Can Cuba’s Past Help Us Understand Its Future?

Can Cuba’s Past Help Us Understand Its Future?

Our America

Cuba across the centuries.


Early on in her masterful book Cuba: An American History, Ada Ferrer alludes to a double meaning embedded in her subtitle: “History in the first sense refers to what happened; in the second, to what is said to have happened.” Cuba’s history, Ferrer tells us, is likewise two histories. It is simultaneously a narrative of freedom (as well as of its absence from historical memory) and a chronicle of the ways in which those who have struggled for liberation understood their history and were ultimately able to change it materially.

Ferrer’s project is an ambitious one, encapsulating a long view of Cuban history that begins with Columbus and concludes with the socialist island’s tenuous present. Among the book’s central revelations are Cuba’s role as the nexus of a New World economic system after the Haitian Revolution; its status as a constant object of desire for the United States; and its role as a trailblazer in creating a multicultural identity that, as in Haiti, tied the desire for independence from European colonialism to the overthrow of slavery. It also presents those historical narratives that have been elided by many American historians and right-leaning Cubans and Cuban Americans, who prefer to cast Cuban history in one-sided terms. While the country’s tumultuous revolutionary insurrection in 1959 is remembered most often as a rebellion against a string of corrupt US-backed dictators, Ferrer shows that it was also the culmination of an unresolved desire for decolonization that stretched back before US intervention. She also does not shy away from the particular nature of creolized Cuban history, noting that much of the country’s past is intertwined with the history of slavery and racial hierarchies and the struggles to abolish both. Ostensibly multicultural and multiracial, Cuba has at times been strictly stratified according to race, Ferrer notes; its most important liberation movements have therefore been centered on this struggle for true racial democracy.

Cuba: An American History’s narrative begins with the poorly named Age of Discovery and the early Indigenous rebellions, when Columbus set out on his fateful voyage and found Caribbean islands like Hispaniola and Cuba but never actually arrived in “America.” For the Indigenous peoples living on these islands, this so-called discovery proved deadly: By the early 16th century, the Spanish were barbarically enslaving the local population on Cuba, continuing the genocidal pattern they had established in neighboring Hispaniola. The Indigenous population either fled or resisted, and one of the first stories Ferrer tells is that of Hatuey, a 15th-century Taíno leader who, when offered the chance to go to heaven if he converted to Christianity before being executed, declined when he was told that Spaniards would be there.

From the initial Spanish conquest, Ferrer turns to the evolving catastrophe of colonization, weaving together tales of Spanish conquistadors, the Taínos’ political and sophisticated agricultural organization, and the advent of Caribbean pirates. The Spaniards assigned each of the local Taíno caciques (community leaders) to a Spanish settler, who would use Taínos as slaves to harvest gold on the island. Spanish law insisted on a code of moral conduct called a requerimiento, but it was usually flouted by these settlers, who often read the code in Spanish to people who didn’t understand the language. Not obeying the requerimiento would justify “war” against the Indigenous, and it allowed Cuba’s first Spanish governor, Diego de Velázquez, to rapaciously plunder the island, even though he was admonished for this by the king. Because of disease and the harsh conditions of slavery, the Indigenous population, which numbered 100,000 in 1511, had dwindled to less than 5,000 by 1550.

The cruel and barbarous Spanish colonization also set the stage for Cuba to become a strategic way station for gold harvested in Mexico and Peru on its way to the motherland. Cuba’s position as a mercantile nexus had the effect of making it a cultural center as well. By the late 16th century, Havana had usurped the island’s original capital, Santiago, and developed a “secular, commercially oriented cosmopolitan culture.” The third-largest city in the Americas, behind Mexico City and Lima, Havana was larger than any of the cities in the British colonies of North America. It was also, like much of the so-called New World, a place where slavery became the predominant mode of wealth extraction. Slaves were administered under a 13th-century Spanish legal code called Los Siete Partidas, which allowed them to sue their masters, but this did not mean that slavery in Cuba was any less brutal than elsewhere. Under the code, slaves could also purchase their freedom and that of their children and loved ones, which produced a growing population of free people of color—by 1774, some 40 percent were free.

