Review of “Race to Revolution: The United States and Cuba During Slavery and Jim Crow”

Gerald Horne’s book Race to Revolution: The United States and Cuba During Slavery and Jim Crow is an incredible account primarily on the relationships between the two countries mentioned in the title along with Cuba’s former colonial master, Spain. Horne’s account is not, however, a mere institutional history but one that illustrates that key role which enslaved and emancipated African Americans had in structuring attitudes and actions of the colonial Cuban government, the slaveholding Republic to its North and the center of Empire across the ocean to the East.

A large concern of the United States was that of a “black military republic” in Cuba that was sponsored by Britain. Secretary of State Daniel Webster was deeply concerned that London would “offer independence to the creoles, on condition that they unite with the colored government” in this Negro Republic “under British protection… and that “A Venezuelan general residing in Jamaica was to “take the command of an invading army,” which was to be “seconded” by an insurrection of the slaves and free men of color,” and thus with “600,000 black in Cuba and 800,000 in her West India Islands London will then strike a death blow at the existence of slavery in the United States (73).

The Long History of Interaction Amongst Cubans and American Negroes

Due to its prime ports and location, networks of trade and information were created between a large number of the States in Havana. Louisian, Mississipi and Texas were the primary buyers, however while slave markets closed in the United States due to abolition, they flourished in Cuba. Shipping now primarily to Texas, which was still a territory, Cuba experienced a boom in trade.

While all this was going on, in the halls of the Congress the Southern legislature hooted and hollered for annexation. Reading the speeches, yellow news article clippings, letters, diaries all depict a primal lust to aim, shoot and pull Cuba under the yoke of American capital and American style property management and enforcement. After all, American investment had dramatically increased as many of the Americans reinvested capital that was previously in the south to Cuba.

Cubans Considered by White Racists to be Lesser Humans

The Cubans, and for that matter also the Spaniards, were considered by the Americans to be less than white. In the racialist literature of the day, subscribed to by any politician of importance, the occupation of the Spanish by the Moors made them “not fully white”. Quoting Horne:

“U.S. nationals tended to think that Spaniard were “not quite white,” given the lengthy occupation of the Iberian peninsula by Arabs and Africans and, inter alia, this disqualified them from holding the prize that was Cuba.”(25).

The Spaniards subsequent intermarriage with the Negresses brought from the Ivory Coast increased the rationale for their being inferior.

A large number of expeditions – filibusters – went in in order to claim property and spoils. Former soldiers accustomed to the horrors of the Civil War re-enacted their old jobs. Like Hell on Wheels, but if when Bohannon first rolls up he just re-enslaves the black crew with the help of the white present – who he says now gets paid double. Richard Gott, perhaps no surprise, writes a wonderfully journalistic description of something akin to this in his history of Cuba. U.S. privateers were able to do this primarily as it occurred during a period of intensive rebellion in Cuba. Slaves, Freeman, and Mulattos united against the Spanish colonial administration. Over 160,000 people were killed in the ten years uprising. The atrocious and widespread slaughter literally split the country in two as domestic rebels acted as an insurgent and constituent force alongside the shores America. As can be imagined, what shape the constituent force to take was of prime significance to American politicians, which represented the interests that investors had made into Cuban railroads, sugar mills, land and labor.

Unlike what was said in the halls of power, the writings of Cuban newspapers were often written in part to target American Negroes and contained a message that didn’t sanctify property rights but one of community control. The content of these messages was often presented in a manner that would encourage readers towards a pan-African identity. By carrying tales of lynching and profiles of people such as Frederick Douglass as well as more daring stories such as that of “The Mutinous Sixth” – a deployment of African American Soldiers that were preparing to invade Cuba in Georgia that suffered casualties by American racists for refusing to submit to Jim Crow segregation. In 1886, the year slavery was effectively banned, the first cigar factory was built in Tampa, accompanied by the arrival of about a million workers from Cuba and other lands touched by Spain.” (159). Yet while slavery maybe have been made illegal in the United States, this did not prevent those that had profited from it from finding places where they were able to return to their high ROI practices. This put the US in the perilous position of, basically, fighting to impose a racial order on an island that was considered “colored”.

