Sunday, 16 January 2011

RATB reviews: Julia Sweig's Cuba: What Everyone Needs to Know

Julia Sweig, Cuba: What Everyone Needs to Know, USA: Oxford University Press, 2009, (ISBN 13: 978-0-19-538380-5, ISBN 10: 0-19-538380X), pp304, $16.95 pbk, $74 hbk.

reviewed by Helen Yaffe.

Here’s is my review of Julia Sweig’s latest book, Cuba: What Everyone Needs to Know, written for the January 2011 issue (87:1) of International Affairs.
Source: RealCuba blog, 13 January 2011.

Written as part of the Oxford University Press ‘what everyone needs to know’ series, this book is organised as a set of questions and answers and divided into four broad periods: pre-1959, the Cold War 1959-1991, post Cold War 1991 to 2006, and post-Fidel to 2009. In order to cover this broad sweep of history in 250 pages the author adopts a succinct and authoritative narrative style. The text is accessible and directed towards a non-academic audience; there are no notes or references, and the story is told more through assertion than evidence. This locates the book in a different category from Sweig’s 2002 Inside the Cuban Revolution which, based on groundbreaking research, examined the role of the 1950s urban underground movement with scholarly rigour. Nonetheless, because of the range of topics in Cuba: What Everyone Needs to Know even Cuba scholars are likely to learn something new. The format of the book makes repetition inevitable.

In her introduction the author states that: ‘The emphasis in this book [is] on the US-Cuba relationship’ and that it is written: ‘Especially (though not exclusively) for the benefit of an American audience’. This is both a strength and a weakness and reflects Sweig’s commendable objective to challenge ‘the nearly genetic American belief that Washington should and can somehow manage Cuba’s transition’ and to discredit a US foreign policy promoting regime change (pxxii). Nonetheless, the author apparently shares the notion that a transition to capitalist democracy is desirable. She adopts terms like ‘democracy’, ‘human-rights’ and ‘repression’ within the same ideological paradigm as her audience. The philosophical flexibility necessary to appreciate a revolutionary society, the attempt to escape underdevelopment with different institutions, objectives, values and relationships, is lacking.

So for example, Sweig skilfully navigates the fascinating story of how the Cuban exile community has had a disproportionate (and undemocratic) impact on US elections and domestic politics and explains divisions within that community, but she does not mention the grassroots institutions through which the Cuban people are organised. Known as ‘organisations of the masses’, these are based on voluntary participation in work, study, gender, cultural and residence-based groups and integrate almost 100% of Cubans. Readers will not learn how these operate, their role within the National Assembly, Cuba’s highest legislative body, or that forum’s relationship with the Cuban Communist Party. These are key aspects of Cuban society about which everyone needs to know. There is one nod towards ‘Cuba and Venezuela’s own approach to “participatory democracy”’ (p201), but what this means or how it works is not discussed.

Consequently, while Sweig states that ‘the most fundamental question this book answers is why the revolution has endured beyond the Cold War and, now, beyond the half-century tenure of Fidel Castro’ (pxxii), little effort is made to explain how Cuban society is organised or to account for individual commitment to Cuba’s social project. Support for the Revolution is accounted for by sweeping references to nationalism or admiration for Fidel Castro. As a consequence the Cuban people are consigned to a set of minorities: those who migrate with visas or on rafts, artists, ‘dissidents’ on the island and the exile community in the US.

Among the exciting post Cold-War developments in Cuba has been the emergence of organic farming and urban gardens. In 2006, the WWF’s Living Planet Report named Cuba as the only country in the world to have achieved ‘sustainable development’ and Cuba initiated the Energy Revolution. Such developments are not examined.

The strong political narrative is undermined by the lack of economic history or understanding of the political economy of socialism. For example: 1) referring to Che Guevara’s work as a member of the post-1959 government, Sweig states that he ‘did little to solve the practical economic problems of the day’ (p46). In fact, Guevara’s management of industry helped avoid paralysis of the economy during the rapid transition from a free-enterprise to a planned economy. 2) Sweig says the 1990s economic crisis saw the ‘introduction of the notion, virtually an anathema until then, that the market – the free market, the capitalist market – might actually be a tool Cuba could somehow harness in the interests of socialism and social welfare’ (p131). However, the extent to which market mechanisms should be adopted in socialist development was already being debated in Cuba in the early 1960s.

As the introduction concedes, ‘this book may not cover all the ground that every reader might wish’ (pxxii). It does, however, challenge many perceptions and demystify Cuba. Most important, it demonstrates the scale of Cuba’s achievement in surviving a half-century campaign by the US administration (and international allies) and a powerful exile community to destroy the Revolution using every means from terrorism and economic blockade, to generous funding of an internal opposition. For this, and many other reasons, this book is well worth reading.

Helen Yaffe is a member of RATB.