IN TRIBUTE TO THE
VOLUNTEER SERVICES OF
WHO LIBERATED THE
OPPRESSED PEOPLES OF
CUBA, PUERTO RICO AND
THE PHILIPPINE ISLANDS
APRIL 1898 – JULY 1902
“LORD GOD OF HOSTS
BE WITH US YET
LEST WE FORGET
LEST WE FORGET”
If the clarion call of the white man’s burden wasn’t already strident enough, the plaque’s concluding lines from Rudyard Kipling’s poem for Queen Victoria’s 1897 Diamond Jubilee are there to drive home the point. These lines have nothing to do with the US occupation of several countries across the Caribbean and the Pacific, but their presence underscores the tacit central point: this was a donning of the mantle of the British Empire by the imperial United States.
In August of last year, the plaque was removed, leaving a raw, empty rectangle on the stone near the Seattle Asian Art Museum that displayed it for the better part of a century. The catalyst cited by the city’s parks department was the spike in anti-Asian hate crime across the country. University of Washington historian Christoph Giebel, who called for the plaque to be taken down, described its words as an incitement to hate, a “barefaced public lie” which “grotesquely falsif[ies] a gruesome past”: the United States’s war of colonial conquest that killed an estimated 300,000 Filipinos.
Cuba’s capital city and by extension the island itself was once known as the “key to the New World”; the national seal is topped by a radiant sun half-submerged in the ocean with a gleaming golden key beneath. In a chapter of her landmark Cuba: An American History titled “A Revolution for the World,” Ada Ferrer recalls that 19th-century Cuban revolutionary leader José Martí saw the island where he was born as the key to the fate of not just the New, but the entire world. That may seem a grandiose view of a patch of land in the Caribbean the size of Tennessee with more or less the population of Belgium and about the same current GDP as Ethiopia. But consider this: Cuba has been a major factor in relations among the states of the American hemisphere at least since Martí’s time, as the history of the Organization of American States confirms. It was a crucial ally of the Soviet Union during the Cold War and continues to retain close relations with the Russian Federation today. (Though Cuba declined to vote against the UN resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on March 3, it has abstained from expressing support for a small nation in geographic proximity to a larger and wealthier one, during a brutal invasion by the greater power.) Meanwhile, the European Union is currently Cuba’s largest export and trade partner and the largest foreign investor in the island. In Africa, from where the ancestors of many Cubans were forcibly abducted via the Middle Passage, Cuba played an important part in decolonization and ending apartheid; Nelson Mandela visited Havana in 1991 to pay tribute to that contribution. Cuba even had a significant role in the 21st century’s endless wars in the Middle East, as the home of the Guantánamo Bay detention camp. Cuba’s relationship to China has been increasingly crucial since the first of hundreds of thousands of Chinese contract laborers began arriving on the island in 1847. And to complete the global circle, Cuba is so central to the history of the United States that heightened violence against Asian Americans across the country led to the dismantling of a monument in a Seattle park commemorating a war launched by the United States 123 years earlier under guise of helping Cuba win its independence from Spain.
Ferrer sums up the US role in the 1898 “liberation” of Cuba with characteristic calm precision: “American intervention in 1898 […] was not to help Cubans achieve a victory over Spain. That was forthcoming, anyway. American intervention was meant precisely to block it.” The Seattle plaque with its “Lest we forget,” along with all the other monuments erected in memory of what is still known to many historians as the “Spanish-American War,” served, in practice, as a means of forgetting, a way to blot out the historical reality that Ferrer and other historians are working to restore.