Even if the North American colonies had a different slave system from that of Cuba, each profited mightily from the work of its enslaved laborers, drawing them into a symbiotic relationship. This was especially true starting in the late 18th century, when Cuba achieved hemispheric dominance in sugar production. Ferrer recounts how, between 1790 and 1820, more than 270,000 Africans were taken to Cuba, doubling Havana’s population and making the island’s population majority Black. The need for more enslaved labor was also a result of France’s retreat from Haiti and its subsequent banning, along with England, of the slave trade.

Trade took off between the United States and Cuba in this period. “By 1820–21,” Ferrer notes, “more than 60 percent of the sugar, 40 percent of the coffee, and 90 percent of the cigars imported into the United States came from Cuba.” New York City became a center for sugar refining, with Cuban raw brown sugar processed there “into refined white sugar, and then sold it at a significant profit in the domestic market and even for export abroad.” Ferrer cites the story of Moses Taylor, a New York sugar broker who eventually became president of the National City Bank of New York, which preyed on several Caribbean islands, advanced credit to Cuban sugar growers, and took a speculator’s cut on the slave trade.

The Monroe Doctrine was outlined in 1823. It made explicit the United States’ interest in ensuring that all territories in the Western Hemisphere remained free of European interference; it also made explicit the United States’ interest in the region as a place where it might interfere as often as it desired. In Ferrer’s telling, the doctrine was particularly motivated by the United States’ need to keep trade with Cuba unfettered as well as to preserve the island as a possible future slave state. In this way, the US “stacked the deck—not just against a potential British takeover of Cuba, but also against the possibility of a Cuban takeover of Cuba.”

The Monroe Doctrine also set in motion an essential dynamic of Cuban politics and national identity formation. The Cuban elite, caught between Spain’s desire to hold on to the last vestiges of its decaying empire and the United States’ desire to expand into the Caribbean, opted to stick with Spain for fear of a slave rebellion, while also forging ties with the US to enhance such “protection.” A culture of Black resistance, with icons like Plácido, a poet who was assassinated in 1844, helped inspire a string of slave rebellions in Cuba, even as US politicians and businessmen increasingly bought prime Cuban land to establish their own plantations.

This fragile balance had begun to shift by the second half of the 19th century. Carlos Manuel Céspedes freed his slaves in 1868 and began a 10-year war of independence against the Spanish, declaring that “all men are our brothers, whatever the color of their skin.” He was joined by Antonio Maceo, a Black general who “had grown up listening to his father read the novels of Alexander Dumas and biographies of Haiti’s Toussaint Louverture and South America’s Simón Bolívar.” The war ended in 1878 with a pact that guaranteed neither independence nor the end of slavery, setting up the final chapter of the struggle.

A work by José Martí marks this turn in Cuban history and national identity formation. The son of a Spaniard, Martí wrote the 1891 essay “Our America,” which through its declaration of transcendent multiracialism functioned as a critique of US hegemony in the hemisphere, down to its monopolization of the word “America.” Written in New York, where Martí was then working, the essay called out the United States for not including the rest of the Americas in its worldview, warning of an impending US intervention in Cuba, a land it refused to know. “Our America” at once presaged the imperial period of the United States in Latin America and reawakened Bolívar’s earlier call for regional unity. “The essay, which never mentioned Cuba, was an ode to Latin American unity,” Ferrer writes. “It was also a warning. The hour is near when [our America] will be approached by an enterprising and forceful nation that will demand intimate relations with her.”

The United States demanded those “intimate relations” in 1898, as Cuba’s War of Independence from Spain came to its conclusion. Sweeping in with Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, the US Army sought to take control of the island, and the United States also monopolized the process of the Treaty of Paris, which brought the Spanish-American War to an end. In Cuba, the victorious Cuban forces were denied entrance into Havana. The United States gave Cuba a nominal form of independence, but it also occupied the country and, through the Platt Amendment, which remained in effect until 1934, reserved the right to intervene even after the US Army left. The US naval base in Guantánamo remains from that period.

The war with Spain liberated Cuba from Spanish imperialism, but it also served to cement US control over Cuba’s politics and economy. The country became a playground for the rich and famous, including Amelia Earhart, Irving Berlin, Charles Lindbergh, Gary Cooper, Gloria Swanson, Langston Hughes, Albert Einstein, New York City Mayor Jimmy Walker, and the presidents of Coca-Cola and Chase National Bank. Ernest Hemingway, who is still revered in Cuba, made his notorious comment about how great the island nation was for “both fishing and fucking,” as hordes of average Americans came to visit, escaping restrictive Prohibition laws as well as the vestiges of Victorian morality that persisted from the end of the 19th century.

