By Max Elbaum
Published in The Sixties: A Journal of History, Politics and Culture, October 2018
Cuban revolution in America: Havana and the making of a United States left, 1968-1992, by Teishan A. Latner, Chapel Hill, NC, The University of North Carolina Press, 2018, xiv + 368 pp., US $39.95 (hardcover), ISBN 9781469635460
Teishan Latner’s groundbreaking book on a quarter century of interactions between the Cuban Revolution and U.S. radicals begins with a provocative claim: “From 1959 until well after the decline of the Cold War, the Cuban revolutionary project remained the most consistent foreign influence on left-wing radicalism in the United States” (6). In the five meticulously researched chapters that follow, Latner presents an impressive array of evidence to back up that thesis.
The first of these chapters – “Venceremos Means ‘We Will Win'” (27) – focuses on the experience of the Venceremos Brigade, the still-existing project which since 1969 has taken thousands of North Americans to Cuba to work, learn and deepen their commitment to international solidarity and radical activism. Latner’s recounting moves easily back and forth between big picture assessments of the political context in which the Brigade functioned and individual stories told by Brigade participants about their experience. The combination paints a vivid picture of how transformative spending time in Cuba was for many brigadistas. Likewise it conveys the way the Brigade’s impact rippled outward to affect the direction of broad circles on the U.S. left (while arousing the ire of the U.S. government and right-wing Cubans émigrés.)
This chapter tackles the knotty debates that unfolded within and around the Brigade as to “what women’s liberation should look like in socialist society” (63). It recounts the “pattern of antigay discrimination and homophobic antagonism” that existed in both Cuba and the Venceremos Brigade during the 1960s and traces the ups and downs between that period and the time when “like the Cuban government, the Brigade’s leadership eventually jettisoned its overtly antigay stance” (67).
A special strength of this chapter, which is carried through in the book as a whole, is the attention paid to the racial politics that swirled around and within the Brigade and Cuban- Brigade relations. The fight against racism – in the U.S. and across the globe – was a central axis of politics from the time of the Brigade’s formation forward. Latner details the differences between the approach of the Cubans and large numbers of U.S. brigadistas and the tensions over race and racism among the brigadistas themselves:
“”African American, Asian American and Latino/a brigadistas, in particular, formed themselves into racial caucuses within the Brigade to discuss the meaning of the Cuban Revolution in relation to their own political subject status as racialized groups within the U.S. nation… The Cubans were generally uneasy with the use of race as a political organizing principle in the camps… Coverage of the group in Granma tended to highlight the multiracial composition of the brigades, making almost no mention of racial tensions… The Cuban government’s guiding framework…prescribed that racism and racial inequality could be ameliorated only with the eradication of capitalism…… This theoretical position, some black American brigadistas argued, allowed some white Americans in the brigades to conveniently rationalize their pushing of the ‘race question’ aside in favor of class struggle, allowing them to escape the implications of their own racial position as beneficiaries of white-supremacist society” (59-61).
Even as this chapter explores these differences in detail, it points out that the overwhelmingly dominant view among brigadistas, and the consensus view of the Brigade’s leadership, was that the Cuban Revolution had made great strides dismantling institutional racism on the island. The impact of that viewpoint is made manifest by detailing the role the Brigade and numerous brigadistas of color went on to play within the U.S. left. The Brigade “helped disseminate Third World variants of Marxism, principally those originating in Cuba, among the broad U.S. left. By prioritizing the recruitment of young people of color, the Brigade also served as a vehicle through which the racial nationalism of many young activists was augmented by socialism… the Brigade exists firmly within the constellation of activist formations that scholar Cynthia A. Young has conceptualized as a ‘U.S. Third World Left'” (73-74).
Going deeply into one component of that “Third World Left,” Chapter 4 of this book – Joven Cuba inside the Colossus (153) – unearths a “buried history of Cuban American leftism” (153), detailing the history and work of the Antonio Maceo Brigade. From the moment the first delegation of 55 young émigré Cubans arrived in Havana in 1977 through its resistance to campaigns of intimidation, repression and even assassination, the Maceo Brigade helped create “an unprecedented political space for Cuban American leftism… Its impact was transnational and far-reaching. In Cuba, the Maceo Brigade played a key role in initiating a shift in Havana’s policy toward Cuban emigrants… in the United States… it became an early precursor to the growing contemporary openness among Cuban American youth toward reconciliation with the Cuban government” (196).
The other three chapters – on alleged subversion of U.S. “national security” by the Cuban Revolution and its supporters; airliner hijacking, and Cuba’s granting of asylum to Assata Shakur and other U.S. Black radicals – also hammer home the large-scale impact of each topic. All probe Cuban as well as U.S. policies with hard-nosed realism while staying analytically grounded in a framework that stresses the power imbalance between the world’s strongest capitalist state and the first attempt at socialism in the Americas by a country of just nine million. There is no romanticism in discussion of particular Cuban policies on hijacking, asylum, military assistance to Angola or anything else. But no reader will come away from these chapters without a deeper understanding of the legal, political and moral basis for the Cuban government’s insistence maintaining its sovereignty in face of Washington bullying and imperial exceptionalism, or without an expanded conception of internationalism in practice.
It all adds up to a mountain of evidence for Latner’s initial claim. Yet to prove the case beyond doubt an additional chapter might be required. That chapter would have to tackle, at least in broad strokes, the landscape of the U.S. left 1968-1992. What were its main ideological currents and organizational expressions? Which progressive movements were strongest and most durable? What was the influence on these not only of Cuba, but of other revolutionary forces, for instance Amilcar Cabral and the liberation movements in Africa, or Mao and the Chinese Revolution? My own experience in 50 years on the U.S. left leads me to believe Latner’s claim is correct. But until that additional chapter is written, others – even many who would acknowledge the major contribution Cuban Revolution in America makes to understanding Cuba’s impact on that period’s U.S. radicalism – might disagree.
But more important than that historical question is the “usable past” so well recounted in this book. We are in a moment when U.S. radicals are challenged to find new frameworks for practicing international solidarity; more effective ways to fight the global rise of racist authoritarianism; and fresh approaches to forging a multiracial 21st century working class movement. Cuban Revolution in America, which delves deeply into the making of the 1968-1992 U.S. left, offers rich food for thought toward the remaking of U.S. radicalism that is so urgently needed today.