White Nationalists Afraid of a United Soviets of America

Horne’s book doesn’t go into the much detail as to the Soviet influence on either Castro’s or the Communists in Cuba – itself split along Trotskyist, longstanding anarchist, and nationalist lines. However he does point out how vastly inflated as a cause for fear this was by the members of the United States’ Havana Bureau. Whether this was because it gave informants cause to receive bribes from the U.S. government’s “liason and administration offices,” people that among others Cuban patriots would later call “vendepatriots,” is uncertain. What is clear from the record is that “Cubanidad” and distaste for Jim Crow style white supremacy was an organizing ideology against White Supremacy. Citizens of Cuba and the U.S. paid each other homage to the struggles going on there in a coordinated series of marches, demonstrations and exchanges between committed cadres of organizers.

Domestic sympathies towards the Cuban Communist party by America Negroes drove home the fear that Soviets would spread across the southern tip of the country and radical property struggles would again take place. This fear flamed by the KKK and others wasn’t entirely without cause, as the people involved in this cultural and intellectual exchange would soon have an outsized role within the civil rights movement in the United States.

Cubanidad as an Ideological Enemy to White Nationalism

Horne tells the story of Havana’s holding lucrative “black vs. white” boxing matches, a practice then forbidden in the United States. Havana allowed Paul Robeson to sing to “mixed race”, “mixed couple” crowds that were drunk on Bacardi family products. These, however, are shown to be showcase moments by the new economic and political leadership.

The reaction to the Jim Crowism that the US brought to the region was swift. It was so repugnant to the people that a domestic response force soon composed itself to eject such a social order. Most of the J26 movement – which I write about more on here – were also composed of Black Cuban nationalists. After black political organizations were banned, “the Communists came to play an increasingly conspicuous role on both sides of the strais, with those on the island going to far as broaching “the idea of an autonomous state in Oriente” (239). Domestic unrest lead to U.S. and Cuban elites embracing military rule via Batista, however his darkness made some in America suspect and uneasy. While first embraced by American blacks, subsequent secret police actions against poor, “colored”, Cubans that had mobilized against American investment and the enforcement of Jim Crow rules when Black American businessmen were visiting for conventions made him soon lose his lustre. Private party delegations between the countries increased to study each other’s answer to the “racial question” and increasingly the Cuban people – both the poor the suffered the most as well as the elite which more often dealt with resentment over American influence – came to view the US as prohibiting the social structures most appropriate to a post-colonial export economy. When Castro finally did come to power, one of the reasons he was so welcome by African-American was precisely because his policies were against such racialized oppression.

Review of “A Hidden History of the Cuban Revolution: How the Working Class Shaped the Guerrillas’ Victory”

A permutation of the research project I’d designed for myself in hopes of getting a year-long grant to study at the University of Havana, A Hidden History of the Cuban Revolution: How the Working Class Shaped the Guerrillas’ Victory by Steve Cushion focuses on the factions within the trade union movements and their relationship to the Batista regime. Its publication came at a perfect time, as I learned of its existence shortly after the new criteria for the IB History Period and Theme focuses were released.

Cushion’s primary research documents were the union, official and underground newspapers, student and radical journals and letters of participants that could lead to arrest, assault and increasingly in murder by beating. Given the need to keep documentation of participation in these subterannean movements against the current government, there are gaps in ability to give full accounts in all regions of Cuba from this alone. In order to make up for this dearth of material he also includes the recorded speeches and published positions of the union leadership as well as government documents stemming from police documentation of the lives of those ran for office and were kept out by corruption, but no matter as they later found de facto rather than official leadership positions in factions of other ideologically oriented groups. It is the groups within these unions would come to create make connections with MR-26 and facilitate the martial overthrow of the Batista Regime through concerted community support.

Cuba’s political and economic turmoil stemmed from advances in processes of transportation, production and financial pressures wrought by secular, cyclical capitalist crisis. During this period of an employer offensive against wages, workers rights and and the work done there was a general rebellion against the conditions proffered as the new status quo. The Batista regime became an adjudicator of industrial struggles and so consistently sided with the “non-Cuban” international investors that the came to be correctly seen as the enforcer for the needs of American capital. That such a belief was held by workers, students, radicals, farmers and revolutionaries alike should be seen as no surprise given that Cuba was the primary producer of sugar on the global market by weight by far and by 1958 U.S. capital owned 42% of the production capacity of the sugar industry. As large as that sounds this says nothing else of their other investments in railroads, docks, public transportation busses manufactured from Detroit, banks, clothes, medicine, etc.

