Sometimes it takes another’s misfortunes to make you feel better about your own. This can also apply to countries. I’m thinking of war-torn Ukraine. And Cuba—ever since reading CUBA: An American History, which won a Pulitzer Prize earlier this year.
What’s unusual about this book is that it’s a history of Cuba and also a history of Cuba in relation to the United States. Who better to write such a book than someone born in Cuba but raised in this country. Ada Ferrer was ten months old in 1963 when she and her mother boarded a ship in Havana to join her father in the U.S. He was distrustful of the new Castro regime and had already found work in New York City as a short order cook. Ada grew up to be a university professor and historian, travelling back and forth to Cuba for the last thirty years, visiting family who stayed behind and studying the history of the Cuban people.
Reading this book made me want to share some take-aways, to say look at how lucky we are to live in this 239-year-old democracy–despite all our problems and past mistakes. Things could be so much worse; let’s not make them any worse. We need only look as far as Cuba and this abbreviated version of our tangled histories:
*When Columbus discovered America in 1492, what he really discovered was the Bahamas, Cuba, and Hispaniola. It wasn’t until 1513 that another Spanish explorer, Ponce de Leon, caught sight of the North American continent. He landed in Florida and colonized it for Spain, two years after Cuba. A century later, in 1607, the British established their first American colony in Jamestown, Virginia.
*The relationship between Cuba and the American colonies began in the 1700s, when both were dependent on labor from the transatlantic slave trade. Havana was the third largest city in the New World, after Mexico City and Lima, Peru, and its harbor could anchor one thousand ships “without confusion.” As labor needs intensified (sugar plantations in Cuba; cotton fields in the American south) so did their collaboration in the slave trade, which continued through the start of the Civil War.
*During the Americans’ eight-year struggle for independence, Cubans raised funds to support George Washington’s army, and even sent some troops to fight the British. The new nation’s first central bank was partly financed by Spanish silver stored in Havana.
*Soon after Independence up until the eve of the Spanish-American War, U.S. politicians talked about annexing Cuba. The island was the gateway to the Gulf of Mexico and Europe, which meant the U.S. and its trading ships were vulnerable to attack by whoever controlled Cuba. Plus, they were both heavily invested in the slave trade. Even after it was banned, slave ships continued to land in Cuba, and most were built in the U.S.
*More than 100 years after the Americans won their independence, Cubans were fighting for their own. This was their third war since 1868 (which doesn’t include all the unsuccessful slave rebellions) and it was almost won in 1898 when the U.S. stepped in to help. We call it the Spanish-American War. In Cuba, they call it the Cuban War of Independence.
*The U.S. emerged from the war as a new world power with control over Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines, but Cuba got a raw deal. They weren’t even invited to the peace talks. Afterwards, Cuba was strong-armed by the U.S. into signing an agreement that gave them the ability to interfere in Cuban elections for the foreseeable future. Many Cubans had gone bankrupt during the war—sugar fields and mills destroyed—and they hoped the U.S. would give them credit to rebuild. Instead, within five years of Independence, 75% of these rural properties were sold to foreigners—mostly Americans.
*As time went on, American companies and investors dominated the other businesses once owned by Cubans. A series of elected Cuban Presidents were mostly ineffective and corrupt. But life wasn’t all bad. Eventually American tourists flocked to Cuba to honeymoon and to fish or to drink during Prohibition. In turn, Cubans shopped in Miami, played baseball in the American Negro Leagues, and visited spots like Niagara Falls. Americans consumed lots of Cuban sugar, and Cubans bought lots of American cars.
*By the time the Depression hit, the Cuban economy was in bad shape, and most Cubans were tired of U.S. interference. In 1933 there was a general uprising among students, laborers and the unemployed. A group of disgruntled army sergeants staged a coup, and a young Sergeant Fulgencio Batista ended up in charge.
*Batista improved the economy, education, and public works, and he ingratiated himself with the Americans while making himself very rich. Over time he became more corrupt and brutal, especially after he returned to power for a second time in 1952, this time as a military dictator backed by the U.S.
*Fidel Castro became active in political causes while studying law in Havana. When Batista hijacked the Presidency in 1952, Castro filed a lawsuit that went nowhere. He was imprisoned for leading a raid on an army barracks but was released early. He left Cuba to plot a revolution.
*Relations between the U.S. and Cuba soured after 1959, when Fidel Castro and his guerilla army overthrew Fulgencio Batista and nationalized all American businesses. The U.S. Embassy in Havana closed in 1961.
*During the Kennedy administration, CIA-backed Cuban exiles tried to overthrow Castro (the Bay of Pigs)—a total failure. Castro turned to the Soviets for military support and weapons, convinced the U.S. would keep trying to overthrow or kill him.
*The Bay of Pigs fiasco led to the Cuban Missile Crisis, with the U.S. facing off against the Soviet Union and the threat of Nuclear Holocaust. The Soviets agreed to withdraw their nukes from Cuba if the U.S. withdrew theirs from Turkey. A furious Castro was never consulted.
*The Cold War created great economic hardship in Cuba, and the U.S. welcomed several large waves of Cuban immigrants into the country. Many remained in Miami, transforming the city’s demographics and Florida politics.
*The Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviets officially ended in 1991, but it continued with Cuba. The U.S. asked Gorbachev to remove his troops from Cuba and suspend all aid. He agreed. Castro found out through the media. The Cuban economy was devastated. Food shortages were the norm.
*In 2014, President Obama began to normalize relations with Cuba and visited the country in 2016. By then power had passed from Fidel to his brother Raul. Embassies in Havana and D.C. reopened. Tourism resumed. American companies such as John Deere, Jet Blue, Marriott Hotels and Carnival Cruise Lines travelled to Cuba to pitch doing business. At the time, most Cubans earned about $22/month and were more interested in bettering their lives than in political ideology.
*In 2018, President Trump reversed the thaw with Cuba, even though the Trump Organization had travelled to Cuba to explore business opportunities just months before he won the election. New businesses closed; food supplies dwindled; electricity rates tripled, the Pandemic hit.
What the Cuban people wanted was a democracy—like their big neighbor. What they got was all the above and worse, dating back to the 1500s when the Spanish almost wiped out the native “Taino” people who’d lived in Cuba for over 500 years.
Fulgencio Batista and Fidel Castro
Batista stepped down as President when his first term was up. Eight years later he returned as a military dictator after realizing he was about to lose the election. He took power by coup, cancelled the elections, and became a brutal leader who jailed or terrorized opponents and made himself even richer through corruption.
Is it any wonder that someone like Castro came along?
“Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Cuba is a perfect example, with Batista and Castro on opposite ends of the political spectrum. Castro was a response to Batista’s corruption and the centuries of wrongs done to the Cuban people. After Castro assumed power, he moved further to the left and ended up embracing Communism and the Soviets, but mainly because he viewed the U.S. as a constant threat.
With our own mid-term elections approaching and another Presidential election only two years away, this book is food for thought. Compared to Cuba, we got lucky with democracy. Maybe it’s high time that voters—and all our politicians—put Country ahead of party to keep it going.