The Cuban question

Jeremy Taylor on Cuba: A New History, by Richard Gott

Cuba A New History by Richard Gott (Yale University Press, ISBN 0-300-10411-1, 384 pp)


Fidel Castro is 78. When he tripped and fell at a rally last October, breaking his knee and fracturing his arm, there was speculation that he would lead the revolution from a wheelchair. Castro has already faced down ten American presidents, from Dwight Eisenhower to Bush junior. His country is one of only five communist countries left in the world, and the only one in the western hemisphere. He has managed to keep the revolutionary spirit stirring for more than 45 years. If the succession proves to be viable, his revolution might eventually live longer than the Soviet Union’s (74 years). If not, the vacuum of post-revolutionary Cuba could have far-reaching effects, such as sucking the life out of tourism and investment in the rest of the region.

The English-speaking Caribbean has always been in a bind over Cuba. To hear it from Washington, let alone Miami, Castro is the devil incarnate, and Cuba is the evil empire of the Americas. But Cuba is a Caribbean country, with strong cultural and historical ties to the region; several Caricom states have had diplomatic relations with Havana since the early 1970s. BWIA and Air Jamaica operate scheduled flights to Cuba. Havana and Trinidad are two of the most fascinating early-colonial cities in the region. Cuban doctors are doing useful work in Trinidad and Tobago, and Prime Minister Patrick Manning, for one, says he wants to expand commercial ties with Havana. He even has his heart and his eyes seen to there.

Ideological paranoia has to be weighed against geographical ties and the right of a country to follow its own path. That in turn raises the fundamental questions about the Cuban revolution: its nature, its motives, its value, its accomplishments, and its future. These are not academic questions. Caribbean people cannot simply think what George W. Bush tells them to think about Cuba, any more than they can take at face value the claims of Havana’s propagandists and apologists. Revolutions do not appear out of the clear blue sky: they have deep-rooted causes, which in this case include many unwise actions by the United States. The Cuban revolutionaries have achieved some astonishing things in the face of some of the most relentless hostility ever faced by a small nation. If many Cubans have rejected Castro and all his works, many more have stayed on, willingly and enthusiastically, to defend him.

And when Castro dies, the Caribbean will need to have its thoughts clear about these things. It is often assumed that the revolution will die with him, that the Cuban exiles will pour back in from Miami and repossess the houses and estates and businesses they left behind decades ago, that Cuba will revert to being an American protectorate, and the good times will roll again. But that is very far from being a done deal, and one of this book’s arguments is that a succession has already taken place, and Castro’s death will not actually produce much change.

Richard Gott does not set out, of course, to tell the Caribbean what to think, or how to answer these questions — though narrative presentation necessarily implies a point of view. His book is a chronological history of Cuba from its earliest settlement to 2003. The first half covers Cuba as Spanish colony and American protectorate; the second half covers the period since Castro came to power in 1959.

Gott, a longtime Latin America specialist for the London Guardian and other publications, has never made much secret of his left-wing sympathies (his previous book was a supportive treatment of Castro’s controversial friend in Venezuela, President Hugo Chavez). But he does try hard to be even-handed, thoughtful, and objective. The book is thoroughly researched and extensively annotated; and — Gott being a journalist, not an academic historian — it is well written and often gripping. It allows the reader to see the historical and cultural context in which Castro’s revolution took shape and which has allowed it to survive for so long.

But sometimes personal sympathy compromises the narrative. Gott is smitten by the physical beauty of Che Guevara on his first appearance, and produces a rousing fanfare for Castro’s first entrance. He does not deal adequately with such issues as the rounding-up of artists and intellectuals in the 1960s, the neighbourhood watch committees, the actual functioning of the Poder Popular system, or the controversial 2003 arrests of dissident writers and librarians.

The underlying idea of the book is that Castro, like his revolution, should not be seen as a Marxist-Leninist dinosaur, but as the embodiment of a spirit of nationalist defiance which is as necessary now as it was in colonial days. That Cubans who have remained in the island, even at their most critical, understand this. That the revolutionary agenda is not imposed (as it was on the communist bloc countries in Europe), but has indigenous roots. Certainly, nothing else adequately accounts for the longevity of Cuba’s revolution, given the size and power of its persecutor, the 40-year economic stranglehold, and the collapse of its Soviet protector.