Cushion’s analysis of regional leadership pockets of the M-R- 26 showed how they were at times at odds with the political aspirations of their erstwhile supporters. A number of the subterranean leaders of organizing activity in the coastal shipping regions were Trotskyists and Communists. The fighting force of MR-26 was a distinctively nationalistic based organization. Cushion documents the change in their published positions from making populist style appeals for land redistribution and other programs to generalities that merely state that devastating effects that advances in capitalist production and transportation of raw materials had on the population must be addressed and that the current government had no legitimacy and should be ousted.

While other nationalist groups published broadsides against the government that similarly documented abuses, they differed in that they also combined jeremiad’s with political platforms to raise awareness of what members in the organization were seeking to accomplish by overthrowing the government. It’s in this, and not in the military fighting, that working class socialists played a large role – helping to get enough people to resist the brutality of a government that would force strikers to work at gunpoint and would beat to death students and organizers for their activity.

It’s because of all their work, documented here by industry, region and organizations with operational strength, that the great strike which paralyzed the entire island of Cuba came into fruition. It’s as a result of their alliance building, political development, organizational structures that the barbudos were so easily able to come in a conquer a much larger, better equipped army. It’s because of them that the romantic ideal of the revolutionaries have been so fawned upon in revolutionary circles – for if they’d have to spend multiple months fighting over key city control points than they’d seem dirtier on a moral level rather than just a jungle living level.

The historical revisionism and false dilemma of Matt Kibbe's views on Cuban Socialism

An acquaintance recently posted the above video and I was a taken aback. I’m no specialist on Cuban history, but what was presented didn’t seem right to me as I knew many of claims he was making to be half-truths, not correctly contextualized or were outright lies.


Let just consider some of the claims made.

1) Matt Kibbe quotes Castro as saying that Rock and Roll was the “Music of the Enemy”. Well, if you are a nationalist that didn’t like the fact that United States capital was controlling the political situation in the country than it was. Following the Spanish-American war Cuba was no longer a Spanish colony but an American Protectorate. From 1898 to 1935

4812412_origWhat was the Platt Amedment?

  • Cuba could not make any treaty with another nation that the U.S. did not agree to.
  • Cuba must allow the US to buy or lease a naval base.
  • S. had the right to intervene in Cuban conflict to protect it.
  • Cuba had to keep it’s debts low to prevent foreign countries from landing troops to enforce payment.

This amendment was used multiple times in order to bolster different factions of the Cuban political elite that were protecting American investments in the sugar and railroad industries. At this time the Cuban elite – predominantly peninsulares and lighter skinned mulattoes – were exceptionally racist and prized American culture. In the period after the Platt Amendment’s repeal, despite the Good Neighbor policy much of the American extensions of power at times when U.S. capital was threatened remained the same. Consider the U.S. history in the Caribbean – even before the Cuban Revolution the U.S. had established a habit of propping up military dictators throughout Latin America for financial gain and 1961 Cuba’s neighbor, Dominican Republic, had over 20,000 US troops on the island that were fighting a Communist-inspired insurgency against American-backed rule!


2) Kibbe claims that Fidel Castro “banned rock music” in his country? A little research shows that while The Beatles were banned for two years, from 1964-1966, by 1974 the MNT (Nueva Tropa Movimiento) helped to end this often unenforced “ban” on certain musical acts playing in public.

(‪… ; ‪ ; ‪…/cuba-maps-its-rock-music-history/)

3) Following the banned music claim, Matt Kibbe alleges that “you could be beaten, jailed or send to a work camp for having long hair.” The manner in which transitions to a 2008 example of this gives the impression that this has gone on continuously since that point. As the above has already shown, this is not true.

The example that Kibbe gives, is also more complex than he informs us. The names of the band (which Kibbe doesn’t cite) is Porno Para Ricardo. Readings this article for context, it becomes apparent that Matt is grossly misrepresenting both what happened to the band as well as the overall context. I recommend reading the whole article, but here’s an except from the close that does a good job summarizing the complexities of this.

“the band’s oppositional stance is complicated by the fact that Gorki’s pronouncements dovetail—at least in some aspects—with the rhetoric of the Miami right. For example, in interviews with the foreign media, Gorki has suggested that the Cuban government has purposefully caused food shortages and described the leadership as motivated by a desire to “humiliate” the people. Such statements are rarely heard on the island, despite the proliferation of other types of complaints and allegations, yet they are daily fare in Miami.

Although the band has no formal political affiliation and states that it has never accepted funds from abroad, the possibility of such a relationship is latent, as suggested by the Cuban American National Foundation’s immediate offer to provide legal assistance to Gorki.”

