Some work news: from January I will be taking up a position as stipendiary lecturer in Modern History at St. Catherine’s College, University of Oxford, through until summer 2018. I will also continue with my current role teaching the history of Latin America and the United States in the Department of International History at LSE until summer 2017.
Author Archives: williamabooth
Some recent stories about/from Mexico:
The governor of Mexico’s central bank, Agustín Carstens, has announced he is quitting the role next year to take over at the Bank for International Settlements. He stresses it is not to do with the likely ‘Trump effect’ on Mexico’s economy, but many have expressed concern that he is leaving at this time. Trump has made it clear he will intervene personally – as with Carrier last week – to prevent US companies moving production sites to Mexico (and elsewhere). That said, the OECD aren’t too gloomy about Mexico’s short-term economic prospects. Over at La Jornada, Hernández looks forward to the restraining influence of James ‘Mad Dog’ Mattis. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, Niall Ferguson is more sanguine.)
As anyone who has spent time in Mexico City knows, the city’s traffic and emissions management have been chronically ineffective for years. Now Mexico City is being heralded as one of four pioneering cities pledging to eliminate diesel vehicles from their streets by 2025. It would be great, in principle, to see this happen, but it is hard not to wonder whether the wealthy (and indeed others) of Mexico City will manage to get around this ban as they have so many other proscriptive initiatives.
Another chapter in the long-running battle between Mexico’s campesinos and multinational companies is covered by Hermann Bellinghausen, framed as the devouring of the land of Juan Rulfo. Meanwhile, as a missing dog went viral, David Agren asked: where is the concern for missing people?
Reactions to the death of Fidel Castro ran the full gamut in Mexico. López Obrador reportedly offered some rather fulsome praise, which Jorge Castañeda addressed here. In Proceso, Jorge Carrasco Araizaga casts a withering look at some of the tensions and contradictions in both Castro’s reputation in Mexico (not least the damaging support for Salinas) and in the wider Cuban-Mexican relationship.
Castro, Cuba, and Hypocrisy
A few words on Fidel Castro (1926-2016), a figure of world-historical importance (does his death mark the ‘end of communism’ for instance?) and without whom the teaching of courses on US-Latin American relations would be difficult to imagine.
I don’t want to say much here about the achievements of the Cuban revolution – in education, in health, in global anti-imperialism and anti-apartheid struggles, in disaster relief and medical solidarity, and very recently in helping to broker the probable peace between the FARC and the Colombian government. Others have covered these positives in great detail, along with Castro’s varying personal role. Instead I want to concentrate on some of the negatives, as a caution against what I see as a frequently hypocritical and in-bad-faith dismissal of Cuba tout court.
Some of Castro’s fiercest critics seem to be judging him by imagined contemporary standards rather than the standards of the Cold War (by which the Cuban regime emerges as unusually progressive). The period and region were characterised by violence, dictatorship, militarism and censorship and while Castro’s repressive government certainly demonstrated each of these traits, the Cuban regime’s crimes pale next to those of authoritarianisms almost everywhere else in the region. And perhaps Castro invited closer scrutiny by so publically judging the actions of other rulers and regimes, and acting upon those judgements with force of arms. But using overt or covert methods to export ideology to other parts of the world? That was Cold War 101 for all serious practitioners, whether US, USSR, China or lesser lights. It seems to me that a particular problem for the Cuban government was that it represented a small nation, was somewhat autonomous, and very vocal – a combination which greatly riled its enemies.
Others seem happy to write Cuba off as a ‘prison state’ or as part of the extended ‘axis of evil’ without acknowledging extrajudicial arrest and imprisonment, clampdowns on dissent, electoral irregularities, and foreign policy adventurism in its supposedly more palatable neighbours – and even closer to home. As I said above, while Cuba’s revolutionary government was undoubtedly (though not consistently) repressive, and made some significant missteps in economic and foreign policy, I think history will, on balance, be kind to Castro – at least kinder than political scientists and journalists seem to be. The impact of the revolution in inspiring Latin Americans and others to assert political and economic independence was huge, while the role Cuba played in opposing and defeating white supremacist regimes in southern Africa is also important.
We should condemn aspects of Castro’s rule and legacy, no doubt: the jailing and even killing of one’s political enemies, censorship, the disdain for multi-party democracy, the enforced isolation of HIV-positive Cubans in the 1980s (and ongoing temporary ‘quarantining’), the wholesale backing of Ethiopia against Somalia in the late 1970s. But we cannot pretend these things (or equivalents) are unusual in regimes we would perhaps prefer to think of as liberal democracies (and certainly not in their less ‘liberal’ allies) the world over.
