Cuban studies get hot

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Sat May 13 09:25:02 MDT 2000

New York Times, May 13, 2000

Amid a Thaw, Cuba Studies Get Hot


Rebecca J. Scott, a history professor at the University of Michigan, had
just finished presenting a paper at a conference in Cienfuegos, a
provincial capital in central Cuba, when one of the translators suggested
that she might like to meet his grandfather. A few hours later, Ms. Scott
was introduced to 96-year-old Tomás Pérez y Pérez, who had been a laborer
at a nearby sugar plantation where his mother had been a slave.

Ms. Scott, who won a MacArthur Fellowship in 1990 for her writing on the
aftermath of slavery in Cuba, had spent hours combing through records about
the plantation in the local archive. Her paper, which she presented in
1998, had been on the 1899 efforts of Ciriaco Quesada, a former slave and a
veteran of Cuba's War of Independence from Spain, to reclaim a mule that
had been left behind when he went off to fight.

It turned out that Mr. Pérez y Pérez had known Quesada and many other
people Ms. Scott had read about. "It was as if the documents woke up and
spoke," Ms. Scott recalled recently. "Researchers on Brazil can talk to
descendants of slaves, but I always thought that in Cuba I had come along
too late. It was a miracle for me to find him."

Such discoveries have now become possible for a broad range of scholars
from the United States as Washington and Havana have eased restrictions on
research in Cuba. The improved access and the widely held belief that Cuba
is on the cusp of another historic change has led to a rebirth of Cuban
studies while public fascination with the country is on the rise, as
evidenced by the popularity of Cuban music and the national obsession with
Elián González.

Senior scholars are turning or returning to Cuba after focusing their
research on other areas of the Caribbean and Latin America. A new crop of
doctoral candidates, many with roots in Cuba, are completing their
dissertations and beginning to teach. And a few adventurous undergraduates,
who until recently were barred from extended study there, are now spending
their semesters abroad in Cuba.

Much of the new research is due out soon or is still in progress, but in
the last year a few influential books have appeared that have challenged
previous scholarship largely by adding the texture made possible by
extensive research in the country.

An especially active field is Cuban history. American scholars, trying to
gain a better understanding of Fidel Castro's government and of what might
follow, are examining the foundations of Cuban nationalism in the 19th
century as well as the shaping of the island's cultural identity and racial
attitudes. In the process they are forcing American historians to reassess
or defend previous accounts of United States intervention in Cuba.

"This is a generation of scholarship that has emerged from an actual
encounter between North American researchers and people and documents on
the island," Ms. Scott said. "So people have not just had to imagine Cuba;
they have been able to experience it. The result has been a falling away of
most of the simple answers because most of the simple answers end up
seeming inadequate."

One new book that has received high praise from other Cuban specialists is
"On Becoming Cuban" (University of North Carolina Press, 1999) by Louis A.
Perez Jr., a history professor at the University of North Carolina at
Chapel Hill. Along with Ms. Scott, Mr. Perez is one of the pioneers who
tenaciously continued to work on Cuba despite the obstacles posed by both
Washington and Havana.

"On Becoming Cuban" is a roving exploration of the formation of the Cuban
national character from the early 1800's to 1961. Touching on everything
from tourism to baseball to the rumba and the mambo to "I Love Lucy" and
"The Godfather, Part II," Mr. Perez argues that much of the modern Cuban
identity was shaped by contact with the United States. But he also shows
how much passed from the island to the mainland.

The multiple layers of influence are summed up in his description of the
transformation of Miami by Cubans fleeing Castro's revolution after 1959:
"Miami began as an imitation of Havana in the 1920's and 1930's, then was
imitated by Havana during the 1940's and 1950's; in the 1960's it was a
copy of a copy that was copied."

Mr. Perez, 56, is a quarter Cuban and grew up in upper Manhattan, where his
father was a band leader. (One of his father's arrangements was used for a
Latin number in the 1987 film "Dirty Dancing.") His 1998 book "The War of
1898: the United States and Cuba in History and Historiography" accused
American historians of mistakenly adopting the official line that
Washington's intervention in Cuba during the Spanish-American War was aimed
at ensuring the island's independence. In fact, Mr. Perez argued, the goal
was just the opposite.

Walter LaFeber, a well-known diplomatic historian at Cornell University,
said the book forced him to reassess his own writing on 1898. "Perez has
convinced me that the Cuban perspective is important," Mr. LaFeber said.
"Many people have to rewrite what they've written, including me, as a

But Theodore Draper, writing in The New York Review of Books, accused Mr.
Perez of oversimplifying and added, "Some of Perez's views in his latest
book resemble Castro's propaganda."

