Review of "Cuba – A New History"

I decided to purchase Cuba: A New History as I enjoy reading history books of places that I plan on visiting. While my fiance and I didn’t end up getting to enjoy the Cuban beaches, visit historically important sites, see the manner in which Cuban’s reproduce under the shadow of economic blockades of their country by their neighbor to the North and the revolutionary archives as our honeymoon plans were foiled by the theft of our uninsured car, I decided to read it at the time I’d planned rather than place another book in it’s place.

Gott’s history of the island begins with the New World encounter. The trade winds that blow east across a vast sea uninterrupted by land masses reaches their limits at the start of the Carribean Islands. Cuba is both the largest island and Havana the port which has the most favorable winds. The arrival of Spanish conquerors introduces history proper to the island, as now there are written records of interactions amongst disparate peoples – such as the Arawaks, who were decimated by disease and battle and lived only in small hamlets far away from places involved in tart. Up until the 17th century, however, the island as a whole was not viewed as a location to be occupied in toto – it was merely a port stopping point for ships on their way to South America to deposit slave and collect goods and silver. This Cuba was a place where buccaneers would chase the wild pigs that roamed the iron for food, corsairs would predate on royal ships and conflict between regents would find their space for disagreement in the

The strong emphasis on racial fears is a recurring theme throughout Gott’s history. While it wasn’t until the 1791 revolution in Haiti gave evidence to their fears of black dictatorship and reprisal killings, the colonialists were well aware that their only real hope for reinforcements from the majority Africans was thousands of miles away. To counteract this situation, the rich formed militias to help quell any outbreaks of black violence towards white owners, attempted to place limits on the importation of slaves, encouraged more Spaniards to settle the island, set up contract labor systems with Chinese laborers and violently restricted attempts of blacks to achieve political parity with whites. This is largely the limit to the history of the island until Simon Bolivar wrests dominion from the Spanish Empire in place of home rule. Fears, outbreaks of conflict by the aforementioned groups followed by attempts to wrest authority from the whites via civil war. However once Cuba was no longer just a stopping point on the way to mines, greater interest in it’s natural offerings came to the forefront. While sugar had previously been grown and processed on the island before, scientific advances in it’s production and manufacturing was to transform it into a key component of the Cuban economy. The problem with making sugar the primary revenue source for the economy is fluctuations of prices on the international market and the social conflict created by them in the face of capitalist social relations.

As the conflicts escalate, General Weyler is brought back from his campaign in the Philippines and applies several similar tactics. Concentration camps are formed to separate the cities and towns from the outlying jungle areas and those found outside of them are shot indiscriminately. Indeed Weyler is like the a black cloud of Death as many in his command die here due to tropical diseases and infections, non-combatants are killed indiscriminately as they make their way through these zones, and those in the camps starve due to their inability to farm. For more information on the relationship between Cuba and the Philippines, I’d heartily recommend Under Three Flags: Anarchism and the Anti-Colonial Imagination as despite it’s focus on Jose Rizal, author of Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo, it goes into detail on the Spanish responses during this period of anti-colonial movements. While Weyler is in the short term successful in momentarily quelling the domestic rebellion, it soon returns but before he can deal with it he is called back to Spain.

Shortly after this what was to be a war of independence instead turns into an American intervention. An explosion occurs on the Maine and the blame fallaciously falls onto the Spanish. The U.S. quickly routes their navy and allows the Spanish to take their troops home. As a result of this, the right of the U.S. to militarily intervene should they dislike anything that the country does is doing written into the new “independence” constitution. The Platt Amendement of 1903, as this right was called, essentially prevented the nationalization of U.S. investment of capital in the foam of railroads, new sugar processing plants, and the buy-ups of vast swathes of land.

Gott points out that this is a key problem for later home-rule movements and later creates the situation wherein the elected government falls out of favor with the populace due to the limits placed upon it’s sphere of action, faces a populist political group that seeks to take control, then leaves the hall of power to say there is a civil war going on and then invite the United States in to take control. In a way this is nothing but a mere continuation of the fights that had happened before – with the Marines even making use of the same tactics used by Weyler every few years to diffuse domestic unrest.

As can be imagined malfeasance was the order the of day, corruption endemic up and down the system, and unscrupulous politicians sought advancement by acting on behalf of those that would pay them. Here we see that it was Cuba’s internal history that came to validate the nationalists such as Jose Marti and later Castro. The Cuban’s and the large exile communities in New York CIty and Florida were well aware of the effect that this dominion by moneyed interests had on the island and sought to prevent it from continuing. Their aspirations took the place of literary and military campaigns as well as attempts to influence the American ambassador to Cuba, seen as one of the most influential person in Cuba, towards supporting specific parties or policies. The prominence of the Mafia was just one of the symptoms of this decadent period that has stayed in the American imagination. However this wasn’t to last. Fidel Castro came on the scene and soon it swept away.

Gott provides great insight and numbers important details in the lead up to and major events in the Cuban Revolution. The theoretical battles between peasant, student, worker and employer factions show that the tensions repressed by Batista were still near the surface and other groups besides Castro tried to use varying combinations to also engage in guerilla battles. Castro, however, won out with his superior tenacity, tactics, and ability to give promises to constants.The vantage point of the history, once from the standpoint of the slaves, workers, freed slaves, and white upper class changes once Fidel Castro emerges on the scene. The thrust is that about Fidel, Raul, Che, and the the revolutionary government first hobbled together and then emerging on the world stage coming into it’s own. While one could claim that the many changes Cubans went through on a daily basis are overlooked, lightly touched upon or otherwise minimized, this is not entirely true. Gott is clear in showing the positives and negatives that the revolution brought to the different classes then still on the island. Given Gott’s specialization on Latin American revolutionary movements, the history of anti-colonial insurgencies inspired by and assisted by Cuba is highly insightful.

As someone who’s spent most of their life up in the greater Miami area, I know how sensitive the Cuban exile community can be on issues related to Castro so it ghouls come as no surprise that some of the major concerns of the exile Cuban community, a not-so-thinly coated way of talking about the need for the United States to re-assert it’s dominion over the island, are addressed. Gott does not shy away from the political repression, judicial killings or the large number of people that have fled the island. He does, however contextualize it in such a way that Castro is not some capricious tyrant but someone who is trying to make sure that the gains his political machine has won doesn’t disintegrate from foreign control again. In order to maintain this we see Castro vacillating between nationalist and socialist rhetoric and policies as is fitting the occasion. Considering the history of the country has been one of foreign control via the manipulation of a section of domestics this is completely understandably. As is his populist appeal there. He largely rose to power and distinguished himself as a moral authority against the imperialistic ambitions of the United States. Gott closes the book by showing how for those that think that once Castro is gone there will be a sea-change in Cuba are wrong as for several years Fidel has moved into the background to let competent administrators take over his place.