Take imprisonment, for instance. The US is a carceral state, with around one per cent of the population in jail – that’s well over two million people, of whom (as is well publicised), most are people of colour, a form of political jailing in and of itself. Cuba’s rate of incarceration is high, of course, but it is well below that of the US – in fact only around two thirds of it.
And during Castro’s period of rule there were political prisoners in British, US, French and German jails, even if we rarely think about it that way. Nearly two thousand people were interned, that is to say imprisoned without trial for political reasons, in Northern Ireland in the early 1970s, and many were tortured. The United States has a prison camp on the island of Cuba itself – Guantanamo Bay, probably the most notorious site of detention without trial in the contemporary world. It’s not only a reaction to 9/11, though – at least a hundred people were already being held for primarily political reasons as a result of the COINTELPRO programme set up by Hoover in 1956, the same year Castro’s expedition landed in Cuba.
Was Castro’s regime brutal? It was deadly of course, especially to begin with, when several thousand people were executed in the first ten or fifteen years of the revolution – mostly functionaries of the Batista dictatorship, though not all. Yet note that the death penalty was last exercised in Cuba in 2003 – and that wasn’t for anything explicitly political, it was for hijacking – since that time almost five hundred US prisoners have been executed. China, whose leaders successive British Prime Ministers have praised for being pragmatic modernisers, executes thousands of people each year. That doesn’t stop talk of a ‘golden era’.
As for elections, Cuba was and remains a one-party state. Castro didn’t exactly invent this state of affairs, nor did he show any inclination to remedy it. But ‘undemocracy’ creeps into even the most self-confident republic. Only three weeks ago the new US president was chosen in an election without the full protection of the Voting Rights Act and where it increasingly looks like voter suppression may have played a decisive role. We in the UK are allowed to vote, and that’s an important and valuable right, but we don’t have an elected head of state or even an elected prime minister right now. Was the EU referendum a ‘free and fair election’?
I am not suggesting equivalence here, just that ‘democracy’, ‘voting’ and ‘elections’ in and of themselves are rather unhelpful and elusive terms. Venezuela was nominally democratic throughout the Cold War, but with little evidence of meaningful popular sovereignty. Democratic Britain spent the 1950s conniving to overthrow governments from Iran to Guyana, imprisoning and torturing Cypriots, and massacring political opponents in Kenya. And where conservative critics of Cuba have cited undemocratic tyranny as an irredeemable fault of the regime, they often fall silent on Turkey, Saudi Arabia or other strategic allies. Furthermore, a democratic mandate did not save Arbenz from a US-supported coup and dictatorship, nor would it save Allende.*
We should also remember that Castro did not rule alone (though there were some signs of a crisis of succession seen in progressive movements under siege since the English Revolution), that while political culture was limited it was nevertheless effervescent, that the government maintained a significant degree of public support (talk of ‘totalitarianism’ seems particularly off, even if dictatorship is arguable), and was buoyed by a patriotic and anti-imperialist popular spirit which was only increased by US foreign policy. I don’t think it is possible to unpick restraints on domestic Cuban freedoms from the greater constraint imposed on the Cuban island, society and economy as a whole by the United States and its allies. President Obama came very close to acknowledging this when he began the current rapprochement, talking of ‘cutting loose the anchor of the failed policies of the past’.
Anti-imperialist, anti-apartheid, egalitarian – all to be applauded. But authoritarian, militaristic, censorious? Yes, it was those too. And the question that many – critics and supporters – have come back to, is ‘was it worth it?’ I wouldn’t ask anybody to hold back in their criticism of Castro, and I am not at all advocating ‘whataboutery’. But I would ask that the same standards are applied elsewhere – to the eleven presidents of the United States who have stood in opposition to Cuba’s revolutionary path, to our own past and contemporary liberal-democratic governments, to our allies doing our dirty work elsewhere – otherwise it just looks like good old-fashioned red-baiting.
*An aside: Ben Smith has shown, one-party states can be lively sites of contestation at the sub-national level.
Is Theresa May a Peronist?
A couple of weeks ago I was doing some reading on early Peronism for a class I was teaching on Latin American populists. Alongside Vargas in Brazil and Cárdenas in Mexico, we were looking at the transition from the military junta (1943-6) to the odd melange of ‘democratic-authoritarian populism’ (!) presided over by Perón in Argentina from 1946-55. The more I read on this period of Perón’s political career – and granted, there are many distinct Perón phases – the more one contemporary figure sprang to mind: Theresa May.*
Clearly the question posed here is a facetious one – I don’t think May has demonstrated particular interest in or knowledge of Latin America, though notably the current visit to the UK of President Santos of Colombia has provided the British government with an opportunity to announce some bilateral deals of the sort that may define the post-Brexit course. I certainly don’t suggest she is an actual admirer or follower of Perón (who for all his towering importance in Latin America is only moderately known and very poorly understood outside the region). However, there are a number of commonalities that I find rather striking.
