‘Cuba: An American History’: Exploring the troubled intimacy between Cuba and the U.S.
NYU Historian Ana Ferrer writes an epic history of Cuba and its complex ties to the United States, from before the arrival of Columbus to the present day.
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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 10 American presidents and the 50-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.
Spanning more than five centuries, award-winning historian Ada Ferrer wrote Cuba: An American History, a moving chronicle that demands a new reckoning with both the island’s past and its relationship with the United States.
The book provides readers 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, who is a Julius Silver Professor of History and Latin American and Caribbean Studies at New York University, 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 a recurring presence in U.S. 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, as reported by Simon & Schuster, which published the book in September 2021.
Taking up the theme of her book, published in 2021, Ferrer explained in a recent webinar at the Wilson Center that Barack Obama’s speech to Cubans when he visited the island in 2016 — the first U.S. president in almost 100 years to do so — was key to changing the relationship between two countries.
“We share the same blood,” Barack Obama told Cubans. “We both live in a new world, colonized by Europeans. Cuba, like the United States, was built in part by slaves brought here from Africa. Like the United States, the Cuban people can trace their heritage to both slaves and slave-owners.”
For Ferrer, Obama’s visit to Cuba and his remarks there were a perfect example of a dynamic she describes throughout the book: "Cuba and the United States hold up a mirror to one another. The history of the two countries has been intertwined. Cubans and Americans see themselves through each other’s eyes,” observes Geraldo Carava, a professor of history and Latina and Latino studies at Northwestern University.
In other words, Carava writes, “it has the effect of challenging the familiar stories Cubans and U.S. Americans believe about their countries, enabling them to see the familiar from new angles. Obama’s speech, and the mirror that Ferrer writes of, underscore the profound connection between nations that, for the past few decades, have seen themselves, and have been seen by others, as antagonists.”