Like Martí, Ada Ferrer was born in Havana, and like him she’s lived much of her adult life in New York City, itself a major arena of Cuban history as recent works by Jesse Hoffnung-Garskof and Lisandro Pérez have shown. A professor at New York University, Ferrer works and lives within a nice invigorating walk of Front Street, near the seaport, where, in the 1880s and early 1890s, the exiled Martí rented an office from which he did everything in his power to liberate Cuba from Spain and, at the same time, keep it safe from the United States. Along that stroll downtown, the explorer of Cuban history can pass by the church on Chinatown’s Mott Street founded by exiled Cuban abolitionist priest Felix Varela in 1827 and graced by a statue of him today, and a bit further south, she can pause at the spot-on Fulton Street where the flag of an independent Cuba first flew atop a pro-annexation newspaper’s offices in 1850.
After Spain’s defeat in 1898, it was not that flag — under which insurgents like Martí had fought and died for three decades — that was raised over Cuba but the Stars and Stripes. And the 1898 US military victory in Cuba led onward and outward to the vast imperial enterprise that followed, through the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to the present.
Martí hoped that real Cuban independence, reinforced by powerful solidarity from the rest of Latin America, could hold the growing imperial might of the United States in check. That is not the history it falls to Ferrer to recount. And she finds the outcome we’re in now foreshadowed from the beginning. It’s perfectly natural to begin a modern history of Cuba as she does, with Columbus’s 1492 voyage. After all, Cuba was among the places that voyage took him. On first glimpse of the island, he called it “the most beautiful that eyes have seen.” (The man had a point: many first-time visitors must have looked around as I did and felt they fully understood at last why Cuba has been so violently desired by empire after empire.)
Ferrer observes that it’s quite odd, on the other hand, that historians of the United States also generally situate the nation’s inception with Columbus and the start of the Spanish Empire’s conquest of the New World — rather than, say, with the voyages of the Vikings (1000) or of John Cabot (1497), or the founding of Jamestown (1607) or the Pilgrims’ arrival at Plymouth Rock (1620), all of which involved US national territory. She suggests that by choosing to begin with Columbus, early historians such as George Bancroft, a former secretary of the Navy, were already anticipating expansion into the lands held by the Spanish Empire, which Thomas Jefferson had predicted in 1786 the US would acquire “peice by peice” [sic]. “[T]hey essentially seized a foreign history to make it theirs,” she explains, “some of them fully expecting that the lands on which that history had unfolded would soon be theirs, too.” Perhaps the US’s insistence on possession of the “unincorporated territory” of Puerto Rico is connected to the fact that Columbus did land there on his second voyage; control of that island thus legitimizes the annexation of Columbus.
Deftly and without fanfare, Ferrer upends the 1898 narrative of the United States as Cuba’s savior with an episode from 1781, just prior to the Battle of Yorktown. George Washington’s rebel army was camped in Virginia alongside French forces under the command of the Comte de Rochambeau, all of them in dire need of money. The troops hadn’t been paid, and there were no funds to feed or equip them. A solution was devised by a French naval officer, the Comte de Grasse, who joined forces with a Spanish emissary to seek aid in Havana to support the North American insurgency. Their effort had the backing of the Spanish Crown, but the two men arrived in Cuba at a moment when the public coffers happened to be empty. An appeal went out to the people of the city, and such was the Habaneros’ enthusiasm for the US fight for independence from Britain that within six hours they had contributed 500,000 pesos in silver. When the funds arrived in Virginia, jubilation ensued, followed by victory at Yorktown, the decisive battle of the US Revolution of Independence. Grasse later wrote that the silver pesos donated by the people of Havana were “the bottom dollars,” the financial bedrock on which US independence was built. The inscriptions on the base on the Yorktown Victory Monument — a high marble column erected at the battlefield on the centennial of the victory, topped by an image of Liberty herself — celebrate the actions of Washington, Rochambeau, and Grasse. They don’t mention Havana’s contribution.
