History as destiny

The Structure of Cuban History: Meanings and Purpose of the Past
Louis A Pérez Jr
2013, University of North Carolina Press
352 pages, plates, hardback

IF THERE is one book about Cuban history you should read in your lifetime, it is this unassuming classic by Louis Pérez. That is because, unlike other histories of the island – and there are many, some of them masterpieces in their own right – this is a book about history itself: its role and how it has been understood and used in Cuba as opposed to a straightforward examination of the landmarks and milestones of the passing of political and social time.

This is a story about the story, why it has mattered so much to Cubans, and arguably why it has been so misunderstood by outside observers and in particular the US. It might be said that historiography is the only way to understand this Caribbean island, which has had such an influence on global affairs, because everything else is at risk of being so ideologically loaded given its role in hemispheric affairs.

The premise of The Structure of Cuban History is relatively simple: at the very heart of Cuba’s story – and it has to be said at the heart of the stories of many of the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean – is the notion of unfulfilled nationhood. Pérez argues that the achievement of national sovereignty represents a form of destiny in the Cuban psyche, an enduring narrative around the idea of an unfinished history that arguably began in the war for independence in 1868 and ended with the successful revolution of 1959. The revolution finally consummated a logic that had been leading inexorably to that moment, hence its resonance and, probably, its survival. History was finally complete.

As Pérez writes: “Cuban historical sensibilities had more than adequately disposed a people to embrace the proposition of the triumph of the revolution as vindication of the nation, the past as destiny fulfilled, and indeed that had set in place a near-unassailable logic with which the leadership validated its claim to power.” [p237]

It is a good time to be putting this narrative of sovereignty at the heart of research for many reasons: the recent death of Fidel Castro, which has focused considerable attention on Cuba’s future; the progressive redefinition of sovereignty that has been underway in Latin America since the end of the Cold War, fuelled by the forces of unremitting globalisation; Washington’s apparent signals under Obama that it was prepared to inaugurate a new era of respect for Cuban independence; the real fears now that Trump will simply reverse this; and, moreover, for the first time in its own independent history the struggle the US is itself facing over the implications of foreign interference in its sovereignty, namely Russia’s covert interventions in favour of Trump during the 2016 presidential election.

Cuban history here is always seen as it should be: about nationalism. Castro was a nationalist before he was a Marxist. His uprising was buoyed by a hemispheric instinct for national liberation and an anti-imperial reflex.

The lesson that we emerge clutching is that this has always been a dynamic story; as Pérez states: “Meanings of the past change as circumstances change …” So while history has changed its clothing since 1868 to suit the era – from the romantic patriotism of Martí to the scientific Marxism of the period of Soviet influence – there has been a single constant, like the velocity of light: the quest for meaningful self-determination through national sovereignty.

While none of us can predict where Cuba’s post-Castro journey is now taking it, one can only hope that this constant will persist. – GO’T