Cuba: Another Historiography Is Possible

Alfredo Fernandez Rodriguez

From the top of the FOCSA Building, Havana's largest and built in the 1950s. Photo: Caridad

Last Friday, I was talking with a young Honduran historian who was referring to Cuba’s Republican stage (1902-1959). She simplified that period by comparing it to how she sees Panama today: a paradise for gambling and sex but with a government that is failing to provide its citizens a dignified life.

No matter how much revolutionary historiography has attempted to satanize Republican Cuba (attaching it with prefixes like “neo” or “pseudo to the noun “Republic”), it takes an effort to think this way by anyone who values logic and knows something about the history of Cuba.

At least it takes some effort on my part, because for me the Cuban republic was not merely an American backyard for gambling and prostitution. There were also institutions here that for their seriousness and quality earned an esteemed place in the memory of our senior citizens.

These were such that I’ve yet to meet an elderly elementary school teacher who doesn’t speak of their career without concluding with the sentence: “Us, yes, we are true teachers!” in an obvious critique of educators created by the revolutionary government.

That republic of “players and prostitutes” also gave humanity numbers of people of international stature, such as the world champion of chess (Jose Raul Capablanca) and of boxing (“Kid Chocolate”). And I have to say that if Cuba still cannot point to a Nobel Prize winner from that time, it was simply because the sponsors and organizers of that award considered it undue to grant such a distinguished medal to a Latin American.

It’s worth clarifying that despite the fact that the Swedish academy never granted Dr. Carlos J. Finlay the award, it did indeed nominate him for it on at least six occasions. This was an award that he clearly deserved because of his discovery of the Aedes aegypti mosquito as being the transmitting agent of yellow fever, thus saving hundreds of thousands of lives, which in an ironic twist of destiny also facilitated the completion of the Panama Canal.

Another republic quite removed from the casinos and brothels was the one that grouped itself around Cuban intellectuality. Here at least three true erudite circles existed: the liberal, the Catholic and the socialist one, each led by a caliber of intellectuals at the continental level – people such as Jorge Mañach, Jose Lezama Lima and Juan Marinello, each also with their own identity and way of thinking about Cuba.

From their respective political positions, and throughout the entire period of the republic, these cultivated circles that knew how to maintain intense, respectful and enriching dialogues on the issues that affected the nation, a matter that has been excessively downplayed in today’s Cuban academic and cultural panorama.

That republic, which my Honduran friend automatically compared to the worst part of Panama, she also defined as “of little importance” also had one of the most important architecture schools on the continent. This was where architects like Nicolas Quintana (who died recently in Miami), Havana resident Mario Coyula and many others designed and built in barely a half a decade (1953-1958) two of the most emblematic neighborhoods in Havana and in Cuba: Vedado and Miramar.

It goes without saying that this Cuba, so “ill-favored” and full of thugs (according to national historiography), had the first Latin American Olympic champion: fencer Ramon Fonts (1904).

It’s also worth remembering the important role that Cuba would play in the technological development of the region. The first Latin American airborne journey was carried out by a Cuban, Agustin Parla. The 1913 flight lasted almost three hours as that pilot traveled between Cayo Hueso (U.S.A.) and the town of the Mariel, west of Havana.

Even rights such as divorce — so trying and difficult to understand for sexist Ibero-Americans at the beginning of the 20th century — was accepted in our country as early as 1918.

In terms of other women’s rights, the first feminist movement in Ibero-America appeared at the end of the 1930’s in Cuba, thirty-six years ahead of the movement in Spain, for example.

Other important facts that my friend should know is that in 1937 Cuba decreed, for the first time in Ibero-America, laws for the eight-hour work day, the minimum wage and university autonomy.

In 1940 a constitution was adopted which was the first one in Ibero-America that approved the right of women to vote, equal rights for different sexes and races, and women’s right to work.

In 1951 the Riviera Hotel became the first in the world to have central air conditioning.

In terms of our agrarian culture, my friend should also know that in 1954 Cuba succeeded in producing one head of cattle for each resident, with the Cuban population back then numbering around six million people.

It would also be worthwhile to recognize that in 1956 the UN recognized Cuba as the number two country in Latin America in terms of its literacy index, with its illiterate population consisting of only 23.6 percent – well above Spain’s illiterate population of 60 percent.

In 1957 Cuba was recognized by the UN as the leading Ibero-America country in terms of its number of doctors per capita (1 for every 957 residents).

In 1958 Cuba ranked as the second country of the world in the percentage of households with color television and it was the third in the world to establish a color TV station.

In 1958 Cuba was the Ibero-American country with the most automobiles (160,000, or one for each 38 residents).
I also feel it my duty to tell my friend that in 1959, Havana led the world by being the city with the most movie theaters (358), even surpassing cities like New York and Paris.

In conclusion, I would like to let my friend know that I don’t have anything personal against our fine Panamanian sisters and brothers, nor do I believe that she does. Still, I would like to know if she still thinks the same after this brief review of the data on the Cuban Republic.

Alfredo Fernandez

Alfredo Fernandez: I didn't really leave Cuba, it's impossible to leave somewhere that you've never been. After gravitating for 37 years on that strange island, I managed to touch firm ground, but only to confirm that I hadn't reached anywhere. Perhaps I will never belong anywhere. Now I'm living in Ecuador, but please, don't believe me when I say where I am, better to find me in "the Cuba of my dreams.


3 thoughts on “Cuba: Another Historiography Is Possible

  • July 11, 2011 at 12:56 pm
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    The trains run on time under the Fuhrer. There was complete order and discipline under Uncle Joe. Life under Benito was sweeter than la dolce vita itself…and so it goes on and on according to the skewed logic of the narrative.
    Historical revisionism is as ancient as the Nile, also known as “De Nial”. But even the most rabid detractors of the Cuban revolution in the exilio must be blushing. If Cuban pedagogy has been that bad under the revolution, why would distinguished champions of freedom and democracy by terror and military dictatorships, such as Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, support an asylum program to lure these very rotten, oh-so-poorly-trained Cuban professionals to the US? In August 2006 the Bush White House began offering visas to Cuban doctors and other health professionals practicing or studying in foreign countries under the Cuban Medical Professional Parole immigration program.
    http://www.state.gov/p/wha/rls/fs/2009/115414.htm
    As of December 16, 2010, 1,574 visas have been issued, according to the Wall Street journal article of January 15, 2011, “New Prize in Cold War: CubanDoctors”,
    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970203731004576045640711118766.html).
    But then again it is not surprising that such “historiography” appears on the forum of “open thinking from Cuba” – in this case, open but not new, – as have also writing that extolls the virtues of the racist, Mario Vargas Llosa (http://www.havanatimes.org/?p=30710 ), upbraids those uppity Cuban blacks who dare sing of the joys of their ghettoes, as “reverse racists” (http://www.havanatimes.org/?p=45176), and even rhetorically puts on the table a return to segregation as an option to remedy “bad manners” (http://www.havanatimes.org/?p=35083).

  • June 24, 2011 at 2:58 pm
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    My 5th-grade professor once told us that ‘History isn’t solid as a rock, there are as many Histories as there are historians (or points of view)’.

    ps: Grady, excellent remark.

  • June 23, 2011 at 10:19 pm
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    Gee, I didn’t realize that life in Cuba was so fantastic before 1959. There apparently was no reason for a revolution. If only Fidel had known the facts, he would not have delivered his “History Will Absolve Me” defense speech.

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