While the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Cold War are important aspects of the United States and Cuba’s shared history, they are not the only elements the two share. According to today’s guest and author of Cuba: An American History, Professor Ada Ferrer, there are the centuries of interconnected history between Cuba and the US.
- Ada FerrerProfessor of History and Latin American and Caribbean Studies at New York University
- Alina ScottPhD Candidate in the History Department at the University of Texas at Austin
Professor Ferrer is the Julius Silver Professor of history and Latin American and Caribbean studies at N. Y. U. Her research interests include Cuba, comparative slavery, nationalism and revolution. She is the author of several books including Freedoms Mirror: Cuba and Haiti in the Age of revolution and Insurgent Cuba. She is also the recipient of the 2018 Guggenheim Fellowship and the 2015 Frederick Cats Prize for the best book in Latin American history from the AHA and a number of other honors and awards. Dr Ferrer’s latest book Cuba: An American History was published in September of 2021 will be the subject of our conversation today. I am super excited to talk about this because the writing in this book is so beautiful that you write that history can sometimes function as a mirror and in this case the history of CUBA can tell us a lot about the United States. So that brings me to my first question about why you wanted to write this book. Can you talk a little bit about what led you to this project and why you chose to call it Cuba: an American history?
Sure, Well, I’ve been working on CUBA since I was a master student at UT in the late eighties and I had written the first two books, the first time Cuban independence the second on CUBA. And Haiti, I was trying to decide what a third project would be. And that was the time in which Barack Obama began opening up to CUBA. And my sense was that that was a perfect moment to take stock and write a general history of CUBA. That would inform american readers at a really critical moment in history where it looked like things were going to change. I felt like americans needed to know the complex history of Cuban US relations before that point to avoid past mistakes, to understand what CUBA was all about and how to maybe try to think about a different kind of relationship with CUBA in terms of the title. I like the title because it’s a little mysterious and puzzling. People aren’t quite sure what it means. And I love that. I love that people feel a little unsettled right from the beginning and what I meant by the title is multiple things. On the one hand, this is a history of CUBA right? But because CUBA is so intricately connected to the United States. It’s a history in which the US plays a prominent role in the title alludes to that. I also wanted to inform readers that CUBA itself is a recurring presence in U. S. History CUBA’s there from even before the founding of The United States as an Independent Republic. It’s there through the period of slavery and expansionism in the 19th. It’s there with the rise of us imperialism, Cuba’s there all along as a presence in US history. And then finally was this idea of CUBA acting as a mirror to the history of the United States. Because the two countries are so connected because the U. S. Acts in the world right and acts on CUBA. I felt like looking at history from Cuban ground and Cuban waters was a way to see the United States from the outside in and I wanted to nudge american readers into looking at their own country through the eyes of another. And that was the idea behind the title.
Oh that’s so great and this history that you write- It’s a really long history but I want to zoom in on a couple areas that I was really fascinated by. And I think our listeners will also be fascinated by. Can you talk about the ways that both countries were invested in each other’s wars for independence and revolutionary wars. So how is cuBA invested in the U. S. Is war for independence and the civil war And how was the US invested in CUBA’s wars for independence and revolution?
Right. Well during the american revolution CUBA’s obviously a spanish colony right? And the spanish decided after much back and forth to support the american revolutions, in part because Britain was a historic enemy shortly after the Seven Years war, but that helped translated into direct help from CUBA to the United States. So american revolutionaries courted assistance from Cuban merchants. They traded with CUBA and CUba served as a storehouse of silver currency for the american revolution that they used to buy weapons and so on, Cubans collected money to help George Washington’s troops towards the end of the war. So there was a lot of support and knowledge of the revolution in cuba. Even cuba’s black battalions participated in expeditions in florida in the Bahamas and so on. During that war, in terms of the civil war opinion in CUba was really divided because CUBA is a major slaveholding society. So Cuban planters were very interested in the cause of the south and some Cubans even participated in the confederacy including a woman who dressed as a man and fought in the civil war for the confederacy. But of course because CUBA’s a slave society, there were african and african descended slaves and free people of color who saw Lincoln as a kind of hero and redeemer and who were rooting for the other side. They were rooting for the end of slavery. So all of CUBA was paying attention to what was going on in the United States at that time. And then in terms of U. S involvement in CUBA struggle for independence. That’s a much more complicated story. It begins Even before the movement for Cuban independence takes off right. The first war begins in 1868. But even before the beginning, slowly in the 1820s, definitely powerfully in the 1840s and 1850s there were Americans who said they wanted to fight for Cuban independence from Spain but they didn’t they wanted Cuban independence from Spain but they didn’t want Cuban independence. What they wanted was to kind of detach CUBA from Spain is the motherland and then attach it to the U. S. As a territory. Initially as three states that would be slave states to buttress the power of slavery in the south. And then once the wars do take off, The most famous and consequential involvement of the US comes in the final war, which begins there were three wars of independence. The final one begins in 1895. At the end of that war, the US intervenes militarily in 1898. And that is the event we know as the Spanish American War. But by calling it that and by focusing just on those few months of war, I think Many Americans don’t realize that that was the last phase of a 30-year struggle for Cuban independence. That produced three wars that produced a vibrant political and intellectual movement in favor of independence and that all gets kind of subsumed and forgotten and erased by the title spanish american war. So both both processes of independence in the two countries have points of connection between CUBA and the U. S.