4) Haymarket. The Palmer Raids. Pinkertons. American Legion. Red Squads and Special Investigations Bureau’s committed to undermining radicals throughout every major city in the United States. The KKK’s mass entry into policing. Florida’s Johns Committee. Detroit’s Black Legion. New York’s Bureau of Special Services. Los Angeles’ Public Disorder Intelligence Division. Philadelphia’s Civil Defense Squad. Memphis’ Defense Intelligence Unit. McCarthyism. The FBI’s COINTELPRO. House Un-American Activities Committee. House Internal Security Committee. Senate Judiciary Committee Subcommittee on Internal Security. The corporate, extra-legal origins of the Law Enforcement Intelligence Unit.The Tenney Committee. The assassination of the Black Panthers. The fracturing of the Students for a Democratic Society. The attempt to blackmail Martin Luther King, Jr. The monitoring of anti-war groups.

These are important instances of American history to know when considering the binary the Kibbe is setting up with Socialism as Evil and Capitalism as Good. They are important as it they are all examples of times when the U.S. government spied on citizens, beat up activists, prevented mail that’s considered politically unsavory to those in power from being sent, assassinating activists, and all around having their lives interfered with by the U.S. state. This list isn’t even a comprehensive one of all of the examples of the massive state intervention in the political lives of Americans. So let’s not buy into this dichotomy of Socialism bad cause you can’t express yourself, cause it ain’t true.

5) If you are going to define any sort of large social operations, be it Capitalism or Socialism, any encapsulation of it to two words is a grave distortion of it. The two words that Kibbe uses is “plan” and “conformity”, which could equally be used to describe capitalism – owners create a “plan” for production based upon their market knowledge and capital and require workers to “conform” to their wishes through wage labor in order to produce. Socialism could be better stated as a system of political economy wherein workers own and direct the means of production through the state. This sort of faulty generalization allows him to replace what he is calling socialism with what is more properly called authoritarianism. What’s the difference? Check this video out for a brief primer: (‪

6) Kibbe claims that with Socialism you can’t get no satisfaction, however there are many counterfactuals to prove this wrong – from the quasi-socialist Nordic countries having the highest rates of happiness to the nostalgia of people in the former Soviet Bloc for the stability offered by the government without it’s repressive aspects.

(‪…/norway-denmark-finland-business…; ‪…/are-socialists-happier-than…/)


Matt Kibbe’s video presents the viewer with a false dilemma, it is either Capitalism and Freedom or Socialism and Repression. It furthermore distorts Cuban history prior to the revolution both as an official protectorate and as an unofficial one. Arthur Schelsinger, Jr reported about the country under Batista that: “The corruption of the Government, the brutality of the police, the government’s indifference to the needs of the people for education, medical care, housing, for social justice and economic justice … is an open invitation to revolution.” As this short article shows this is not the case and the claims he made are off for a number of reasons. I hope you found this article interesting and that you can gain greater media savvy as a result of it.

Review of “How to Leave Hialeah”

I decided to pick up How to Leave Hialeah by Jennine Capó Crucet after reading her being interviewed in New Times. Since I’ve been on a run of reading contemporary authors from Florida and since she attended the prestigious Iowa Writers Workshop it seemed a no-brainer. How to Leave Hialeah is a collection of thirteen short stories all set in the greater Miami Metro area that all focus on different aspects of the Cuban-American perspective.

My favorite of the collection was And in the Morning, Work. In this story a Cuban young woman, Marielena, who still lives in Cuba, has recently graduated college. She is trained to be a librarian but is unable to obtain employment in a Havana library after graduation, so she ends up taking a position as a reader for a group of cigar rollers in Pinar del Rio. When exactly this is taken place is not mentioned, however what is clear is that it during a period of economic stagnation. The plot then develops by illustrating the tension stemming from the age and class divide between this young would be city librarian and the cigar rollers. This is shown via her quest to find appropriately compelling reading material and in the attention she is given by one of the older men there. She not only has a limited selection from which to choose, but she must also find something that is not something that they’ve heard many times before. In this she foregoes Martí and other authors that she must read from a Spanish tabloid. This exasperates her itself, and when an old man starts to walk and talk with her on the way home about books, she seems to get even more upset.