An important reason why Theresa May came to mind was the difficulty political commentators have had in placing her accurately on a traditional left-right spectrum. I don’t think it’s hard at all, myself; I think it’s fairly clear that this is the most right-wing government Britain has had for generations, and possibly much longer. That said, the British commentariat tied itself in knots following May’s walkover to the Conservative leadership, declaring her to be “curious hybrid”; aiming to “command and hold the centre ground”; a “hard edged version of centrism”; “unideological”, “super pragmatic” and “Tony Blair… in kitten heels”. As the last comment suggests, May has to contend with an awful lot of sexism before her politics gets full attention.
However, at the heart of May’s so-called centrism are sentiments with deeply troubling historical antecedents. “The lesson of Britain,” she claims, “is that we are a country built on the bonds of family, community, citizenship”. Everyone likes family, community, and citizenship don’t they? Of course they do. But the shift from those fluffy abstractions into concretely defined realities is behind many of the twentieth century’s most heinous political movements. (An episode of Novara FM covered some of this in relation to political theory in a fascinating way recently).
Juan Domingo Perón (1895-1974, president of Argentina 1946-55, and 1973-4) similarly frustrates many who attempt to place him on a one-dimensional left-right spectrum, though the significant overlap with fascism is to my mind a pretty big clue. In his book The Ideological Origins of the Dirty War, Federico Finchelstein (T:@FinchelsteinF) gives a superb account of the genealogy of Argentine political culture. In the chapter on links between fascism and Peronism, he writes (and forgive the lengthy quote, but it is important):
Fascism and Peronism came to power as a result of the failure of liberal-democratic regimes that were thought to be solid or well-established. Both regimes gave a totalitarian answer to the crisis that modernity had provoked in the public perception of laws, the economy, and the legitimacy of the state. Both regimes were clearly anticommunist and antisocialist. Finally, both regimes mobilized the population “from the top,” through their propaganda and various actions, promoting mass politics and convincing majorities that the regime represented them and the nation as a whole. But while fascism mobilized the middle classes, Peronism rallied the working class.
Let us call the incipient variant of right-nationalism that May and her cabinet represent Mayism. Admittedly this sets aside important ideological differences within the cabinet on matters of trade (though free traders are being allowed enough rope to hang themselves, it seems to me) and civil liberties (again, though, David Davis has changed his mind spectacularly on free speech post-referendum for instance), but there is enough of an emergent dynamic for this to be worth thinking about. To substitute into Finchelstein’s schema:
- Mayism came to power as a result of the failure of a liberal-democratic regime that was thought to be solid or well-established.
- Mayism seems to be seeking authoritarian** answers to the crisis that modernity has provoked in the public perception of laws, the economy, and the legitimacy of the state (see, especially, the rather terrifying “we will never again… let those activist, left-wing human rights lawyers harangue and harass the bravest of the brave”)
- Mayism is clearly antisocialist.
- Mayism is attempting to moblize the population “from the top,” through its propaganda and various actions, convincing majorities that the regime represents them and the nation as a whole.
In addition, there are some echoes of Peronism where:
- Mayism promotes an openly racist immigration policy (though so have many successive governments in Britain).
- Mayism implicitly promotes a Christian public morality (though two caveats here: first, as far as I know it is yet to become explicit – David Cameron tried this, and was heavily rebuked; and second, a Catholic political morality as in Argentina may have significant differences to an Anglican political morality in Britain, though I suspect these differences would be overstated, and in any case there are some welcoming May’s apparent Anglo-Catholicism).
- Mayism has a contingent relationship with democracy, using popular sovereignty to disregard representative institutions where it supports May’s broad project , and vice versa where it does not.
Finchelstein notes that Perón turned from fascism’s middle-class constituency to the Argentine working class. Theresa May’s conference speech (from which the bulk of quotes here are taken verbatim) suggested she wishes to move from the liberal-ish broadly middle-class constituency which backed both Blair and Cameron to some kind of frightened and ‘left behind’ working class, which may or may not exist in that form (it’s certainly not a consistent picture with coherent political expression as James Meek has amply demonstrated in recent years, for example here). To wit:
Our democracy should work for everyone, but if you’ve been trying to say things need to change for years and your complaints fall on deaf ears, it doesn’t feel like it’s working for you. And the roots of the revolution run deep. Because it wasn’t the wealthy who made the biggest sacrifices after the financial crash, but ordinary, working class families.
