Published by EH.Net (November 2023).
Ada Ferrer. Cuba: An American History. New York: Scribner, 2022. 560 pp. $20 (paperback), ISBN 978-1501154560.
Reviewed for EH.Net by Andrew Zimbalist, Smith College.
Ada Ferrer, a historian at New York University, has written an engrossing, penetrating, balanced, and delightful history of Cuba and its long and impactful relationship with the United States. While Ferrer traces the threads of U.S. dominance over Cuba, she also explores the interactive nature of the relationship between the two countries. Not only has the United States transformed Cuba, but, she argues, Cuba has transformed the United States.
Cuba is a complicated country and portraying its complexity is not a simple matter. The challenge, of course, becomes all the greater after 1959. Ferrer is up to the task.
Ferrer’s flowing narrative spans more than five centuries capturing the emergence of slavery, the growth of sugar production, sporadic racial insurgency, the insertion of colonialism, and the nineteenth- and twentieth-century efforts at revolution. While Ferrer does not diminish the importance of Cuban leaders such as Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, Antonio Maceo, José Martí, Máximo Gόmez, Eduardo Chibas, Celia Sánchez, Fidel Castro, and others, she puts special emphasis on those ordinary Cubans who effectively pushed for independence and progressive change over the years. Ferrer offers revealing biographies of those actors, big and small, who had an outsized influence on the non-linear struggle for independence. Despite the book’s forbidding length, it is a page-turning, nuanced, and deeply knowledgeable read about the evolution of Cuban society under watchful eyes from the north.
Alas, Ferrer’s treatment has some gaps. Some key historical events are described without explanation of their origin. What, for instance, motivated Céspedes in 1868 to free his slaves and fight for independence? Why did lower-level military officers rise up against the government in the early 1930s? Why did Eduardo Chibas commit suicide? Why were there rifts between the 26th of July Movement and the Student Directorate or Frank País’ urban movement and how did they affect the course of revolution after 1959? What were the material conditions that dictated the choice to emphasize moral incentives in the late 1960s, and how did the government complement moral incentives in its effort to stimulate work? Ferrer only mentions the Cuban American National Foundation in passing, despite its enormous post-1980 impact on preserving and extending the irrational and counterproductive U.S. embargo. The emergence and significant growth of green farming and transportation following the collapse of the Soviet Union is not discussed.
Ferrer’s discussion of Cuba’s increasingly crippled economy gives short shrift to powerful role of the U.S. embargo (and insistent efforts at sabotage) that impacted the country’s access to markets, credit, and materials from the United States, Latin America, and elsewhere. She also miscasts the effect of sugar monoculture on economic development. While it was certainly true that prior to 1959 dependence on sugar undermined development due to volatile prices, low income elasticity of demand and foreign ownership, when Cuba substituted trade with the United States for trade with the Soviet Union and COMECON, it was selling sugar to a guaranteed market with stable prices, well above their market level. Further, the sugar was domestically owned, allowing for any surplus to remain in the country and for the expansion of new sugar processing industries in Cuba.
These and other lacunae are small in the context of the substantial achievement by Ferrer in Cuba: An American History. One of Ferrer’s major and more intriguing conclusions is that: “The long and fraught encounter between Cuba and the United States was [… never only about the Cold War, never only about Communism but] instead a struggle between American power and Cuban sovereignty” (p. 451) – an insight that may come in handy as the world traverses the increasingly uncertain and perilous road of international relations.
Andrew Zimbalist is Robert A. Woods Professor Emeritus of Economics at Smith College. He has published several books and numerous articles, and he has consulted for the UNDP, US AID and various companies, on economic development in Latin America.
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