From This Year’s Cundill History Prize Shortlisted Title Cuba: An American History by Ada Ferrer.
I was born in Havana between the Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961 and the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. My father was in New York, having left the island a few months earlier. My mother went into labor alone and hailed herself a cab to Workers’ Maternity. The hospital’s name fit the moment; Cuba was, after all, in the throes of a radical revolution, avowedly socialist and stridently anti-imperialist. Yet the hospital had been built two decades earlier under the rule of Fulgencio Batista, the very dictator Castro unseated in 1959. Monumental in size and style, the hospital won architecture awards when it was built. Its most emblematic feature towers over the main entrance, a soaring ceramic statue of a mother and child created by Teodoro Ramos Blanco, a Black sculptor who was among Cuba’s most renowned artists. That morning in June 1962, my mother paused and looked up at the statue as if in prayer before entering the hospital to give birth. Ten months later, she left Cuba, statuesque in her heels and with me an infant in her arms.
We left the house at six in the evening. My nine-year-old brother was outside playing with friends, and she had not told him that we were leaving without him. His father, her first husband, would not grant permission for him to go. At the airport, a woman in uniform put her fingers to my earlobes to feel the tiny gold-post earrings, as if about to take them, and then changed her mind. On arriving in Mexico, my mother had to rely on the kindness of a stranger to make it into the city. When we got to Jim Crow Miami a few months later, my mother encountered an old acquaintance helping officials assign newcomers to hotels. In the United States, my mother might have been regarded as Black, though in Cuba she was not. Her old friend assigned us to a white hotel. Arriving at the airport in New York a few days later, I opened my arms to my waiting father, as if I already knew him. These and other stories were my inherited memory of our departure from Cuba and our arrival in the United States.
After some initial moving around—Harlem, Brooklyn, Miami—we settled in West New York, New Jersey, a working-class community that was predominantly Cuban. On Saturdays, I wrote letters to my brother and grandmother in Cuba. On Sundays, I listened to our priest pray for the release of political prisoners on the island. Every September 8, I walked in the procession for Cuba’s patron saint, La Caridad del Cobre, or the Virgin of Charity, marching past buildings painted with anti-Castro graffiti. After work, my mother sometimes cried about people still back home—her son, in particular. An absent presence, a present absence, Cuba was impossible to escape.
Eventually I stopped trying and decided instead that I needed to understand it. To the stories I had heard for so long, I began adding my own questions. My parents had not lost property or income to the revolution, so why had they left? Why had their brothers and sisters mostly stayed? Does a revolution change people? Does migration? Who had my brother become, and who would I be if we had stayed? Alongside the phantasmagorical Cuba that surrounded me, I began conjuring my own.
The exigencies of the Cold War meant that for decades Americans generally understood Cuba primarily as a small—if dangerously proximate—satellite of the Soviet Union.
Then in 1990, I returned to Cuba for the first time. I visited the people we had left behind—those still living. I listened to their stories and studied their old pictures. I traveled to the countryside where my parents were born, each in a different part of the island. I even went to Workers’ Maternity and took photographs of Teodoro Ramos Blanco’s sculpture of a mother and child. I made Cuba mine. In fact, I made it my life’s work. Immersing myself in its libraries and archives, I began a decades-long process of reconstructing the island’s past, and my own, from a seemingly bottomless source of frayed old documents. Sometimes the ink on their pages literally became powder in my hands; occasionally I paused at the sight of the shaky Xs—actually crosses—that took the place of signatures for people unable to write. And in the process of trying to summon up Cuba’s past, I came to regard it anew. I learned to see it from within and without, refusing the binary interpretations imposed from on high in Washington and Havana and Miami. I began translating Cuba for Americans and the United States for Cubans. Then I used all that to see myself, my family, and my own home—the United States—with different eyes.
