Cuba: Revolution on an Island

Written by Josh Newmark

Image: Marius Jovaiša’s  aerial photograph of Morro Castle and Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña, (Unseen Cuba / Marius Jovaisa),, accessed 21 October 2018.

Why revolutions happen, and why some succeed when others fail, have been topics of great interest to generations of historians. Cuba has been no exception, and has long been the subject of debates as to how an island 90 miles from the USA came to have an anti-American revolution, and how that revolution survived the Cold War intact. Here I will suggest that our understanding of the Cuban revolution would benefit from a nissological, that is, ‘island-studies’, lens.


    The first issue to consider is Cuba’s colonial experience. Cuba achieved independence from Spain long after continental Latin America, and subsequently became what Louis Perez refers to as America’s “obsessive compulsive disorder”. After intervening unnecessarily in Cuba’s independence struggle, the USA forced the republic to adopt the Platt Amendment in its new constitution. This gave Washington the right to intervene in Cuba to protect “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”. Cuba became what Luis Aguilar called “a protected Republic”; his old classmate Fidel Castro preferred the term “pseudo-republic”. The American media portrayed those hostile to this situation as ‘backwards’ little-islands, and themselves as “reluctant imperialists” who intervened magnanimously for their small island neighbours’ own good. All this constitutes a seemingly unique level of post-colonial foreign control. Yet Islanders around the world, from Ireland to the Falklands, will be familiar with the tendency of continental states to claim unwelcome ownership over them. As Grant McCall writes about how islanders have long been portrayed as “troublesome, close-minded, clannish… confounding the schemes concocted by more broad-minded continental dwellers who see the big picture, not the little photograph”. Obviously colonialism affected all kinds of territories, but Cuba’s case is distinctive for the Spanish reluctance to relinquish control, and American belief that Cuba was destined to be someone’s possession and might as well be theirs.

    Godfrey Baldacchino has explained how some smaller islands welcome semi-dependency on continental powers, and in Cuba some of the native bourgeoisie developed what Aguilar refers to as a “Plattist mentality”, supportive of the protectorate. But another way to think about the early republic’s experience of American neo-colonialism is Stephen Royle’s idea that islands experience “frustrated” decolonisation, and unwanted dependency. Indeed, mainland political and economic power was being used at the expense of islanders, as large American capitalists used Cuba’s liberal property laws to expropriate native landowners and capitalists – a growing foreign ownership disliked by natives as much as they had previously disliked the elite peninsulares from Spain. Compounding this, Cuba experienced a steady growth of vice, with imported prostitution and gambling industries turning Cuba into the “Las Vegas of the Caribbean” at the pleasure of US businessmen. Finally, US support for the 1952 coup and subsequent dictatorship of General Batista, a prototypical “gangster state”, which really exposed the mainland’s contempt for ordinary Cuban islanders. Did Cuba’s islandness contribute to this surfeit of contempt?

    Just as Cuba’s colonial and neo-colonial experience was likely intensified by its geographical islandness, this also shaped its anti-colonial revolution. Although often depicted as merely another totalitarian Communist state, revolutionary Cuba had a distinctly patriotic socialist revolution: it is independence hero and poet Jose Martí whose memorial towers above Havana’s Plaza de la Revolución. Just as Castro did in the 50s, Martí had returned to the island by boat alongside other exiled comrades for the independence war, and this repeated image of the liberator returning to the island shore has greater popular currency in Cuban revolutionary memory than, for example, Lenin’s return to Petrograd on the sealed train ever had in the USSR. The revolutionary regime constantly propagates a rhetoric of fiery island defiance against the arrogant mainland. Islands everywhere have been sites of intense imagination, experimentation, and idealisation, and Cuba had an acutely utopian anti-colonial revolution, built on what Joseph Scarpaci and Armando Portela call an “intoxicating” island idealism. This distinctive sentimentality of Cuban communism, Castro’s use of a “mythical island geography”, might all be better understood through the prism of Thomas Eriksen’s concept of “cultural island phenomena”. As with biological diffusionism, continental cultural phenomena dispersed to islands take on peculiar island forms. Why not an islandised communism? Islanders everywhere have used their physical distance from the mainland as an engine for innovation in the political imagination – just think of the small body of water separating Britain from continental Europe, and its impact on British political culture.

