Revolutionary Cuba: A History, written by Luis Martínez-Fernández

in New West Indian Guide / Nieuwe West-Indische Gids

Luis Martínez-Fernández, Revolutionary Cuba: A History. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2014. xvii + 385 pp. (Cloth US$ 44.95)

Luis Martínez-Fernández sets out “to make sense of the historic, social, and political forces” (p. 2) that led to Cuba’s 1959 revolution and its survival, against the odds, into the second decade of the twenty-first century. A historian, he combines narrative and analysis, charting the interconnectedness of continuity and change, grounded in his knowledge of the nineteenth century, “when the island’s sugar system reached maturity, generating a host of socioeconomic misfortunes that continue to plague Cuba today [and] nationalism, race relations, and modes of social and political resistance took shape” (p. 3). Frequent visits to Cuba during 1994–2004 enabled him to experience the island as a Cuban-Cuban American, and, while his intellectual development was in the United States, he sees this as “a very Cuban book” (p. 5) embedded in Latin America and the Caribbean.

He outlines seven threads to the labyrinth of understanding the Cuban Revolution. First are “the many Cubas” (rich/poor, east/west, insular/exile) and the need to integrate “Cuba outside of Cuba” into “the narrative of the revolution” (p. 6). Two other threads are familiar: “The island on horseback,” metaphor for militarism and caudillismo, and “the longest 90 miles,” referring to Cuba and the United States being in close proximity yet worlds apart. In his fourth, “the pendular revolution,” he signals a periodization with three diasporic cohorts: those “socialized” under capitalism; the children of the Revolution whose parents were “socialized” under capitalism; and the grandchildren who along with their parents were “socialized” during the Revolution. The fifth and sixth threads relate to political leadership: “the art of triangulation” as the ability of Fidel Castro especially to apply triangulation strategies, exploiting and creating opportunities, and “the third man” as the telling figure after Fidel and Raúl Castro according to pendulum swings. The seventh is “the persistent plantation,” a view of Cuba as profoundly shaped by the sugar complex and concomitant “coercion of labor, rigid social hierarchy, land concentration, foreign dependence, and the like” (p. 10). Its corollary is “the persistent counterplantation,” and those who resist—some passively (slothful at work, mocking their masters), others violently (rising up, burning cane, killing the overseer), some spiritually, and others escaping or committing suicide. Plantation and counterplantation persist, he argues, to the present day.

The seven threads surface throughout. In Part One, “Idealism (1952–1970)”: two questions and an answer—“Was Cuba ripe for revolution? Was a revolution necessary? It depends on which Cuba we ask” (p. 44); the significance of Carlos Rafael Rodríguez becoming the third man following Ernesto Che Guevara; and, after early diversification, extreme reversal to sugar (sucrophilia or sucropsychosis). Part Two, “Personalistic Institutionalization (1971–1990),” highlights the island on horseback and triangulation in international and domestic arenas, whereby the government “managed to survive—arguably thrive” (p. 163) by adopting Soviet models, yet ossified in the process.

Counterplantation comes into its own in Part Three, “Survival (1991–2013)” as people became “increasingly frustrated, apathetic about the political process, angry with party and government leaders, and more willing to engage in forms of defiance that ranged from illegal activities such as petty theft and black market transactions to joining or supporting dissident movements to fleeing on makeshift political rafts” (p. 201). The potential “positives” of diversification with the 2002 closure of half of Cuba’s sugar mills ushered in the “negatives” of physical and social decay, and El comandante in his labyrinth engaged in his Battle of Ideas.

Martínez-Fernández leaves us with questions: “Change to what? Change led by whom and for how long? And in partnership with which international players?” (p. 269). Can the January 2013 migratory opening be attributed to “the trenchant transnationalism of hundreds of thousands of anonymous Cubans, in and out of the island, who for decades have treated the longest ninety miles as if they were the shortest” (p. 277)? Does third-man Miguel Díaz-Canel signal a new generation coming to power? Is it the case that “a new breed of women and men are now galloping through Cuba and around the world” (p. 287)? He ends on a poignant note. In 2001 his late father visited Cuba for the first time in almost fifty years. Among his photos was one of a Cienfuegos guajiro family, to whose ten-year-old son his father had offered a US$ 10 bill. The boy said, “No. I cannot accept this; you are my friend” (p. 288). For Martínez-Fernández, this speaks to the resilience of long-held Cuban values and the hope that in the future the many Cubas may become one.

Martínez-Fernández is to be commended for historicizing and transnationalizing the revolution. Two notes of caution, however. Not all can be encapsulated in the sugar-plantation or the Cuban-U.S. axis. His study cries out for going beyond this and embracing the many other parts of the world where Cubans have gravitated, with a diverse range of experiences, perspectives, and links back to the island. Only then can our understanding be more fully historical and transnational.

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