Joining SAIS Johns Hopkins Bologna

From September I will be working as Adjunct Professor of Latin American Studies at SAIS Johns Hopkins’ Bologna Institute for Policy Research. You can find my staff profile here. I will also continue to teach modern history at Oxford.

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Spinning & Toiling

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.

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.

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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.

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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.

 

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’.[1]

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.

Notes