- Cuban Revolution in America: Havana and the Making of the United States Left 1968–1992 by Teishan A. Latner
Teishan A. Latner
Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018
xiv + 351 pp., $39.95 (cloth); $29.99 (e-book)
Teishan A. Latner's Cuban Revolution in America: Havana and the Making of the United States Left, 1968–1992 is an excellent new book on left-wing activists, the complex politics of solidarity, and US-Cuban relations. It acts as a worthy sequel to Van Gosse's classic Where the Boys Are (New York: Verso, 1993), which analyzes the New Left and its identification (and admiration) of the Cuban revolution and the Castro brothers' masculinity in the 1950s and early 1960s. Latner moves his analysis forward in time and argues that American activists used travel as a way to forge solidarity with the Cuban revolution and that, in turn, the Cuban government capitalized on these friendship brigades as a way to win ideological points in its ongoing public relations war with the United States. "Cuba like all nations, needed allies abroad," Latner explains, "and Havana's relations with U.S. leftists grew in the fertile ground that lay between solidarity and realpolitik" (5). The book is a must-read for scholars of US-Cuban relations, and it is also in dialogue with the growing body of work on solidarity by scholars such as Judy Tzu-Chun Wu, Jessica Stites Mor, and Steve Striffler.
This is a book of many strengths and stories. Latner includes an expansive and eclectic cast of characters, from predominantly white leftists and black nationalists to progressive Cuban Americans and even airplane hijackers. The opening chapters focus on the Venceremos Brigade, a "radical Peace Corps," which sent delegations of American leftists to Cuba explicitly against the American travel ban (28). While in Cuba these young Americans participated in the physical labor of cutting sugar cane, encountering Cubans and other international volunteers and sometimes even meeting with Fidel Castro himself. Their manual labor was largely symbolic. More importantly, their presence signaled to Castro and what was then termed the Third World that at least some Americans were willing to break with the US government's hardline Cold War politics. Through the first two chapters, Latner probes the activists' newsletters, memoirs, and documents and the FBI's vigilant surveillance of their activities. He also includes how American racial politics, including the intrapolitics of the Venceremos Brigades, could fit uneasily into Cuba's official commitment to an idealized race-neutral cubanidad. Latner successfully integrates both the international consequences of these brigades on the macro level and the personal consequences for the young men and women who traveled to Cuba.
Latner's research also sheds light on the international Left, which in 1969 seemed cosmopolitan and full of possibility. While in Cuba, Americans met not only with Cubans, but also with people from North Korea, Bolivia, and perhaps most notably North Vietnam. These examples are tantalizing, and it would be fascinating to learn even more; for example, what did the North Vietnamese counterparts think of the [End Page 119] Americans—did they trust them, think them naive, or simply enjoy drinking rum in Cuba with them? In addition, it would be valuable to learn how regular Cubans, outside government officials and ICAP (the Cuban Institute for Friendship with the Peoples), viewed these American political tourists. Did they appreciate their solidarity or resent their embrace of "voluntary labor," or both?
One of the book's greatest contributions is its inclusion of Cuban Americans as a key cohort of solidarity travelers. Most scholarly literature on Cuban Americans remains fairly flat, representing Cuban Americans as right wing and politically conservative. Latner thoughtfully revises this assumption and argues that the Cuban American community has always been more diverse and "heterodox" than the "Miami-centric narrative" would suggest (155). A cohort of Cuban Americans who were younger and generally more progressive sought "dialogue" and connection with Cuba rather than an embargo and isolation (154). In 1977, they formed the Brigada Antonio Maceo, and fifty-five Cuban Americans...