Keller on Latner, 'Cuban Revolution in America: Havana and the Making of a United States Left, 1968-1992'

Author: 
Teishan A. Latner
Reviewer: 
Renata Keller

Teishan A. Latner. Cuban Revolution in America: Havana and the Making of a United States Left, 1968-1992. Justice, Power, and Politics Series. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018. 368 pp. $39.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4696-3546-0.

Reviewed by Renata Keller (University of Nevada Reno) Published on H-LatAm (April, 2019) Commissioned by Casey M. Lurtz (Johns Hopkins University)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=53536

In this fascinating book, Teishan A. Latner explores multiple facets of the relationship between the Cuban Revolution and left-wing social movements in the United States. Latner picks up where Van Gosse’s Where the Boys Are: Cuba, Cold War and the Making of a New Left (1993) ended, beginning in the late 1960s and concluding with the decline of the Cold War in the 1990s. He examines the transnational activities of solidarity activists, airplane hijackers, Cuban American progressives, and African American political exiles to show the variety of ways in which left-wing groups and individuals in the United States interpreted the Cuban Revolution and interacted with the island. He also reveals how these non-state groups affected US-Cuban diplomatic relations, sometimes in contradictory ways. Latner skillfully interweaves social, cultural, and diplomatic analysis to argue that US radicals and Cuban revolutionaries “repeatedly built bridges to each other across gulfs of ideology and history, but not always in the ways that they intended” (p. 269). In doing so, he makes important contributions to the literature on US social movements, inter-American relations, and the Cuban Revolution.

Latner organizes his book in detailed case studies of US organizations and individuals that interacted with Cuba in the second half of the twentieth century. Chapter 1 focuses on the Venceremos Brigade, a multiethnic solidarity organization that began sending groups of volunteers to Cuba in 1969 and quickly became the largest and longest-lived Cuba solidarity organization in the world. Latner argues that, in its people-to-people activities, the brigade “embodied a form of grassroots soft power” that helped break the “information blockade” that the US government had tried to establish around the island (pp. 28, 29). Members of the brigade traveled to the island to provide physical labor to aid the Cuban Revolution while also hoping to gain insight about strategies that they could apply to political struggles back home. Latner examines the brigade’s many accomplishments and calls attention to the romanticized idealism and factionalism that at times endangered or undermined the group’s efforts, especially in the early years. A deeper discussion of the differences between the so-called New Left and the Third World Left would have helped clarify the brigade’s place within the wider spectrum of US social movements, but Latner makes it clear that the group had an important impact above all on its members and their understandings of leftist solidarity.

Latner builds on his analysis of the Venceremos Brigade in chapter 2, this time focusing on the perspective of the US government officials who monitored American dissidents’ travel to Cuba. Drawing on declassified Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) records on groups, including the Venceremos Brigade, the Black Panther Party, and the Weather Underground Organization, Latner argues that US national security officers viewed Cuba as both an external, military threat and an internal, ideological one. US officials were especially concerned about the potential for espionage presented by leftist interactions with Cuba. They may in some cases have been correct in their claims that the Cubans were providing military training to US dissidents. In this chapter, Latner also provides an interesting discussion of the uses of state surveillance files and the work that FBI and CIA officers performed as investigators, analysts, archivists, and biographers.

In chapter 3, Latner examines the surge of airline hijackings to Cuba by US citizens between 1968 and 1973. He analyzes the hijackers’ motivations, including ideological affinity, political asylum, sanctuary from racism, protection from criminal charges, and apolitical adventurism. He argues that these motivations were shaped by the ways in which Cuba was constructed in the radical American imaginary, as not only an idealized nexus of Third World revolution, anti-racism, and anti-imperialism but also a permissive space of lawlessness and personal license for foreigners. Latner also addresses the various consequences of the hijackings, both for the hijackers themselves and for wider US-Cuban diplomatic relations.

Chapter 4 analyzes the Cuban American leftist movement and the activities of the Antonio Maceo Brigade, a coalition of young émigré students, professionals, and activists who pushed for the normalization of US-Cuban relations. Latner argues that little-studied events like the Maceo Brigade’s visit to Cuba in 1977 helped lay the foundations for improved relations between the Cuban government and the island’s diaspora, while also challenging and redefining the parameters of Cuban American politics. He also reveals that progressive Cuban Americans paid a high cost for their activities, enduring government surveillance as well as defamation, ostracism, and even personal danger within their communities.

In the fifth and last chapter, Latner assembles a collection of biographies of African American radicals who sought political asylum in Cuba. Focusing on former Black Panther Assata Shakur but also examining other exiles and their experiences, this chapter bridges the Cold War era with current debates over US-Cuban relations and the personal and political meanings of asylum. Latner offers a particularly compelling analysis of what he describes as the “complex politics of solidarity between revolutionary Cuba and the African American freedom struggle” in this chapter, highlighting one of the strengths of the book overall (p. 201).

Cuban Revolution in America is an impressive, compelling work of research and analysis. Latner balances local, national, and transnational frames of reference with engrossing personal stories. He blends Cuban and US cultural, social, and official sources with extensive interviews and other nonprint sources to create an unusually deep and nuanced study. This book should be required reading for historians of US social movements, the Cuban Revolution, and US-Cuban relations.

Citation: Renata Keller. Review of Latner, Teishan A., Cuban Revolution in America: Havana and the Making of a United States Left, 1968-1992. H-LatAm, H-Net Reviews. April, 2019. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=53536

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