Without Cuba, there might not have been a United States.
In 1781, readying themselves for what would turn out to be the climactic battle in the (North) American War of Independence, Ada Ferrer in Cuba: an American History informs us that George Washington’s troops were miserable and broke. Short on food, mutinies had already broken out a number of times that year.
A rescue mission was organised to raise the cash that would keep the soldiers fed and in the field - the French naval officer Comte de Grasse was sent to do a whip-round of the Caribbean islands. Spurned in Saint-Domingue (now Haiti), de Grasse turned up in Havana, Cuba unfortunately just after a large shipment of the much needed silver had been sent off to Spain.
Paying for North American independence
But in a show of pan-American solidarity the citizens of Havana personally stepped up to plate, showering de Grasse with dosh and even, some say, donating their jewellery to the cause. Loaded up with 500,000 pesos in silver de Grasse returned to Virginia to the delight of Washington who wrote:
No circumstances cou’d possibly have happened more opportunely in point of time. The Commanding Officers of Corps are to cause abstracts to be immediately made for a month’s pay.
George Washington, on receiving half a million pesos of silver from the citizens of Havana
Loaded up with pesos, the buoyant American revolutionaries overran the fortified British positions at Yorktown, and a new nation was born.
The upper hand is on the other foot
A hundred years later the United States had the opportunity to repay the favour as the Cubans fought off their Spanish colonial masters right at the end of the 19th Century.
A bit like the cavalry arriving right at the end of a film, in 1898 with the war against the Spanish almost won, the US army swept into Cuba, and chased the Spanish army off the island.
The US cavalry then decided that although they turned up to the party uninvited, they were only going to leave if the Cubans promised they could come back again whenever they felt like it, even if the Cuban’s weren’t in the party mood.
This was done through forcing the Cubans to accept an appendix to their new constitution called the Platt amendment which, among other things1, gave the US Guantanamo Bay, and specified that the United States could intervene in Cuba for “the preservation of Cuban independence, the maintenance of a government adequate for the protection of life, property, and individual liberty”. In other words: whenever they wanted to.
If the Cubans wouldn’t sign, the United States army was not going to leave. Reluctantly they signed.
Politically and economically Cubans were second class citizens in their own country.
By 1907, foreigners [mostly from the US] owned an estimated 60 percent of all rural property in Cuba. Resident Spaniards owned another 15 percent, which left only a quarter of rural property under Cuban ownership. The number is... staggering
Ada Ferrer, Cuba: An American History
What does the book cover?
In some ways Ferrer’s Cuba is a standard narrative history. It starts when the Spanish arrived on the island with the grasping and callous Christopher Columbus in charge and ends at more or less the present day with the current Cuban government.
It tells the story of the almost complete destruction of the Tainos, the 15th century inhabitants, through Spanish predation, Eurasian diseases, and suicidal despair. Nowadays it is estimated that about a quarter of Cubans carry Taino mitochondrial DNA - but given mitochondrial DNA is passed down on the mother’s side only this may just indicate further violence and domination. Linguistic survivals include hurricane, hammock and tiburón 🦈.
A state of slavery
Ferrer outlines the growth of slavery on the island. The Haitian Revolution - one of the very few successful slave results in history - was seen as a great opportunity by the Spanish to build up their own competing slave economy in Cuba, a workforce for the labour intensive and highly lucrative sugar industry. In the 19th century the sugar industry came to dominate the Cuban economy and landscape.
We then get the struggle for independence, touched upon above, ending with the USA as de facto overlords, politically and economically.
Finally we hear about the Cuban state’s struggle to define itself in the early twentieth century, with lofty aspirations in theory often conflicting with shocking corruption and the meddling of the United States in practice. The story is rounded off with the coup of Batista, defeated after 7 years by popular opposition and revolution, and the rise and long rule of Fidel Castro.
More than the memory of states
But the narrative of nation is softened and rounded by personal stories and alternative perspectives.
For example the story of the Copper Virgin and the community of African Cubans who lived there and their struggles to achieve an unambiguously free legal status from the Spanish crown that lasted more than a hundred years.
Or the charcoal burners who lived in the Bay of Pigs, before it was attacked by US trained Cuban exiles. Or Jose Antonio Aponte, an alleged revolutionary conspirator, who in 1812 created a book in which he pasted pictures of Black armies defeating white armies, images of Black diplomats, generals, priests and kings, to show other African Cubans “that another world was possible”.
The result is not only a more complete picture of what Cuba might mean to different people, but also a more interesting and readable book.
It [history] can never be understood only as the memory of states
Ada Ferrer, Cuba: An American History
Cuba = Castro?
One thing I found really interesting - and surprising - in Cuba: An American History was how Fidel Castro was only one among many opponents to Batista’s government, and certainly not the most prominent. His big break came when he was interviewed by a reporter from the USA, who presented him to the world as a heroic revolutionary whose time had come. At the time of the interview Castro’s force was less than 40 men2 hiding out in the mountains of eastern Cuba - only just big enough for a game of football, never mind a war.
But the myth of the revolutionary hero created the real thing, attracting people and money to his cause. The illusion of power fuelled the reality, as Castro was well aware it would - to the extent that it is now hard to imagine a Cuban revolution without him.
Although it is a long book it is always engaging: Ferrer’s story is a perfect mix of “big events” and “ordinary people”. At times it is also grippingly exciting, for example when recounting the near global annihilation that was the Cuban missile crisis.
While any single history book cannot be the complete story of a people, this is one of the best written and well-rounded national narratives that I have read.
It also does a great job of translating between North American and Cuban perspectives - was the United States Cuba’s liberator or occupier for example? In its own way it helps to make the gulf between Havana and Washington that little bit smaller.
The amendment also prevented the new government of Cuba from establishing treaties with any other nation (other than I presume the United States) “That the government of Cuba shall never enter into any treaty or other compact with any foreign power or powers which will impair or tend to impair the independence of Cuba, nor in any manner authorise or permit any foreign power or powers to obtain by colonisation or for military or naval purposes or otherwise, lodgement in or control over any portion of said island.” ↩︎
Ferrer notes that he could have had even as few as ten men under his command at this time. ↩︎
Book details(back to top)
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Cuba : An American History
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Simon and Schuster
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