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Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Book Review: Cuba An American History

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By Ada Ferrer Published by Scribner September 2021 ISBN 978-1-5011-5455-3

I do like getting new hardback books to read. The tactile pleasure of a well produced book does however come at a price but fortunately there is the Vancouver Public Library, whose service is second to none.

It would have been really useful to have been able to read this book before I visited Cuba – about which I did write here – but of course that was not possible. But having read it now, I feel that a lot of what I failed to understand has now been explained. And in writing that was wholly engaging. In fact a couple of weeks ago I had two new books – and read the first chapter of each to see which one I should tackle first. As the jacket blurb on this one states “A page turning masterpiece … rarely is a good history this kind of literary performance”.

Ada Ferrer is not only well read she was also born in Cuba, lives in the US but has been “travelling to and conducting research on the the island since 1990”. She and her family also make appearances in the book.

I first was made aware of Cuba by the missile crisis in 1962. I was 13, and thought that the world was about to end. It didn’t, but that did not stop me from worrying about the very real possibility – and also trying to understand why. One of the things that seemed to escape much notice at the time was that there were US nuclear armed missiles in Turkey and Italy. Apparently that was alright, but somehow Cuba having Soviet missiles at a similar distance from Washington DC wasn’t. As a student I noted the popularity of Che Guevara – and read his motorcycle diary – but as more of an icon than an example. More recently I read “The Girl in The Picture” which is was written by the woman who, as a child that was burnt by napalm dropped by the US in Viet Nam but had to travel to Cuba for treatment as an adult. There were also the visits by Ry Cooder in the 1990s which resulted in the Buena Vista Social Club CD – which I still play every so often.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, the Cubans turned to tourism as way of earning hard currency, since they no longer had access to overseas markets for their sugar, which had been for many years their main export and source of earnings. It is also the case that while Barack Obama attempted a form of reconciliation that was reversed by Trump and has yet to be tackled by Joe Biden. There are no more Castros in charge, but the regime continues. Much remains to be resolved but at least countries like Canada remain engaged. US hostility towards Cuba remains intense largely as a result of the expatriate Cuban community in the US and concentrated in Miami, which remains a significant force in US politics.

I would definitely put this book on your reading list if you intend to visit Cuba and if your understanding of it has been shaped by mainstream media. Cuba has never been treated well by the US and has also been a focus of much distorted reporting – and not just by Citizen Kane. If you still think the Spanish blew up the USS Maine, or that Castro started out as a card carrying Communist then you really do need a better source – and this book is good way to address that bias. It is also the case that real life is never simply black and white. Cuba and the US have a very complex relationship, and it is one that needs to be greatly improved. Understanding the realities of what happened and why is the only place to start. You also need to know that the book has 470 pages of text – in a rather small typeface – plus 62 pages of notes and a comprehensive index.

You might also enjoy this post about my experience of travelling to Cuba as a tourist

Postscript: Ada Ferrer published an article in the New Yorker “My Brother’s Keeper” on February 22 2021. It examines, in rather painful detail, her family history. Also highly recommended reading.

I have also recently found this article in The Atavist Magazine “The Butcher of Havana“. Not a pleasant story at all but a quite revealing account of the underside of the revolution. How a drifter from Milwaukee became the chief executioner of the Cuban Revolution—and a test case for U.S. civil rights.

Written by Stephen Rees

October 20, 2021 at 11:54 am

Posted in tourism

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  1. You may have known my aunt when you were at the GLC; she was an architect and worked on the Thames Barrier project.

    Anyway I thoroughly agree with you about the Vancouver Public Library and I am looking forward to reading it once I work my way through the hold queue. I’d like to compare what it says with what I saw there in 2017 on a tour with the Explore company with a collection of Brits.

    Paul Clapham

    October 20, 2021 at 3:49 pm


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