I was so fascinated by Cuban perspectives on the United States civil war. It was so interesting but I wasn’t entirely surprised by the number of former members of the confederacy who sought out Cuba as potentially a place for a new home. Considering the new restrictions on slavery in the US partially because this occurred throughout the Caribbean and central America and south America. And I think I’ve mentioned this on the podcast before. But in a village that I lived in in Belize there’s a confederate cemetery and descendants of former members of the confederacy who moved to Belize as this refuge for slaveholding after the U. S. Civil war. So that wasn’t entirely…
Shocking, fascinating. Yeah fascinating.
It’s really interesting. But I wonder if there are other areas of intersection that our listeners might find shocking or surprising not just in these wars and battles but kind of in the long history of the interconnectedness between the U. S. And cuba.
Yeah. Well I think that the 19th century connections having to do with slavery I think will be surprising to most American readers and they are among the most powerful and important I think. So I begin that part of the book which consists of four chapters. It’s part three of the book I think. And I begin it in the 18 twenties with a U. S. Senator from Rhode island who is very involved in the slave trade Or had been, he was a slave trade captain and ship owner and made all kinds of money from that trade even after it became illegal in the US and 1808. But he also owned his family owned about four plantations in Cuba, both sugar and coffee. He was from bristol Rhode island and you read the family’s papers and you find their enslaved workers were producing sugar. But these american owners and managers who are part of the U. S. Elite politically economically were also managing and quotes managing the slaves, putting them in stocks, buying and selling people separating families right. And americans were such a major part of that system in CUba that we that’s not to excuse Cuban involvement of course. But I think americans don’t realize how deep and pervasive that Connection was. And one of the last instances of it I look at in the book comes in the 1850s in the midst of this filibustering Craze where Americans are trying to invade Cuba to free you from Spain and attach it to the us in the midst of that you get the election of Franklin pierce in 1852 who ran on a platform that was in part about acquiring CUBA for the U. S. And his vice president William Rufus king Alabama planter ends up taking his oath of office on a Cuban sugar plantation And the first time I read it I did a double take. You tell people that and they think what you mean his oath of office as U. S. Vice president and he took it in a Cuban sugar plantation. And yes that’s exactly what happened and I think it just encapsulates how profound that connection was and how much of it was built around slavery and sugar. So I think that will surprise of some readers
That is a perfect transition into my next question which is really about these attempts to incorporate Cuba into the United States before the 20th century. And so I’m really interested in how far these attempts go back and what beyond slavery did the us have to gain from attempting to incorporate CUba or having a conversation about cuba so early on?
Yeah. Well for most of the 19th century it was about slavery. It was also about commerce. So there were northern interests who wanted to trade more with CUba as a spanish colony who had investments in CUBA. And so I would say it was both of them, you know, after the end of slavery that desire to a next CUBA as a state disappears virtually not, you know not entirely. And it resumes again or at the end of the century as american investments particularly in land and sugar are escalating and at that point after the spanish american war. There’s this question of what the U. S. Will now do with cuBA. So it occupies it militarily and some people are calling for annexation. It’s unlikely that that, well the annexation never happened. But even in the talk about annexation it wasn’t about CUBA as a state, it was more about A territory. And for one thing it would have just been impossible. I don’t think Americans would have supported it. And I think Cubans coming out of a 30-year process of fighting for independence, it would have been difficult to impose. That.