Yet the conditions for workers, many of whom were Afro-Cubans toiling in plantation-like conditions, only worsened. Ferrer describes how the predictions of catastrophe associated with the coming of Halley’s Comet coincided with the formation, in 1908, of an extraordinary political party: the Partido Independiente de Color (Independent Party of Color). Demanding racial justice reforms, the party embraced a vision of “a harmonious nationality, as Martí had envisioned and for which [Independence Army Gen. Antonio] Maceo…and a whole illustrious pleiad of Cuban blacks spilled their blood.”

Ferrer deftly paints a portrait of early-to-mid-20th-century Cuba as a nation struggling to liberate itself from US control while at the same time accommodating US consumerism. It was also an era of swift liberalization. A new constitution written in 1940 had a section, championed by the Black Communist Salvador García Agüero, stating that “all discrimination due to sex, race, class or any other motive harmful to human dignity is declared illegal and punishable.” Yet at the same time, American organized crime, led by figures like Meyer Lansky, a major investor in Havana’s fabulous Hotel Nacional, successfully sought influence at the highest level of Cuban politics.

A string of political leaders, from both the right and the left, were incapable of avoiding the corruption that came with US and foreign capital dominating the sugar industry, the railroad, and the utilities. The government changed hands between Fulgencio Batista, a military man who occasionally embraced reform for political purposes, and Ramón Grau, who despite his pro-worker and pro-women’s-rights positions is described by Ferrer as presiding over an “orgy of theft” involving close cooperation with Lansky’s drug-smuggling activities. This conflicted political landscape led Eduardo Chibás to found the Orthodox Party, which broke with Grau’s sputtering Auténtico Party to seek a restoration of its revolutionary goals by eliminating corruption. A young lawyer from Oriente Province, Fidel Castro, made his first public appearances at meetings of the Orthodox Party, and after Chibás’s spectacular suicide—broadcast live on his popular radio show—the die was cast for Castro’s swift rise to power.

Ferrer tells the story of the Cuban Revolution as one that finally brought sovereignty to Cuba by removing US power, while completely restructuring the country’s economy and society. At the time the revolution began, Batista—who had regained the presidency in what Ferrer calls a “sham election”—was overseeing the further Las Vegas–ification of Havana. Meanwhile Castro and his fellow Moncada Garrison insurrectionists (including, of course, his brother Raúl) were organizing a guerrilla war—an audacious plan they eventually carried out, landing in Cuba on a boat sailed from Mexico. Ferrer notes that nothing about the revolution appeared inevitable at the beginning, as she describes the near defeat of Castro and his comrades early on, the reports in The New York Times incorrectly announcing his death, and the eventual deterioration of Batista’s position, which allowed the revolutionaries’ triumphal entry into Havana in January 1959.

Ferrer also describes the litany of tactical errors made by President John F. Kennedy’s administration in the wake of the revolution, in particular the CIA’s poor intelligence and planning failures in the run-up to the failed Bay of Pigs invasion. The Cuban missile crisis, which is remembered now as the last time there was a serious confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union and which could have involved an exchange of nuclear weapons, is recounted here in detail, reminding us that—much as had happened with the Cubans when the US defeated Spain—Castro and his revolutionary government were excluded from the agreement between Kennedy and Soviet President Nikita Khrushchev that ended the crisis.

Ferrer also reassesses the legacy of the Cuban Revolution. The revolutionary government implemented a number of drastic changes almost immediately. “In its first nine months,” she writes, “the new government enacted some fifteen hundred laws, decrees, and edicts. It raised wages, cut telephone and electricity rates, reduced urban rents, seized property of past government officials, and, as its defining act, passed a long-awaited agrarian reform.” The programs to end illiteracy on a massive scale served over 1.25 million Cubans, at once empowering people while immersing them in the ideological tenets of the new society. The institutionalization of universal free health care and higher education gave Cuba the lowest infant mortality rate in Latin America and trained legions of health care professionals.

