Jesus Arboleya. The Cuban Counterrevolution. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2000. xvi + 361 pp. $26.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-89680-214-8.
Reviewed by Kirwin R. Shaffer (Department of Humanities, Liberal Arts and Sciences, Penn State University--Berks/Lehigh Valley)
Published on H-LatAm (August, 2002)
Most readers will be familiar with the Cuban-American National Foundation (CANF), the main counter-revolutionary organization based in the United States and aimed at toppling Fidel Castro and Cuban Socialism. What is less well-known is how the CANF arrived at its exalted place in the U.S. foreign policy and domestic political power structures. Jesus Arboleya, Professor History at the University of Havana, examines the long history of Cubans and Cuban-Americans working since 1959 to overthrow Fidel and how such efforts have largely been linked to and controlled by U.S. foreign policy. While Arboleya takes a decidedly one-sided, pro-Cuban Revolution stance, his unique sources and detailed history provide some juicy intrigue that only the most imaginative conspiracy theorists could dream up. In fact, his focus on exile violence in Cuba, Latin America and the United States makes for poignant reading during the new global war on terrorism.
The Cuban Counterrevolution is part of a growing number of Cuban histories produced on the island and translated for English-reading audiences. As such, one finds in these works, Arboleya's included, less of the jingoistic language that traditionally accompanies so much literature produced in Spanish in Cuba over the past decades. Nevertheless, Arboleya does not shy away from an overt class analysis. Building on Marx and historical materialism, he argues that a counterrevolution is the natural result of a revolution, so in Cuba this means that counterrevolutionaries are "the antithesis of this ideological position" of nationalism, anti-imperialism and socialism (p. ix). Most members of the counterrevolution's early decades were also members of Cuba's native elite, which had long submitted to and benefited from materially the country's dependence on the United States. When these people fled the island to the United States, they brought with them their allegiance to the United States and their class interests. Thus, emigration "was assigned a counter-revolutionary function from which derives the preferential treatment it has received" from the U.S. government (p. x). Consequently, from the very beginning exiles and the U.S. government used each other's hatred for socialism to attempt to bring down the Cuban Revolution. Yet, Arboleya does not refer to all exiles as militants; only a minority are such, he claims. Arboleya does claim, however, that even those Cubans who left because they were dissatisfied with life in Cuba are part of the "counterrevolution." In this sense, we see the "you're either with us or against us" mentality long entrenched in revolutionary Cuba. So, while the blatant jingoism is largely absent from the book, there is still an obvious political agenda at work. The book, nonetheless, provides useful critiques of U.S. foreign policy, provides new insight into the early years of the counterrevolution, and sheds light on the rise and control of the political right in exile politics.
The conceptual core of Arboleya's book is what he (or his translator) calls "Plattism." The infamous Platt Amendment was created by the United States and inserted into the Cuban Constitution in 1902. Among other things, it gave the United States the right to militarily intervene in Cuba in the event of instability. The Cuban elite could rely on the Platt Amendment to help them stifle dissent, especially unruly workers. When the government repressed dissent, such measures could be justified by nationalist appeals: we had to do something or the U.S. would invade. Such actions against the popular classes served not only elite interests but also international business interests, especially those from the United States. Until 1933, when most of the Platt Amendment was renounced by Franklin Roosevelt, the United States frequently intervened militarily in Cuba; afterward U.S. political and economic intervention remained steady. For over fifty years, then, the Cuban elite acted in concert with and under the tutelage of the United States. When these elite fled Cuba before and after the Revolution's rise to power, they continued their reliance on and faith in the United States to intervene in Cuba--a form of Plattism without the Platt Amendment.
Laid out chronologically, The Cuban Counterrevolution is at its best when documenting the understudied and relatively unknown first four years of the Revolution (1959-1963). In these chapters Arboleya relies on anonymous interviews and the intelligence archives of the Cuban Ministry of Interior to document the early counterrevolution. In the early years, according to Arboleya, most counterrevolutionaries came from pre-1959 political parties and Catholic organizations, with some from the island's labor movement. But, he argues, this first phase was mainly middle-class in nature. He fails to mention the radical left and anarchists who fled the island in the early 1960s after being harassed by the government and fearing the rise of state socialism.
