Book review: Cuba’s story

Autumn 2004

Cuba: A New History by Richard Gott

Yale University Press 2004, 384 pages, hardback, £18.99, ISBN 0-300-10411-1

Steve Wilkinson reviews a new history of Cuba

Long awaited and much needed, this new history of Cuba is, unlike the huge Hugh Thomas ‘bible,’ of manageable proportions at just 384 pages. Thus it serves as a sound introduction as well as a handy reference for the more initiated.

Richard Gott, formerly of The Guardian comes to Cuba with an experienced eye and as someone who was himself not an insignificant part of the story - being the man who helped to identify the body of Che Guevara after his murder in 1967. Gott, then a young reporter was in Bolivia doing a documentary when the hero was captured and killed. A case of being in the right place at a wrong time, but nonetheless one that has equipped him well for this task.

This is not a book that many on the other side of the Atlantic will like, simply because Gott has no brook with the mistaken assumptions about the revolution that prevail over there. Fidel is not a tyrant, says Gott, and does not rule without the consent of the people. It should be compulsory reading in all Miami high schools.

Gott explains how the revolution grew, not out of an ideological adherence to Marxism but out of a long frustrated dream for independence and a yearning for social justice that was thwarted by US interventionism. He then explains how it became radicalised and Marxist through the beastly way it was treated by the US.

This is very much a people’s history. Gott meticulously chronicles the racial and cultural mix of the Cuban people. In this he is perhaps prey to some current liberal fashions of trying to ‘rescue’ the native people and Cuba’s black history. The natives, despite his attempts to convince to the contrary, were wiped out by the Spanish and remain only vestigially in aspects of the language and in the genes of some remote eastern and mountainous peasants who long ago lost the indigenous culture.

On the question of the African Cubans, Gott is perhaps on safer ground, but again one feels somewhat queasy about this since the trend to highlight race issues in Cuba is one that comes mainly from the North, where problems are readily sought where none may really exist.

But Gott, to be fair, is a fair man. He painstakingly builds towards the understanding that because of racism, because of imperialism, the Cuban nation was not really formed until after 1959.

He is also the first commentator of note from outside Cuba, as far as I know, to venture an opinion on what is likely to happen after Fidel dies. While I cannot agree that Fidel is preparing Cuba for a return to capitalism or that today he is largely absent from the scene, I can applaud Gott for arguing that nothing will happen when the great man dies - the revolution will carry on much as it is right now.

Were it not for some unfortunate editing errors and slips (for example Yara is outside Bayamo not Baracoa and the photographer was Alberto not Alexander Korda), this is about as good a history that one sympathetic to Cuba could read.

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