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There are two widely familiar versions of the Cuban story.
According to the first, on January 1, 1959, a ragtag band of rebels swept down from the Sierra Maestra, delivering Cuba from the clutches of short-term dictatorship and longer neocolonial submission to the United States. In this view, the “triumph” of the Cuban Revolution marked the definitive end of one period of the island’s history—nearly six decades of “pseudo-republican” scandal following the island’s “mortgaged” independence in 1902—and the beginning of true liberty under the banner of revolutionary change.
The second version of the saga accepts its rival’s chronological pivot point, but it inverts the order of praise. In the alternate tale, the Cuban Revolution represented not a fulfillment of nationalist dreams but an unmitigated tragedy. For many of those who left the island in the 1960s, Cuba’s turn to socialism made the prerevolutionary period look like paradise lost, transforming their homeland into an island in chains.
In Havana, Miami, and the many coordinates of Cuba’s far-flung diaspora around the globe, these dueling master narratives are still routinely on display. More than sixty years after Fidel Castro’s rise to power, and more than four since his death, diametrically opposed accounts of Cuba’s past continue to square off in competing public spaces, museums, and now even social media campaigns.
Look no further than invocations of Cubans being “stuck” for sixty years in “Patria y Vida,” the viral hit song that just fueled historic anti-government protests in Cuba on July 11. The Cuban government responded in kind, insisting that “the change Cuba needed occurred in 1959.”
But dig beneath either iteration of the tale and less streamlined or comfortable storylines of Cuba’s history emerge. In reality, Cubans’ arguments about their past, and the ways they have related to it since 1959, have never been so straightforward or stable. It may be tempting to reduce Cubans’ battles over their history to a recurring standoff between one set of voices shouting from Revolution Square in Havana and another positioned atop Miami’s literal and figurative Freedom Tower. But if popular visions of the Cuban Revolution’s legacies today are in many ways polarized, that polarization conceals more nuanced, evolving viewpoints, and it is the result of political processes that were and continue to be anything but neat.
This history of Cubans’ mobilizations of, reckonings with, and debates over their past since the Cuban Revolution came to power has not yet been fully told. From the first months of Fidel Castro’s regime, history and memory emerged as prominent battlegrounds on which revolutionary officials, cultural producers, and diverse political actors endeavored to invest Cuban citizens in specific understandings of the Revolution’s origins and purpose as a national quest for sovereignty and deliverance from past injustices. Disagreements, however, over precisely how and why the Revolution came to be, and which factions, policies, and ideological frameworks should shape its future, quickly sparked competitions for historical prerogative and legitimacy that did not go away. What happened after the Revolution took control also rapidly became grist for the retrospective mill. Events subsequent to the “triumph” of 1959, as well as the Revolution’s broader political, economic, and social results, either provided evidence that “the process” was fulfilling its historic mandate or falling short—or worse, betraying its “true” goals (another much-debated historical point).
These tensions developed in Cuba, evolved following Cuba’s conversion into a hot spot of the Cold War, and trailed those Cubans decamping to the United States. As Cubans disenchanted with the revolutionary government went into exile, and as those who stayed navigated the promises and perils of a socialist regime, they regularly reflected upon what had happened, why, and how to further propel or, for some, reverse history’s course. Not everyone agreed on when, or whether, the Revolution went right or wrong, or who or what was responsible for its success or at fault for its failures. Cubans still don’t.
In this way, the trajectory of the Cuban retrospective conflict after 1959 has been not only uneven but also central to the course of Cuban history in its own right. By tracking polemics over the past among Cubans closely on the ground and in real-time, we can therefore begin to appreciate how Cubans’ “competing selective remembrances” (to borrow a phrase from historian Steve Stern) have been neither static nor strictly cyclical across the island’s recent history.
And whereas most accounts of the Cuban Revolution and the Cuban exile community continue to focus on the 1960s, the Revolution’s second, third, fourth, fifth, and sixth decades (if we can even say “the Revolution” did not end at some point) must also be part of this inquiry. For the past sixty years, the past has helped Cubans orient themselves amid, but also critically evaluate, extraordinary junctures of crisis and change. Tracking the interplay between these processes of reflection across the Florida Straits —especially as many of yesterday’s revolutionaries repeatedly became tomorrow’s exiles—pushes Cuban history beyond the dualistic visions we associate with either side, exposing the connections between and contradictions of both.
