October 13, 2004
The Guardian - Book Review - Cuba: A New History by Richard Gott 384pp, Yale, £18.99
All too often, Cuba conjures up images of a last communist stronghold, Fidel Castro's beard and an American military base holding Afghan prisoners. Richard Gott's invaluable Cuba: A New History dispels many convenient myths. Gott, a frequent visitor to the island, guides us through its troubled history, from the first colonisation by the Spanish in 1511 to the present day. It is a savage story. Even Diego de Velásquez, who began with the intention of treating the Indians well, became brutal when they refused to work for foreign invaders. By the early 17th century, Africans brought in as slaves formed half the total population. Racism was always endemic. With the brief British occupation of Havana in 1762, however, the city suddenly became an international port, and North American tradesmen set up business there. Initially, the struggle for Cuban independence involved war with Spain, in which José Marti, the great 19th-century poet, was a notable fighter. The United States began to take an interest in the Cuban-Spanish conflict only after the US battleship Maine - which had not been on a war footing - exploded in Havana in 1898, with the loss of 258 American lives. After the ensuing war, the US occupied Cuba for four years.
When a new Cuban party, the Independent Party of Colour, was formed in 1907 and launched an armed protest movement five years later, US Marines arrived to protect American sugar cane estates, and in the repression that followed, some 3,000 black Cubans were killed. The influence of Communism, as Gott skilfully explains, now became pervasive. Cuban Socialists were impressed by the Russian Revolution and formed an embryonic Communist Party in 1925. Several of its members were Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe. Significantly, the Communists had no prejudice against blacks taking a leadership role in the party. A revolutionary junta was set up in September 1933, led by a mulatto typist named Fulgencio Batista. A university professor, Dr Ramón Grau San Martín, was chosen as Cuba's new president. He refused to service the debt on American loans and nationalised the Cuban American sugar mills. However, Fidel Castro, in a highly significant 1985 comment aptly cited by Gott, sniped at Grau's - and, by implication, Batista's - claim to be revolutionary in character. The fact is that Communists were allowed to operate legally under Batista and even to launch their own newspaper, Hoy. In return, the Communists promised Batista the political support he lacked. During the second world war, Batista himself became President of Cuba and ruled as a social democrat, welcoming Communists into his government.
On July 26 1953, Fidel Castro led an armed attack on the Moncada fortress barracks in Santiago - Cuba's second city. He was arrested after the assault failed and served less than two years in jail before being amnestied by Batista. I would have welcomed more details to explain why Castro was already so convinced that armed insurrection was the only way forward. After all, the author points out that Batista, on winning the November 1954 presidential election, announced the return of constitutional rule and guaranteed a free press. Nevertheless, Castro was proved right: in Batista's second term in power, he became cruelly repressive. In Mexico City, Castro's brother, Raúl, introduced Fidel to Che Guevara and Gott describes this first meeting wonderfully. The two men initially got on very well. Che badly needed a political cause, while Che gave Fidel valuable insights into other revolutionary experiments around Latin America. Batista fled Cuba on New Year's Eve, 1958, and Castro arrived in Havana as Cuba's new leader on January 8, 1959. Gott might usefully have included at this point a remarkable quotation from a speech Fidel made on May 21 1959, in which he declared: "Our revolution is neither capitalist nor Communist ... Capitalism sacrifices the human being; Communism, with its totalitarian conceptions, sacrifices human rights."
Castro's energy was to inspire some of the greatest Latin American novelists of the 20th century, including Gabriel García Márquez, Mario Vargas Llosa and Carlos Fuentes. He charmed not only Russian politicians like Nikita Khrushchev and African revolutionaries such as Ahmed Ben Bella, but also French intellectuals such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. It would have been helpful for Gott to throw some light on the sources of Castro's antagonism towards the great Chilean Communist poet, Pablo Neruda, who wrote the first book of praise for the Cuban revolution, Canción de gesta, in 1960. Perhaps Neruda's relationship with Fidel became prickly because a poem in that book dared to remind Castro that the revolution ought to be like a bottle of wine: the work of many men, not just one. The degree of control Fidel exerted over his country's intellectuals was demonstrated in 1966, when more than 100 Cuban writers - apparently on Castro's direct orders - published an open letter in the Cuban government daily, Granma, condemning Neruda for taking part in a PEN congress in New York that year. A wounded Neruda never returned to the island.
However, Gott is superb on Castro's political skills and on the Che-Fidel estrangement. Guevara, who saw himself as a 20th-century Don Quixote, had, in Castro's eyes, become a loose cannon, an unstable visionary. Even before Che's assassination in 1967, Fidel had been seeking an opportunity to abandon the armed struggle. (Gott was on hand himself to identify Che's body after the murder.) Gott explores Castro's cautious attitude to the Sandinista overthrow of the Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua in 1979. Fascinatingly, Fidel even suggested that the Sandinistas should establish a mixed economy and a pluralistic political system. In some ways, Gott saves the greatest surprise until the last. He writes that he expects little change in Cuba in the years ahead, even after Fidel Castro dies, because "Cuba has already been governed for several years by a post-Castro government ... Castro himself is now largely absent from the scene ... He remains a figure from all our yesterdays, grey-bearded but eternally youthfully, like an ageing rock star." This is one of the many unexpected insights which make it likely that Gott's book will remain the standard work on Cuba for many years to come.
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