In an era when, history textbooks contend, the United States lurched to the right, Gus Newport presided over an unapologetically leftist government in the San Francisco Bay Area. If the region has a progressive reputation today, it is because people like Newport fought to make it so. As mayor of Berkeley from 1979 to 1986, he embodied the linkages between rent control measures and South African divestment, the sanctuary city and anti-nuclear movements, police accountability and anti-war protests, opposition to federal spending cuts and Central American solidarity.
In a political career spanning black internationalist mobilizations in the 1960s, the progressive city movement of the 1980s, and post–Cold War organizing around neighborhood democracy, Newport has operated at the strategic intersections of the local and the global. From his base in Berkeley City Hall, he cast municipal and foreign policies as two sides of the same coin. By forging diplomatic ties with regions antagonized by the United States, Newport aimed to demilitarize government spending. Doing so, he hoped, would both reduce the chances of war and free up revenue for life-sustaining investments in areas abandoned by capital. At the heart of Newport’s agenda was the conviction that slashing the military budget constituted the most effective path to social justice.
No country played a more prominent role in this principled counterpoint to Cold War brinksmanship than Cuba. During his first two years as mayor, Newport visited the Caribbean nation twice, on trips sponsored by the World Peace Council. A New York Times article from 1982 reported that Newport “has held discussions with the Mayor of Havana about making Berkeley and the Cuban capital sister cities.”1 For Newport, rapprochement with Cuba signaled the possibility of dismantling American empire and repurposing its parts to build a truly just society.
In Cuban Revolution in America: Havana and the Making of a United States Left, 1968–1992, historian Teishan Latner explores how the island came to occupy such a prominent position in the political imaginary of US leftists. Arriving at a pivotal moment in the diplomatic history of Washington and Havana, the book sheds critical light on the political present.
Several months before its publication, Donald Trump renounced the Obama administration’s 2014 opening to the Cuban government, packaging a familiar trope of Cold War demonology in the 21st-century shibboleths of human rights and democracy promotion. In addition to tightening travel restrictions for American tourists, the Trump administration moved to limit US investment in Cuba, with the goal of forcing regime change. Electoral concerns seemed to fuel the decision. Pollsters have long framed Florida’s 800,000 voters of Cuban origin as a core constituency of any Republican presidential contender. Resting on the assumption that Cuban Americans necessarily harbor anti-Castro sentiments—and therefore reside unequivocally on the political right—such campaign logic has clear consequences for US-Cuba relations. But, as Latner shows, the tendency to treat Cuban Americans as a right-leaning monolith—along with the conventional reduction of the diplomatic history of Cuba and the United States to a story of electioneering and high-level statecraft—obscures complex circuits of exchange between the Caribbean nation and its superpower neighbor to the north.
Latner demonstrates why Cuba has remained an ideological touchstone for both left-wing and right-wing forces in the United States for over half a century.
Cuban Revolution in America perceptively argues that understanding relations between Cuba and the United States requires understanding the former’s massive influence on the radical imagination of the US left, a demographic that, contrary to popular belief, encompasses a sizable population of Cuban Americans. In our current age of budgetary austerity and omnidirectional warmongering, the plight of Cuba may come to symbolize once again the fundamental interconnectedness of anti-imperialism and economic justice. Mining a range of sources—from declassified government documents to oral histories with airplane hijackers still exiled in Cuba—Latner demonstrates why the Caribbean nation has remained an ideological touchstone for both left-wing and right-wing forces in the United States for over half a century, even as the Cold War morphed into the War on Terror.
Surveying the social, cultural, and geopolitical aspects of US-Cuba diplomacy, the vicissitudes of the “long sixties” and its many afterlives, and the underexamined impact of Third World anti-imperialism on American culture and politics, Latner’s monograph makes a number of interventions in the historiography of the late 20th-century United States. In addition to rethinking the foreign policy contributions of civilian actors and “grassroots soft power,” the book joins a growing body of scholarship complicating standard accounts of American leftism.
