The Structure of Cuban History: Meanings and Purpose of the Past

The Structure of Cuban History: Meanings and Purpose of the Past

The Structure of Cuban History: Meanings and Purpose of the Past

The Structure of Cuban History: Meanings and Purpose of the Past

Synopsis

In this expansive and contemplative history of Cuba, Louis A. Perez Jr. argues that the country's memory of the past served to transform its unfinished nineteenth-century liberation project into a twentieth-century revolutionary metaphysics. The ideal of national sovereignty that was anticipated as the outcome of Spain's defeat in 1898 was heavily compromised by the U.S. military intervention that immediately followed. To many Cubans it seemed almost as if the new nation had been overtaken by another country's history.
Memory of thwarted independence and aggrievement--of the promise of sovereignty ever receding into the future--contributed to the development in the early republic of a political culture shaped by aspirations to fulfill the nineteenth-century promise of liberation, and it was central to the claim of the revolution of 1959 as the triumph of history. In this capstone book, Perez discerns in the Cuban past the promise that decisively shaped the character of Cuban nationality.

Excerpt

This book is less a history of Cuba than about the history of Cuba, its course and its contours—and its consequences: about the capacity of the past to shape the character of a people, about the very logic with which historical knowledge insinuated itself into the popular imagination and thereupon acted to induce collective conduct and influence individual behavior. It seeks to understand the relationship between the use of history as a means of national formation, on one hand, and national formation as an outcome of history, on the other. The book examines the ways that knowledge of the past—as a matter of memory and oral tradition, in the form of lived experience and written record—acted to confirm the propriety of purpose with which successive generations of Cubans engaged the circumstances of the times in which they lived.

To contemplate structure in the history of Cuba is to understand the intended purpose to which knowledge of the past was put—that is, the past as a presence in the life of a people, possessed of discernible patterns, as legacy to uphold and patrimony to pass on. It is to take note of the meaning ascribed to the past, as a moral imperative to live by and didactic narrative to live up to, and specifically to appreciate the ways in which the experience of the past contributed to shaping the normative determinants of nationality.

The influence of the present as a factor in the production of historical knowledge is a commonly understood phenomenon. There is indeed much truth to Benedetto Croce’s dictum that all history is contemporary history, that the experience of the present acts—often decisively—to inform the purpose and shape the perspective with which historians interrogate the past.

Not as often appreciated, however, is the degree to which knowledge of the past acts as a determinant of the present, particularly the ways a people use knowledge of their history to address the needs of their times. That knowledge of the past is itself selective and subjective, susceptible to the bias of memory and belief in myth, serves to underscore the instrumental purport to which meanings of the past readily lend themselves. This implies the need to approach the historical narrative as a record of the past, to be sure. But it is also necessary to contemplate the record of the past as an artifact of its time, to understand how the past conceived of the past: knowledge of the past as prod-

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