That’s some epic outsider-populism right there, from someone who has been right at the heart of government for the last six years – a reason to be very sceptical that this cross-class appeal is anything more than a clear demarcation from May’s predecessor, the unrepentantly toffish Cameron. This nod to the less well-off continues, with vague pronouncements on wealth disparity (societal and regional), tax avoidance and (perhaps most interestingly) generational inequality. But the fix suggested is not structural reform of class inequality, it is an exclusionary localism.
Militarism and anti-cosmopolitan sentiment also bubble at the surface. May foregrounded “the servicemen and women I met last week who wear their uniform proudly at home and serve our nation with honour abroad”; she also, chillingly, declared “if you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the very word ‘citizenship’ means.” Build that wall!
When I note the floundering of the commentariat in the face of political rhetoric which borrows from left (a bit) and extreme right (rather a lot), it is most pertinent in the idea that Theresa May and her government ‘represent the nation as a whole’. Political journalists now – for a number of reasons, I suspect far more than in the past – report on language much more than actions. Curtain-raisers, teasers, speeches, leaks etc are the channel of distribution for political ‘news’, rather than longitudinal policy analysis. Hence, when May said:
I want to explain what a country that works for everyone means. I want to set our party and our country on the path towards the new centre ground of British politics… built on the values of fairness and opportunity… where everyone plays by the same rules and where every single person – regardless of their background, or that of their parents – is given the chance to be all they want to be
this was generally reported to be her political philosophy, and to be the basis for forthcoming policies.
To be clear, I am not suggesting that the situation in Britain in 2016 is like that of Argentina in 1946, but there are limited echoes – a volk-ish nostalgia for a fake kitschy past greatness crying out to be restored is definitely in the air, as it is explicitly for Trump of course.
Peronism went on to underpin Argentina populist political culture, which consisted of (Finchelstein again) “the marriage of social reform, state interventionism, nationalism, and anti-imperialism with the logic of single-party rule, social polarization, clientelism, censorship of the press, ostracism, and the persecution of opponents up to, in some cases, prison and torture”. These things are not on the cards, certainly not in that combination, in contemporary Britain.
Yet it is not difficult to imagine, for example, an attempt to de-secularise political culture (some of her cheerleaders are actively encouraging such a path, but this could only be done in a confrontational manner – the ‘family’-centred politics can be a code here, but so could a future elision of the difference between ‘Christian’ and ‘white’); targeted state economic intervention in politically important constituencies (“strategic value” industries, which May denies constitutes “picking winners”); the steady consolidation of a concrete and enduring Conservative parliamentary majority (and thus one-party rule for the foreseeable future in England at least); an unapologetic revanchist and chauvinist nationalism (we have that already in bucketloads, really); and most troublingly, an expansion of May’s clear authoritarian tendencies at the Home Office (which did involve appalling violence against – in particular – detained migrants, but also a broader disgust aimed at human rights as a concept) into government at large. All the more baffling, then, when a self-declared leftist like Giles Fraser celebrates May for ditching neoliberalism in favour of something else which by his own admission is vague and merely rhetorical, a conservatism “so much better for the poor than slick liberals”. Again, the religious angle is noted: “for the vicar’s daughter, the community comes first”. I’m sure many will think of Evita here, but I’m not sure that’s a very fruitful line of enquiry.
It’s early days for May and her nascent -ism. It does not pay to make political predictions in the current conjuncture, in Britain, in Argentina, in the United States, in Colombia. We might not see any of these past echoes grow beyond their current unsettling volume, a distant marching beat. But borrowing bits of far right and left-nationalist rhetoric, fooling commentators into declarations of ‘centrism’ or ‘the politics of unity’, pursuing economic independence and ethnically-exclusive communitarianism as a route out of political and economic crisis – these are all things we can draw upon for comparison’s sake in postwar Argentina.
To conclude, a snippet which I think could have come from either the current British PM or from Juan Domingo himself:
They find your patriotism distasteful, your concerns about immigration parochial, your views about crime illiberal, your attachment to your job security inconvenient.
There it is: machista nationalism, dog-whistle communitarianism, and social authoritarianism, with a nod at the end to old labour. Or possibly Old Labour. We shall see.
*N.B. Peronism now means something very different from Peronism then.
