Antoni Kapcia

 

On his book Cuba in Revolution: A History Since the Fifties

Cover Interview of March 31, 2009

The wide angle

In Cuba in Revolution I have gone away from the common tendency to present the Revolution’s trajectory as a series of often unrelated ‘phases’, a confusing zigzag experience of contradictory changes.  The Revolution is confusing–but there is a pattern, caused by the basic reality that it is a revolutionary process in a small, underdeveloped and raw material—dependent island, situated right next to the world’s most powerful nation which has, since 1960, been unremittingly hostile to it.  That reality has, I argue, led to an inherent tendency to crises.  But I argue that each crisis has in turn stimulated ‘debate’, or reappraisal, out of which have, in turn, come sustained periods of political consolidation, each taking a particular form.  Hence, instead of ‘phases’, I suggest ‘cycles’, and instead of tracing it all chronologically, I explain it thematically, examining the different processes which have created, won and sustained loyalty.

To my way of thinking, the only way of explaining the Revolution’s survival is to look at those reserves of loyalty built up over the years and then sustained–in enough Cubans for enough of the time–in order to resist external pressures, economic hardship, and repeated frustrations and even failures.  ‘Loyalty’ is, of course, not necessarily active or even characteristic of the majority of Cubans; it is often passive and even negative, driven by fear of alternatives or custom.  But loyalty does exist and is consistently tapped by the leadership.  So, in a sense, the book traces the building of what many call ‘social capital’ or even a revolutionary version of ‘civil society’.

Cuba in Revolution is also, however, very much about nationalism.  I have long argued that the roots of the Revolution, its radicalisation after 1959, its development of an idiosyncratic socialism, and also its survival lie in what the Cubans call cubanía—a belief in an independent, socially just Cuba Libre.  So it is about the radical potential, and the mechanisms, of nationalism.  Indeed, one should see ‘the Revolution’ as a process of radical nation-building in what used to be called the ‘Third World’.

It was all of this which long ago attracted me to Cuba.  The book is in fact the result of 38 years of specialising on Cuba but, beyond that, of 42 years of fascination by Cuba.  My interest was first aroused by the news coverage in October 1967 of the death of someone of whom I had never heard but whose details seemed fascinating.  Che Guevara effectively launched my academic interest in Latin America, an interest which took me to an innovative undergraduate course on the region at University College London, and thereafter on to doctoral research on Cuba.  As my supervisor then said, Cuba ‘is the only subject to study in Latin America’.

I have also been lucky enough to travel frequently to Cuba–some 30-odd times–which has enabled me to get to know the island pretty well and to make many good and lasting friendships.  One of the effects of being in love with a subject or a country is that you always want to tell people about it, explain it, help them share your excitement or enthusiasm.  I almost never turn down invitations to speak or to write—I have been writing on Cuba since 1974.  And that’s also why I ended up writing Cuba in Revolution.

But I typically write for an academic readership.  That means, occasionally, a tendency towards denseness of expression.  For example, my first book, Cuba. Island of Dreams, published in 2000, was an achievement in that I comprised in one book-length exposition my theories of the nature and workings of cubanía.  Although the book was generally well received and does seem to have helped others to get to grips with the subject, parts of it are pretty hard going for the lay reader.  Cuba in Revolution, on the other hand, is the most readable exposition of my understanding of Cuba.