Don’t be afraid of reading history; it’s not just a learning experience. At least not in the case of Cuba: An American History by Ada Ferrer. This is one of the most entertaining books I’ve read in a while. I couldn’t put it down, as they say, much of the time. At nearly 500 pages, some parts are more interesting at others, but reading it was the slog many readers expect with history.
Ms. Ferrer’s central purpose is to write a history of Cuba in the shadow of the United States. Her thesis is that the two nations share an intertwined history, so much so that it is difficult, maybe impossible, to understand one without the context of the other.
She makes a very convincing case.
And she tells a terrific story.
I assume that I am like most Americans of my generation in that my knowledge of Cuba consists of the Spanish American War– namely Teddy Roosevelt; “Remember the Maine;” William R. Hearst basically creating the war to sell newspapers, along with a smattering of details about Fidel Castro: the missile crisis; a friendship with Che Guevarra; a refusal to give up power that lasted for decades. Not much more than that.
Cuba: An American History filled in a lot of holes in my knowledge and gave me a much deeper understanding of both how things are today between the two countries and how they got there.
One area that most surprised and interested me was Cuba’s relationship with American slavery before, during and after the American Civil War. Cuba relied on enslaved labor before there were European settlements in what became the 13 colonies. Americans in both the north and the south held interests in Cuban plantations even if they didn’t own them outright. The profits from enslaved labor and the slave trade flowed throughout the United States right up until, during and even after the Civil War. There was even some talk in Congress about making Cuba a state at one point. William Rufus King, senator from Alabama and a wealthy plantation and slave owner, was sworn in as vice-president to Franklin Pierce while in Cuba looking after southern interests and trying to recover from ill-health. He later returned to Alabama dying just days afterwards. Slave owners in the South long saw Cuba as an extension of American slavery and feared it as a site of Black rebellion especially after the revolution in nearby Haiti. Haiti is closer to Cuba than Florida is, after all.
During the Civil War the Confederacy maintained close ties with Cuba, shipping goods in and out through Cuban ports. Once it became clear that the Confederacy would lose the war, some southerners sent their enslaved property to Cuba to sell them. After the war ended, many Confederates fled to Cuba where they hoped to maintain slave-holding plantations and did so for several years. Former Confederate officials, including Jefferson Davis, visited Cuba frequently.
Today, I’d wager, many Americans are unaware of just how many Cubans are of African descent through formerly enslaved people. In fact, it’s this group that played a significant role in several revolutions. That there have been so many attempts at revolution in Cuba was also news to me. Most of the time, the United States stepped in and turned things towards a government more profitable to U.S. interests.
Of course, Fidel Castro takes up a large portion of Ms. Ferrer’s book. Here again there is a lot to be learned for most American readers. Many readers will bring much more baggage to this section of the book than previous parts of the story. What struck me most was how many points there were in Castro’s story when things could have gone another way. That the two nations would end up so completely estranged from each other for so long was not the forgone conclusion I thought it was.
Ms. Ferrer was born in Cuba but raised in the United States. She makes mention of events she and her family lived through while in Cuba but maintains a disinterested voice throughout her book. After reading it, I can’t say exactly where she stands on the most controversial aspects of Cuba’s history. I’ve an idea, but that’s all. Whether this is a positive or a negative feature of Cuba: An American History is up to individual readers to decide. She lets the historical record speak for itself.
In the end, while the history is fascinating and informative, I recommend Cuba: An American History because it was a great read. A surprisingly good summer book and my new favorite.