with Cuba and, permanently with Puerto Rico, in 1898) shaped Fidel’s determination to sever all ties with the USA and to finally secure Cuba’s true independence by making eternal war with Cuba’s nemesis. Fidel as heir to Martí! It’s a critical perspective, and one that the unbiased reader will surely comprehend—and perhaps empathize with—given the litany of US connivance motivated almost exclusively by economic gain.
Nonetheless, I was puzzled by several glaring omissions. For example, Ferrer’s stunningly brief mention of Martí’s death offers zero details, nor any pondering of his purposeful martyrdom. In the first battle with the Spanish (at Dos Ríos) during the War of Independence, Martí–a civilian, and leader of the independence cause–was protected by bodyguards to the rear of the independence army, under General Máximo Gómez. Martí, dressed all in black atop his white horse, charged headlong towards the Spanish troops and was killed… the first victim in the war. Sacrificial suicide! That surely deserved a detailed analysis.
Ferrer does a particularly commendable job of soberly assessing the post-revolutionary executions (some 1,500 by best estimates) that were soon to be seized on by Washington and Cuban-American exiles to show the “brutal” and “terrorizing” nature of the Cuban Revolution. Instead, the author provides a clear-headed opposite view: the vast majority of Cubans were demanding such justice and wholeheartedly supported the executions of Batista’s brutal and murderous henchmen. They were, as a whole, more than ready for the progressive social (socialist) reforms, including the eradication of racism, that had always been part of Martí’s and Fidel’s call for a more just society… and which inevitably were anathema to U.S. interests.
The author also shatters the U.S. perspective—drilled into U.S. citizens for more than a century—of Uncle Sam’s benign and kindly intent to steer a backward Cuba towards independence and democracy. Yet several key reviewers, such as that of Kirkus Reviews, can’t quite shake their learned ingrained bias: “Ferrer considers it a myth [my italics] that the Americans won the island its independence from Spain.” A myth? Cubans to a man and woman all know that the USA stole independence from under their feet! Ferrer does a superb job in elucidating this murky topic.
Few U.S. citizens—I use the term “Americans” only in its correct context, to refer to peoples of The Americas—know that several U.S. presidents, beginning with Thomas Jefferson, offered to buy Cuba from Spain. Others, such as John Adams, sought to seize it. “Such proprietary zeal led the U.S. to help [my italics] Cuba expel the Spanish,” states Kirkus Review, naively. The reviewer seems not to have paid much attention to what Ms. Ferrer actually wrote, namely that the USA saw an opportunity in the Spanish-American War to seize and shape (and control) long-coveted Cuba to its whim.
Ferrer makes compellingly clear that the U.S. had no intention of simply handing over Cuba to Cubans, whose own mostly black and mulatto/mestizo mambisa army had been on the verge of victory after a brutal three-year independence war. What followed was a racist U.S. military occupation ending with a U.S.-dictated constitution that included the Platt Amendment (granting the USA an indefinite lease on Guantánamo for a naval base, plus the right to intervene militarily—as it did 1906 and 1912–to protect U.S. economic interests). “In the great lurch of U.S. imperialism that overleapt Hawaii, Guam, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, the Panama Canal zone and the Virgin Islands, ‘that infernal little Cuban republic’ (as Teddy Roosevelt called it) escaped, like a minnow from between the gaps in Leviathan’s dentures,” notes the Wall Street Journal review.
Thus followed six decades of U.S. ownership of more than 50 percent of the Cuban economy, and control of the economy and Cuban politics by both Washington and such powerful entities as the United Fruit Company for its own interests, resulting in U.S. government support for a series of criminal elites and corrupt dictator-presidents, ending with thuggish and thoroughly venal Fulgencio Batista. Meanwhile, Cuba had evolved into a land of haves and have-nots, the former heavily skewed towards white Havana–and future Miami–residents and the latter heavily skewed towards non-whites and rural folks, most often destitute and illiterate, and whose existence is assiduously avoided in the Cuban-American exile discourse.
No wonder there was a radical revolution, and one fueled as much as anything by a distaste for the overarching and detrimental influence of the United States!
In short, its a history no U.S. citizen can be proud of, and one that to this day rankles among Cuba’s proud populace.