**I shy away from the word totalitarian here, which is clearly not applicable.
A few words on José Fernández
A great deal has been written about José Fernández, the Miami Marlins star pitcher who died in a boat accident this morning. It’s awful for anyone to die at such a young age – he was just twenty-four years old – and that will be amplified for many by his prominence as a Marlin (a franchise which has had rough treatment from its ownership over the years and often not much to cheer about) and a Cuban in Miami.
One image which struck me was that of fellow Cuban defector (and hitting superstar for the New York Mets) Yoenis Céspedes, taping a Fernández jersey to the Mets dugout wall during the victory over the Phillies today.
The two had things in common – both were stars on teams down on their luck, both Cuban defectors – but their trajectories were very different. Céspedes is thirty, and arrived in the major leagues in 2012 already a star in Cuba. He had established himself at the local and international level and defected to the Dominican Republic in 2011 before signing a $36m/4yr deal with the A’s in 2012. (Interestingly, he may have been close to signing with the Marlins too).
Fernández had a much tougher, more contingent and more circuitous route to the United States and the big leagues. Several attempts to flee Cuba preceded a successful – though apparently highly traumatic – voyage to Mexico in 2008, during which the teenage Fernández reportedly saved his mother from drowning. While as an established player Céspedes (like Yasiel Puig and Aroldis Chapman) could sign a free agent contract for really big money, Fernández went into the draft like every other budding young player, being selected in the first round by the Miami Marlins (albeit pocketing a cool $2m in the process). His precocious talents didn’t linger long in the minor leagues, and after just a year he was up in the bigs, an All-Star and then Rookie of the Year. Like Céspedes and Chapman he quickly became known for his explosive talent, but his raw skills were probably more impressive and he could well have gone on to be an all-time great pitcher. He also charmed many – and yes, as a Met fan who cannot stand the Marlins in the ordinary course of things, I include myself – with his evident delight in playing the game.
The individual cases of the players I’ve mentioned may, in time, have a good deal to say about the specificity of the Cuban-United States relationship, its antagonisms, its contradictions and co-dependencies. There has already been much ink spilled making crassly triumphalist political points. But further thoughts on these stories – and those of Puig, or Chapman, or the hundreds of thousands of Cubans who have gone to the States to pursue lives much more ordinary than those of All-Star baseball professionals – should probably wait. For now, we should maybe just dwell on the dazzling talent and unbridled enthusiasm of a young man who has died much too soon, and think of those close to him.
Curating the Pantheon
I recently wrote a piece on history, memory and heroes in Mexico for the Age of Revolutions blog. You can read it here.
Nineteenth Century Latin America… in London
If you are passing through Kensington, Richmond or Bloomsbury sometime you can see Blue Plaques and statues of Brazilian abolitionist Joaquim Nabuco as well as several of the best known leaders of Latin American independence movements:
Joaquim Nabuco Blue Plaque: http://openplaques.org/plaques/2453
Francisco de Miranda/Andres Bello Blue Plaques: http://openplaques.org/plaques/117
Miranda statue: http://www.londonremembers.com/memorials/francisco-de-miranda-statue
Simon Bolivar: http://openplaques.org/plaques/3
Bolivar statue: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Statue_of_Simón_Bol%C3%ADvar,_London
O’Higgins Blue Plaque: http://openplaques.org/plaques/466
O’Higgins statue: http://www.londonremembers.com/memorials/bernardo-o-higgins-bust
San Martin Blue Plaque: http://openplaques.org/plaques/681
San Martin statue: http://www.londonremembers.com/memorials/jose-de-san-martin-statue
Feel free to add any more that you know of in the comments section!
Jeremy Corbyn and Latin America
Setting aside Corbyn’s other policies and proposals, over which a great deal of ink has already been spilled, if he wins there could be a significant shift in the Westminster discourse relating to Latin America. Corbyn has long been associated with solidarity movements for radical governments in the region, and he has frequently spoken up for the legacy of Sandinismo in Nicaragua and also that of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela.
Since the close entanglement of George Canning in the independence struggles of the new republics, Latin America has received little attention in Westminster politics (the Falklands/Malvinas conflict being a great exception, and hence poorly understood at the time and since), and where there has been interest from Foreign Office ministers* (consistently from Tristan Garel-Jones, intermittently from William Hague, reluctantly from most others) it was an interest based on a revival of a historic business relationship, not necessarily invoking the ‘informal empire’ of Britain in Argentina, but certainly elite-to-elite in the realm of global capital.
