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Monday, January 7, 2019

January 7, 2019: Cuban and American Histories: Fidel Castro

[January 7th marks the 60th anniversary of Fidel Castro entering Havana to take over as Cuba’s prime minister—one begrudgingly recognized by a U.S. government that had opposed his revolution and would continue to oppose his rule. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy Cuban histories in relationship to the U.S.—leading up to a weekend post on literary works that can help us understand the island nation and ourselves!]
On two ways to AmericanStudy one of the nation’s 20th century antagonists.
First things first: Fidel Castro never tried out for the New York Yankees or any other Major League Baseball team. That hyperlinked interview notes that he could have conceivably gone to an open tryout on the island for a different team (the Yankees didn’t have a Latin American scouting presence until the 1960s); but as this piece adds, he wasn’t anywhere near a good enough ballplayer to have a serious chance in any case. It makes for a compelling counter-factual historical narrative to think about the future Cuban dictator becoming an MLB pitcher instead (especially for the Yankees!), and speaks as well to the shared love of the sport in the U.S. and Cuba; it also, as the second hyperlinked piece above indicates, allows for an inaccurate and far too simplistic but tantalizing “personal grudge” kind of explanation for Castro’s opposition to the United States. But there’s not the slightest bit of evidence for it, and so this particular mythic connection between the U.S. and one of its principal Cold War (and after) adversaries is just that, a myth.
While there aren’t necessarily such personal connections between Castro and the U.S., however, there are still interesting ways to AmericanStudy the Cuban dictator. One interesting such lens is to think about Castro as the descendent of a postcolonial legacy partially shaped by the United States (and also not unlike America’s prior relationship to England). Castro’s father, Ángel Castro y Argiz, fought in Cuba on the Spanish side during the Spanish American War, but then abandoned that homeland to migrate to Cuba as a private citizen a few years later. He worked as a miner and railroad worker as the island nation began developing its postcolonial identity, and became connected to the American United Fruit Company, one of the early 20th century corporations that moved to the island after independence and became an integral part of its development. By the time of Fidel’s birth in 1926, his father had become an entrepreneur in that developing economy, and indeed one of the island nation’s new elites, owning his own farm and mine. In that way, Fidel can be seen as similar to many of America’s Framers and Early Republic leaders, the son of a family of landed elites seeking to help his young nation move more fully into its independent status.
In launching his own revolution, of course, Castro fought against a figure who had become intimately tied to the United States: President Fulgencio Batista. Since I’ll write about Batista later in the week, however, I’ll focus here on one other way to AmericanStudy Castro’s revolutionary actions and identity. In this late 2016 post on the Monroe Doctrine, I wrote about both the more negative and more positive ways to analyze that Early Republic American foreign policy: as a U.S.-centric vision of the Western Hemisphere on the one hand; and as a creolized narrative of the interconnections between all Western Hemisphere nations on the other. While of course Cold War fears of the spread of Communism significantly influenced American hostility to Castro and his revolutionary government, I would argue that Castro also threatened the U.S.-centric hemispheric vision, offering a different model for hemispheric unity that radically decentered the narrative. Whereas if we see the hemisphere through a more creolized lens, and step outside of the Cold War frame that so drove U.S.-Cuban relations throughout the late 20th century, it’s possible to see Castro as even more directly parallel to both American Founding Fathers and other Latin American revolutionary figures.
Next history tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other Cuban histories you’d highlight?

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