That is a highly charged attack in a field riven by partisan politics in
which independent scholars face close scrutiny from all sides. It probably
has not helped that many scholars were first attracted to Cuba by the
romance of the 1959 revolution and that those who were allowed into Cuba in
the 1960's and 1970's were given access precisely because they were

But even balanced accounts of contemporary Cuba are called pro-Castro by
exile critics. Conferences attended by scholars from Cuba are regularly
picketed by anti-Castro protesters.

Since Mr. Perez and Ms. Scott began visiting Cuba in the late 1970's,
during a brief thaw in relations, they have tried to pave the way for other
American scholars and to build bridges to Cubans. That was extremely
difficult during the 1980's, when the Reagan Administration and Havana made
it hard for any researchers to gain access to Cuba. But after the collapse
of the Soviet Union in 1989, Cuba became more receptive to American
academics (who almost uniformly opposed Washington's trade embargo), while
the Clinton Administration, especially in the last year, has relaxed travel
and work restrictions.

"This is the first time when it would not be crazy for a graduate student
to want to do a dissertation on Cuba," said Jorge I. Dominguez, a Harvard
political science professor who is beginning to work on Cuba again after a
10-year hiatus. Many professors used to discourage their students from
focusing on Cuba because the risk of not being able to do original research
was too great.

Now the field is hot. Mr. Perez and Ms. Scott each have a bevy of graduate
students. They are collaborating on a guide to Cuban archives that will be
published in English and Spanish. Mr. Perez is editing a new book series
called "Envisioning Cuba" and is organizing a conference of Cuban and
American scholars in Chapel Hill in October.

Scholars based in Cuba have also benefited from the thaw. They have freer
rein to explore their own history, though many contemporary topics are
still sensitive, several American scholars say. Two years ago Mr. Perez
helped organize a program in which American scholars guided young academics
from Cuba through the national archives and the Library of Congress.

"For so many Cubans, it is impossible for them to research their own
history because lots of the archival records are not in Cuba," he said.
"They are here."

While conditions in Cuba have eased, they are hardly easy. Cuban
bureaucracy persists, and many subjects, particularly events after 1959,
are still deemed off-limits by the authorities. Nevertheless, there have
been some breakthroughs.

Piero Gleijeses, a professor of American foreign policy at the Johns
Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, has just completed a book
on Cuban and United States policy in Africa between 1959 and 1976. During
12 months in Cuba over 6 years, he was given access to records of the Cuban
armed forces, the Foreign Ministry and the Communist Party Central Committee.

Mr. Gleijeses said research in Cuba was a constant battle, but he was
pleased with what he ultimately received. "I had never seen a Cuban
document before," he said. "I had no idea how these people made policy."

Young Cuban-American scholars face added issues, including increased
scrutiny by the Cuban authorities and by their relatives and friends among
the exiles.

Lillian Guerra, 29, who next fall will begin teaching Cuban history at
Bates College in Lewiston, Me., has spent 12 months in Cuba since 1996
researching her dissertation about the mythology surrounding José Martí,
who is a national hero to both Castro and his opponents.

Though her parents left Cuba in the 1960's and she grew up in Kansas, Ms.
Guerra, who speaks fluent Cuban-accented Spanish, was often taken for a
native during her time on the island, which was not always positive. When
she visited tourist hotels, she was repeatedly mistaken for a prostitute.

But there were many advantages as well. The archive in Cienfuegos is named
after one of Ms. Guerra's relatives, who was a hero of the Cuban
independence movement in the 19th century. That earned her a warm welcome
from the archive's staff.

Ada Ferrer, a professor at New York University who came to the United
States in 1963 when she was a year old, recently published "Insurgent Cuba:
Race, Nation and Revolution, 1868-1898" (University of North Carolina
Press, 1999), an examination of the principle of racial equality adopted by
the Cuban independence movement.

She said that she had been offered the chance to teach in southern Florida,
in the heart of the largest community of Cuban immigrants in the country,
but that she had decided not to because of her fear of the community's
strong anti-Castro politics. "I don't know how easy it would be to go back
and forth to Cuba," she said. "I just decided it was more than I could deal

The attitude of her parents toward her annual visits to Cuba reflects the
contradictory feelings of many Cuban immigrants. "They like the fact that I
go," she said. "It's a connection to the place for them. They like that I
visit family. I took my daughter this summer, and they were ecstatic about
that. But they are absolutely convinced that I am a Communist."

Louis Proyect
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