New & Noteworthy

November 2, 2009

That Infernal Little Cuban Republic: The United States and the Cuban Revolution by Lars Schoultz, University of North Carolina Press (2009), 760 pp., $35 (hardcover)

This ambitious, 14-chapter tome aims to analyze half a century’s worth of U.S.-Cuban relations since the 1959 revolution. As indicated by the book’s title—quoting an irritated Theodore Roosevelt in 1906—a recurring theme in this history is exasperation on the U.S side. Exasperation, that is, at Cubans’ stubborn and continual insistence on their right to national self-determination, despite Washington’s best efforts. In short, Schoultz argues that a triad of interests lies behind the embargo—economic (protecting investors, at least at first), military (responding to U.S. defense managers), and political (courting Florida voters).

But that is not all. A neocolonial ideology of the civilizing mission has powerfully shaped official U.S. attitudes toward Cuba, and continues to do so today, though it is now phrased in the language of protecting human rights. Meanwhile, the constraints of opportunity cost that impinge even superpowers, and the moderation inherent to foreign-policy realism, Schoultz argues, have prevented an outright military overthrow of the Cuban government. This has left only the option of an economic embargo to “pinch their nuts,” in Lyndon Johnson’s mellifluous phrase. The result: a near half-century of “one of the most unproductive policies in the history of U.S. foreign relations.”

From Rainforest to Cane Field in Cuba: An Environmental History Since 1492 by Reinaldo Funes Monzote, translated by Alex Martin, University of North Carolina Press (2008), 384 pp., $24.95 (paperback)

In less than a century and a half, the island of Cuba was near totally deforested. The process began in the early 19th century, when the Spanish colonial authorities granted landowners unrestricted freedom to cut down trees in order to make way for sugar plantations. Deforestation then accelerated after independence, when U.S. sugar capital began arriving en masse, bringing with it new industrial methods. At its apex, the Cuban sugar industry would occupy four fifths of the island’s territory.

Funes Monzote narrates this history, framing it as one of conflict between not only sugar and rainforest but also between vested interests. In the colonial era, for example, the Spanish navy and shipbuilders opposed clear-cutting, since they relied on well-managed and conserved forests to supply them with raw material. Plantation owners, in contrast, thrived on tearing down forests, building mills with the timber, and enjoying the fertile soil leftover. The latter carried the day, of course, and the deleterious results were evident almost immediately to contemporary commentators. This itself was a sign, the author maintains, that the dangers of the Cuban landscape’s radical transformation “were not a remote possibility but rather a reality to which the main beneficiaries of commercial agriculture paid scant attention.”

Cuba in the American Imagination: Metaphor and the Imperial Ethos by Louis A. Pérez Jr., University of North Carolina Press, 2008, 333 pp., $34.95 (hardcover)

In this latest addition to an oeuvre of some 15 books, Pérez traces the history of the United States’ imperial imaginings of Cuba as expressed in metaphor. While drawing on theoretical sources in sociolinguistics, cognitive psychology, and philosophy, Pérez assembles a rich archive of U.S. representations of Cuba, both textual and visual. For more than a century, Pérez maintains, metaphors have expressed and constituted a “singular objective” in the United States with regard to Cuba: control of the island. The metaphors of control are many—racialized and gendered, infantilizing and “providential,” and many of them date to the crucial era of the 1898 war.

Pérez tracks the shifting status of these metaphors over the history of U.S.-Cuban relations. Perhaps the most common metaphor was Cuba-as-child, which sustained U.S. imaginings during the 20th century’s era of colonial tutelage, until Cuba-as-playground began to compete for metaphorical dominance. After 1959, these metaphors lost their efficacy and, especially following Castro’s alliance with the Soviet Union, Cuba came to be understood as a totalitarian threat. Today, the study of Cuba’s “transition”—in which North Americans plan “the future of Cuba without the participation of any of the 11 million people who [live] on the island”—confirms the tenacity of the worldview Pérez describes.


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