Cuba: An American History is one result of that effort, a product of more than thirty years of work and of a lifetime of shifting perspectives between the country where I was born and the country where I made my life. It is at once a history I inherited and a history I have fashioned out of many possible ones. It is, in other words, what I have made of my sometimes heavy inheritance.
The history of Cuba lends itself to monumental and epic tellings. It is a story of violent conquest and occupation; of conspiracies against slavery and colonialism; of revolutions attempted, victorious, and undone. Epic, however, is often the preferred narrative of nation-states. So in telling this history, I have tried to heed the late Howard Zinn’s admonition to not let history become the memory of states. I have also remembered Leo Tolstoy’s advice in his second epilogue to War and Peace to not focus our histories merely on monarchs and writers, but rather to tell “the history of the life of the peoples,” as he called it. So in this history of Cuba, kings and presidents, revolutionaries and dictators share space with many others. Some are human versions of historic men and women to whom monuments have been built. Other people—whether those taking up arms in a revolution or sewing to the light of glowworms in a slave hut or building a raft to take to sea—appear here without names, for those have not always survived in the historical record. They, too, serve as guides through this history, for they, too, move the stories of war and peace and life in these pages.
There is, however, another major force in the history of Cuba—not as important as its own people, but critical nonetheless. The United States. More than a history of Cuba, then, this book is also a history of Cuba in relation to the United States, a history of the sometimes intimate, sometimes explosive, always uneven relationship between the two countries. That is one reason I have titled the book Cuba
: An American History.
The connections between Cuba and the United States stretch back over centuries and run in both directions. Few Americans have likely considered the significance of Cuba for the United States. During the American Revolution, Cubans raised funds in support of Washington’s army, and soldiers from Cuba fought against the British in North America and the Caribbean. As the thirteen colonies lost access to other British possessions, the Spanish colony of Cuba be- came a vital trading partner. In fact, Havana’s storehouse of coveted silver currency helped finance the new nation’s first central bank. Later, after Florida and Texas became states of the Union in 1845, propertied southerners—and even some northerners—looked to Cuba as a potential new slave state or two, as a way to buttress the power of slavery and its economy.
In 1898, the United States intervened militarily in Cuba and declared war on Spain. With that intervention, the United States turned what had been a thirty-year movement for Cuban independence into the conflict that history usually remembers as the Spanish-American War. The end of some four hundred years of Spanish rule was ritually observed at noon on January 1, 1899, with the synchronized lowering of every Spanish flag on the island. But the flag raised in its place was not a Cuban flag but an American one. With that began a full-fledged military occupation that ended four years later, only after Cuban leaders, under enormous pressure, agreed to grant the US government the right of intervention in Cuba. If the events of 1898 were fateful for Cuba, they also helped produce two consequential developments in the United States: first, the reconciliation of the white South and North after decades of disunion and, second, the emergence of the United States as an imperial power on the world stage.
For more than a century, the role of the United States in Cuban independence has been the subject of disagreement—a shared history viewed in radically divergent terms. Historically, American statesmen have tended to view US intervention in 1898 as an illustration of American benevolence. The United States had rallied to the cause of a neighbor’s independence and declared war to achieve it. In this version of history, Cuban independence was a gift of the Americans, and for that Cubans owed them a debt of gratitude. In Cuba, however, 1898 represents something entirely different: more theft than gift. There, 1898 was the moment when the United States swept in at the end of a war the Cubans had already almost won, claimed victory, and proceeded to rule over Cuba as a de facto colonial power. Cuba Does Not Owe Its Independence to the United States read the title of an important book published in Havana in 1950
Alongside that American presumption and Cuban resentment, however, existed dense networks of human contact forged over decades by people of all kinds in both countries. Cuba’s flag was designed and flown for the first time by Cuban exiles in the United States. The first pro-independence Cuban newspaper was published in Philadelphia, and the first national novel was written in New York. Cuba’s most famous patriot and writer, José Martí, spent more of his adult life in the United States than in Cuba, and the largest memorial service for Cuba’s most important war hero, Antonio Maceo, was held at Cooper Union in New York. Cubans traveled to the United States to study at Harvard and Tuskegee, to shop in Miami, to play baseball in the American Negro Leagues, to escape dictators, and to view the famous falls at Niagara. Americans traveled in the other direction: to drink during Prohibition in the States, to buy land and cigars, to convert people to Protestantism, to forge networks of Black solidarity, to honeymoon and to fish, to hear jazz and get abortions. Americans listened to Cuban music, and Cubans watched American movies. Americans bought Cuban sugar; Cubans bought American appliances. Actually, Cubans bought just about everything (except sugar) from the United States.