Cuban intelligence organizations effectively undermined these island dissidents so that by 1961, "the counterrevolution in Cuba had been almost totally destroyed" (p. 79). This meant that the counterrevolution had to be launched from foreign soil, i.e., the United States. Arboleya believes this set the stage for where we are today. First, the United States and the Central Intelligence Agency gained control of the counterrevolution. As more and more Cubans fled to the United States and the movement of resistance on the island dissipated, those calling the shots in Washington began to see an invasion as the only option for overthrowing the revolution. However, the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 infuriated exiles. John Kennedy's refusal to use U.S. military personnel to help the invasion seemed to be a betrayal of the Plattist relationship.
Second, the CIA began to reorganize the exile groups to bring them further under the agency's control. This included "dismembering existing organizations, isolating their leaders, forming groups that did not always operate harmoniously, and imposing the leadership of persons selected by the CIA" (p. 109). This had two important long-term consequences. First, exile groups began competing with one another for CIA favor and funds. Those most willing to follow CIA directives, of course, received the most of both. Second, not only did the groups not always act harmoniously, but also there began the growing divide between exile groups and dissident groups on the island that we still see. Today we frequently hear dissident groups in Cuba calling for an end to the U.S. embargo of the island and urging the United States to take less coercive measures that punish average Cubans. Meanwhile, the dominant exile groups in the United States (dominant because they have curried the most favor with the U.S. government's foreign policy goals) continue to clamor for even tougher measures to strangle Fidel. Arboleya illustrates how this current divide arose in the immediate aftermath of the post-Bay of Pigs fiasco.
By the 1970s, American foreign policy was less concerned with a Cuban threat. In fact, both countries began to talk openly about normalizing relations. Meanwhile exile politics took on a different look. It is easy to forget that the exile community in the United States is not monolithic. Arboleya shows how two new political trends arose, both, in his view, linked to different agendas of the "counterrevolution." While the mainstream gradually melded into American life, what Arboleya justly calls a "fascist right" arose, inspired by the Chilean military coup in 1973 in which the United States played a major role. At the same time, a youth-based liberal movement emerged. Inspired by the anti-Vietnam War movement and sympathetic to the social agenda of the Cuban Revolution, this liberal element began to call for coexistence between Cuba and the United States. Although one can understand how Arboleya sees the right as part of the counterrevolution, many readers will be surprised that he calls this leftist movement counterrevolutionary as well. Rather than seeing them as supporters of the Revolution, Arboleya views the Cuban exile left as cooperating with Jimmy Carter's moves to normalize relations. Oddly, exiles who want to normalize relations are counterrevolutionaries too. Again, if you're not part of the Revolution (on the island!), then you're against it ... even if you sympathize with it. The coexistence movement failed, though, not due to a lack of political will. Rather, it was taken over by those who hoped to make money off of renewed relationships between the countries; and, undermined by the fascist right, which began a wave of terrorist actions against the exile left.
One other aspect of this section of the book makes it of particular interest since September 11, 2001. Arboleya reminds us of the terrorism linked to many of the more radical militants in the exile community. This terrorism was global, with Cuban counterrevolutionaries engaged in activities in Cuba, Latin America and even the United States. The level of terrorist activities is actually mind-boggling. In the 1960s, 371 actions were carried out against Cuba and 156 acts of terror were committed in the United States and abroad. During the 1970s this trend was reversed; only 16 attacks were launched against Cuba while counterrevolutionaries executed 279 terrorist acts in the United States and abroad. Then from 1980-1992, only eighteen acts were committed against Cuba. Why so few in this third era? The counterrevolution found its savior and supporter in Ronald Reagan.
