Cuba Libre: A 500-Year Quest for Independence; Waiting for Uncle John

In This Review

Waiting for Uncle John
By James Oliver Goldsborough
Prospecta Press, 2018
320 pp.
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A productive partnership between Brenner, a veteran Cuba expert, and Eisner, an accomplished journalist, has brought forth an eminently accessible, engaging journey through five centuries of Cuba’s tortured yet hopeful history—a story unified, in the authors’ view, by the island’s heroic struggles for self-determination. The indigenous Taino chief Hatuey courageously resisted European domination in the sixteenth century. Hundreds of years later, Cubans launched a bloody struggle for independence from Spain, and Fidel Castro led a socialist revolution to purge the island of U.S. influence. Although the sovereignty thesis is powerful in its clarity, it arguably underestimates the island’s prolonged adherence first to Spain (which earned Cuba a reputation for imperial loyalty), then to the United States (which enjoyed the support of a prosperous Cuban middle class and not just a tiny capitalist elite), and later to the Soviet Union. As the sweeping narrative frequently suggests, full-blown autonomy may not be a genuine option for a small island state. Cuba Libre concludes with an empathetic and balanced discussion of the dilemmas facing Cuban society today.

The loyalty of Cuban subjects to the Spanish crown emerges as a theme in Waiting for Uncle John, a fictionalized account of the little-known 1851 Bahía Honda expedition. Goldsborough recounts how a small band of deluded U.S. adventurers, many of whom had seen action in the expansionary Mexican-American War and Indian Wars, sought to annex Cuba as a slave state to the pre–Civil War Union. The plan suffered from a key intelligence failure: the expectation that the Cuban population would rise up against their colonial masters. Instead, the hapless invaders were quickly captured, and 51 of them were promptly “shot like dogs” by the well-entrenched Spanish. (If U.S. President John F. Kennedy had been aware of this historical fiasco, he might have questioned the CIA’s assumption that Cubans would rise up against Castro and canceled the doomed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961.) Goldsborough’s fast-paced novel includes the requisite love relationship between an ill-fated hero and an ambitious belle, as well as colorful sketches of antebellum Southern manners.