Ada Ferrer on the Missed Opportunity to Influence Cuba's Future for the BetterHistorians in the News
tags: foreign policy, Cuba, Latin American history, Ada Ferrer
Clara Ferreira Marques: Your latest book, “Cuba: An American History”, is a sweeping narrative that illuminates Cuba’s tangled, centuries-old relations with the United States, ties which remain no less tangled today. What prompted you to tell Cuba’s story as an “American” story?
Ada Ferrer, Julius Silver Professor of History and Latin American and Carribean Studies at New York University, and author, “Cuba: An American History”: The US has played such an outsized role in Cuban history that I think there’s no way to write a history of Cuba that isn’t also a history of the U.S. and Cuba. Cuba has also been a recurring presence in U.S. history. It was there from the moment of American independence. It was there as the new republic went out into the world as a commercial power and then as a military and political power. The history of a place where the U.S. has been so present is also a history of the U.S. — a way to see U.S. history from the outside in, through the eyes of another.
CFM: Going back as far as you do in the book, Cuba’s history with the United States becomes clear, and the role that slavery played in shaping it.
AF: Slavery was there from the beginning, or from the beginning of the European presence. What we think of as modern plantation slavery really takes root at the end of the 18th century, at the same time as the Haitian Revolution, which occurred in (what was then) the French colony of Saint-Domingue. It was the largest sugar producer in the world at the time, and when Saint-Domingue stopped producing sugar, Cuban planters seized their chance. That’s when slavery took off in Cuba and that’s when the U.S. begins to concertedly think about acquiring Cuba for itself.
Thomas Jefferson had wanted Cuba to become part of the U.S. By the 1820s, you have more American statesmen really contemplating that seriously. The question was never if, but when. American politicians, economic leaders, financial leaders at that time had a real stake in Cuba. They owned plantations. By the mid 19th century, Americans, particularly in the South, were sending expeditions to Cuba to try to free Cuba from Spain and attach it to the U.S., as two or three slave states.
In 1853, an American vice president was sworn into office while on a Cuban sugar plantation — a signal of the entanglements of those American and Cuban systems of slavery, and of that imperial interest.
CFM: The fight against slavery influenced the idealism of the Cuban War of Independence, from 1895 to 1898, and laid the ground for some of the radical ideas promoted by the 26 of July movement, led by Fidel Castro, in the 1950s.
AF: José Martí, who was one of the main leaders of the independence movement, really thought that it could serve as a kind of lesson and model for the world. One of the things that the Cuban rebels did was to abolish slavery. The rebel movement also created what they called a liberation army that was profoundly multiracial, a novel kind of fighting force. It wasn’t just white leaders mobilizing Black soldiers — those Black soldiers were rising through the ranks and becoming generals and lieutenants and captains. The movement championed a language and the idea of racial equality.
Martì was in the United States at a moment when American imperial ambitions were as important as they had ever been and racism was hardening. He saw Cuban independence movement as a check on U.S. expansion.
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