Ferrer also discusses the mass executions of Batista government collaborators and notes some of the revolution’s early failures, in particular its projected “10 million ton harvest” of sugar in 1970. The yield turned out to be only 8.5 million tons, and it came at a time when the price of sugar was less than half what it had been years before. By the 1970s and ’80s, not only had Castro’s policies stalled industrialization, but he had inadvertently helped return Cuba’s economy to its state under colonial exploitation, at one point suggesting that Cubans should be willing to do “as free men what they had to do as slaves” to reach the government’s annual sugar harvest goal. While the United States’ refusal to buy sugar from Cuba—to say nothing of its long-standing embargo against the island, which had begun in 1962 under the Kennedy administration—had severely damaged Cuba’s ability to create a self-sustaining economy, the sugar harvest failure deepened the country’s dependence on the Soviet Union, which would ultimately prove disastrous once the USSR collapsed.

Even as Cuba struggled economically and internal dissent was meticulously stifled, the Cuban Revolution’s egalitarian spirit went abroad, as Cuba involved itself in the decolonization struggles in Africa, some of which spanned decades. Over 430,000 Cubans participated in the fighting in Angola between 1975 and 1991, for example, and while most of that number were soldiers, there were also legions of doctors (indeed, many Cuban doctors are still active today in various countries in Africa). After thriving to an extent in Moscow’s orbit, Cuba was relegated with the end of the Cold War to a protracted period of difficulty. The collapse of the Soviet Union led to what became known as the Special Period, as the end of Soviet aid resulted in an era of economic crisis and scarcity. “In the early 1990s, the average Cuban adult lost an estimated twenty pounds. In three months in Havana in 1992, even with access to hard currency, I lost about ten,” Ferrer recalls. And while Cuba eventually rebounded in the last decade or so because of its government-led shift to tourism (mostly from Europe and Canada) and cheaper oil from Venezuela, Castro’s decision to relinquish the presidency in 2008 because of his declining health (he died in 2016), and the stepping down from power by his brother Raúl in 2018, has created a period of uncertainty.

Last summer’s unprecedented demonstrations involved many Cubans from the generation raised during the Special Period, for whom the revolution and its aging leaders are figures from a distant past. The members of this generation, much like the millennials in the United States, are concerned about their dwindling prospects for stable employment and a viable economic future. Spurred by scarcity as well as a political system that struggles not only with economic development but with monetary policy—last year’s currency reform has led to a crippling inflation, predating the current world crisis—this generation has also found ways to work outside the government-controlled media in order to popularize and publicize their demands. Will this be enough, however, to successfully retool a system that is still inflexible and riddled with inefficiency? In 2019, Miguel Díaz-Canel, a long-time party loyalist with a background in engineering, rose to the presidency as Raúl Castro’s successor, intent on maintaining the revolution’s continuity under increasing pressure from US sanctions and worldwide economic crises.

Ferrer ends her book with Joe Biden entering office, musing that what his administration will do for Cuba “remains an open question.” In May, after a year and a half of inaction, the Biden administration moved to roll back the increase in sanctions and denial of cash remittances imposed by Donald Trump, also loosening travel restrictions for Americans and restarting visa-approval operations at the US Embassy in Havana. Meanwhile, Díaz-Canel lacks charisma and, at age 62, a direct connection to the original revolutionaries, limiting his appeal. But Cuba’s 2018 constitutional reform appears to suggest a wave of democratization and liberalization in the country’s future: Limiting Díaz-Canel’s term in office, it also recognizes private property and foreign investment and asserts women’s and LGBTQ rights. Despite such reforms, however, supply issues have made basic consumer items difficult to find, and problems with infrastructure—most recently a series of black- outs—have tested the average Cuban’s limits, which was a factor in provoking last year’s demonstrations. (The recent disastrous fire at a major fuel storage facility in Matanzas, will surely exacerbate the current crisis with rolling blackouts and electricity rationing.) A new law, Decree 349, has been heavily criticized for giving authorities the power to shut down art exhibitions, since it could be used to repress dissent—many of the central figures of the San Ysidro movement, which led last summer’s protests, are Black artists.

Ideology aside, Cuba’s problems remain rooted in its tenuous ability to sustain its economy. Despite Biden’s rollback of some of the destructive Trump sanctions, the US embargo remains in place, and the Cuban government continues to struggle to provide essential goods for its people. Those revolutionaries still in power—and there are very few—are the ones who, for the last several decades, have asked Cubans to find solace in incremental change, and it is now clear that more flexibility in the country’s socialist model is needed. A new generation, Internet-savvy and armed with WhatsApp chats and a greater understanding of the outside world than ever before, recognizes this need too—but, perhaps because of a government intent on repressing dissent, it struggles to find a coherent voice, as well as the power to renegotiate the revolutionary status quo.

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