Lars Schoultz. That Infernal Little Cuban Republic: The United States and the Cuban Revolution. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009. 745 pp. $35.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8078-3260-8.
Reviewed by Alan McPherson (University of Oklahoma)
Published on H-Diplo (December, 2009)
Commissioned by Christopher L. Ball
An Enduring Failure
In this voluminous tome, Lars Schoultz asks what has motivated U.S. policy toward Cuba since the triumph of the Cuban Revolution in 1959. To answer the question he explores all the usual causes of U.S. policy--investment, strategic concerns, and domestic U.S. politics. But the overall argument is about "what makes this relationship so intriguing:... an ideology, a set of tightly integrated beliefs that controls the way powerful countries like the United States have traditionally thought about smaller neighboring countries like Cuba" (p. 3).
The book is organized rather traditionally, with a first chapter covering the pre-1945 period and then one or two chapters on each U.S. presidential administration. This organization suggests that each president shifted Cuban policy somewhat. For some, such as Jimmy Carter who opened up an Interests Section in Havana, and George W. Bush, who actively planned for the demise of the Fidel Castro dictatorship, this is true. For others, such as Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson, it is less clear in which direction they took Cuban policy; they mostly reacted to events as they unfolded. Dwight Eisenhower and John Kennedy receive two chapters each, which is understandable since they dealt with the most momentous and complex years of the revolution, from 1958 to 1963. Oddly, the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 receives almost no attention, perhaps because Schoultz considers it more of a U.S.-Soviet than a U.S.-Cuban event.
Those looking for an international history of the Cuban Revolution or a bilateral recounting of relations between Havana and Washington will be disappointed. Schoultz, like William LeoGrande in Our Own Backyard: The United States in Central America, 1977-1992 (1998) has chosen to focus on the view from Washington (and Miami), delving in internal Cuban affairs only when necessary--such as when he charts Castro's rise. A major reason is that Cuban state documents are still largely locked up. Another is that the book would be even longer than it already is. The choice, in the end, is wise because it allows the reader to fully know all the various players involved in Cuban policy in the United States. One learns in far more detail, for instance, that U.S. ranch owners in 1959 played an important part in creating a sense of urgency in Washington about the Agrarian Reform. Bob Kleberg, the head of King Ranch, had immediate access and was on a first-name basis with all the "deciders" in the White House and the State Department. And it turned out that he and his kin were correct that the land issue was the centerpiece in the Cuban Revolution.
Perhaps the most important finding of the book--which the author could have advanced more forcefully--is the slow shift in the responsibility for Cuban policy. Before the revolution, when there was no major crisis in Cuba, U.S. ambassadors, for instance, the democratic activist Spruillle Braden in the 1940s, held sway over policy. In the late 1950s, the Department of Defense played a key role in renewing arms shipments (too late, it turned out) to dictator Fulgencio Batista after the State Department had forbidden them. In the early revolution, notwithstanding the power of King Ranch, it was the executive, especially the president and the State Department, that made Cuban policy. Entrepreneurs only had influence with them because Foggy Bottom agreed that Castro was bad for business.
Since the end of the Cold War, however, policy initiatives--and the ability to block a reversal of those initiatives--shifted to Congress and Cuban American lobbyists. The Cuban Americans showed their electoral strength during the Richard Nixon administration, when they were able to defeat any thought of détente emanating from Henry Kissinger's State Department. By the time Ronald Reagan ran in the primaries, Cuba became a swing issue in Florida, and soon the nation. The appropriation of congressional earmarks by this small group for anti-Castro technologies, such as Radio Martí, has gone on ever since, with the triumphs peaking in the 1990s with two pieces of legislation--the Torricelli and the Helms-Burton Acts--that tightened the embargo and codified it so that it could only be changed by again going through Congress. The machinations by the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF), in fact, are so numerous and complex that they take up much of the last quarter of this book. Schoultz even finds that some Cuban Americans allegedly diverted into their own bank accounts taxpayer funds meant to promote "Cuban democracy" (p. 547). But not all Cuban Americans have been hard-line. In the 1970s, Bernardo Benes and his colleagues were behind much of the momentum for the Carter détente, and recently, with the demise of the CANF, the "Miami mafia" has been much less united and ruthless.
