Michael J. Bustamante, Jennifer L. Lambe, eds. The Revolution from Within: Cuba, 1959-1980. Durham: Duke University Press, 2019. 344 pp. $27.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-4780-0296-3; $104.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4780-0170-6.
Reviewed by Devyn Spence Benson (Davidson College)
Published on H-LatAm (December, 2019)
Commissioned by Casey M. Lurtz (Johns Hopkins University)
New Histories of the Cuban Revolution
On October 17, 2019, Prima ballerina and founder of the Cuban National Ballet Alicia Alonso passed away at the age of ninety-eight. Her death and the deaths of many of the political and cultural leaders of the 1959 Cuban Revolution mark the passing of a generation and a moment for historians to look back on one of Latin America’s most well-known social upheavals with new eyes. Michael J. Bustamante and Jennifer L. Lambe masterfully bring together historians of Cuba from both on and off the island in their new edited volume, The Revolution from Within: Cuba 1959-1980. This ground-breaking collection makes a call for a revisionist history of the Cuban Revolution that moves beyond “partisan differences” and previous narratives that position 1959 as a watershed (p. 4). Revolution from Within succeeds in using currently available sources to study the revolution, decenters Cuban revolutionary events from the US sphere of influence, and provides a close examination of the nuances of the revolution in the understudied era of the 1970s and 1980s.
One of the most exciting aspects of The Revolution from Within is its open dialogue about the elusiveness of archival sources to study the first decades of the revolution. Former archivist at the Cuban National Archive in Havana Jorge Macle Cruz notes in his essay that most histories of the post-1959 period use the same sources, “interviews, personal experiences, existing publications, memoirs, speeches, the press, and inferences,” because researchers cannot access Cuban government archives (p. 47). Even as he points out that state documents are no less “socially constructed” than other sources, Macle Cruz calls for legislation, a type of Freedom of Information Act in Cuba, to declassify government materials (p. 48). Significantly, this essay answers the age-old question about the existence of revolutionary government documents with a resounding yes—they do exist. However, most materials from 1959 forward have not been delivered to the National Archive as legislated, have reached the archive but remain unprocessed, or are not open to scholars. Despite these legal and institutional limitations to accessing government documents, Macle Cruz remains optimistic about future scholarship of the revolutionary period in part because of the numerous ways historians, like the contributors to this volume, have succeeded in producing quality research with these constraints.
Building on Macle Cruz’s intervention, The Revolution from Within offers an exciting combination of essays, some of which uncover new sources and others that use existing documents and newspapers in new ways. Lillian Guerra introduces readers to the photography and “situation notes” of Hungarian/US freelance journalist Andrew St. George, who spent numerous months with Fidel Castro and the 26th of July forces in the Sierra Maestra in the late 1950s. Guerra demonstrates how the photos and articles produced by St. George were instrumental in constructing the image of rebel chivalry and justice. Abel Sierra Madero’s essay on the “acts of repudiation” perpetrated against Cubans who left the island in the 1980 Mariel Boatlift uses recently conducted oral histories and interviews to better understand deeply personal experiences (p. 248). Collecting Cuban testimonies allows Sierra Madero to uncover how the state conscripted ordinary citizens to terrorize their neighbors in 1980. In each of these cases, the authors are able to construct new histories of the Cuban Revolution by drawing on newly discovered archival collections, cultural productions, and oral histories.
Other contributors found novel ways to analyze events using more familiar sources, like revolutionary newspapers, magazines, and speeches. Maria del Pilar Díaz Castañón relies on two popular Cuban periodicals, Diario de la Marina and Bohemia, as she recounts a fascinating tale of everyday citizens and big businesses supporting the Agrarian Reform by dropping off donations to the Bohemia magazine offices in Havana for the “The Collection for Freedom” in March 1959. Díaz Castañón demonstrates how this rarely discussed campaign represents “one of the most significant paradoxes of Year 1” because it was a moment when rather than making demands of the new government, Cubans were contributing to it (p. 105). Likewise, Christabelle Peters employs published writings and speeches by Ernesto “Che” Guevara and Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere to imagine the dialogue from their early 1965 private meetings. Tracing the ways Che’s language and commitment to independence struggles in continental Africa changed before and after the Nyerere meeting, she theorizes about what the two men might have discussed and how they influenced each other. While Peters, Díaz Castañón, and other contributors to this volume rely on sources that have been the cornerstone of previous histories of the revolution, their analysis and conclusions could not be more innovative.
This volume epitomizes its title, The Revolution from Within, through a steadfast focus on events occurring inside of Cuba and refuses to fall into the trap of centering the United States in revolutionary history. Contributors like Reinaldo Fuenes Monzote and Elizabeth Schwall look closely at Cuba before and after 1959 to analyze how Cuban practices and ideas adapted to revolutionary changes. Fuenes Monzote highlights Cuban geographers who from the early twentieth century through the 1960s imagined ambitious plans tying environmental reform to modern development. These geographers, like Antonio Núñez Jiménez, worked in a transnational space, but they also developed uniquely Cuban concepts of “geotransformation” that spanned the 1959 divide (p. 118). Similarly, Schwall’s essay traces how cabaret and ballet dancers, including Alonso’s national company, negotiated the new revolutionary setting by both supporting and pushing the limits of state power as they developed new Cuban cultural productions. Peters’s imagined meetings between Che and Nyerere and Ada Ferrer’s juxtaposition of the Haitian and Cuban revolutions shift the US-Cuba binary to one that includes a much-needed analysis of Cuba’s engagement with Caribbean and African countries.
Unfortunately, this excellent volume misses an opportunity to reframe Cuba as a racialized space. With people of African descent (blacks and mulatos) comprising over a third of the Cuban population, Cubans live racialized lives, not only in comparison to the United States but also on the island itself where racial descriptors, jokes, and discrimination are a fixture in daily life. Various essays in this collection hint at this reality but leave it unexplored. Díaz Castañón notes that the Havana Port Workers Union sent their contribution for the Agrarian Reform collection to the sole Afro-Cuban comandante Juan Almeida instead of directly to Bohemia “for whatever reason” (p. 106). Schwall links the revolution’s distaste for cabaret’s sensuality to the controversy over the 1961 film P.M., which showed mostly black dancers enjoying contemporary night life instead of revolutionary missions. And Sierra Madero’s deeply moving description of the “acts of repudiation” faced by Cubans in Mariel would have benefited from interviews with black Cubans who recount how they were targeted as blacks when they left via racialized hate speech. Thus, in addition to the important calls that this volume makes for a new history of the Cuban Revolution, it also highlights the need for a racialized approach to Cuban history that names and analyzes race, including blackness, whiteness, and mixedness, for how these factors shape discourses, events, and politics in Cuba.
The Revolution Within is a groundbreaking collection of essays that is ideal for undergraduates, graduate students, and all scholars of Cuba and Latin American revolutions who are looking for a new and in-depth take on 1959 and its legacies. Its historiographic intervention into using known and little-known sources, decentering the United States, and highlighting continuities over ruptures makes it a must-read for studying Cuba in the twenty-first century. Most important, this volume calls for more histories like this: histories from inside the revolution that look at what worked and what did not; histories that challenge triumphalist narratives not to tear down political ideologies but rather to understand the extraordinary historical processes that Cubans lived; histories from within.
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Devyn Spence Benson. Review of Bustamante, Michael J.; Lambe, Jennifer L., eds., The Revolution from Within: Cuba, 1959-1980.
H-LatAm, H-Net Reviews.
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