While I normally avoid mass-market history books, as it’d been assigned to one of the IB classes I was assigned to teach the year before I read The Cold War: A New History by John Lewis Gaddis. What can I say about it that wasn’t already written in this eight pageNew York Review of Books article that gives it the proper criticism that it deserves? Not much, really. As Tony Judt notes, it’s aligned with the type of liberal triumphalism that Francis Fukuyama and others used to crow about prior to the numerous crises which liberal capitalist societies have experienced since 2008. It’s not just that the subsequent crises make the tone of capitalist banner-waving seem quaint but that the tone and outlines of historical development is idealistic to a fault, disturbingly uneven in it’s treatment of events and naïve.
How so naïve? Well, for one there are now a number of research articles (1, 2, 3) that attest to the fact that it was only a result of the Soviet state’s existence that workers in the West were able to obtain the gains that they did and that as soon as Socialism/Communism was no longer an ideological threat the attacks against workers rights and wages were accelerated. Additionally element of naivety is the fact that a number of major social repressions that occurred in the U.S.A. and other countries for ideological purposes is not, seemingly, worthy of mention. The numerous domestic Red Scares with the help of the FBI and the liquidations of Communist Party members abroad that were accomplished with the help of the CIA do not even get a footnote in Gaddis’ book. While the overthrow of Guatemala, Iran and Chile are mentioned the first two are glossed over as excesses excused by zealousness to protect those regions from Soviet influence while the last one is justified.
Additionally naïve is the manner in which, as Judt points out, Gaddis depicts the manner with which power operates in the United States. On page 168 he states, “The idea that their leaders might lie was new to the American people.” as if prior to the Cold War was a halcyon age wherein American politicians always kept their word. Not only that Gaddis frames such a claim such that it was the fault of the Soviets to cause such dissimulation. If only those people over there weren’t so evil and untrustworthy, he seems to state, then American politicians would never stoop to such behavior.
The lack of political economy in explaining material conditions of the combatant nations is also disturbing. It’s absence means that instead of macroeconomic issues creating social pressures and changes it is simply the whims of major actors that determined the direction and pace of historical development. The Soviet Union’s demise is due to moral failings of godless Communists rather than other historical, secular circumstances. This is not to say that Gaddis ignores political economy completely – but he does not do so in a way that is genuinely comparative. What this means is that while he will mention the large number of Russians killed fighting the Nazi’s during World War Two, the effects of this and the destruction of a large number of factories in Nazi Occupied countries that would soon fall under the influence of Stalin have almost no effect on the country’s ability to manufacture goods for the international marketplace. Because of this and a number of other omissions the criticism he makes – that the Soviet’s simply produced poor quality goods – lose some of the bite. While such a criticism is deserving – it is unfortunately lacking a full depiction in a political-economy constellation and thus the moralistic imprecations that follow which laud liberal capitalism.
In the end Gaddis’s view of the Cold War does not include the perspective of any people of any country affected by police or military conflict with the exception of those regions that sought to rebuff encroaching or existent Soviet influence. It is thus the perfect book for Americans looking to legitimize the notion that they won a moralistic war and that they can kick up their feet knowing that America is the epitome of ethical goodness.
Two of the antagonists in Unraveling are a pair of brothers whose last name is Sucrario. Sucrario is not a “real” Spanish last name or even a real Spanish word but a portmanteau term combining the Spanish word for sugar, “sucre” with the Spanish word for assassin “sicario”. While the characters and their history are fictional, they are largely based upon two real people: Alfonso and Jose “Pepe” Fanjul.
Despite Alonso Fanjul’s claim otherwise, his grandfather Jose Gomez-Mena was intimately involved with the functioning of the Batista government. He was Batista’s Minister of Agriculture, which in a country that had since it’s colonization been recognized as one giant sugar plantation is a big deal. He was also involved in banking and using capital to consolidate sugar holdings and upgrade their productive facilities. He was an important person and his friends and associates included a number of American politicians, important to keeping sugar tariffs low, as well as the former president of Cuba, Mario Menocal. Prior to this post and private sugar and banking enterprises the Gomez-Mena family were involved in the Cuban sugar trade at a time when the slave trade was legal. Even after it was officially abolished, the conditions of the Africans remained largely the same as it was before. To circumvent the ban of chattel slavery over 100,000 Chinese workers were imported. Though the white, landowning Cubans considered “the Celestials” less barbaric than the blacks, their work and living conditions were much the same.
The Fanjul family, which had long ties to Spainish nobility, escaped Cuba following the seizure of governmental authority by the Communist Party of Cuba headed by Fidel Castro. Castro even used one of the mansions built by Jose Gomez-Mena as his private residence and is even said to have met with him to point at a map of his holdings and tell him face to face that all of that land now belonged to the government’s collective farms. The mansion as well as his extensive private art collection remains intact and is now called the Museum of Decorative Arts and can be viewed by the public.
After arriving in the United States with all of the cash, capital goods and deeds that they could carry and ship without getting caught, the Gomez-Mena/Fanjul family were able to obtain a number of large farming subsidies with the help of the numerous American politicians whose favor they had curried over the year and were able to obtain large parcels of land for sugar production, and help halt the flow of Cuban sugar. Raising sugar cane in the Everglades was long a desire for many American farmers. Given the costs of land reclamation, dike projects, and other issues this was considered impossible without significant government assistance. While Florida and the Federal government wouldn’t seriously consider such a project prior to the Cuban Revolution due the huge amount of capital investment and political risk that it talked, after the revolution they did. Those that had cultivated the relationships with the right politicians – like the Fanjul’s had – were able to rapidly build back up their wealth.
According to the Land Report, the Fanjul brothers now collectively own 160,000 acres of land, or 250 square miles, in Florida and according to the New York Times they own 240,000 acres, or 275 square miles, in the Dominican Republic. Based on too manyreports to cite here, they are not merely the farmers, land conservationists and philanthropists that they promote themselves as, but are sugar barons in the most original sense of the word. The co-existence of feudal labor relations within a mixed-capitalist economy isn’t itself surprising. What is perhaps more so is the wide reporting of it that doesn’t seem to gather any traction in the public imagination. Articles regularly point out how their meagre investments of, say, two million dollars, into the American political machinery will bring a return of sixty-five million dollars.
The Fanjul brothers are notoriously shy of the public spotlight, one of the reasons that I wanted to fictionalize them, yet still make it into the press occasionally. Most recently they’ve been receiving press over their actions taken to prevent action being taken on Florida’s 2014 Amendment 1, which passed with 78% of the vote. Their goal? Prevent the purchase of land that would be used to increase the quality of South Florida’s water supply. Their money not only buys the political machinery of south Florida but a number of estates in the Domincan Republic, Florida and a lavish lifestyle.