Where does Cuba’s destiny lie?

An unusual view of Cuban history reflects on a shared past with America and speculates on the future of this most difficult of relationships.

A map of Florida and Cuba dating from 1591.
A map of Florida and Cuba dating from 1591. Credit: Artokoloro / Alamy Stock Photo

Cuba: An American History by Ada Ferrer, Simon & Schuster, 576 pp, $32

As a name, America has long been both misunderstood and misused. It first appeared at the dawn of the age of exploration when European cosmographers, working with letters and maps, named the land mass that today is South America after the Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci, who set foot there in 1501 and later determined that what lay before him was not an island, but a continent.

‘I see no reason why anyone could properly disapprove of a name derived from that of Amerigo, the discoverer,’ one of the scholars of that seminal work wrote, apparently overlooking or unaware of the voyages of that other Italian, Christopher Columbus. Not long after, famed cartographer Gerardus Mercator took it on himself to apply the new name to both continents, even though Vespucci may never have set eyes on what is now known as North America.

In today’s world of GPS and Google maps, to what — or, importantly, to whom — does the term America apply? To Western headline writers, squeezed for space, to politicians of a certain stripe, to song writers, mass-market advertisers, and discontented people around the world, America is the United States of America; calling them Americans the most concise way of referring to the 330 million people who live there.

But many others, including the renowned historian Ada Ferrer, disapprove of the way that name is used. America, they hold, is a concept that should be applied to the entire hemisphere — continents, isthmuses and islands of the Caribbean included — along with all 1 billion individuals who call it home.

This inclusive view of the New World (even that term has become debatable) is at the heart of Ferrer’s stunning new book Cuba: An American History. Cubans are Americans, just as are Peruvians, Mexicans, Canadians and all the others, including those of us in the United States. The truth that emerges from her wise and compelling American narrative is that just as we all — but especially Cuba and the US — have shared our past, so too are our futures entwined.

Ferrer, a professor at New York University, calls her book ‘a shadow history’ of the United States — selective, incomplete and ‘reimagined from Cuban ground and Cuban water.’ At the same time, her history of Cuba is ‘a mirror to the history of the United States, a piercing examination of the “habitual hostility” that has existed for several long centuries and that continues today.’

In the process of retelling that joint history with a beguiling gouache of facts and personalities, Ferrer not only puts the United States in its place, laying out many examples of aggression, contempt, and covetousness towards its tiny neighbour (just 750 miles from end-to-end) but she also savages Spain, Cuba’s master for 500 years, and Great Britain, which invaded in 1762 and occupied Havana for ten months. In that eye-blink in history, as Ferrer sees it, Britain helped shape Cuba’s unsettled history by introducing industrial-scale slavery, seeding the sugar crop that held sway for centuries and essentially rigging the island’s demography in ways that delayed its fight for independence.

By 1823, the young United States had grown wary of Great Britain’s designs on the island it once controlled, just as London worried that the administration of President James Monroe might attempt to seize Cuba from a weakened Spain. Britain broke the deadlock by proposing the two nations mutually pledge to leave Cuba be and together resist attempts by other powers to take it.

But by this time Britain’s campaign against slavery made the prospect of a British seizure unpalatable to the influential sugar plantation owners in Cuba, whose fortunes were made on the backs of enslaved people. Concluding that an English takeover would never happen, Washington decided it made no sense to forgo the possibility of taking Cuba itself, as a group of Cuban annexationists had already requested. The Monroe Administration rejected the British proposal and unilaterally declared that the American continents were, from that point on, off-limits to any future European attempts at colonisation.

Ferrer writes that ‘The Monroe Doctrine thus allowed the United States to wait things out,’ as Cuba grew more separate from Spain and increasingly close to its ambitious North American neighbour. The arrangement also significantly safeguarded the bond between the US economy and Cuban slavery.

It may be unsettling for yanquis, gringos, norteamericanos — whatever we are called — who are unfamiliar with Cuba’s history to sit still as Ferrer lays out instance after instance of US interference, duplicity and outright boorishness toward Cuba. Often, Ferrer shows, the simple act of seeing things from the other side has led not toward empathy, but resentment. By the time Fidel Castro’s victory started to look like a communist takeover of Cuba, American politicians blasted what they saw as ingratitude on the part of Cubans who the United States had rescued ‘from medieval bondage,’ as one US senator swore in 1960, by intervening in Cuba’s third war of independence from Spain in 1898.

Ferrer puts it into delicate perspective, offering a telling description of the uneasy relationship between the two countries: ‘What Americans saw as an act of selfless benevolence, Cubans saw as an act of colonial imposition.’ By the time Castro came along, it was just that colonial relationship he meant to challenge.

Cuba’s closeness to the United States has been both its greatest advantage and biggest threat, powering its economy and plundering its riches. It started as a symbiotic relationship. Cuban silver pumped financial support to George Washington and his troops at critical points during the American Revolution. Then the newly-independent colonies enjoyed special access to Cuban markets, including the busy slave houses, bolstering the island’s economy.

Almost from its inception as a nation, the United States looked longingly at Cuba and dreamed of bringing it into the fold of what Thomas Jefferson imagined as ‘an empire for liberty.’ Time proved otherwise. As the issue of slavery became more contentious, the relationship between Cuba and the US focused more intently on the question of whether slavery could be expanded, and later prolonged, by bringing Cuba into the US orbit. Ferrer relates the story of John Quitman, a former governor of the state of Mississippi, and his attempt to lead a filibustering expedition to annex Cuba as a slave state before Spain ended slavery there. In 1854, a few years before the start of the US Civil War, Quitman issued a warning that many militant Southern planters were ready to heed. ‘Our destiny is intertwined with that of Cuba,’ he wrote. ‘If slave institutions perish there, they will perish here.’

