More reviews are forthcoming, but two new University of North Carolina Press releases on Cuba are worthy of note.
Black Political Activism and the Cuban Republic by Melina Pappademos (University of North Carolina Press, 2011) and Cuba in the American Imagination: Metaphor and the Imperial Ethos by Louis A. Perez (University of North Carolina Press, 2011) came out this year, and are impressive books for different reasons.
Black Political Activism and the Cuban Republic is one of many books out in the last few years to delve into the rich and criminally unexplored history of Afro-Latin Americans in the region. There are some really incredible books, including Afro-Mexico and many works by Reid Andrews among them. Pappademos’ study makes for an entertaining and informative script, because it explores issues that are rarely plumbed in African-American historical narratives: class.
Class conversations are a bold choice for Pappademos, not just because there is always a chance that sort of issue could alienate people, but because, in theory, the Cuban Revolution’s aspiration was to eliminate class contradictions. Black Political Activism and the Cuban Republic gets into the tensions that arose between the Black proletariat and those who ascended into leadership of the Cuban Communist Party. Perceptions that those leaders did not serve the interests of the poor are extensively detailed, and Pappademos does it in a dispassionate, honest fashion. Where so many academics are apt to take shots at Cuba and, in many ways, the socialist project, the author here gives an excellent telling of an alternate history. The debates, nuances and political challenges are maddeningly complex, with the watchful eye of anti-Cuban forces anticipating failure being but one of the many problems before Fidel Castro’s republic.
The diplomatic squabbles and class discussions could easily warrant a separate book, but the book instead presents a generous sweep of pre- and post-Revolution Black history. Pappademos enhances this text with rich storytelling about Cuba’s diverse Black cultural and political institutions, grassroots organizing and institutional attempts to serve a socially and economically disenfranchised Afro-Cuban populace. Among recent research on people of African descent in Latin America, Black Political Activism and the Cuban Republic is an edition whose socio-political analysis deserves wide readership.
Speaking of wide readership, media is the focus of Perez’s examination, which presents dozens of media portrayals of the island nation.
One cannot take media representations lightly. Newspapers, radio, TV and digital channels tell stories. And, in the popular consciousness, such stories tell history for the vast majority of people. Perez does an exhaustive job of presenting U.S. attitudes about Cuba, and moreover pervasive infantalization of the people of Cuba.
It probably does not need to be said that American media attitudes generally expressed about Cuba, even virtually decades before Castro, were troubling. Whether it was a playground for the rich or an impoverished land in need of stewardship by the powerful, Cuba has seemingly always occupied in the U.S. awareness an image that is, at its core, subordinate. Old-school cultural imperialism, which centers North American ingenuity and presumes others covet U.S. opulence, ruled many a day, as Perez illustrates. In the post-Revolution period, suggestions of Cuba’s backwardness merely shifted in content.
Through news reports, editorial cartoons and other portrayals, media subtly validate government and free-market capital’s perspectives on Cuba. Given the Occupy movement’s contentions about income inequality and how anti-Occupy media reports sometimes appear to undercut the message, how corporate media approaches questions of power and privilege are frighteningly similar.
Although altogether different from Pappademos’ book, Perez offers valuable insights into the media cold war facing Cuba in the years before and after Bautista’s ouster. Cuba in the American Imagination will greatly help students of media literacy, and is certain to help others understand how media communicates ideology in the name of objectivity.