The history of the United States has started to feel to some people like one of those lenticular Halloween nightmare portraits you can order for $16.99 on Amazon. Shift your perspective slightly, and what appeared to be a sepia-tinted image of a dignified elderly gentleman transforms into a crazed death’s head with eyes popping from its skull and blood dripping from its snaggle teeth. Rather than acknowledge the evidence long amassed by historians like Ferrer that many national narratives of triumphant benevolence serve to mask greed and brutality, fully half of all US states — falling in with a moral panic painstakingly engineered over the past couple of years around the bugaboo of “critical race theory” — have enacted, tried to enact, or are in the process of enacting laws designed to suppress history itself. The teaching of certain books, many of them by women and people of color, is being challenged, and public school teachers are at risk if they bring up a number of subjects. The explicit goal is to protect some students — those in the group the cover story benefits most — from the discomfort this altered perspective may cause. You’re either with that group and its narrative, or you’re against it and therefore deserve to be banned.
Cuba: An American History acknowledges that its narrative takes place on this battleground. Cuban history, Ferrer observes matter-of-factly, can “challenge Americans’ very notion of themselves” and serve “as a mirror for the history of the United States. And in that mirror, the American empire for liberty […] is revealed differently. Not as an empire for liberty at all, but just an empire.” There is abundant horror on view in these pages, but all are composed with compassionate eloquence. Ferrer’s history of Cuba is the history of her own life, writ large. In a gut-wrenching piece in The New Yorker last year, she told the story of her brother, whom her mother was forced to leave in Havana when she immigrated to the United States in 1963 along with the infant future historian. Accordingly, Ferrer’s book, which may be the first general overview of Cuban history written by a woman, spends no time on denunciation — no small feat in a historical context where denunciation has been the order of the day for many decades. Instead, it is primarily concerned with demonstrating just how deeply and intricately enmeshed the histories of Cuba and the United States are. In overflowing, revelatory, and loving detail, Ferrer charts the living, human connections between two nations whose long symbiosis — their “shared and uneven intimacy,” as she calls it — continually survives each one’s efforts to cut off ties to the other.
One of the more memorable examples she offers of such connection is that of William Rufus DeVane King, the only US vice president ever to have been sworn in outside of the United States. King served briefly under President Franklin Pierce and took his oath of office in 1853 while away on a “sugar cure” at a Cuban plantation. Himself the owner of an extensive cotton plantation in Alabama and member of a family that kept 500 people in slavery, King was ill with tuberculosis and had sought out the heat and boiling vapors of a sugar mill — always accompanied by the unending, brutal toil of enslaved people — because at the time that was generally believed in the United States to be an effective treatment for the disease. Ferrer observes that “King’s homes in Alabama and Washington, DC, and King’s improvised sanitarium in Matanzas were part of one system.” That system was slavery, which made plantation owners from across the Southern US down through the Caribbean and deep into the continent of South America feel kinship and bonds of mutual interest. Following the Civil War, Cuba — where slavery was not abolished until the mid-1880s — became a place of retreat for Confederate families trying to sustain the way of life they knew best. Ferrer gives us Eliza McHatton Ripley, whose family bought a thousand-acre plantation in Matanzas in 1862 and called it Desengaño, “disillusionment.” She also gives us a man called Zell, one of the 65 people the Ripley family claimed as their personal possessions in Cuba. Zell had been dragged from the United States by the Ripleys only months before the Emancipation Proclamation. “For him,” she muses, “the name of the plantation might have had a bitter resonance.”
A central aim of the book is to foreground within these mirroring histories the experiences of ordinary communities and people who had little access to power. Ferrer tells of the North American colonial provincials, mainly from Connecticut, farmers and sons of farmers, recruited by Britain in 1762 to provide backup for the British troops then laying siege to Havana. The provincials helped the British take the city while enduring the highest mortality rate, both from battle and from yellow fever, among all combatants — yet another source of resentment toward the British Crown that boiled over in the North American colonies in the years that followed. Alongside, Ferrer offers the experience of the community of enslaved copper miners (cobreros) in the village of El Cobre in eastern Cuba, famed for its Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre, another of Cuba’s national symbols. The cobreros began eloquently petitioning the Spanish Crown to grant them rights in 1677 and were freed in 1800, almost a century before the institution of slavery officially ended on the island.