Can you talk about what happens after this occupation of CUBA and then the US leaves?
Yeah. So you know the US intervenes in 1898 wins the war. It signs a peace treaty and it Proceeds to occupy Cuba militarily from 1899 to 1902. When it first declared war, the us through the Teller amendment said we will Cuban sovereignty resides in the Cuban people and we’re just there to pacify the country. The country was pacified pretty quickly. And so Cuban said okay it’s pacified time to leave and they’re like no no no it’s pacified. But that’s not that’s not the condition for leaving. The condition for leaving is that Cubans proved themselves capable of self government which is a different benchmark. And it also sets up the U. S. As the judge of when Cubans will be capable of self government and then it changes and then Cubans have peaceful elections and they write a constitution. So Cubans have a peaceful election and they write a constitution and still that’s not enough for the U. S. So the U. S. Then says that to prove that they are capable of self government. Cubans have to accept something called the Platt amendment as an appendix to their constitution. The Platt Amendment basically gives the US the right of intervention in CUBA. It says it can intervene in CUBA without the invitation of the Cuban government to protect life liberty etcetera. So the americans leave in 1902 but they leave with that Platt amendment in place. And even the military governor of CUBA says there’s no effective independence in CUba with the Platt amendment in place. So that very much limited Cuban sovereignty. The U. S. Occupied CUBA again from 19 oh 6 to 1909. It’s staged other smaller interventions that didn’t become full scale occupations. But it meant that Cuban political leaders always had to contend with the issue of the U. S. They knew that there was an external power that had a say in Cuban politics and CUBA’s future.
So this story that you write about begins with the arrival of columbus and his interactions with Latinos and ends with the Obama administration and the death of Fidel castro. So it’s an expansive history that you’re writing, but you also write that, you know, the history of cuBA and the U. S. Shouldn’t be discussed through the sole lens of the cold war. Which having been in many history classes seems like that’s the kind of the way people perceive CUBA in relation to the U. S. And nor should it be viewed solely through the lens of states and governments. So you make this distinction about pulling out the stories of individuals and what it was like to actually be in CUBA. In all the different time periods that you’re writing about. So that really captivated me as someone who’s trying to write history and I know it’ll captivate our listeners. So I wonder if you could share a couple of those stories that you include in your book.
Yeah the stories of individual people. You mean and yeah I think my interest we think of great men history or we think about history with a big age and that history always operates on individual people and ordinary people and families and so I wanted to convey some of that right that this this is this is everyone’s history. It’s not just the history of Fidel Castro and the spanish king and an american president. So I would say thinking about individuals sometimes it’s not even about an individual. It’s just reminding the reader that there’s an individual there. So for example when I’m talking about slavery in some of the family papers of that senator who owned plantations in Cuba and help people his property. I came across a reference to the slave quarters at night and how people there used glow worms as candles. And so I don’t have the name of an individual person in that instance. But the image just makes the reader think about people who would have been in those quarters, you know late at night really tired their bones and muscles hurting trying to do something by the light of a glower. Whether it’s like mending a sock or combing a child’s hair or rubbing their arms or you know, So sometimes it’s that just bringing that up, sometimes it’s reminding the reader that we don’t have the names of people. So for example the University of Havana which is beautiful building has this iconic staircase, this wide long staircase in the front and there’s a statue called alma mater at the top of a seated woman. And it was done by a uh an eastern European sculpture who was then living and working in the U. S. I can’t remember his name, I’m not sure I included his name. And there were two models for the sculpture. There was a model for the face and that was like the 16 year old daughter of a pharmacy or chemistry professor at the University. So a young white woman. And then there was a model for the body and the model for the body was a woman of colour. She’s identified as mixed race. She was older than the model for the face. I wasn’t able to find her name. So just telling people that that there’s all these people in this history and we don’t know their names. Another person, sorry if I can just keep going. But this is also a personal history for me because I was born in CUBA and both my parents are CUBA and I left as a child and I grew up on my mother’s stories, always about some of this, including even going back to the end of slavery. So when she was growing up in this tiny little town, there was this couple of both former slaves who would gather the Children of the neighborhood and tell them stories. So I used that, I don’t talk about it extensively, but I used that in another point. My mother is going to work early in the morning and she sees Batista’s tank either rolling in or rolling out. I can’t remember of into Camp Columbia, the military barracks. So I include that. So I also think of my mother as an individual in here in some sense.