    The aforementioned mainland covetousness towards islands, and island dependency on mainland protectors, helps us interpret the course of the Cuban revolution. Washington continued to hold Cuban sovereignty in an extraordinary level of contempt: outright state-sponsored terror has mercifully declined in recent years, but the longest continuous economic sanctions regime in modern history remains. Within two years of the revolution, under threat of an imminent US intervention (which eventually materialised in an abject failure at the Bay of Pigs) Castro proclaimed the revolution’s “socialist character” and praised Khrushchev’s Soviet Union. As Richard Gott puts it, “now it was the turn of the Russian Empire to assume the historic role of Cuba’s defender”. However, Castro simultaneously pursued a policy of independent internationalism, building relations within the non-aligned movement and supporting guerrilla struggles around the world, sometimes to Moscow’s chagrin. Most famously, Cuban troops fought in Angola’s independence struggle, fatally weakening apartheid South Africa. A small island thus became what Jorge Dominguez called an “unlikely ‘superpower’”.

    This internationalism could relate to the aforementioned island idealism – a desire for Cuba to be a vanguard island for the rest of the world. Alternatively, it and the Soviet realignment could be an extreme example of the “creative” political economy to which Baldacchino refers in discussing island adaptation – a survival strategy. For example, Cuba’s revolutionary status allowed it to benefit from positive terms of trade with the USSR and more recently Bolivarian Venezuela – effectively selling the geopolitical service of being an anti-American island off the American coast. As well as military assistance, Cuba has been able to export the surplus of medical and educational personnel generated by its socialist system, gaining economically and diplomatically: this “medical internationalism” continues in friendly Latin American countries like Nicaragua and Venezuela. Revolution, realignment, and internationalism therefore represented the ultimate island survival strategy. Since the fall of the Soviet bloc, Cuba has marketed its revolutionary heritage through a growing tourist industry.

    A final point that ought to be mentioned is migration. Emigration is a significant fact of islands everywhere (think of the enormous Irish diaspora, for example), with islanders romanticising metropolitan society just as mainlanders fantasise about island life; young Cubans dreamt of America long before the revolution. As well as the reality of a poor country on the doorstep of the USA, these are relevant facts when discussing the waves of emigration from Cuba. Moreover, in Cuba, emigration, or exile, has been a key part of revolutionary history. By 1966, the regime had effectively exported its political opponents and Cuba’s bourgeoisie through emigration. While this was in itself a violent act, the possibility for mass exile spared Cuba from experiencing a level of lethal terror and civil war comparable to that which has plagued most other revolutions – and the USA, uniquely, offers citizenship to Cubans who make it to their shores.

    Miguel Centeno contends that Cuba is “returning to Latin America” in a negative sense – transitioning from an island beacon of egalitarianism into just another place experiencing rising inequality and precariousness. Yet, arguably, Cuba has always been affected by global trends but able to deal with them in its own way – as with islands everywhere. For example, during the collapse of the Soviet bloc, Cuba endured with much of its revolution intact. Nobody can predict the future, but if the argument of this essay is to be believed, the Cuban future, just like the Cuban past, will be marked by Cuba being an island, with national identity, international relations and other facets of politics shaped by the nation’s islandness. There is a duality of imagination when it comes to islands – they can be portrayed as a “utopia” of “cultural authenticity”, insulated from “decadent mainland cultures” (e.g. The Coral Island, 1857), but they can also be “a place of corruption and dislocation” and stagnation, backwards, stifling (e.g. Lord of the Flies, 1954). Indeed, Portes tells of a second-generation member of the Cuban exile community, visiting the island she had been taught was a wreck, was shocked by the “gorgeous” reality. Sumarliði Isleifsson teaches us, through the prism of discourses on Iceland and Greenland, that these contrasts are often “part of the international power dynamics of the time… a means of justifying which people had control over whom”. Who can deny that the island of Cuba has experienced a similar game of power?


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