- Cuba: A New History
Richard Gott has performed a genuine service in writing a superb book about Cuba, which can inform generalists and specialists alike. He integrates more than five hundred years of Cuban history with a clear theme, and he writes with verve and a journalist's eye for detail so that the book is rarely pedantic or ponderous. The book draws largely from some of the best scholarly work on Cuba, and Gott synthesizes these sources well. As such, it is not studded with startling new revelations. What is "new" here is the way in which Gott has been able to empathize with Cubans by seeing the world from their perspective. In achieving empathy, which is quite different from uncritical sympathy, Gott had the advantage as a European of studying Cuba with an uncommon emotional distance from his subject. He also was able to draw on his considerable Latin American experience, as a correspondent for Britain's The Guardian and as a book author.
The central theme that appears throughout the book, and which Gott summarizes in the Epilogue is that "Cuba has been the victim of three empires [Spain, the United States and the Soviet Union] and has rejected them all" (p. 324). While others have described this pattern before, Gott gives it an unusual primacy as he identifies [End Page 303] Cuba's external relations with dominating powers as the source of the island's internal and external conflicts, its social and political dynamics, and even the development of national identity. For example, he argues that Cuban racism was nurtured by Spanish colonial rulers who sought to curb "the separatist ambitions of the white settlers"(p. 52) by heightening their fears of a black revolt such as had occurred in Haiti. Similarly, he explains how the 1902 Platt Amendment not only granted permission for future U.S. interventions. It undermined the development of meaningful domestic political institutions in Cuba that could broker compromises among conflicting groups, because a ruling faction could readily summon U.S. assistance to suppress its opposition instead of trying to find a political accommodation. He finds that this kind of colonial mentality still haunts Cuban politics, as is evident in conservative Cuban-American support of the current U.S. embargo. Notably, under the 1996 Helms-Burton Act, the United States proclaims its right to determine who can be the legitimate leaders of Cuba, as it did in effect under the Platt Amendment.
In trying to encompass such a broad sweep of events, Gott had to make choices about which episodes to emphasize. Undoubtedly others would have made different selections. I would have preferred, for example, more on the turbulent Cuban-Soviet relationship during the 1960s. Rooted in Fidel Castro's deep distrust of Soviet motives and reliability, the decade of tense relations illustrates well Cuba's insistent assertion of independence and its painful acquiescence to the realities of power. Similarly, a closer reading of Castro's 1968 speech about the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia might have led Gott to appreciate that it was hardly an endorsement offered by a servile Cuba. Castro threw a gauntlet at the Soviet leadership, asserting flatly that the invasion was illegal, and proclaiming that it could be justified only if they were willing to follow up with full support for all anti-imperialist revolutionaries.
Still, Gott's highlights do help a reader to empathize with Cuba. Consider how he unconventionally begins the section on Cuban-U.S. rapprochement during the Carter Administration by recalling the 1976 terrorist bombing of a Cuban civilian airliner. Most accounts of this period examine the ways in which both countries mutually destroyed the trust that had been developing. In contrast, Gott's approach points to the fundamental asymmetry between the two neighbors, and to the resulting anxiety Cuba has about the way in which an opening to the United States could undermine Cuban security. This is the right starting point for any study of contemporary Cuba.