Gott sees Castro as “an emeritus president, an elder statesman . . . an ageing rock star”, slowly steering Cuba towards “the seductions of capitalism” and a place in the international community. His demise will change nothing: “the machinery of government runs without his hand on the tiller . . . he doesn’t run the country, but he presides over a government that is his creation . . . When he dies, there will be little change in Cuba . . . the change has already taken place.” For Gott, the post-Castro government is already functioning; he cites such figures as Ricardo Alarcón, Carlos Lage, Felipe Pérez Roque, and Fidel’s designated successor, his brother Raúl Castro, who is already 73. Whether this view represents a triumph of faith over experience, we shall all see in due course.

Gott argues that the revolution is best read as a phase of a long historical process. Uprisings against Spanish rule began in the 18th century, and reached their first peak with the Ten Years’ War and the revolt led by José Marti, Máximo Gómez, and Antonio Maceo; they continued well into the 20th century, when the US was the quasi-colonial power. Castro’s entry into revolutionary politics is precisely located: he was a rising star in Havana legal circles, contemplating a run for Congress in the late-1952 elections, when Fulgencio Batista Zaldívar’s coup put an end to the democratic experiments of the 20th century. Castro’s reckless attack on the Moncada barracks followed a few months later.

After January 1959, this new phase in the long campaign for self-determination was bound to lead straight into the swamp of Cold War politics. After the long edgy relationship with Spain, the US seizure of Cuba and Puerto Rico in 1898, the Platt Amendment, and the military interventions, Cuba had become a highly profitable American dependency and playground. It was much too important commercially and strategically to be allowed to slip into the hands of straggly-bearded revolutionaries from the Sierra Maestra.

So the game began again. Castro quickly became persona non grata. Forced to look for new friends and new markets, Cuba made an economic agreement with the USSR; it nationalised its refineries in order to process Soviet oil, then other US assets crucial to control of the country. Moscow made threatening noises, and renounced the Monroe Doctrine. The US imposed a trade embargo, which had the effect of pushing Cuba towards dependence on the USSR and the Soviet bloc.

Was Castro already a communist? No, says Gott: it was the Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961 that made him one. That farcical operation showed just how far the US was prepared to go; it killed off the lingering idea of annexing Cuba to the US, and the notion that the US was invincible; it legitimised Cuban defence needs; and it entrenched Castro as the guarantor of national independence. Castro’s declaration that he was a Marxist-Leninist and always had been, Gott notes, was made in December 1961, when he most badly needed Soviet protection from further attack.

Gott maintains that Nikita Khrushchev’s interest in Cuba was slight, until the Bay of Pigs and Cuba’s request for a security guarantee suggested new possibilities. It was Khrushchev, Gott says, who, after long consideration, insisted on despatching 42,000 troops, 40 ballistic missile launchers — each with two missiles and a nuclear warhead — 24 SAM-2 missile batteries, plus MIG fighters, bombers, and submarines. In the ensuing standoff between Kennedy and Khrushchev, Gott says, Castro was not even consulted, and was “furious” at becoming a Cold War pawn. But he had to accept the inevitable, and by 1968, with the regime “intellectually bankrupt”, he “fell gratefully into the Soviets’ warm embrace”.

Thus began Cuba’s “fully sovietised” phase. This was not, of course, the first (or last) time that US foreign policy would create the very thing it feared. But for Castro, none of the first decade’s economic strategies had worked: so let the Soviet advisers see what they can do. The revolutionaries, never strong on strategy, focused on tactical matters and defending the revolution against wickedness such as small business and “pseudo-leftist bourgeois intellectuals”. Cuba joined Comecon, and supported the Czech and Afghan invasions of 1968 and 1979. Slowly, economic growth resumed, though on the basis of a perilous dependency.

When that dependence began to crack, it seemed to many that the revolution was finished. Bogged down in Afghanistan, Yuri Andropov withdrew Cuba’s military guarantee. Castro responded by becoming more ideologically pure than the Kremlin: the “Rectification of Errors” rejected reform, opposed free markets, and reasserted the purity of the revolution. Then came the disaster of Mikhail Gorbachev: glasnost and perestroika, detente with Reagan, “pro-capitalist reforms” in Poland and Hungary, the end of subsidies, payment in hard currency, collapsing sugar prices.

