An Empire of Vice | The Nation


An Empire of Vice

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The argument that the Spanish-American War was a watershed in the United States' fashioning of its national identity isn't new. The value of Pérez's study--the latest in a series of perceptive books on US-Cuba relations by this prolific historian--is to illustrate how an avid US self-interest was transformed into selfless moral enactment. While Cuba in the American Imagination is hampered by confusing chronology, Pérez shows clearly how in the late nineteenth century politicians in the United States and their allies in the press employed language--and a series of figurative metaphors specifically--to nurture in Americans' minds a conception of Cuba as object and stage for fulfilling the United States' imperial destiny. Early on, there was the image of Cuba as ripening fruit that would "naturally" and inevitably one day be Uncle Sam's. Later came references to Cuba as "our Armenia," implying that the United States, by defending Cuba's rebels against Madrid's repression, could prove its humanitarian mettle where Europe's nations had failed to prevent the recent Armenian genocide at their door. And finally, as invasion approached, there were invocations of Cuba as a virtuous lady whose protection against Spain's depredations was a test of American manhood.

About the Author

Joshua Jelly-Schapiro
Joshua Jelly-Schapiro teaches geography and literature at the University of California, Berkeley.

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This last figure was yanked out of the political funny pages and foisted upon Evangelina Cossío Cisneros, the 18-year-old daughter of a Cuban rebel leader purportedly arrested for sedition in August 1897 who was also, according to William Randolph Hearst's New York Journal, "the most beautiful girl in the island." Evangelina's picture became a tabloid staple, her ordeal at the hands of her captors the topic of regular lurid updates. The melodrama ended only when Hearst's paper announced, two months before the explosion of the USS Maine, that it had arranged for Evangelina's escape to the United States. To celebrate her arrival as a "Cuban Joan of Arc," Hearst organized a mass rally to which more than 75,000 New Yorkers arrived chanting "Viva Cuba Libre!"

In the aftermath of the Spanish-American War, the US agenda changed from justifying invasion to legitimating a continued military and economic presence. Accordingly, the representation of Cuba as a comely woman in distress--usually depicted, like Evangelina, as white in complexion (and thus a fair reflection of American virtue)--changed too. The mixed-race isle was now depicted in tabloid cartoons as a pitiable black child holding the hand of a beneficent Uncle Sam on the path to progress. Previously, US opponents of annexing Cuba had often based their arguments in racism. "The white inhabitants form too small a proportion of the whole number," as one diplomat put it in 1825; moreover, explained a Congressman in 1855, "the Spanish-Creole race...are utterly ignorant of the machinery of free institutions." Now the same logic justified a strong imperial hand. The Cubans, the commanding US general in the 1898 war declared, were "no more capable of self-government than the savages of Africa."

If once Cuba had figured as a virtuous lady in need of saving by an imperial enterprise cloaked in a mission civilitrice, it soon came to be seen as a different sort of woman, one whose mission was servicing others. "We gave Cuba her liberty," declared a US Army veteran on holiday in Havana in 1925, "and now we are going to enjoy it." The island's bustling main seaport had never been a stranger to prostitution. But as the tourist trade grew, so did Havana's reputation as "the brothel of the New World." The island "was like a woman in love," touted a typical travel writer's account, and "eager to give pleasure, she will be anything you want her to be." Simultaneously overseas and right next door, Cuba became the place where Americans--especially American men--went to escape the stolid mores of wife and home. With the passage of Prohibition in 1919, legal booze fortified Cuba's libertine lure. When It's Cocktail Time in Cuba was the title of a popular US tourist guide, and Havana bartenders concocted new rum-based elixirs like the Cuba Libre and mojito to coax more cash from Northern visitors. A short cruise from Florida--or, after Pan-American Airways launched its first international passenger route with Miami-Havana flights in 1928, an even shorter plane ride--Cuba was, by the 1930s, receiving more US visitors than even Canada.

By the time the US mob launched their Havana plot in earnest in 1946, tourism was already well established as a key portion of Cuba's economy. Mob designs for "the Monte Carlo of the Caribbean" evoked European playgrounds, with hotels named the Riviera, Deauville and Capri. But by the 1950s, "Havana" had acquired its own cachet for American consumers as both brand and idea. On television Desi Arnaz was the all-purpose Latin Lover, and advertisements hawked Havana perfume, Havana soft drinks, Havana lingerie. "Waving palms, a cool island breeze," went the slogan for El Paso brand Cuban Black Bean Dip. "Visit a forbidden paradise of silky black beans, sweet red pepper and an undercurrent of rich gold rum, resulting in a Cuban sensation that may taste mild, but is definitely hot, hot, hot!"

The cold war ended Havana's viability as marketing hook for consumers to the north. That it also made Cuba legally forbidden to American travelers, though, doubtless contributes to a still-thriving trade in Cuba-related books in the United States--volumes that (no matter their particular topic or politics) often find it impossible not to trade in shopworn clichés about pulsing rhythms and caramel skin and crashing waves on the Malecón. Even in a book like T.J. English's authoritative and otherwise sharply written Havana Nocturne, everything from Batista's facial features to the city's jazz scene is described as "exotic." Never mind that the cultures of Cuba and the United States have always been more deeply intertwined than partisans of either nation have sometimes cared to admit. The jazz bands that thrilled American tourists in 1950s Havana borrowed from the inventions of musicians in New York and Chicago; and no less a touchstone of Americana than rock 'n' roll, as the music historian Ned Sublette has convincingly shown, owed as much in its genesis to Cuban rhythms ringing out of Havana as it did to blues riffs busting out of Memphis or New Orleans. Indeed, for two centuries up until 1960, the cultures of New Orleans and Havana were joined and nurtured by the streams of migrants and goods flowing between them.

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