This conflict over taste is, to me, indicative of something that’s really interesting. How so? Well, many of the books that Marielena possesses are from relatives who have had them shipped over from the States. As they are “the classics” they were allowed to be delivered. She prefers these works, however the cigar workers do not. The perceived divide by Marielena between her, the intellectual, and those that are assembling cigars is clear. This conflict over taste and the deeper implications that it could have on historical and class consciousness in changing times, however, is glosses over and instead Crucet focuses on relative deprivation and the young girl’s concern that the viejito is attempting to be romantic with her. Given the culture of machismo it’s not unlikely that a man older than her father would come on to her, however it’s also clear that he’s simply trying to be welcoming and help lower her high expectations of what work would be like after college.
The perception of flirtation by Marielena soon vanishes as she comes to realize that he is merely expressing solidarity with her. In the close of the story the old man visits Marielena. A chicken that she was hiding from the Committee in the Defense of the Revolution inadvertently escapes from her room. Noticing that there are neighbors who see this, the viejo states that she should just let it go and they should both walk away not looking at it so that someone doesn’t question them.

Now I find this story interesting for a few reasons. For one the lack of specific time markers as to when this is occurring. Before or after Marielitos? The collapse of the USSR? The only thing that we really know is that this is after “the first years of the revolution”. This seems to me to indicate that the author is not actually that familiar with Cuban history and, like many gusanos, simply views Cuba as some cite of unchanging, ahistorical “injustice against people’s dignity because of a despot” transpires.

The second thing that I find interesting is her choice of cigar assembly facility, arguably Cuba’s most widely known export product, as the site for this sort of ideological conflict. I say this because I believe it was in David Montgomery’s The Fall of the House of Labor that I first learned about the conditions of cigar workers. There I read a quote from Samuel Gomper’s about how his early life working as a cigar roller helped him come to a trade-unionist perspective. Starting at age ten he worked in such a shop and people took turns reading from books and engaging in debates on news of the day. In this regard, by making the workers only able to recite selections of poetry that’s state-sponsored and thus “must be known and liked” and liking tabloid news and Che’s Motorcycle Diaries it seems to me that Crucet is likely misrepresenting what it is like there for the purpose of showing that these people repress the knowledge of their own oppression. While I think that this is her most powerful piece in the collection – it does suffer from these rather glaring omissions. As propaganda I think it’s successful – however as an accurate reflection of Cuban reality I question it’s felicity.

For the rest of the stories I feel like I had to really push myself to get through reading them all. I just didn’t find them all that compelling and the writing style was, to me, often times over-wrought for little payoff. The second criticism is self-explanatory so let me cover the former. While I’m sure that these anecdotes provided mid-west writing teachers and aspiring authors at the workshop lots of fodder to talk about multiculturalism, inclusivity, liberal values and whatnot, I grew up in South Florida and so what others see as “exotic” are often things that I’ve grown up with and don’t find that engaging unto itself as most of the stories seem to present themselves. I’ve lived most of my life in the orbit of the types that populate Crucet’s stories. Most of my long-term female companions have been Latinas – Cuban, Honduran, Colombian, Ecuadorian y Boriqua – so the issues and idiosyncrasies of protagonists, their friends and families didn’t catch me as unusual. For instance the closing line of the first story in the collection, Resurrection, is as follows: “And you, you keep watching her, hardly believing that people like this exist.” You read that after reading about a wild and somewhat weird party girl. My reaction was not, however, disbelief but to nod my head and think to myself Yes I do believe she exists as I have known party girls significantly wilder and weirder than her. The concerns over tradition and class shown in Noche Buena were, to me, more of a reminder of frustrating family drama than insightful narrative and perspective Cuban values and customs. Perhaps someone unfamiliar with Miami might find these sorts of tales to be engaging – I however did not and in the end I can’t see myself suggesting that anyone read this collection.


You can find out more about Jennine Capó Crucet by visiting her website or her Twitter.

The real brothers who inspired the Sucrarios in Unraveling

Fanjul Brothers
The Fanjul Brothers, Alfonso and Jose

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.

Documentation that the Gomez-Mena’s were the largest sugar owners in Cuba before the revolution

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 many reports 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.

One of their playgrounds for the rich.
One of their playgrounds for the rich.



International Migration in Cuba: Accumulation, Imperial Designs, and Transnational Social Fields

The Castro Collection

2014 Land Report

Land Report on the Fanjuls

Everglades to be Killed this October

In the Kingdom of Big Sugar

Wikileaks: Fanjuls among ‘sugar barons’ who ‘muscled’ lawmakers to kill free trade deal

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.