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Cuba: An American History—Another Disappointment

I added Cuba: An American History by Ada Ferrer to my reading list to get a deeper understanding of the history of my wife’s birthplace. Ferrer is only a year younger than my wife and her personal and family stories had a lot of similarities with those of my wife and her family. The book was awarded the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for History and had received significant critical praise. The over-the-top nature of the book blurb, the reviews and endorsements indicated that the book would probably turn out to be yet another progressive critique of American foreign policy. Despite that, I held out hope that the author would hold her personal biases in check and that most of the book would be an objective historical analysis of five hundred years of Cuban history.

Unfortunately, this book fails to present a balanced narrative that would help the reader gain a greater understanding of Cuban history and the Cuban people. The story of the founding and development of Cuba over almost four hundred years under Spanish rule is less than a third of the book. This part of Cuban history is told almost exclusively through a contemporary racial lens. It is so overt and heavy-handed, it makes you question Ferrer’s basic scholarship.

The last two thirds of the book deal with Cuba after Spanish rule ended. This part of the book shows a persistent bias that aligns more with progressive critiques of American foreign policy rather than an objective historical analysis. She consistently portrays U.S. actions and policies as detrimental and imperialistic. Just like the earlier part of the book, this is just more storytelling based on the same “evil oppressor” and “noble victim” trope. That is often the basis for ok fiction, but it doesn’t make for good history.

Ferrer also romanticizes the Cuban Revolution and Fidel Castro’s regime. She gives almost no attention to the significant human rights abuses and economic failures that have plagued Cuba since 1959. Despite the experiences of her own father, she essentially ignores the plight of political dissidents, the lack of basic freedoms, and the economic hardships faced by ordinary Cubans under a repressive government for over sixty years.

Even though Ferrer’s work has understanding the relationship between Cuba and the United States as a primary objective, she almost totally ignores the development and achievements of Cuban communities in the United States. Given her own story, this was surprising. She doesn’t really explore how they have influenced American politics and foreign policy despite the significant impact that has had on Cuba, the United States, and the relationship between the countries. Having lived among and married into that community, it seems like another major omission in the book.

Instead of exploring this part of Cuban history, Ferrer chose to use the closing chapters of the book to talk about President Obama and President Trump. It is always tough for a historian writing about current events to avoid personal bias, but Ferrer doesn’t even make an attempt. It was not unexpected at that point of the book, but it sad that the standards of historical scholarship and the Pulitzer committee seem to have evaporated.

Cuba An American History Cover

Cuba: An American History

Ada Ferrer

In 1961, at the height of the Cold War, the United States severed diplomatic relations with Cuba, where a momentous revolution had taken power three years earlier. For more than half a century, the stand-off continued—through the tenure of ten American presidents and the fifty-year rule of Fidel Castro. His death in 2016, and the retirement of his brother and successor Raúl Castro in 2021, have spurred questions about the country’s future. Meanwhile, politics in Washington—Barack Obama’s opening to the island, Donald Trump’s reversal of that policy, and the election of Joe Biden—have made the relationship between the two nations a subject of debate once more.

Now, award-winning historian Ada Ferrer delivers an “important” (The Guardian) and moving chronicle that demands a new reckoning with both the island’s past and its relationship with the United States. Spanning more than five centuries, Cuba: An American History provides us with a front-row seat as we witness the evolution of the modern nation, with its dramatic record of conquest and colonization, of slavery and freedom, of independence and revolutions made and unmade.

Along the way, Ferrer explores the sometimes surprising, often troubled intimacy between the two countries, documenting not only the influence of the United States on Cuba but also the many ways the island has been a recurring presence in US affairs. This is a story that will give Americans unexpected insights into the history of their own nation and, in so doing, help them imagine a new relationship with Cuba; “readers will close [this] fascinating book with a sense of hope” (The Economist).

Filled with rousing stories and characters, and drawing on more than thirty years of research in Cuba, Spain, and the United States—as well as the author’s own extensive travel to the island over the same period—this is a stunning and monumental account like no other.

Released September 7, 2021
576 pages (hardcover edition)

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