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Love, Embittered: review of Louis A Pérez Jr.’s On Becoming Cuban: Identity, Nationality, and Culture

Publié le 1 septembre, 2008 | Pas de commentaires
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In On Becoming Cuban (1), Louis A. Pérez Jr. attempts to provide an encompassing account of the relationship between Cuba and North America and the resulting trends in the formation and development of Cuban national identity. Like many previous events, the retirement of Fidel Castro launched a series of predictions of imminent change in Cuba; by mapping the complexity of Cuban identity, Pérez’s work shows that the country’s future is hardly predictable. While the work focuses on the island, the shadow of the Northern giant hovering over Cuban landscape is also critically and extensively examined.

 Identity
Ace Domenica, Identity, 2008
Certains droits réservés.

The evolution of a distinct Cuban national and cultural identity originated in the nineteenth century, especially during its second half, when Cuban struggle for independence from colonial Spain became increasingly ardent and decisive, using both political and violent means. Principally anti-Spanish, Pérez tells us, the Cuban national initiative looked up to the United States as the alternative that was geographically closest and ideologically in sharpest opposition to Spain. Cuba’s initial enthusiasm for North American influence was an effect of the anti-colonial attitude of the United States, and not the intrinsic value seen in American society. The urge for acquiring things American, both material and cultural, certainly existed and thrived, but it followed anti-Spanish sentiment in order of ascendancy; in fact, pro-Americanism was justified by animosity towards Spain.

The resentment of colonialism was largely grounded in the commercial privilege being reserved for the Spanish-born and the Cuban elites’ aspirations for commercial progress; Pérez explains that this was the catalyst that eventually pushed Cuba to invite a full-fledged North American cultural influence. A body of formation, the Cuban nation needed an outside influence in order to develop an identity separate from its Spanish and African heritage, and North America provided an excellent source. As Pérez says, “[the U.S. presence] was most obviously economic and political, but it was most decisively cultural, whereby the influence of North American institutions, ideas, values, and norms took hold not through compulsion or coercion, but by way of assent and acquiescence” (2).

Pérez reports that North American cultural influence reshaped Cuban identity and culture in all spheres of life, especially after the Cuban independence of 1898, imposing Northern structures on the definitions of “Cuban.” The consumption of Northern goods and the adoption of Northern ideas, manners, and styles, as signs of progress, civilization, and status took deep root in Cuban society, imbued in its fabric even to this day and, as Pérez claims, in its essence immune to radical ideological changes that shook Cuba during its history: colonialism, independence, democracy, dictatorship, and socialism.

The North was first a model for independence, then a provider of independence, a model for democracy, a business partner, and a source of anti-dictatorial ideology. Finally, for disappointed masses that felt betrayed by repeated Northern breaches of the same principles that it taught and professed to cherish, it became a source of “inspiration” for a radical revolution that allegedly challenged the established identity of its own combatants.

Pérez bases his argument on evidence ranging from books and articles written about Cuba to letters, private conversations, and newspaper archives, to name just a few. Having invested ten years of extensive research in this book, Pérez bases it on serious, diverse, and reliable sources—ones that are the most relevant for the historical treatment of difficult issues like identity, culture, and nationality. Pérez provides detailed descriptions of relevant circumstances, insightful mini-histories, and lists names, places, products, statistics, events, amounts, and more. His text is full of lengthy, but helpful, inventories concerning, for example, baseball clubs, movies, imported products, bar and café names, etc. Very often he includes short testimonies, citations, excerpts from novels, short stories, newspaper articles, and personal histories from the epoch in question, thus providing an excellent insight into its prevalent mindset. One can clearly imagine and feel these issues re-emerge in all the complexities that made and veiled them.

The sources Pérez uses certainly make for a voluminous book—it runs on for nearly 600 pages—but they also make it tangible and jagged, as opposed to the distant, concise, and smooth argumentative style often employed in historical works. The many examples he provides are relevant and incisive, even though they interrupt the flow of the analysis; but at the same time, they fortify its conclusions, which is an invaluable asset to a good history. In his introduction, the author contends to describe the cultural exchange that took place between Cuba and North America, and he does in a significant and insightful manner, but the body of the book is overwhelmingly concerned with the cultural influence flowing from the North; and perhaps rightfully so—the body offers, perhaps intentionally, ample evidence that the cultural exchange between the two nations was overwhelmingly skewed, with the North as the big exporter and limited importer, and Cuba as the enthusiastic importer and small-scale exporter.