Ferrer shows how this nationalist spirit was an integral element in popular support for Fidel. Kirkus Reviews correctly states that she is “evenhanded in describing Fidel Castro’s revolution [NOTE: I assume this means its many good—even exemplary—achievements as well as failings] and the fervid nationalism and periods of economic hardship after the American embargo.” The author’s personal involvement in the story makes her objectivity more remarkable. (Ferrer, however, makes little attempt to profile the divide in opinion within Cuba, where Fidel is reviled by many yet also remains a cherished icon, bringing millions to pay spontaneous homage when he died.)
Then comes the tragedy of Cubans cast, or opting, for exile, with all the pain and suffering that it entailed. This gets due coverage in detail, although Ferrer refrains from telling all but a few snippets of her own family’s tale. For example, during the Bay of Pigs invasion, when Fidel had counter-revolutionaries rounded up, Ferrer tells us, “at Havana’s Blanquita theater, then the largest in the world and soon to be renamed Karl Marx, my mother found my father, who was among the five thousand held there.” She also reveals how when she began personal academic research in Cuba following the collapse of the Soviet Union, when its subsidies abruptly ended, she lost 10 pounds in weight as she shared Cubans hardships.
Where Ferrer fails is in her somewhat abridged treatment of the last four decades. She rushes through this period, skipping key moments and movements that help explain the cemented latter-day hostility between the new nations (although President Barack Obama’s rapprochement and personal visit to Cuba in March 2016 gets fair treatment).
Most importantly, she gives only lip service to the rise of the Cuban-American exiles to positions of wealth and power, and how under President Ronald Reagan with the creation of the Cuban-American National Foundation they found a well-funded voice and machine that cemented the singular U.S. projection of the Castro regime and Revolution as evil. Washington remains Goliath to Cuba’s David due almost exclusively to the desire, power, and import of this constituency in a swing state critical to presidential election victories.
Cuban-American terrorism, in particular, gets short thrift (although laudably, she does mention it), and there is zero mention and analysis of the unwavering support by Cuban-American congressional representatives for such terrorists as Luis Posada Carriles (not mentioned at all, although he was responsible for the bombing of a Cubana Aviación flight 455 in October 1976 which killed all 73 people aboard; and the hotel bombings in Havana, 1996-67, intended to rattle tourists and keep them away).
She also pulls her punches considerably with only the briefest mention of the shooting down by a Cuban MiG fighter in February 1996 of two Brothers to the Rescue planes, “when they allegedly [my italics] entered Cuban airspace.” Here, Ferrer shows an inexcusable lack of truth-telling, or a gross failure in research; Brothers to the Rescue’s planes had been illegally buzzing Havana and dropping anti-Castro propaganda for months (as FBI and CIA reports clearly demonstrate), while on the fateful day in question investigations conclusively show that both planes flew over Havana before exiting Cuban airspace where they were shot down.
The downing of the planes resulted in passage of the Helms-Burton Act. Remarkably, and especially given that entire chapters are devoted to U.S. involvement and control of Cuba’s colonial-era slave trade, barely one page is given to this consequential legislation, which codified U.S. embargo statutes into permanent law and gave it tiger’s teeth, with international reach and repercussions. No other US action within the past three decades has had such portentous and grave consequences for Cuba, nor for foreign entities seeking to do business with Cuba: its brief treatment by Ferrer is unfathomable.
Nor are the “Cuban Five” mentioned (although the imprisonment for up to two decades of these five Cuban intelligence agents became a huge cause celebre and the source of much acrimony in US-Cuban relations spanning two decades). And Ferrer equally evades discussing the many attempts at rapprochement between the USA and Cuba detailed by Peter Kornbluh and William LeGrande in Back Channel to Cuba.
Nonetheless, despite these inexplicable omissions, Ferrer has parsed the confounding entanglements between Cuba and the USA in brilliant fashion. Neither a complete outsider nor a complete insider to the topic, as a Cuban-American “Ms. Ferrer achieves an honorable objective: pleasing nobody by being just,” concluded the Wall Street Journal (which, alas, in its review couldn’t resist twisting some of what Ferrer wrote, while omitting mention of other key elements, to further its own conservative viewpoint).