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October 2023

Cuba: An American History 

By Ada Ferrer

Scribner

The book Cuba by Ada Ferrer is a history of the island of Cuba and its relations with the USA from the age of discovery to the present day. The book begins with the discovery of eastern Cuba by Christopher Columbus. The book describes how Europeans established themselves on the island. This process was similar to other parts of the New World. Disease seriously affected native populations, there were military expeditions to establish European dominance and the native populations were converted to Christianity. The biggest urban centers that were established were Santiago and Havana. Havana soon became the administrative center of the island, now a colony of the Spanish Empire. The Spanish established plantations of tobacco and sugar and imported many African slaves to use as cheap labour. During the Seven Years' War, a British fleet captured Havana and Cuba became a British colony for less than a year, with the island being exchanged for Florida. In 1817 Spain agreed with Britain to end the slave trade and this development provoked an unprecedented transportation of slaves before the ban could come into force as well as leading the illegal slave trade to flourish. After numerous slave rebellions and British pressure, slavery in Cuba was abolished in 1886. The one remaining demand of many Cubans of all races was independence from Spain, as Cuba was one of the last Spanish Territories that remained. There had already been a war from 1868 to 1878 attempting to establish an independent Cuba. Another independence war broke out in 1895 under the influence of poet and Cuban nationalist José Martí. The war ground on until the USA intervened. The pretext for the intervention against Spain was the explosion of the USS Maine in the harbour of Havana. This yet unexplained event led to the Spanish-American war, with the USA occupying Cuba and gaining the Philippines and Puerto Rico. The USA occupied Cuba for four years before withdrawing in 1902 (although there is still an American presence in Guantanamo). This intervention can also be seen in the context of the idea of annexing Cuba into the United States. For many decades, America had viewed Cuba as being in its sphere of influence. Cuba is directly referred to in the Monroe Doctrine. Before the Civil War, southern states had advocated for Cuba joining the Union as a slave state. After the occupation, US interests in Cuba only grew; much American capital was invested in Cuba, and the Americans ended up owning a significant percentage of the most profitable sugar plantations. There was another US occupation in 1906-1909 which confirmed the de facto colonial relationship between Cuba and the United States. Cuba’s democracy was fragile with a succession of corrupt or power-hungry leaders and in 1952 Fulgencio Batista orchestrated a military coup and installed himself in power. His government was duly recognised by the United States and under his leadership there was significant economic growth, however, political repression was widespread. It was under these conditions that the Cuban Revolution began to take shape. In 1953, young revolutionary Fidel Castro attacked the Moncada Barracks in Santiago and was captured and imprisoned. Released from prison, the Castro brothers joined forces with other rebels in Mexico before returning to Cuba in 1956 and participating in the insurgency that toppled the Batista government in 1959. Castro and his allies (including his brother Raul and Che Guevara) rose to prominence in the rebel movement as they came to command a growing percentage of rebel forces. In 1959 Batista was exiled and Castro took power. The new Cuban leader adopts reforms that prove popular, such as nationalising big American businesses and plantations. In 1961 an increasingly frustrated America now led by John F. Kennedy orchestrated an invasion of Cuba by anti-Castro exiles. The attempt failed, as the administration tried to balance the need to hide US involvement and ensure success. In particular, the lack of consistent air support from the United States led to the military defeat of the exiles. The incident was an important indicator of the extent to which US-Cuban relations had soured. In 1962 there was the Cuban Missile Crisis with Castro accepting Soviet military aid and allowing the installation of nuclear weapons on Cuban sites. The US reacted by “quarantining” (blockading) the island and by stepping up pressure on Soviet and Cuban leadership to remove the missiles. In the end, Soviet and American leadership came to a deal to remove their nuclear weapons in Cuba and Turkey respectively. Castro was not consulted and was furious at the deal having been made without his input. Despite this frustration, Castro’s regime would receive Soviet military and economic support for many years to come. Another element worth mentioning is the Cuban intervention in Angola, which saw Cuban troops and the Cuban-backed MPLA faction defeat apartheid South Africa and the factions it was backing in Angola. This was a highly symbolic victory over South Africa and a significant achievement for Cuba’s Soviet armed military. In domestic policy, Castro’s state came to control most of the economy. The regime tried to change family norms by providing for the greater emancipation of women and asserting the equality of the two sexes. At the same time, Castro refused to directly address the issue of racism, however, race-blind policies did benefit the island's black community. Another staple of the Castro years was migration from Cuba to Spain and increasingly, the United States. The book describes the vibrant Cuban community in Florida specifically in Miami. These Cubans were overwhelmingly anti-Castro and many were keen to topple the dictator and return to Cuba. Interestingly, these exiles were an important source of foreign currency for Cuba, as they would spend dollars when visiting or send back dollars to relatives back in Cuba. Overall, this is an interesting book that is worth reading for numerous reasons. The book is not simply a chronological account of modern Cuban History. There are themes that run through it, such as the complex relationship of the island with the United States which constantly interfered with the island’s affairs. There are interesting points to consider, such as the question of when Fidel Castro became a believer in Marxism. Early on he had emphasized socialist and nationalist tendencies and only later did he insist that the revolution had been Marxist from the beginning. The story of Cuba is worth reading; it provides an insight into topics like Latin American history, Spanish colonialism, the Cold War, race relations, slavery and socialism.

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My Copy.

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