Corbyn’s ascendancy may signal a shift towards a popular relationship, one couched in terms of solidarity. This will be unwelcome among the political class, and while references to Chavez won’t quite retain the toxicity of those to Hamas et al, blood will boil at the prospect of an opposition leader who has openly endorsed land expropriation and the nationalisation of subsoil resources. But beyond the endorsement of ALBA or the domestic policies of radical populists, Corbyn’s rhetoric has engaged Latin American communities in the UK because he couches his opinions in terms of Latin Americans as people – people, in his view, upon whom many great historical wrongs have been visited.
To see what this humanisation (as opposed to being either worrisome migrants or potential markets for exports) means for London’s Latin American** community, just have a look at the beginning of this clip:
*To give an idea of how little attention is given to many parts of the world in the Cabinet at least, Hugo Swire currently has responsibility for: the Far East and South East Asia; India and Nepal; Latin America (including: Dominican Republic, Haiti and Cuba); Falklands; Australasia and Pacific; Commonwealth
**Eliding the differences between Latin American expatriate communities is problematic, but I think it’s fair to say (at least in my experience) that enough events and organisations (not to mention residential areas) cutting across national ties exist in London to make the idea of a London Latin American community valid.
Book Review: Race to Revolution, by Gerald Horne
N.B. This review has appeared elsewhere
Gerald Horne’s new volume casts light on a ‘special relationship’ which is often ignored or forgotten: that of the United States and pre-revolutionary Cuba. Horne, a Marxist historian whose work has covered a multiplicity of themes including race, empire, revolution and communism, has been committed to the study of narratives and topics excluded from the (particularly US) mainstream. He describes the manner in which academic historians have generally dealt with communist history, for instance, as ‘incredibly biased, one-sided, deeply influenced by the conservative drift of the nation’.
One of his ongoing concerns is to challenge the notion that the twin processes of genocide and enslavement which took place during the establishment of the United States as a political and geographical entity were ‘a step forward for humanity’. Another suggestion he has made on numerous occasions is that we should view the United States through the lens of the wider territory of African experience (and thus examine US attitudes to sites of black resistance in that light). Race to Revolution brings two pairs of overlooked histories together: the US and Cuba as nations, and communists and black activists as political actors. It also tells the latter part of the history of slavery, conventionally defined, and offers a corrective to those accounts of abolition in the US which fail to set that story in any kind of wider structural context.
The first part of the book (chapters two to five) cover the period from the mid-eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth centuries, taking in the annexation of Florida (a key event in drawing US attention ever closer to Cuba), Texan secession, slave revolts, the rise of abolitionism, and the Civil War, which ‘split the island, just as it divided the mainland’ (p.102). Throughout these early chapters, the deep ties between the two nations are clear, and often surprisingly so. Not only did these interconnected racial histories reinforce solidarity across the strait but also the fear of another black republic, like that produced by the slave revolution in Haiti (1791-1804). With this in mind, the possibility of a massacre of the ‘162,983 whites of foreign birth’ was raised by alarmist mainlanders (p.17). In fact, for Horne, the spectre of Haiti – both the violence of independence and the racial nature of the conflict – loomed over the entire US-Cuba relationship.
The second part of the book (chapters six to eleven) charts the waxing and waning of US imperial control over the island and its population, from initial informal empire, to invasion, to proxy control, ending with the overthrow of Fulgencio Batista in 1959 by Castro’s guerrilla army. The role of black Cubans in the independence struggle is given prominence by Horne, who sees this enhanced political-military position as a key distinction from mainland activists. Part of this difference springs from the Spanish tradition of arming some of its black imperial subjects, creating both a (heavily managed) social mobility and some degree of military – and potentially revolutionary – knowledge.
A more significant difference, though, surely lies in the commonplace that in the US, the dominant racial signifier in terms of categorisation is black ancestry (that is, the ‘one drop rule’), whereas in Cuba (and elsewhere) this was less definitive. This fact provoked a good deal of worry for those reliant on racial gradations as a tool of governance: ‘it is impossible to make a distinct separation between any of the races; a fact of difficult management in the event of self-government or any step toward it’ (p.122). There is a danger that racism within Cuba is set to one side in such an interpretation; among even the highest echelons of the armies fighting for independence (1895-8) there was racial tension, not least in the prejudice against Lt. General Antonio Maceo. Among labourers these conflicts manifested themselves in attacks on West Indian migrant workers in the early 1930s.
Horne has published prolifically, particularly since 2000, and his work ranges widely with books on Kenya, Mexico, Brazil, and Zimbabwe (among others), but the crux of the global structure of repression he identifies is primarily the United States. The nature of racial persecution in the US means fascinating differences emerge with other societies where ethnic tensions or persecutions have dominated. Writers and campaigners from the United States were amazed by the different racial dynamics in Cuba. Langston Hughes, for instance, noted the inspiration drawn by mainland radicals from Cuban political activism (p.223). Horne’s overarching thesis lies in this difference. While on the mainland, the ‘erosion of legitimacy’ of Jim Crow led to the (largely liberal) Civil Rights movement, the same political impulse in Cuba produced support for the revolution.