But where do we find evidence of retrospective narration and contemplation if, by their nature, such processes are abstract rather than material? Scholars often have looked to the literal and figurative inscription of dominant versions of a given society’s understanding of its past in physical spaces. I, too, am interested in competing rituals of Cuban public memorialization, the contents, and functions of museums, as well as discourses of commemoration that shaped popular celebrations of national heroes and events.
Yet the mundane stages where divergent appreciations of the Cuban past were routinely on display are also crucial: the speeches of political leaders, dueling editorials in the revolutionary or exile press, organizational records and broadsides, and cultural products like television, cartoons, song, and film.
Monuments are thus important, but so are the historical knowledge, reflection, and argument that have infused everyday life for Cubans for the past six decades. Not all of these sources can be treated equally, especially in terms of their ability to frame a shared historical language for Cubans themselves. Nonetheless, by bringing to bear a diversity of materials, one can appreciate the breadth of actors involved in Cuba’s memory wars, as well as the multiple and again evolving ways the specter of the Cuban past—as inspiration, trauma, keenly felt epic or, at a certain point, repetitive official script—has pervaded so many aspects of post-1959 Cuban and Cuban diasporic life.
Such a wide view of the politics of the past allows us to see that, in truth, Cubans have never been divided into just two camps, those who accepted and those who rejected the Revolution. History certainly constituted an appendage of Cuban revolutionary state power and a resource for oppositional and exile forces determined to overthrow it. But history was never a straightforward political tool. Rebels-turned-leaders proved masterful in the 1960s at creating a compelling narrative of the Revolution’s emergence and foundational legitimacy. Nevertheless, in that decade, and subsequently, Cuban officials periodically found themselves tinkering with this origin story in ways that reflected the ongoing challenges, choices, and popular anxieties they faced. Even those Cuban citizens who did not break with the direction of the Revolution explicitly occasionally found ways to indirectly challenge—in film, art, and literature, for example—whether the present had lived up to 1959’s messianic hopes.
Conversely, in attempting to create a unified counternarrative to that of the revolutionary state, early exile activists attempted to bury legacies that might divide them, but they still often failed to unify due to persistent retrospective recriminations within their ranks. (Was the revolutionary “disaster”—as they saw it—the responsibility of the government and its supporters that preceded it, or those who had believed Fidel Castro’s false promises initially?)
For Cubans on and off of the island, meanwhile, mismatches between utopian promises and on-the-ground achievements also served to periodically reopen retrospective wounds. This was especially true after the Soviet Union and Cuba’s economy came crashing down in the 1990s. For many, that meant past experiences and dreams of socialist solidarity fizzled, while for others the surprising survival of Cuba’s one-party state represented a different form of destiny denied.
For all Cubans, the past has long provided a source of motivation and apprehension, while at other times supplying a reserve of referents to question the truisms of consolidated exile dogma or the just-so stories of the revolutionary state. Today, as the island confronts its worst economic crisis in thirty years, and its government faces an unprecedented crisis of political legitimacy, that is once again true.
But as is the case for all nations and cultures, for Cubans memory also routinely proves selective. Today’s revolutionaries often forget, or bury, evidence of the abuses committed in the Revolution’s name. Some exiles and expatriates downplay, or ignore, the reasons a revolution came to be in the first place.
We must therefore also remain attentive to the ways contending processes of remembering and history-telling on both sides of the Florida Straits necessarily involve parallel—and sometimes overlapping—forms of forgetting. For the contours of the Cuban memory wars have long been defined not only by what is remembered, but also by what is deemphasized or erased.
Michael J. Bustamante is Associate Professor of History and the Emilio Bacardí Moreau Chair in Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami.
This essay is adapted from his book Cuban Memory Wars: Retrospective Politics in Revolution and Exile (UNC Press, 2021).