Book Review: Cuba: An American History by Ada Ferrer

Sandy, our Head of Technical Services, shares this review of a recent read.

I love history. I studied it in college and in graduate school. It is the only thing I read, along with the occasional dark Scandinavian mystery.  That said, I have avoided reading any histories of Cuba. As the child of Cuban immigrants, the subject has always been too personal for me and I relied instead on the history given to me by my parents and grandparents. It was biased and it was raw and until recently, it was all that I had. I reluctantly decided to pick up Ada Ferrer’s book Cuba: An American History at the beginning of the year to see if I could rectify those gaps in my knowledge.

Ferrer was born in Cuba in June of 1962 and left the island as a baby with her mother, 10 months later. The prologue felt familiar to me. She talks about families left behind, meeting new family in “exilío” (exile), the pervasive feelings of loss, and the stories told by family members.  Stories about Cuba before the revolution, speculation about family and friends who stayed, and stories about an end to the Castro regime. She starts the history of the island in the 15th century with Columbus’ “discovery” of the region. Her discussion of this early period is thorough, outlining why Cuba became such a crucial part of trade in the region. She dives deeply into Cuba’s relationship with Spain as one of its most valuable colonies as well as Cuba’s early relationship with the United States. I think one of the most interesting things in how Ferrer tackles the history of Cuba in her work is that she puts it in the context of its relationship to the United States. The two nations have always been tightly bound to one another from their very early days, be it through trade, war, investments, and amendments that gave the US the power to intervene in the island.

Her discussion of the tumultuous period after the Cuban War of Independence in 1898 illustrates both how the US was able to further consolidate power in the island as well as how the stage was ultimately set for the revolution of 1959 and Fidel Castro’s rise to power. She takes the reader through Cuba’s resistance to the US via the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis, the relationship between the island and the Soviet Union in the 70s, and the fall of the Soviet Union and Cuba’s subsequent special period in the 90s; a time marked by extreme austerity measures and the mass exodus of citizens to the United States.  She talks about the hope the Cuban population felt with the thawing of relations under Barack Obama’s presidency and the despair brought on by the renewed efforts by the US government to tighten travel restrictions and the sending of remittances in 2016. The book ends in 2020 with a discussion of the effects of Covid-19 and the growing protest movements in the summer of that year.

The book is beautifully written.  Perhaps because she has spent so much of her life researching and working on this project or maybe because she is the child of Cuban immigrants, Ferrer is able to capture the essence of the Cuban people, their humor, and their ability to adapt and persevere both on and off the island. I think one of the things I appreciate most about the book is the way in which she chose to tell the history. She sums it up best when she writes, “as we ponder the sweep of centuries, it is important to pause at those lives, not just to invoke them, but to endeavor to grasp history through their eyes… It is an impossible endeavor in many ways… but the attempt itself is essential.” This book felt personal to me because of my relationship to my family and the island more broadly but I think that Ferrer’s approach to history will allow any reader without any personal stake to feel for the place as well as the people, both those that left and those that stayed behind.