America occupies an important place in a new history of Cuba
Cuba: an American story. By Ada Ferrer. Scribe; 576 pages; $ 32
IN 1853 WILLIAM KING was sworn in as Vice President of the United States at a sugarcane plantation in Matanzas, near the north coast of Cuba. King, who had hoped that spending his afternoons amid the steams of boiling sugar would cure the tuberculosis from which he was dying, asked Congress for permission to take office as President Franklin Pierce’s deputy on foreign soil. He only lasted 45 days on the job, returning to his own plantation in Alabama just before he died.
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This is one of the many stories told by Ada Ferrer in “Cuba: An American History” to show how closely the two countries have been linked. King’s presence on the island was revealing. A slave deputy to a northern president who sought to appease the restless American South, he was sworn in in a place where slaves reaped the harvest that made Cuba one of Spain’s most profitable colonies. King and Pierce had campaigned to make Cuba an American possession; their supporters carried banners with “Pierce and Cuba” written on them. The off-site grand opening “exemplified the power of a system that connected planters, slave traders and investors from New York to Charleston to the African coast in Havana, Matanzas and the green cane fields of the interior of the island, ”writes Ms. Ferrer.
The idea of placing the United States at the center of Cuban history is not surprising. But Ms Ferrer reveals a deeper and more troubled relationship than it seems to readers who remember the Maine, an American battleship that exploded in the port of Havana in 1898, triggering the Spanish-American War. His book is also timely. This summer, the biggest protests in decades have confronted Cuba’s repressive (and anti-American) regime. Ms Ferrer invites readers to reflect on the context in which the country’s next regime change could occur.
America was domineering from the start, and more often an enemy than a friend of Cuban nationalists. Thomas Jefferson believed that Cuba should be the “southernmost limit” of his country. American-owned ships from the northern states smuggled slaves from Africa to Cuba in the mid-19th century, even after the United States made the trade illegal. American-made machines, maintained by American engineers, refined Cuban sugar. After America helped the Cuban rebels drive out the Spaniards, it finally conceded Cuban independence, but not without forcing the Platt Amendment, which limited the new state’s ability to sign treaties and gave America the right to send his army. In the 1920s, Cuba had around 80 American colonies, and almost two-thirds of its sugar was produced by American factories.
The heroes of Ms. Ferrer’s saga of collaboration between wealthy white Americans and the upper classes of Cuba, some of whom during slavery fostered annexation by the United States, are the nationalists and reformers who rebelled against several times against the Cuban leaders, whether Spanish, American or Cuban. Many were black, and much of his book deals with these lesser-known fighters for independence and equality. His stories are revealing and moving. José Martí, the intellectual father of Cuban independence, was against racism, insisting that people “do not have special rights just because they belong to one race or another”. General Quintín Bandera, a black man, helped fight three wars against Spain. After independence, finding no job to match his stature, he picked up the trash, defiantly wearing his uniform.
Heroes and Villains
Cuba’s submission to the United States ended abruptly with the victory of Fidel Castro’s revolution in 1959. America has always tried to get what it wanted, through invasions, attempted invasions. assassination and an economic embargo. In addition to fomenting the Bay of Pigs fiasco, the CIA planned to spray a derivative of LSD on Castro before a speech to drive him crazy. But he and his revolution survived whatever the Americans threw at them. Even now, Castro’s challenge to the superpower, as well as social successes such as a low infant mortality rate, excuse his repression and economic malfeasance in the eyes of many leftists. Ms. Ferrer, whose family fled Cuba in the early 1960s, is not so forgiving.
Castro didn’t need psychedelics to rule irrationally. During the 1960s, his regime nationalized almost all productive activities. From 1969, he forced city dwellers, including children as young as 14, to cut sugar cane in an attempt to raise funds for industrialization, postponing Christmas and New Year celebrations to the summer in pursuit of a doomed target. In its quest to transform Cubans into staunch socialists, the regime sent 85% of high school students to rural boarding schools. A few years after the revolution, during the first of several waves of emigration, some 250,000 Cubans left, mainly for Miami. They included half of the physicians of Cuba and two-thirds of the faculty of the University of Havana.
Could relations with America over the past 62 years have been less harsh and the lives of Cubans better as a result? Castro’s personality, America’s preconceptions, and the Cold War made this unlikely. It is not known exactly when Castro decided he was a Communist, but he was never going to be a Democrat; even before the revolution, he proclaimed that Cuba “needs more Robespierres”. The Eisenhower administration viewed Castro’s relatively moderate land reform, which did not fully compensate for American companies, and a visit from a Soviet official as signs that Cuba was becoming a communist. With America in a global power struggle against the nuclear-weaponized Soviet Union, it was intolerable.
Cubans are still suffering. Food is scarce – the result of socialist policies that have only been partially reformed, the pandemic crushing tourism, the woes of Venezuela (which replaced the Soviets as Cuba’s economic backer) and the US embargo. In July, Cubans demonstrated in dozens of towns and villages. The regime, led today by Miguel Díaz-Canel, an apparatchik without Castro’s charisma, responded with tear gas and arrests.
Yet readers will close Ms. Ferrer’s fascinating book with a sense of hope. The cold war is over. The aspiration of many Cubans for political and economic freedom is one that any US government can endorse. If they finally succeed, Cuba’s authoritarian neighbor could finally prove to be a friend of the island’s progress. ■
This article appeared in the Books and Arts section of the print edition under the title “An American Tragedy”