Threaded through the early chapters of the book are passing mentions of the elusive and infinitely suggestive figure of José Antonio Aponte, already known to readers of Ferrer’s earlier work. He was a free Black carpenter, soldier, and artist, and grandson of a militiaman who defended Havana against the British attackers and their North American reinforcements in 1762. In 1812, Aponte, working with another free Black man said to be from Charleston, South Carolina, masterminded a rebellion “to end the institution of slavery.” Ferrer believes that Aponte’s insurgency had the potential to become a revolution like Haiti’s, though that’s not what happened. The Spanish colonial authorities who arrested him and searched his house found, hidden away in a trunk, a “book of paintings” he had made, “a confounding mix of materials and images. […] Represented were Greek goddesses and Black saints, Ethiopian kings and European popes, Havana and the heavens.” The pictures, which combined painting and drawing with collaged cutouts from fans, engravings, and books, often represented Black armies or Black men in positions of power. Aponte showed the book to his co-conspirators, many of them still enslaved, “to prove to them that another world was possible.” His book has disappeared, surviving only in the explanations of its images Aponte was forced to give his Spanish interrogators in the days prior to his execution. Ferrer has not resigned herself to that loss. She created something from it, co-curating a luminous 2019 exhibition, Visionary Aponte: Art and Black Freedom, with works by artists from Cuba, Haiti, Central America, France, and the United States, all inspired by the descriptions of Aponte’s book in the record of his testimony. The exhibit has gone up in New York, Miami, Havana, and elsewhere across the US, and most recently led to Aponte’s story going into development as an opera by composer Yosvany Terry.
For an installation titled Un día feliz (A Happy Day) for the 2019 Bienal de la Habana, Cuban artist Reynier Leyva Novo assembled a number of iconic, instantly recognizable photographs from the 1960s and ’70s, by Lee Lockwood, Albert Korda, and others, in an unmarked gallery on a Havana back street. All the images were digitally altered to erase the Cuban revolutionary leader who was their focal point. An entire wall was hung with photographs of podiums and gigantic crowds gazing up at them. With the man behind the microphone out of the picture, all that was left were the longing, upturned faces of the people. This, to the greatest extent possible, is Ferrer’s approach to the 1959 Cuban Revolution. Fidel Castro is there, and she does give him his due. The Cuban people had longed for revolution since before Aponte’s time, and that longing had consistently been stymied. Then, for the wild, heady months following New Year’s Day of 1959, “[t]he revolution was doing what it said; the people counted; the future was theirs.” In what follows, Ferrer remains focused on the aspirations that Cubans had conceived long before Castro came on the scene, and on the ways the consequences of 1959 fulfilled and betrayed them.
The fate of Cuba’s newspapers in the immediate aftermath of the revolution illustrates both outcomes. Unhappy with the increasingly negative coverage of Cuba in the international wire service articles their newspapers published, Cuban journalists and typographers began appending brief codicils (coletillas) to clarify, for example,
The information above is published by will of this company in legitimate use of the freedom of the press that exists in Cuba. But the journalists and typographic workers of this workplace, relying on that same right, state that the content of this article does not conform to the truth nor to the most elementary journalistic ethics.
The publishers of the papers began responding with coletillas of their own, to which the workers in turn responded, and soon enough Cuba’s papers were devoting almost the same space to the coletillas as to the news. Within this “cacophony of dissent,” Ferrer points out, there was also “the gathering drumbeat of compulsory consensus.” In May 1960, a jubilant funeral, attended by thousands, was held for Cuba’s oldest newspaper, the Diario de la Marina: “Cubans! Today we will bury 128 years of ignominy.” The fervor of competing narratives in the coletillas had quickly boiled down to two options: revolution and counterrevolution. You were with the state, or you were against it.
