- The Structure of Cuban History: Meanings and Purpose of the Past by Louis A. Pérez Jr
Louis A. Pérez Jr. has written an important book that will reshape what we think about both nineteenth-century Cuba and the post-1959 period of the Cuban people. Writing with a powerful voice, Pérez traces the intertwined development of Cubans’ sense of being a people and their sense of being a nation, informed by Cubans’ ideas of their own history. This is not a historiographical work in the traditional sense; it is rather an archeology of ideas, or better said an explication of the idea of ‘Cuban.’
Pérez argues that political, economic, social, and cultural trends, and the trajectories they followed, were affected directly by the growing sense of what it meant to be Cuban. The launching point of the text is the period between 1895 and 1902. Pérez [End Page 174] uses the events of this period, the final war of independence and subsequent occupation by U.S. forces, to focus on the ideas that brought them about, gave them life, and found fulfillment afterward.
The six chapters that comprise the text are organized chronologically. Throughout the book, Pérez draws out the idea of the nation in all its varied cultural expressions, following threads that led to a spirit of connectedness and direction that motivated action. The first two chapters tell the story of the foundations of national identity (a term Pérez does not use), and the author makes his case through a careful examination of a wide array of sources and analyses of the multiple influences that came into play: the popular press, music and lyrics, dance, political philosophy, geography, and Cuban historiography. While precision remains elusive, something Pérez acknowledges, he convincingly demonstrates the nuances underlying the rise of Cuban identity. Cubans growing sense of themselves as a group meant that they increasingly saw themselves as no longer an extension of Spain, no longer bearers of a history subordinate to Spanish history, and this vision led them to embrace the idea of sovereignty, and finally independence. What resulted was the Ten Years’ War, a conflict that did not achieve its goal but did make manifest the spirit and determination of the Cuban people. It also defined Cuban character and morality, becoming a wellspring of inspiration for Cubans of succeeding generations.
Chapters 3 and 4, covering the period 1895–1902, treat the war and the U.S. intervention and occupation. Pérez has written about these events previously, but here he makes the reader see clearly why the prosecution of the war and the implications of the occupation had a profound effect on the Cuban people during the succeeding decades. These two chapters are the core of Pérez’s argument, as they provide both the take-off point and trajectory of his argument: to show the revolutionary nature of Cuba’s history. Cubans understood from the lessons of the Ten Years’ War that the price to pay for self-determination was a commitment to fight to the death. The conflict was fierce, leaving tens of thousands dead and the economy and infrastructure in ruins. While many fought valiantly, their quest was subverted when the dream of independence was interrupted by the intervention of the United States.
Pérez treads well-worn ground in his discussion of the U.S. occupation and how it created a climate in which ineffective government and corruption flourished. What sets this text apart is the clarity with which he shows how Cubans’ aspirations were side-tracked as the island’s political and economic direction reoriented from Spain to the United States. Rather than sovereignty, Cubans experienced new forms of colonial abuse. The author also shows how the revolutionary past was brought forward to inculcate in the next generation the spirit of those who had fought for independence. Those who came of age in the...