There are no major revelations in the book. But because of its size it adds great detail to what we previously knew and even discusses the role of allies, such as the British (researched in the U.K. archives), and the larger Cold War or decolonization contexts of U.S.-Cuban policy. Schoultz even touches on lesser-known collaborations between the Castro government and U.S. administrations, such as counter-hijacking efforts and the sharing of tropical storm data during the Nixon years. And his treatment of Cuban foreign policy in Angola and elsewhere is reinforced by Piero Gleijeses's recent work, Conflicting Missions: Havana, Washington, and Africa, 1959-1976 (2002).
This book is therefore a treasure: an admirably comprehensive and up-to-date review of U.S. Cuban policy since the beginning of the twentieth century and especially since 1959. Informed by deep research into archives and public sources, it will not be surpassed for a generation. Schoultz has a particular talent for explaining clearly the most arcane technological or legal matters.
But the argument of the book does present problems. The first is that Schoultz never really analyzes the various components of the ideology he claims has directed Washington, nor does he apply it to various incidents and periods in U.S.-Cuban relations. He briefly discusses paternalism and racism in the introduction, but does not fully develop them as ideological configurations. What did it mean, really, that Cuba "irritate[d]" the United States (p. 13)? Don't large countries irritate also? What about non-Latin American countries? What about staunch allies? Lou Pérez's recent Cuba in the American Imagination (2008) much more directly takes on the images and ideas that identify the U.S. gaze toward Cuba: the metaphors of proximity, of age, of gratitude, etc. Schoultz's technique, rather, is to cite the occasional nasty or demeaning comment by a U.S. policymaker. These are legion, to be sure, and for what it's worth they do not harm the argument. But a weakness of this method is that, over time, these disparaging comments about Cuba were uttered less and less often yet U.S. policy did not change. So apart from anticommunism, did ideology dissipate? Did it change shape?
Because he does not delve deep enough into this ideology, Schoultz also misses opportunities to point out its contradictions. For instance, early in the century, paternal jingoes, like Teddy Roosevelt, believed that U.S. aggression in Cuba could teach the Cubans to govern themselves better; at the same time, they believed that, as Governor General Charles Magoon said, "we cannot change these racial characteristics by administering their Government for two years or twenty years" (p. 27). So which was it? Were Cubans children to be "uplifted" or unredeemable "dagoes," as Roosevelt liked to call them (p. 8)?
Also confusing, Schoultz states that "realism is part of our ideology," meaning that the United States assumed it could exploit Cuba because of the material power differential and for the same reason blanched at Cubans' refusal to be exploited (p. 4). Again this makes sense in that material power can give form to a presumption of cultural superiority that in turn can justify the application of that power. But should that give an author the license simply to focus on policies and slowly abandon ideology? Related to this is that Schoultz claims that the reason Cuba remained defiant after the Soviets withdrew their protection is because of "the constraints that the modern world now imposes on the exercise of power" (p. 4). Certainly, the world would look down on a U.S. invasion of Cuba. But the main reason one has not occurred is that the interests of the United States--economically, strategically, or culturally--would no longer be served.
These drawbacks should not discourage anyone from enjoying this book. Written with verve and wit, That Infernal Little Cuban Republic is replete with the choicest quotes from U.S. policymakers and most trenchant commentaries from the author: "President [Carlos] Prío was just another banana on this bunch" and "now the camel's nose was inside the tent, and it clearly liked what it smelled" are just a few examples (pp. 46, 520). Schoultz, a political scientist by training, has been writing history for a while, and has fully mastered the comprehensive research methods and fluid narrative style of the best historians working today (full disclosure: he was a former advisor of mine). The writing alone makes this a surprisingly quick, worthwhile read, not to mention the fullest, most textured review of U.S. policy toward Cuba written so far.
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