Though international and transnational aspects of political activism are present throughout, chapter ten in particular draws out a multiplicity of links between antifascist socialism and racial political consciousness. ‘The rise of fascism,’ argues Professor Horne, ‘can readily be seen as an ineluctable outgrowth of the racism to which Africans had been subjected for centuries’ (p.233). A key example of this confluence of interests comes with the role of Cubans in the Spanish Civil War, demonstrating very well the internationalism which was at the heart of Cuban radicalism long in advance of Castro’s revolution. The same interests, though, led to the vexing (for leftist historians, at least) contradiction of support for the authoritarian Batista among Harlem’s black Latin Americans; Horne calls this a ‘messiness’, which though understandable, is perhaps a little reductive. This was further complicated by concerns among US commentators of a budding alliance – with some form of anti-American sentiment – between Batista and Juan José Arevalo of Guatemala.
The book is exhaustively referenced, drawing on material from both sides of the Atlantic and in English and Spanish; fully one-third of the pages are devoted to endnotes. Horne meticulously builds his argument across varying periods and locations in a way that requires particular attention. There are a few points where it perhaps feels a little rushed, but with a writer as prolific as Horne that is almost inevitable. It is an unapologetically political book, offering both implicit and explicit commentary on the political practice of radicals, and particularly highlighting the ‘messiness’ and contradictions in the period immediately prior to the Cuban revolution.
Alongside The Counterrevolution of 1776 (also 2014) this book gives a striking revisionist history of the post-colonial United States, yet it also brings Cuba to the centre of a North American story which all too often fails to look beyond the immediate shoreline. Cuba is shown to be the epicentre of European (and, later, North American) imperialist impulses. Professor Horne’s book should prove a useful addition to any shelf where studies of slavery, imperialism, and the politics of race or socialism have a place. It should also provide an important background to the current purported changes to US-Cuba relations, seen so often through the prism of Castro and the 1959 revolution, but in fact rooted in events dating far back into the nineteenth century.
Book Review: The Fall of the US Empire – Global Fault-Lines and the Shifting Imperial Order
A review I wrote of Vassilis Fouskas and Bülent Gökay’s 2012 book. N.B. This review has appeared elsewhere.
The study of empire, hegemony and long-term power structures has attracted many prominent and respected authors. On the left these have included Giovanni Arrighi, Eric Hobsbawm, Hardt and Negri, and of course Lenin and Trotsky. Vassilis Fouskas and Bülent Gökay, two professors of international relations of socialist sympathy, are among the latest to attempt a reframing of the debate for the contemporary period.
‘Global fault-lines’ is the way Fouskas and Gökay explain the decline of US power, an approach to international relations which uses the geological metaphor of ‘tectonic plates’. Inspired by Andre Gunder Frank, and specifically his post-Marxist works, Fouskas and Gökay sketch out various fault-lines which mark the points at which the ‘tectonic plates’ collide and crumble: the ‘failure of financial statecraft’, ‘the power shift to the Global East’ and ‘depletion and degradation’, the latter referring to both the impending scarcity of oil, water and food but also to climate change and its associated problems. The main thrust of the book is that the US is in serious decline, and that even if it manages to recover, it will only be one power among many: Russia, Brazil, South Africa, Indonesia, China and India, referred to (in somewhat puzzling fashion) as the ‘Global East’. This is contrary to the assertions of Leo Panitch (for whom US hegemony is not declining, merely ‘restructuring’) and Ray Kiely (who sees a ‘clash of globalisations’).
Fouskas and Gökay make a historical comparison between contemporary China and India on the one hand, and the United States in the nineteenth century on the other: ‘a huge continental economy with a young population, providing the driving force that enabled it to grab the lead in agriculture, apparel and the high technologies of the era’ (Fouskas and Gökay, p.115). In this way they follow several of the other authors referred to above in seeing both a generalized leeching of global power from the US to China, and the specific possibility that China will emerge as the new global hegemon.
