#CubanRevolutionSyllabus Introduction

By Michael J. Bustamante

The Cuban Revolution receives as much media and popular attention as any event in Latin American history. Yet as Jennifer Lambe and I argue in a forthcoming essay, the field of Cuban revolutionary history is at once saturated and, paradoxically, “underdeveloped.” Friends, critics, and academic observers of the Cuban “process” have churned out decades’ worth of analyses. Still, fifty-eight years after the barbudos triumphantly entered Havana, our understanding of what actually transpired over the following decades continues to be limited by the vagaries of archival access, a predominant focus on high politics and international relations, and enduring political polarization.

There is little agreement, even, on when the timeline of inquiry should start and end. For supporters, the Cuban Revolution is ongoing and eternal, dating as far back to Cuba’s independence movement in the nineteenth century. For opponents, the Revolution’s hopes proved terminal long ago. 1959, 1961, 1976, and 1989 have all been offered as possible end dates to an era whose origins are most commonly traced to Fulgencio Batista’s 1952 coup.

The recent death of Fidel Castro, however, provides an opportunity to reach beyond periodization and other polemics. In this spirit, #CubanRevolutionSyllabus maps the interdisciplinary coordinates where more established and still evolving scholarly agendas meet. Proceeding thematically, but also in rough chronological order, the materials cover the years leading up to the revolutionary takeover in 1959 through the present day. They include primary as well as secondary sources—and among the latter, both classic texts by Cuban and international scholars as well as newer work by younger authors.

The selections also reflect an evolution in research paradigms. In contrast to early studies chronicling the anti-Batista movement or the diplomatic blow-by-blow of the U.S.-Cuba break-up, recent efforts explore Cuba’s history across the 1959 watershed at the intersection of top-down and grassroots, internal and external forces. Scholars like Richard Fagen and Oscar Lewis pioneered this work back in the late 1960s. But whereas the fields of diplomatic and political history have remained strong, at times crowding out others, newer studies attempt to return “culture” (broadly conceived), state formation, and citizen experience (including questions of race, gender, and sexuality) to the center of their gaze.

Achieving these goals can be elusive, and this syllabus thus reflects pending research gaps. Chronologically, the 1950s, 1960s, and 1990s receive more attention than the understudied 1970s and 80s. Because of easier access to relevant sources, ruminations on the politics of cultural production have tended to be richer than studies of labor, local government, and/or everyday life. Further, because they are geared toward a U.S. reading public, the selections generally favor English over Spanish sources, under-representing the production of Cuban scholars. (Week 9 represents an exception.) Treatments of the Raúl Castro era since 2006 can only be impressionistic at this stage.

Still, #CubanRevolutionSyllabus aims to inspire deep, creative reading and teaching about the island’s history.  Indeed, it is motivated by the conviction that the moment is ripe for doing so. Incipient normalization with the United States has revived the temptation to see the island only as a function of its ties with the North. But as Cubans hover between an ongoing process of slow internal evolution and a (welcome? feared?) juncture of more dramatic change, exploring the past remains vital for understanding the choices island citizens face in the here and now.

Three Campbell soup cans that read Ideology, Revolution, History.
Alfredo Manzo Cedeño, The Cuba’s Soup, Homage to Warhol, Ideology, Revolution, & History, 2003.


Secondary readings and primary materials draw significantly from seminars taught at Yale University and Florida International University in 2014 and 2016, respectively. I am especially grateful to Michelle Chase for her collaboration and supplementary suggestions, and I thank Jennifer Lambe for her contributions to the section on “Fellow Travelers.” Carlos Velazco and Elizabeth Mirabal provided valuable input to selections on cultural politics. No doubt, a promising cohort of current graduate students and recent PhDs whose work is not yet published will enrich this list in the future.

Wherever possible, I have included links directly to referenced secondary source—to Google Books previews, in the case of monographs, and to relevant websites and databases in the case of academic articles. (You may need an academic library subscription to access full-text versions of the latter.) Works produced in Cuba are harder to come by and are less likely to be searchable via previews in Google Books. I have nonetheless included links to relevant titles and snippets to aid in library searching.

Finally, more and more Cuban audiovisual materials, especially films, are becoming freely available online. Links are provided. Still, there are a few instances where I am only able to offer a link to a relevant description or preview. Other than the most well-known Cuban films, most are unfortunately not available with subtitles.

Click here for the #CubanRevolutionSyllabus!

Michael J. Bustamante is Assistant Professor of Latin American History in the Steven J. Green School of International and Public Affairs at Florida International University. His current book project, Cuban Counterpoints: Memory Struggles in Revolution and Exile, excavates public spectacle, rare press, private correspondence, and visual media to track clashes over Cuban collective and historical memory, on and off the island, in the wake of the 1959 Revolution. You can tweet him @MJ_Busta.

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