Revising popular narratives of postwar American radicalism in which 1960s militant protest gives way to an apolitical “Me” decade before succumbing to the Reaganite counterrevolution of the 1980s, Latner charts the history of leftist social movements beyond the familiar terrain of the 1960s and beyond the borders of the United States. By telling a transnational story that stretches well into the 21st century (despite the more limited periodization of the book’s subtitle), Latner spotlights understudied organizations, overlooked activists, and hidden spaces of solidarity. Doing so does more than fill in gaps in the literature; it effectively moves what Cynthia Young calls the “U.S. Third World Left”—a political tendency that articulated “the interconnections between U.S. minorities and Third World majorities in a moment of global decolonization”2—from periphery to center.
If Latner’s narrative had a protagonist, the Venceremos Brigade would almost certainly be it. Since December 1969, groups of Americans have traveled to Cuba under its auspices to cut sugar cane, plant trees, build homes, and offer other forms of material support to the post-revolution nation. Though devoted to “concrete” acts of solidarity, the Brigades, in Latner’s telling, have contributed far more to Cuba’s symbolic currency than to the country’s GDP: their “greatest significance … lay not in their material contributions to Cuba’s development but in their forging of a long-term relationship of solidarity between the multifaceted U.S. Left and the government of Cuba.”
Just as Latner refuses to approach post-1959 Cuba through a discursive binary of “paradise or hell” (citing the words of Marifeli Pérez-Stable), so too does he reject the impulse to romanticize or villainize the Brigades. Instead, he focuses on the American delegations’ many attempts to work through internal contradictions of gender, race, and sexuality. Drawing on the testimony of participants, Latner offers an incisive social history of a political formation that emerged out of the predominantly white Students for a Democratic Society. Though not always fully inclusive, the group did quickly recognize that multiracial organizing was the most urgent task in an age of anticolonial struggle. Before long, its demographics came to reflect that priority.
Brigadistas were key components of Cuba’s “global radical public,” a geographical and ideological space that allowed the nation to transcend its Cold War isolation. As such, they helped transform American leftist praxis by circulating models gleaned from Cuban society and from Third World sojourners, welcomed by the Cuban government, representing revolutionary movements in Algeria, Vietnam, and other nations careening toward uncertain postcolonial futures. According to Latner, this lived experience of internationalism contributed to a paradigm shift in the US left. Well represented in progressive organizations and in left-leaning academic and literary milieux, Brigade alumni have done much to disseminate the notion that leftists in the United States occupy a single node in a global fight for liberation rather than an embattled domestic enclave.
Aligning themselves with revolutionary struggles in the Global South and with uprisings in the “internal colonies”3 of advanced capitalist states, brigadistas garnered ample attention from law enforcement. In an insightful chapter, Latner shows how US intelligence officers’ paranoiac interpretations of the rhetoric of the Cuban government and its nonstate allies generated the specter of “foreign subversion.” Misreading radical texts, the FBI conjured what is almost certainly a fictional conspiracy between US solidarity activists and the Cuban General Directorate of Intelligence. Distortions notwithstanding, Latner makes the case for the utility of such government documents for historians of the US left. The “productive, regenerative, and re-humanizing potentials of state surveillance, however inadvertent,” can be found in its surprisingly faithful depictions of activists’ humanitarian aims.
Though Latner is right to point out that “FBI files are undertheorized in their function as historical archives”—with the noted exception of Carole Boyce Davies’s work on black feminist communist Claudia Jones—he neglects to pursue this claim. An extensive engagement with critical archival studies may be beyond the scope of Cuban Revolution in America, but a more robust analysis of how the classificatory practices of late 20th-century US intelligence agencies relate to those of other institutions in other periods would have certainly enriched the book.
Latner shows how U.S. intelligence officers’ paranoiac interpretations of the rhetoric of the Cuban government and its nonstate allies generated the specter of “foreign subversion.”