This is in contrast to the work of Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin, who claim that China has no imperial ambition beyond its own borders. This sort of political-culture argument is, however, undermined by the economic reality.  In their recent book The Making of Global Capitalism (2012), Panitch and Gindin refer to the American crisis of the 1970s as ‘neither decline nor moderation but restructuring’ (Panitch and Gindin, p.183). That restructuring, they claim, was borne out of necessity: the necessity of expanding markets to a global scale but on American terms. They argue that hegemonic power is not shifting eastwards, instead suggesting that the world is entering a multipolar phase. Fouskas and Gökay seem to see the multipolar near-future as a transitional stage before the hegemonic rise of the ‘Global East’.
In other ways, The Fall of the US Empire is similar to The Making of Global Capitalism, arguing that US imperialism contains within itself the seeds of its own destruction. In this respect, there is some crossover with the political ‘realism’ of Chalmers Johnson (Dismantling the Empire) and David P. Calleo (Follies of Power) who argue that the US state ought to recognise its own (overreached) limits before the costs of running an empire become prohibitive. Fouskas and Gökay do not necessarily see such ‘overstretch’ in military terms though: their critique is rooted in political economy, and they identify ‘Open Door Imperialism’, the imposition of free market ideology (and eventually financialization) through coercion and without reciprocation, as the destabilising factor.
In fact, one of their main objections to Giovanni Arrighi’s work is his apparent underplaying of the weakness inherent in America’s imposition of economy policy throughout large swathes of the world. The other objection cuts to the heart of the debate on empire, hegemony and power: does the rise and fall of imperial nations constitute a cyclical pattern or are should we be thinking about a series of related but ultimately separate phases of capitalism? On this matter, the authors of The Fall of the US Empire are somewhat unfair to Arrighi, as indeed are Panitch and Gindin. They present a caricature of his work which does not, as they suggest, equate early modern city states with contemporary global empires. Arrighi made it perfectly clear that he considered the concentration of power in the financial sector, over-commitment to foreign wars, and increasing government debt, to be signs of American decline.
Hardt and Negri (in Empire, Commonwealth and Multitude) argue that the globalisation of both ‘empire’ – broadly, the state, military and financial elites and their power structures – and the ‘multitude’ (the rest of us) has set up the world for a generalised conflict between the two. They are optimistic about the prospects for a revolution of the multitude against the empire. Fouskas and Gökay do not go into much detail about broad (transnational) class solidarity in this way, instead concentrating on the relative positions of nation-states, though they are also optimistic about opportunities for ‘socialism and green politics … [and] new radical forces’. Against this optimism, though, they (rightly) emphasise the emergence of what they call the ‘increasingly predatory state’ whose functions – ‘police, surveillance, violence’ – are intended to suppress the ‘multitude’. Care must, of course, be taken with the entire concept of ‘multitude’: in its broad nature and inherently vague definition, it tends to obscure crucial class dynamics.
Finally, how does the theory of ‘global fault-lines’ relate to Trotsky’s thesis of uneven and combined development? Trotsky argued that despite an inherent interconnection between national economies and societies, development could advance along various paths and at strikingly different speeds. Fouskas and Gökay characterise their work as a challenge to Trotsky’s position, an attack on not only Trotsky’s supposed Eurocentrism but also on his privileging of economic factors. Yet within uneven and combined development we can find many of the factors (or ‘fault-lines’) they identify. As with their objections to Arrighi, there is a tendency towards the construction of a straw man. Trotsky always claimed that the Russian Revolution could only be understood in a global context, as the expression of many long-term historical processes; where Europe takes centre-stage, it is often simply as a reflection of concrete realities.
Though the book is partly conceived of as a challenge to Trotsky, the authors concede that uneven and combined development in conjunction with the imminent environmental and resource crises will undermine the current dominance of the US and its allies. Finally, Fouskas and Gökay do (despite their claims to the contrary) return to economic determinants in the final analysis: as capital ‘gains mastery’ over global markets’ ‘inherited unevenness’, it exerts pressures in contradictory ways, and this accounts for the counterproductive nature of ‘Open Door Imperialism’ (Trotsky, The Third International after Lenin, Part One, Section Four).
This is a compelling, interesting book. It is punchy, has a clear line of argument and is written in an engaging style and with some fascinating data. In short, it has much to add to the discussion of the future of the US as an imperial power, including some very strong sections dealing with trends and predictions. However, it does have two significant flaws: one, its claims to originality are a little overstated, since many of the battles it picks with existing left-wing theories of empire turn out to be minor quibbles or changes of emphasis, or based on apparent mischaracterisations of other authors’ work; and the other, a tendency to give the concept of ‘global fault-lines’ a much more profound and revolutionary explanatory power than it perhaps merits.
- A different political-culture argument can be found in Walter Nugent’s Habits of Empire, which sees a longstanding and inertial culture of imperialism as determining the US’ foreign policy.