Ferrer again gives the man who led Cuba for half a century his due when she cites his response, published in the state newspaper Granma, to the speech Barack Obama delivered during his visit to the island in March 2016. Obama openly declared his opposition to the US embargo and told Cubans that “we share the same blood,” echoing the words of his announcement of normalization on December 17, 2014: “Todos somos Americanos.” “We are all American,” Ferrer marvels. “Here was a modern US president using the word ‘American’ as something other than a synonym for the United States.” With only eight months left to live, 89-year-old Fidel Castro was not convinced. “The first thing to consider,” he wrote, “is that our lives are but a fraction of a historical second and that humans tend to over-value their role.”
In a conversation with Ferrer this fall at a book launch sponsored by the New York Public Library, former Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes, whom Ferrer’s book describes as the architect of the Obama administration’s all-too-brief normalization of relations with Cuba, told her he wished he’d been able to read Cuba: An American History prior to embarking on that project. Unfortunately, Rhodes’s counterparts in the Biden administration aren’t taking the same interest. The increasingly cruel Cuba policies of the 45th US president — who, prior to taking office, several times looked into the possibility of building hotels in Cuba, in violation of US law — have been largely left in place by his successor. Even the ban on remittances has stayed in place, though throughout the decades of embargo prior to Trump’s order on November 2020, Cubans in the United States were consistently allowed to send cash assistance to family members on the island. The current US administration, a year after coming into power, says only that its Cuba policy is “on pause,” despite its hollow messages of support for the Cuban people following the unprecedented protests they courageously staged in the island’s streets on July 11 of last year. Ferrer’s narrative of long kinship and shared history constructs a strong basis for improved mutual understanding. But for now, both states at the center of her story seem to be in the grip of senescent paralysis, unable to do anything but double down. The primary difference is that the US strategy of embargo consistently fails to achieve its goal (if we take its stated purpose of overthrowing the Cuban government at face value), while the Cuban government consistently succeeds at remaining in power.
Its tactic for doing that during the severe crackdown that has followed the July 11 protests is lamentably similar to the one employed two centuries ago by the island’s Spanish colonial rulers. Now, as then, Cubans who are critical of their government face a choice: imprisonment or exile. Last fall, the artist Tania Bruguera agreed to leave Cuba for a position at Harvard on condition that the government release 25 artists and activists. Bruguera was escorted to José Martí International Airport by a dozen state agents, there to make sure she actually left, and has since joined forces with other influential art world figures in a successful campaign to boycott the Fall 2021 Bienal de la Habana. Hamlet Lavastida, an artist whose work investigates Cuban state rhetoric, was held and interrogated for three months over the summer, before also being taken to the airport by state agents along with his partner, poet and art critic Katherine Bisquet, who left with him for Poland, where he has a young son. Another detainee whose release Bruguera sought, Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, the Afro-Cuban performance artist the Cuban government seems to fear more than anyone else, has been incarcerated since July 11. On January 18 of this year, he embarked on his fourth hunger and thirst strike since 2020 to demand his own release and that of other political prisoners, some of them facing sentences of up to 30 years. On March 10, the Spanish news agency EFE reported that Otero Alcántara had abandoned the strike 16 days earlier, and wants to stand trial, whatever the consequences. He remains jailed and in legal limbo, unable to make phone calls, receive visitors other than his lawyer, and without notification of any pending trial.
Ferrer concludes her book with the hope that Cuba and the United States will enjoy a future that is “more than the sum of the actions of the two governments in question.” Her history compellingly demonstrates that the past has been far more than that. Her vivid and tender anatomy of the living tissue of historical, economic, cultural, and genetic connection that, along with the scars of empire, racism, and dictatorship, has made people in both nations who they are, reexamines the past to try to find a way, in this time of grim stasis, toward another world.
Esther Allen is a professor at City University of New York. She edited, annotated, and translated the Penguin Classics anthology José Martí: Selected Writings.