That said, Latner’s productive use of state-mediated narratives is apparent throughout. In a pathbreaking section on the diplomatic implications of the “air piracy” wave of the late 1960s and early 1970s—a roughly five-year period that saw over 90 commercial and private airplanes commandeered by force and redirected to Havana—Latner reads against the archival grain to recover the motivations of Cuba-bound “skyjackers.” Previously flattened into pathological criminals by government and media observers, airplane hijackers, Latner convincingly argues, “must be located within a larger historical continuum, not as heroes or villains, but as transnational historical actors.” To explain how the self-conceptions of these ordinary individuals led to decisions that ultimately influenced the trajectories of multiple nations, Latner supplements bureaucratic and journalistic accounts with oral histories conducted with hijackers granted asylum by the Cuban government. The result is a complex portrait of individuals drawn to the island’s reputation as a masculine “outlaw” zone, a refuge from the perils of racial capitalism and US empire, and a gateway to global revolution.
Latner deftly shows how Cuba’s rhetorical support for revolutionary groups operating within the United States shaped a radical imaginary that influenced people fleeing US territory for a variety of reasons. He also demonstrates how the reality of rationed essentials, aggressive government security, and enduring racial divides often punctured hijackers’ fantasies of life on the island. Regardless, they continued to come in droves, until a 1973 agreement between Cuba and the United States established a mutual framework to discourage this type of traffic in either direction (in the 1960s, anti-Castro Cubans frequently commandeered planes and boats to seek asylum in the United States).
Though nonbinding, the accord was clearly historic. The first formal agreement between the two governments since 1959, it marked a rare acknowledgment of Cuba’s sovereignty by the United States. Moreover, in respecting the principle of diplomatic reciprocity, it amounted to a tacit admission that right-wing Cuban hijackers were not categorically different from their left-wing American counterparts. In this chapter, Latner rescues the typically maligned individuals—whose errant actions forced the accord—from what E. P. Thompson calls the “condescension of posterity.” Incorporating these actors, and their many internal conflicts, into a story of intergovernmental negotiation, he illustrates the virtues of writing diplomatic history “from the bottom up.”
The Antonio Maceo Brigade, a Cuban American leftist group that has pushed for the normalization of US-Cuba relations since 1977, represents another distinctly grassroots approach to Cold War diplomacy. In chronicling the origins and political contributions of this understudied organization, Latner reveals the ideological diversity of the Cuban diaspora, whose allegiances vary considerably across geographic regions and generational cohorts. Contesting the alleged hegemony of the Cuban American right, Maceo Brigade members “succeeded in creating an unprecedented political space for Cuban American leftism.” By sparking a grassroots dialogue with the Cuban government over several delegation visits to the island, they opened the door to mutual recognition between the Cuban diaspora and the revolutionary state. In retrospect, it is clear that the group’s organizing played a significant role in the diplomatic thaw between the United States and Cuba during Jimmy Carter’s presidency.
Amid Cuba’s large-scale interventions in African anticolonial campaigns of the 1970s, formal dialogue between Cuba and the United States began to stall. But Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980 deepened hostilities substantially. Escalating the Cold War with the Soviet Union and fomenting hot wars throughout the Caribbean Basin, the Reagan administration made isolating Cuba a centerpiece of its foreign policy.
It was not just Cuba’s support for insurgencies beyond its borders that drew the ire of the US foreign policy establishment. Its firm commitment to extending political asylum to US black radicals increasingly became the favored justification for punishing the Caribbean nation. Of Cuba’s asylees, none is more famous than Assata Shakur, a former member of the Black Panther Party and its underground offshoot, the Black Liberation Army. Latner contrasts Shakur’s description of Cuba as a socialist palenque—denoting an autonomous community of runaway slaves—that beckoned escapees from the neo-plantations of modern “Amerika” with Washington’s characterization of Cuba, starting in 1982, as a “state sponsor of terrorism.”