Then all that changed. Not overnight, exactly, but almost. When Fidel Castro was organizing and fighting his revolution against Fulgencio Batista, few could have foreseen the drastic realignment about to take place. But within two years of the revolutionary seizure of power in January 1959, the two countries would be at veritable war. The new Cuban government nationalized US properties, and Cubans staged a mock funeral, complete with coffins bearing the names of Esso, United Fruit, and so on. Crowds overturned the American eagle atop the monument to the Maine, the ship that launched the Spanish-American War and US intervention. They knocked down part of the monument to the island’s first president, Tomás Estrada Palma, who was once also a naturalized US citizen. Visiting the site today, one would find only the statue’s shoes atop the original pedestal. The history of American empire—and its repudiation—is written into the very streetscapes of Havana.
Soon the two countries closed their embassies and forbade travel. In 1961, American forces composed of Cuban exiles invaded, only to be captured and eventually returned to the United States in exchange for medicine and baby food. At the height of the Cold War, Cuba, long a client state of the United States, became the staunch ally of that government’s avowed enemy, the Soviet Union. Now Cuban sugar went to the Soviet Union, and oil and machinery that would have once come from the United States came from there as well. In October 1962, for the first time in its history, the mainland United States faced nuclear warheads pointed in its direction from within striking distance. Battle lines had not only been drawn, but also barricaded and mined.
The exigencies of the Cold War meant that for decades Americans generally understood Cuba primarily as a small—if dangerously proximate—satellite of the Soviet Union. Yet, its role in that global conflict notwithstanding, the Revolution of 1959 cannot be understood only within a Cold War framework. The Cuban Revolution was not one thing; it changed over time in goals and methods. Before taking power, it was emphatically not communist, nor particularly anti-American. Cubans did not support the movement against strongman Fulgencio Batista because they desired to live under socialism or at near war with the United States. Yet the revolution produced both outcomes in relatively quick succession. What explains how that happened, and what would follow, is less the context of the Cold War than the revolution’s relationship to history. Understanding that history—fascinating on its own terms and intriguing in its thorny entanglements with the United States—is therefore vital. Indeed, to overcome the ingrained enmities of more than half a century in both countries, a clear-eyed reckoning with the past, with history, is the first step forward.
History, however, always looks different depending on where one stands. This book takes that observation as a point of departure. It is a history of Cuba that functions also as a kind of history of the United States. It is a shadow history, a necessarily selective, incomplete history of the United States reimagined from Cuban ground and Cuban waters. From that vantage point, America looks different. Indeed, it is not even America, a name that Cubans— like many others across the world—use to name not the United States, but the two continents and the islands of the Western Hemisphere. It is a name that, in theory, belongs as much to Cuba (or Mexico, Argentina, and Canada) as it does to the United States. That is another reason my book is called Cuba: An American History, to unsettle expectations about what America is and is not. Cuban history, meanwhile, can be many things. One of those is a mirror to the history of the United States. In this history of Cuba, then, US readers can see their own country refracted through the eyes of another, from the outside in, much as I have lived and understood both Cuba and the United States most of my life.
From Cuba: An American History by Ada Ferrer. Used with permission of the publisher, Scribner. Copyright 2022 by Ada Ferrer.