The book’s central claim suggests the cultural domination of the U.S. in Cuba was at least in part due to a Cuban willingness to adopt the values of the richest, strongest, arguably the most modern and progressive country in the world, hoping to attain a similar, if not equal, status. Thus, internally, the cultural exchange was a result of trendy tendencies of Cuban elites who increasingly saw the U.S. as the beacon of civilization, progress, and opportunity for material advancement, with the European powers, and especially Spain, diminishing in importance. Indeed, Pérez names “[T]he failure of North Americans to live up to the standards they propounded” as the main reason for Cuban revolutionary and anti-American fervour of the late 1950s (3). Under Batista dictatorship, which had U.S. support, lacking the rule of law, democracy, equal opportunity, etc., it was natural for Cubans to become disenchanted with the U.S.

On Becoming Cuban is a spotlight on Cuban elites and urban dwellers. Most probably due to the unavailability of direct sources, Pérez fails to thoroughly cover the cultural and national developments in rural Cuba. He does raise the question of race and reveals a presence of patronizing ambivalence towards Cuban blacks, typical of the pre-socialist era. Largely black and employed in the sugar industry, rural populations could hardly have had participated in similar cultural trends and developed similar identities to their more urban counterparts. Thus under-defined, rural identities bear weight on the larger issues covered in Pérez’s book: How unanimous was the acceptance of Northern norms? How deep did it reach? How essential was the disappointment with U.S. policies for the success of the Cuban Revolution? How diverse were the bases that later granted support to Fidel Castro’s revolutionary project; were they mainly, as Pérez contends, anti-American and pro-democratic, or were they driven by simpler, localized, but wider desires for social and racial egalitarianism?

Due to the number of sources and the tremendously difficult task Pérez set out to complete, his work is difficultly settled into the chronological and geographic background. He writes with the assumption that the reader is already familiar with the main currents of Cuban and international history, without feeling obliged to explain the political or international context where it is not absolutely necessary (4). For that reason, it would be useful to have a chronology of Cuban and relevant world history at hand while reading this book. Pérez mentions names and events, and slides back and forth on the string of chronology, taking a thematic rather than chronological approach to the topic. Such an approach is possibly the most appropriate for the history of cultural trends and identity formations; however, a greater attention to setting would, in my opinion, make this book more accessible and comprehensible to a reader previously unacquainted with Cuban history. Still, Pérez does an excellent job describing the complex evolution of Cuban identity and nationality; the obvious misgivings I have pointed out represent more of an insinuation for a direction of future research than a serious criticism of Pérez’s effort.

In the realm of “Cuban issues,” great ideological battles have crept into the practice of supposedly neutral disciplines, like that of history. The controversial status of Castro’s socialist regime in the capitalist West has contributed to the blurring of the line dividing historical knowledge from political campaigning efforts, especially outside of academia. The history of Cuba has been and is being interpreted in several sharply different ways, due to its profound politicization. This is where Pérez’s book makes a significant impact: interesting and accessible to the everyday reader, it soberly analyzes available evidence and unscrupulously draws corresponding conclusions, obviously working towards the necessary de-politicization of Cuban history in the best possible manner—using academic honesty, political neutrality, and inductive reasoning as bases for conclusions. Pérez’s scope is extensive, encompassing a wide array of testimonies from the period he addresses. He is attentive to issues that represent the cornerstones development throughout Cuban history and divisions associated with its interpretation. In this sense, On Becoming Cuban transcends academic concerns and bears significance for the world at large, offering an alternative window into the history of Cuba, one whose frame of reference excludes political aims, instead looking to explain and rationalize these same aims, thus offering a unifying standpoint for the bitterly divided.

References

(1) Louis A. Pérez Jr., On Becoming Cuban: Identity, Nationality, and Culture. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press. 1999: 579.
(2) Pérez, 9.
(3) Pérez, 465.
(4) For example, he fails to notice that the popularity of the U.S. was not only a Cuban trait in the nineteenth century, but also a worldwide phenomenon.

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