Cuban Memory Wars: Retrospective Politics in Revolution and Exile , by Michael J. Bustamante

In: New West Indian Guide / Nieuwe West-Indische Gids
Mervyn J. Bain University of Aberdeen Department of Politics and International Relations Aberdeen U.K.

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Michael J. Bustamante, Cuban Memory Wars: Retrospective Politics in Revolution and Exile. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2021. x + 304 pp. (Paper US$ 29.95)

Michael J. Bustamante’s Cuban Memory Wars: Retrospective Politics in Revolution and Exile is an excellent comprehensive study of the politics and battle for memory and history in the first 20 years of the Cuban Revolution (1959 to 1979), both within the island and in the exile community that materialized predominantly in the United States. Analyzing the communities both within and outside Cuba is to be applauded, as many works tend to concentrate on one exclusively. The structure of the book is mainly chronological with chapters focusing on the pertinent issues on the island, each followed by a chapter examining the same period outside the island. Newspapers, speeches, and documents are utilized for the early years, with interviews added to these sources in the later years.

The book is very well positioned within the literature on memory of the past, and expertly details the importance of the battle for the past within both communities. It is particularly strong on charting the evolution of opinions within Cuba in the early to mid-1960s, as the island’s society underwent structural change. This includes discussion of a number of original supporters of the Cuban Revolution, several of whom ultimately became members of the exile community. A particular highlight is the examination of the televised “trials” of members of Brigade 2506 in the aftermath of the failed Bay of Pigs invasion. Bustamante conducts this examination of an extremely emotive subject with sensitivity.

He also expertly uses the struggle for the memory of the past (or in the early years of the Cuban Revolution, as he details “who lost Cuba”) to outline the changing politics within the exile community, particularly in south Florida. This focus is significant, as Bustamante shatters the myth of the exile community having originally been a monolith since its emergence in the early 1960s, diverging in opinion and memory of the past since its inception. The detailed analysis of Agrupación Abdala provides an excellent description of these distinctive politics and perceptions of the past within the exile community.

Chapter 3, “Remembering (through) Girón,” is not only important for the reasons detailed above concerning the television “trial” of members of Brigade 2506, but also because it outlines the focus given by the Cuban Revolution to the area of Girón prior to the invasion of April 1961. This examination of the Revolution’s endeavors to aid modernization in an underdeveloped area is highly significant, as one of the Revolution’s primary aims was equality within Cuban society. The inclusion of this is crucial because the wealth of pre-1959 Havana is highlighted earlier in the book, but not the disparity between the Cuban capital and the rest of the island, which was predominantly underdeveloped. In a similar vein, issues of ethnicity could have been given more specific attention since many of the later exiles were Afro-Cuban in heritage.

The concluding chapter, “Inconsolable Memories,” expertly brings the issues of memory up to date, and also addresses the impact that the Mariel boatlift of 1980 had on both Cuban society and the exile community. Here, Bustamante also addresses the issue of some within both communities looking back at the island’s links to the Soviet Union (outlining ironic desires for Soviet children’s cartoons). This is a very interesting point, as an examination of the memories that Cubans (both those remaining on the island and those in exile) have of traveling to the Socialist bloc would add further nuance to the book. Similarly, the book could usefully have begun by exploring whether such memory wars have occurred with the impact of revolutions in other countries and the subsequent emergence of exile communities. That is, is the Cuban case unique? This is not to detract from this impressive book, which adds greatly to the study of the effects of the Cuban Revolution on what became—and still are—two interlinked, but fiercely independent communities. Cuban Memory Wars will be of great significance to a variety of audiences: people interested in memory of the past in general, in Cuba and the Cuban exile community, and in the interaction of the communities inside and outside the island.

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