When war broke out, Spain sided with the slave-holding confederacy, and Cuba became a central clearing house for trade with the secessionist states. At one point during the war, scores of Confederate ships could be found loading and unloading at Cuban ports. The Cuban flag that flies over Havana today was first exhibited atop the Manhattan headquarters of the New York Sun newspaper, the single white star signaling what was intended to be the quick incorporation of Cuba to the 30 stars already in the flag of the United States.

The slave trade from Africa to Cuba ended in 1868, but it wasn’t until 1880 that Spain abolished the institution of slavery. Racism continued to haunt Cuba just as it did in the post-war United States. In 1908, free non-whites in Cuba formed a political party, the Independent Party of Color, and tried to field candidates in elections, feeding the long-standing fears of whites that Cuba would become another Haiti. When the national legislature banned the party, organisers scheduled a large protest for the eastern province of Oriente, where Cuba’s revolutions historically have begun.

Newspapers predicted the start of a racist revolution, claiming protest leaders were actually Haitian, not Cuban. President José Miguel Gómez sent in troops and the United States dispatched warships in an attempt to prevent the violence from escalating. Nonetheless, Cuban troops gunned down hundreds.

‘It is difficult to avoid the conclusion,’ Ferrer writes, ‘that less than two weeks after it had started, the government’s military campaign in Oriente had devolved into something close to a race war.’

Ferrer analyses the impact of the Spanish-American-Cuban war in detail, vividly portraying efforts of the US occupation following the war to establish a pro-American state. She exposes the dark side of what might otherwise have seemed an attempt to aid the new nation by increasing the number of public schools from 300 to more than 3,300 during the US occupation of Cuba. More than 1,200 Cuban teachers were sent to Harvard to be trained in the latest pedagogical techniques, as well as to witness the benefits of a functioning republican self-government that might take many years to achieve. But the teachers rejected the notion of Cuba as waiting for self-rule. In 1902, the new Cuban republic was born, burdened from the start with the notorious Platt Amendment that preserved the US right to intervene in Cuban affairs.

As she tells this history through Cuban eyes, Ferrer — who was born in Havana but brought to the US by her parents when she was ten months old — ascribes many of Cuba’s shortcomings, failures and difficulties to US interference. She even suggests that the United States so dominated Cuba’s economy in the 1940s that skimming government accounts and working with the mob were the only ways for some Cuban officials to satisfy their greed.

What emerges from this dual history is the inevitability of the conflict that pitted the US and Cuba against each other after Fidel Castro and his young rebels took over the entire country and turned it into a Soviet redoubt on the doorstep of the United States. Ferrer expertly teases out the still infuriatingly unclear questions about when or how deeply Castro adopted the communist ideology he had once so adamantly claimed to have rejected. ‘The revolution most of those people fought for was socially, progressively and politically democratic. But it was also emphatically not communist,’ Ferrer writes. As Castro sought to further his anti-American agenda, as the aims and goals of the revolutionary government became more radical, and as US aggression became more open, he turned towards a communism that suited his goals and adopted, as one of his best known maxims, ‘Socialism or death.’

Occasionally, Ferrer slips into academic argot, tossing out stiff-necked phrases like ‘we will soon examine…’,  ‘we must return…’, and ‘Here, however, it is worth pointing out…’ But she fills her book with spirited tales, including the one about the swearing-in of US Vice President William Rufus King, an American cotton plantation owner, who took the oath of office in 1853 at a sugar plantation in Matanzas, Cuba. Or the fact that only the shoes of the statue of Tomás Estrada Palma, first president of the American-designed 1902 republic, remain on a pedestal in Havana, the rest having been torn down and hauled off by Castro’s men.

Ferrer also sprinkles in some amusing asides, tapping Cubans’ storehouse of black humour. In one of these jokes, popular in Cuba, Fidel Castro and the leaders of two other countries are challenged to show their skills in the bullfight ring. First one president, then the other, is vanquished by the bull. Castro then strides up to the face of the raging bull, whispers in his ear, and the bull keels over and dies. Amazed, the two humbled presidents ask Castro for his secret. He stares at them and smiles. ‘All I said,’ he tells them. ‘was socialism or death.’

Where Cuba is heading now is left unsaid. Fidel Castro died in 2016. His younger brother Raúl is 91 and, though semi-retired, still in control. Some of the bearded young men who fought with them in the Sierra Maestra in the 1950s still wear military uniforms and hold positions of power and influence, despite their advanced years. In 2021, when protests broke out simultaneously across the island, people poured into the streets to demand food and shout not ‘socialism or death,’ but ‘homeland and life.’ Hundreds of protestors have been thrown in jail as the regime continues to brook no dissent.

On November 3, the United Nations General Assembly, for the 30th year, voted to condemn the US embargo of Cuba. Enacted by President John F. Kennedy, the embargo remains hostage to political ambitions in the important electoral state of Florida, home to so many Cuban exiles who retain their hatred of the Castro revolution and harbour the eternal dreams of drawing Cuba once again into the embrace of its mighty American neighbour.


Anthony DePalma