And this was merely the overture to the unthinkable, the end of the Soviet era: the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, of communism in central Europe in 1989 and 1990, and of the USSR itself in 1991. The Panama invasion in 1989 and the Sandinista defeat in Nicaragua in 1990 were mere sideshows beside this catastrophe. Cuba lost its main source of food and machinery, its sugar subsidies, its external financing and export markets. As Gott observes, “The economic disaster that swept the country was the most dramatic and significant change since the island had first become a sugar-based economy in the wake of the revolution in Saint-Domingue in 1791.”
What a terrible retreat Castro then had to make, with the “Special Period in Peacetime”: a terrible austerity, accompanied by revolutionary blessings upon such capitalist dragons as tourism, foreign capital, joint ventures, the American dollar, self-employment, and small business. The US turned the screws, of course, with the 1992 Torricelli Act and Helms-Burton in 1996, designed to wreck whatever trade was left and to scare off investors (especially those taking advantage of the Americans). Gott implies that the slow recovery of the 1990s was only possible because of the revolution’s authentic nationalist roots; but will it be seen, in the long term, as a change of direction, or as a temporary tactical retreat?

Surprisingly, Gott does not spend much time on the domestic achievements of the Cuban revolution. He salutes its free healthcare and education systems, and its 1969 literacy campaign, but he is more interested in its international impact. He maintains that Castro’s quixotic 1975 intervention salvaged Angola’s independence in the face of South African invasion and put heart into black South Africa (the Soweto demonstrations followed a few weeks later); and that his second intervention, in the face of wavering Soviet support, not only thwarted a South African takeover again but helped clear the way for the end of apartheid and the independence of Namibia.
He argues that Cuban intervention in Guinea-Bissau helped to end dictatorship in Portugal, and that Castro’s misjudged affection for Mengistu Haile Mariam in Ethiopia influenced the outcome of the Ogaden war. He also thinks that Cuba influenced the course of American political history, not so much through a possible anti-Castro motive for the assassination of John Kennedy, but because the Mariel exodus of 1980 became a factor in Jimmy Carter’s defeat by Ronald Reagan.

Gott is good at drawing attention to aspects of Cuban history that tend to be overlooked. The revolutionary activity in towns and cities from 1956 to 1959, for example, without which Castro’s guerrilla band could hardly have taken over the island, is usually overshadowed by the romantic saga of the Sierra Maestra. Gott points out that, far from being wiped out in the early stages of Spanish settlement, the original Tainos survived in the hills and the offshore islands well into the 19th century. He is rightly scathing about the long campaign to keep Cuba white: although the Spanish imported nearly a million Africans, and over half the population was black at the end of the 18th century, both the Spanish and the Americans used white immigration and black repression to make sure Cuba stayed the right colour (the black population was under martial law for much of the 19th century). As US President Martin Van Buren said in 1829, nobody wanted a “sudden emancipation of a numerous slave population” a few miles off newly acquired Florida.

Gott shows clearly how Cuba has been defined as a matter of “US national security” since at least 1776. It is too close to ignore, but what should be done? Buy it? Capture it? Annexe it? Colonise it? Keep it white and Spanish? (Nobody suggested setting it free.) The American seizure of the island in 1898 was supposed to settle the matter. Instead, it marked the beginning of serious US imperial expansion: General Leonard Wood said at the time that it was the “first great expedition our country has ever sent overseas . . . [and it] marks the commencement of a new era in our relations with the world”. He was right about that.

But the years between 1898 and 1959 in Cuba, like recent months in Iraq, showed that military occupation and intervention, the imposition of a transplanted “democracy”, and the pursuit of national security interests disguised as altruism, are ultimately useless in the context of authentic development. Gott is surely right to see Castro, despite his Moscow romance, more as a child of Martí than of Marx.


Reproduced with permission from the Caribbean Review of Books (CRB), November 2004. Copyright Media & Editorial Projects Ltd (MEP) and the CRB.