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Reviewed by:
  • Cuba’s Revolutionary World by Jonathan C. Brown
  • Philip Brenner
Cuba’s Revolutionary World. By Jonathan C. Brown (Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 2017) 600 pp. $35.00

During two meetings with President John F. Kennedy in 1961, Argentine President Arturo Frondizi beseeched the U.S. leader to cease his campaign to remove Cuba from the Organization of American States (oas). Though Frondizi was viewed as the young American president’s best friend among Latin American leaders, Kennedy pursued his obsession by pressuring a two-thirds majority to suspend Cuba’s oas membership in January 1962. Shortly afterward, Argentine generals deposed Frondizi in a coup.

Brown engagingly recounts this story, and others like it, to develop the central theme of Cuba’s Revolutionary World. He argues that the Cuban Revolution played an outsized role in shaping the politics of the region during the Cold War. From 1959 to 1965, he asserts, Cuba served as both an example and provocateur; its impact on Latin America was akin to the French Revolution’s impact on European politics.

A careful and thorough scholar, Brown’s study fits well with a new wave of research about Latin America that provides an important corrective to earlier works in which U.S. dominance was the primary factor in the internal and external behaviors of the region’s countries. In contrast, he gives agency to the “Latin Americans themselves” (14).

However, Cuba’s Revolutionary World overcompensates in its effort to set the record straight. By attempting to make its framework accommodate all of his findings, Brown misinterprets some data, attributes too much influence to Cuba, and discounts the importance of the United States in several instances.

Brown examines the years from 1959 to 1965 as if it were one period; he would have been on firmer ground by treating it as two periods—1959 to 1962 and 1963 to 1965. In the first, Cuba was more a model regime than a direct instigator. Indeed, U.S. officials perceived Cuba to be a threat not because it was a communist country—it was [End Page 170] not—but because it dared to challenge the self-proclaimed U.S. right to dictate how other countries should behave. In addition, the revolutionary government was popular in Latin America because of its early achievements, such as increasing the rate of literacy from 65 to 98 percent. However, to be consistent with his thesis that Cuba was intent on creating revolutionary turmoil, Brown inaccurately denigrates the 1961 Literacy Campaign as merely an effort “to prepare the peasants for their revolutionary roles” (137).

The United States was most aggressive in trying to isolate and overthrow the revolutionary government in the first of the two periods. Yet the book skims over the United States’ irrational reaction to Cuba’s reasonable demands for independence, which led to increased U.S. military aid for the region and ultimately to military coups. Hence, Brown dismisses a 1961 encounter between Che Guevara and Richard Goodwin by asserting, “Nothing came of the meeting” (242). In fact, as Brown notes seven pages earlier, Goodwin interpreted Guevara’s offer of a modus vivendi as weakness. His report to Kennedy led to a major cia program, Operation Mongoose, designed to impose a new regime on Cuba. But Brown gives it almost no attention.

After the 1962 missile crisis, the United States turned its focus to Southeast Asia. Meanwhile, Cuban leaders felt both abandoned by the Soviet Union and still threatened by the United States. Cuba changed course, actively supporting guerrilla warfare in Africa and Latin America. But Cuban support did not lend force to Brazil’s landless peasant movement, as Brown suggests. That movement emerged from the conditions in Brazil’s northeast and courageous Brazilian grassroots leaders.

Despite Brown’s flawed thesis, Cuba’s Revolutionary World laudably provides readers interested in understanding the Cold War in Latin America with enough useful material to probe the subject with a new perspective.

Philip Brenner
American University


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pp. 170-171
Launched on MUSE
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