Of course, the exile community today is dominated by the voice of the CANF. Whenever there is news involving Cuba, one can automatically expect the U.S. news media to interview CANF officials, almost to the exclusion of other voices in the exile community. So how did the CANF rise to such prominence? Arboleya explains it by Plattism--that alliance between the interests of U.S. and Cuban conservative economic and political elites. The arrival of Reaganism "revitalized" the counterrevolutionary function of the exile community (p. 217). Formed in 1981, the CANF was the brainchild of CIA Director William Casey. The CANF would help the American New Right by providing it with access to the Hispanic vote as well as providing support for Reagan foreign policy initiatives in Nicaragua and Angola. In return, the CANF (whose leadership was composed mostly of first-generation immigrants with old-money interests) profited monetarily and politically from Reagan-era conservatism, becoming the most powerful and influential Cuban organization in the United States. Arboleya provides a nice biography of the group's most memorable leader, Jorge Mas Canosa--a man who came to represent wealth and power when he was named the third richest Hispanic in the United States in 1995.
While Arboleya's The Cuban Counterrevolution makes for interesting reading with a definite political point of view, there are a few troubling aspects. One revolves around sources. While the book relies on a variety of primary and secondary sources, as well as oral interviews, several of the interviewees are not named, apparently wishing to remain anonymous. Depending on their situations, the author is to be commended for getting the information and fulfilling the sources' wishes. However, the use of anonymous sources in a work of history attests to the still volatile nature of all issues relating to Cuba. A second source-related issue revolves around the use of MININT archives. Rarely does one encounter historical scholarship based heavily on these intelligence records. Arboleya judiciously incorporates them, especially in his laudable chapters on the 1959-1963 period. However, at times the author comes off as accepting at face value the effectiveness of the Cuban Ministry of Interior in rooting out counterrevolutionaries. A reader has to ask if the sources are guiding the story too much here, and if Arboleya gives too rosy of a picture of MININT activities. In some ways, this becomes a story praising MININT for its successes in undermining the domestic counterrevolutionaries.
More problematic is the author's blatant towing of the government line about democratic and human rights reforms on the island. Throughout the book, all dissent from the Communist Party line is treated as counterrevolutionary. In the early chapters on dissent, for instance, all Catholic challengers to the new regime are labeled as "falangist," with no explanation. In the concluding chapters, Arboleya portrays human rights groups both abroad and in Cuba as "The Other Face of the Counterrevolution" (a section title from Chapter 7 that itself is titled "The Counterrevolution Renewed"). Placing the birth of the human rights agenda in the Carter Administration, Arboleya argues that "human rights" issues have been converted into political platforms of "transition to democracy" (p. 254). In other words, the call for human rights and democratic changes "constitutes an effort for the new international order that is presumed to follow the Cold War" (p. 260). Or, read more succinctly, when groups call for democratic reforms they really mean achieving a form of political stability to accommodate the expansion of global capitalism. Arboleya refers to this as "'peaceful subversion'" (p. 261). Certainly some of this exists. The manipulative efforts of the Helms-Burton Amendments and the infamously named Cuban Democracy Act all strike even the most innocent of readers as efforts by the U.S. government to coerce Cuba to abandon the Revolution. Yet, this reviewer thinks that Arboleya goes too far in portraying all dissident groups on the island and abroad as stooges for imperialism.
Despite these criticisms, Jesus Arboleya's The Cuban Counterrevolution is well worth the read. The book is especially interesting for its history of the early years of the Revolution, the conflictive relations within the exile community, and as a useful critique of U.S. foreign policy on Cuba. Moreover, despite (or maybe because of) its obvious if subtle political analysis, it is nice for English-reading audiences to hear more voices from the island.
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Kirwin R. Shaffer. Review of Arboleya, Jesus, The Cuban Counterrevolution.
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Copyright © 2002 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit, educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. For any other proposed use, contact the Reviews editorial staff at firstname.lastname@example.org.