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On Becoming Cuban: Identity, Nationality, and Cultureby Louis Perez
Synopses & Reviews
Every young man's ambition seems to be to go North.
-- Samuel Hazard, "With Pen and Pencil, 1871
We Cubans have come here in search of personal freedom, in return for which we brought with us capital, talent, honest labor and morality. We imported with us the great industry of cigar making and have built up large and prosperous cities, Key West, Ybor City and West Tampa. The first of these a poor uninhabited island and the others lonesome, uncultivated pine lands were soon converted into large and prosperous cities which is due to the constant, productive labor of the lawabiding, liberal handed Cuban people whom " sic never...called for alms on the American people. But who instead has contributed more millions of dollars to the United States treasure annually than any other single industry in the whole entire country...enriching the business community and being less trouble to the courts of justice of the country than any other foreign people and even the natives themselves.
-- M. A. Montejo, Letter to Editor, "Tampa Morning Tribune, September 12,1896
The Cuban, as traveler and observer, has visited all parts of the world in search of new ways to introduce into his country, to improve and perfect its industries, to make his life more comfortable.
-- Enrique José Varona, 1896
Resemblance between Cuba and the United States has been increased by the proximity and frequency of intercourse between the two countries, by an identity of social institutions and aspirations, and by the large number of Cuban youth educated there.... The ideas and manner of thought with which they return to the island, are more American than Spanish, andthese are continually extended by their influence and their example.
-- John S. Thrasher, 1851
Havana will soon become as much American as New Orleans.
-- Anthony Trollope, "The West Indies and the Spanish Main, 1862
The connections began early — almost at the beginning, in fact: first as frontiers of the same empire, later as colonies of rival empires. But imperial rivalries intruded little, if at all, on colonial realities. New World requirements — not Old World regulations — served to shape much of the course and character of contact. Both economies adjusted to the participation of the other, and in the process developed vital linkages on which the well-being of each depended. Cubans and North Americans discovered early that colonists even of rival empires often had more in common with one another than they did with the authorities who governed them. They developed needs that each was uniquely qualified to meet, or perhaps it was the other way around: they developed those needs precisely because they could be so well met by the other. Proximity and accessibility promoted affinity, which joined them in a relationship that was simultaneously reciprocal and inexorable. Geography made these connections possible and convenient; circumstances made them practical and necessary.
Sources of the Beginning
Trade was one important link and early established the basis on which familiarity developed and contact increased. Access to North American markets made the expansion of Cuban sugar production possible and profitable, and the decision to pursue economic development through sugar exports quickly assumed a logic of its own, driven by expansion and more expansion: expandedcultivation, expanded production, expanded exports in pursuit of expanding markets.
But it was not simply a matter of producing more sugar, more efficiently, more profitably. Cuban success was very much derived from a strategy of specialization: production for export at the expense of production for consumption, increasingly to the exclusion of other products, eventually to the exclusion of other markets. It was more cost effective to rely on food imports for internal consumption than sacrifice sugar exports for external markets. That the United States could meet these needs, as well as provide Cuba with necessary industrial and manufactured supplies, from comparatively short distances, in relatively short periods of time, and at reasonably low transportation costs, gave Cuban development its distinctive and definitive characteristics.
The capacity of the United States to provide Cuba with the means with which to expand was at least as important as markets in which to expand. Sugar planters were soon alert to the possibilities of innovation and industrial progress; they were especially receptive to the use of new technologies to improve efficiency and increase production. Producers were direct beneficiaries of North American industrial development, and, indeed, the transfer of technology became a normal part of the stock in trade between Cuba and the United States. The logic of the connection was as compelling as it was self-evident. Reduced travel time and lower transportation costs meant that spare parts, repairs, and replacement pieces for North American machinery could be obtained faster and cheaper than for European equipment.
Technological innovation reached Cuba early andeasily, often the instant it became available in the United States. New technology arrived in surges and in succession, often with unexpected results but always with effect. Innovation and renovation became the imperatives driving production, the means, too, by which Cuba was integrated into advanced industrial modes of the North.
Access to technology from the United States served to shape all facets of Cuban economic activity: production strategies no less than transportation systems, commercial relations as well as consumption patterns. Steam power was introduced as early as 1819 and immediately transformed sugar production through improved efficiency and increased exports. Coastwise steamship service arrived in the same year, when entrepreneur Juan O'Farrill bought the "Neptuno in New Orleans and inaugurated weekly passenger and cargo service between Havana and Matanzas, only a decade after the first commercial use of steamships in the North. Additional steamships were subsequently purchased in the United States, and by 1842 a total of six vessels operated along both coasts of Cuba. Scheduled steamship service with the United States commenced in 1836 and by midcentury linked Havana directly with New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Mobile, New Orleans, and Key West.
Cuba has long fascinated, mystified, and frustrated Americans. Now, in this sweeping work, Louis A. PÉrez Jr. transforms the way we view Cuba and its relationships with the United States. Drawing from an enormous range of sources, including archival records, oral interviews, and examples from popular culture, PÉrez reveals a powerful web of everyday, bilateral connections between Cuba and the United States. He shows how America's cultural and political forms profoundly influenced Cuba's identity, nationality, and sense of modernity from the early 1850s, when the island was still a Spanish colony, until the revolution that erupted in 1959. In exploring Cuba's encounter with the United States, PÉrez articulates the cultural context for that revolution, tracing it to the country's growing dissatisfaction at not having kept pace with America's own rampant prosperity and modernization.
About the Author
Louis A. PÉrez Jr. is the J. Carlyle Sitterson Professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. A recipient of a Guggenheim Award, he is also the author of The War of 1898: The United States and Cuba in Historyand Historigraphy and Cuba: Between Reform and Revolution.
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