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Stories of the intense and intertwined history between the U.S. and Cuba

Ramon Espinosa

The U.S. and Cuba have always had a close and at times, an intense relationship.

That history goes all the way back to the American Revolution. Did you know some of the founding fathers hoped Cuba would one day become a part of the U.S.?

We’re learning about that history for this month’s Sundial Book Club — we’re reading the Pulitzer Prize-winning book “CUBA: An American History” by Ada Ferrer.

It explores the island’s history, from its indigenous population to its relationship with the U.S. today.

You’ll hear about the usual historical figures like Christopher Columbus, Jose Marti, and Fidel Castro, but the book is also focused on the people whose names you don’t know. The people who lived through this history but whose names didn’t survive historical records.

WLRN’s Luis Hernandez spoke with Ferrer about the book and her own experience.

You can join the book club here.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

WLRN: Tell me about your childhood. Growing up, you know, how much was the topic of Cuba spoken in the house? 

FERRER: It was spoken all the time. My mother left a son behind when she took me [to the U.S.]. So there was always the question of my brother and wanting to bring him to be with us. My mother left her mother and all her siblings in the beginning. My father was one of six, and three of his stayed behind. So there was always absent family, writing letters, sending packages. Every Saturday or Sunday, we wrote to my grandmother and my brother.

Almost everyone where I was living was Cuban. So they was always the procession to the country that they call it every year, and the priest praying for political prisoners every Sunday and anti-Castro graffiti on the buildings. So it was very present in general. And then my mother also worked to make a presence. She used to do things like, I remember one day when I was about 12, she sat down with us and made a recording, and the recording was of patriotic poems that she remembered, that she learned in school the favorite songs of multiple family members and the chants of street vendors in her hometown––a natural-born historian.

This is not the only thing you've written about Cuba, but when you were putting this together, what was your approach?

Part of me wanted [a] long sweep of history, this kind of epic narrative history, that project appealed to me as a writer and as a historian. Even though I wanted to do that, I did not want the book to read like a textbook.

What I tried to do was to write really short chapters that could keep the reader engaged. And then, when they finished a short chapter, they could take a rest. And then they have the incentive to start the next one because they liked the one before. And I tried to include different kinds of characters in history. So obviously, familiar figures like [Christopher] Columbus and [Fidel] Castro and people like that. But the book is full of people that readers will have never heard of. Characters that they don't even have names for because the names didn't survive in the historical record. To give you just an example, we know that in the 19th century, there were all these illegal slaving ships that arrived on the Cuban coast, and sometimes they arrived on this Coral Rock, and the captains on the boats had to be marched on this rock that was called dogs teeth. I imagine them walking barefoot on the stones and cutting their feet. That's part of the history of Cuba, even though we don't always have the names of the people who did that. So that's what I tried to do in the book. Just make it more human. I wanted readers to be able to try to imagine history from different from many different perspectives.

Cuba: An American History by Ada Ferrer
Cuba: An American History by Ada Ferrer

How would you describe the relationship between Cuba and the U.S.?

In terms of Cuba and the U.S. connection, it's a very close, or historically a close, intimate relationship that was never one between equals, I would say. So if we go back to the period of the American Revolution, we had people in Cuba who were contributing to the cause of American independence after the U.S. became independent. Cuba was always in the top three U.S. trading partners. An economic relationship that was intense and close and, I think closer than many Americans realize today.

In the 19th century, American leaders always imagined that Cuba would one day become part of the United States. [Thomas] Jefferson said it going back to the 1780s and almost to the time of his death. People like John Adams, James Madison, [James] Monroe — they all imagined that Cuba would become American and that it would fill out the measure of our political well-being. They thought that acquiring Cuba was indispensable. But again, like Americans hear that now, and it seems surprising, like why was Cuba so important? Right. Partly, geography is destiny. If you look at a map and you see where Cuba sits, right at this prime spot, at the meeting of the Caribbean Sea in the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. Havana, on Cuba's north coast, is near the port of New Orleans, which is where all the cultural products cultivated in the Mississippi River Valley would leave the U.S. and then go either to North America or to Europe. If you look at how close they are, whoever controlled Cuba had the potential to cripple American commerce. That was why American statesmen were so interested in it in the beginning.

This book was published at a very timely moment in Cuba's history, months after these historic protests that happened in the summer of 2021, which were led by artists and intellectuals, many of them Afro-Cuban. What do you foresee? What are your hopes perhaps for Cuba moving forward?

I finished the book before the protests, and it was already being printed, so the protests of July of last summer don't appear [in the book], though the protests of the November before do. I think it's really important to remember that the Cuban population is young. And about a third of the population was born after the fall of the Soviet Union, which was an event that created all kinds of economic and social havoc in Cuba. In some sense, a big proportion of the Cuban population has never lived in a country that was not in some form of economic crisis. They don't imagine how things will get better. There's no clear answer. I think many of them had hoped during the Obama opening, I was there when Obama visited, and people were telling me that on the street, and I met all these young people who were starting small businesses, etc. Most of those businesses have shut down. So basically, the opening didn't go anywhere, and the pandemic happened, and there are shortages, and now it's summer and there's no electricity. There's just this deep sense of frustration. I think everyone in Miami knows this. I think what people are doing more and more is leaving. They don't see it improving in Cuba. So the answer then is leaving Cuba.

Leslie Ovalle Atkinson is the former lead producer behind Sundial. As a multimedia producer, she also worked on visual and digital storytelling.
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