Today, the plight of Cuba may come to symbolize once again the fundamental interconnectedness of anti-imperialism and economic justice.
The latter designation outlived the Cold War in no small part because Havana has refused to extradite Shakur since her arrival on the island, in 1984 (she escaped from prison in 1979, having been convicted two years prior, in a dubious trial, of murdering a state trooper). According to Latner, “Havana’s bold provision of asylum to dissidents from its powerful northern neighbor adds an overlooked element to our understanding of the scope of Cuban foreign policy toward the United States.” In a compelling passage, Latner traces the transition from the Cold War to the War on Terror through the prism of Cuba’s unwavering support for political refugees affiliated with the US black freedom movement.
Aside from charting the diplomatic consequences of Cuba’s asylum policy, Latner provides a captivating glimpse into the everyday lives of American asylees. But much of the chapter on the “diplomacy of exile and freedom” rehashes personal histories presented in the airplane hijacking section. The repetition reflects Latner’s narrow focus on a handful of leftist organizations and a cluster of activists at the expense of a broader portrait of the American left. While it may very well be true that “the Cuban Revolution has been a more persistent presence within the multifaceted U.S. Left than any other foreign revolutionary nation-building project of the twentieth century,” as Latner contends, Cuban Revolution in America does not offer a representative enough account of the US left to satisfactorily prove that hypothesis.
This is no doubt a product of the book’s ambition. Writing a monograph that seeks to combine a social and cultural analysis of US-Cuba diplomacy, a revisionist account of the “long sixties,” and an examination of the complex relationship between Third World anti-imperialism and American political culture is no easy feat. Perhaps as a consequence of this balancing act, Latner fails to comprehensively document Havana’s influence on American leftist movements. A discussion of leftist inroads in US municipal politics in the 1970s and ’80s and attendant experiments in local-level foreign policy in the era of Reagan would have bolstered Latner’s argument. Indeed, in the period Latner studies, conventional distinctions within the US left between electoralism and radicalism were collapsing, as activists sought to claim state power wherever they could. Assessing the implications of this transition for US-Cuba relations would add an important dimension to Latner’s narrative.
Cuba’s Next Chapter
Investigating the role of Cuba in the internationalist imaginaries of leftist municipal officeholders like former Berkeley mayor Gus Newport would invite a generative comparison between the contradictions of a socialist nation-state operating in a capitalist world system and those of a leftist city government residing in the heart of American empire in an age of austerity. An exploration of subnational diplomacy between Cuba and the United States would certainly complement Latner’s discussion of US leftists’ grassroots ties to the Cuban government.
These additions might very well make for a different book than the one Latner set out to write. On its own terms, though, Cuban Revolution in America largely succeeds. It is a critical contribution to scholarship on the global Cold War and the postwar internationalist left that demonstrates the benefits of placing these subfields in conversation. At a moment when US leftists are vigorously debating how to wed a domestic strategy of social democracy and self-determination to a broader vision of planetary justice,4 Latner’s text offers crucial insights about the world in which we live as well as illuminating lessons from past attempts to change it.
This article was commissioned by Ben Platt.
- Special to the New York Times, “Berkeley Mayor Criticized on Travels,” New York Times, January 3, 1982. ↩
- Cynthia A. Young, Soul Power: Culture, Radicalism, and the Making of a U.S. Third World Left (Duke University Press, 2006), p. 3. ↩
- Embraced by the Black Panther Party and its allies, the phrase conceived communities of color in the West as geographically concentrated populations of disposable labor, shaped by histories of racism and capitalist underdevelopment. The advent of the “internal colony” thesis coincided with a surge of Third World internationalism and anticolonial militancy in the late 1960s. ↩
- Aziz Rana, “Renewing Working-Class Internationalism,” New Labor Forum, vol. 28, no. 1 (2019). ↩