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Cuba: A History

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From award-winning historian Hugh Thomas, Cuba: A History is the essential work for understanding one of the most fascinating and controversial countries in the world.

Hugh Thomas's acclaimed book explores the whole sweep of Cuban history from the British capture of Havana in 1762 through the years of Spanish and United States domination, down to the twentieth century and the extraordinary revolution of Fidel Castro.

Throughout this period of over two hundred years, Hugh Thomas analyses the political, economic and social events that have shaped Cuban history with extraordinary insight and panache, covering subjects ranging from sugar, tobacco and education to slavery, war and occupation.

Encyclopaedic in range and breathtaking in execution, Cuba is surely one of the seminal works of world history.

'An astonishing feat ... the author does more to explain the phenomenon of Fidel's rise to power than anybody else has done so far'

  The New York Times

'Immensely readable. Thomas's notion of history's scope is generous, for he has not limited himself to telling old political and military events; he describes Cuban culture at all stages ... not merely accessible but absorbing. His language is witty but never mocking, crisp but never harsh'
  New Yorker

'Thomas seems to have talked to everybody not dead or in jail, and read everything. He is scrupulously fair'

Hugh Thomas is the author of, among other books, The Spanish Civil War (1962), which won the Somerset Maugham Award, Cuba: The Pursuit of Freedom (1971), An Unfinished History of the World (1979), and the first two volumes of his Spanish Empire trilogy, Rivers of Gold (2003) and The Golden Age (2010).

1152 pages, Paperback

First published March 1, 1971

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About the author

Hugh Thomas

95 books125 followers
Librarian’s note: There is more than one author in the Goodreads database with this name.

Hugh Swynnerton Thomas, Baron Thomas of Swynnerton, was a British historian and Hispanist.

Thomas was educated at Sherborne School in Dorset before taking a BA in 1953 at Queens' College, Cambridge. He also studied at the Sorbonne in Paris. His 1961 book The Spanish Civil War won the Somerset Maugham Award for 1962. A significantly revised and enlarged third edition was published in 1977. Cuba, or the Pursuit of Freedom (1971) is a book of over 1,500 pages tracing the history of Cuba from Spanish colonial rule until the Cuban Revolution. Thomas spent 10 years researching the contents of this book.

Thomas was married to the former Vanessa Jebb, daughter of the first Acting United Nations Secretary-General Gladwyn Jebb.

From 1966 to 1975 Thomas was Professor of History at the University of Reading. He was Director of the Centre for Policy Studies in London from 1979 to 1991, as an ally of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. He became a life peer as Baron Thomas of Swynnerton, of Notting Hill in Greater London in letters patent dated 16 June 1981. He has written pro-European political works, as well as histories. He is also the author of three novels.

Thomas's The Slave Trade: The Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1440-1870 "begins with the first Portuguese slaving expeditions, before Columbus's voyage to the New World, and ends with the last gasp of the slave trade, long since made illegal elsewhere, in Cuba and Brazil, twenty-five years after the American Emancipation Proclamation," according to the summary on the book jacket.

Thomas should not be confused with two other historical writers: W. Hugh Thomas writes about Nazi Germany and Hugh M. Thomas is an American who writes on English history.

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5 stars
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Displaying 1 - 13 of 13 reviews
Profile Image for Owain.
Author 1 book3 followers
January 4, 2016
This book is very big. It's also inadequate. I would not recommend this to anyone who wants to gain a general overview of the history of Cuba. It's also biased and spends a lot of time dwelling on the things it's biased against.

The author does a good summary of Cuba's early history and goes into quite a bit of detail about the slave trade. Packing the chapters out with extra info of events that happened outside of Cuba but that still affected important goings on on the island. Like the British attitudes to the slave trade over the years. Which helps the reader gain a more in-depth understanding of, not just the slave trade relative to Cuba but to the international slave trade. Which the book is very good at. The book also gives a good portrayal of Cuban-US relations before the revolution particularly with regards to the potential for full Cuban annexation that existed several times pre-revolution.

The book is most interesting, particularly from my point of view in regards to the history of the Communist Party in Cuba, particularly before the 26th July movement. The author gives a detailed view of the party from the earliest relevant moment and this is interesting to learn how the party operated along more orthodox Marxist-Leninist lines than the 26th July movement and Castro and then how these two forces were melded together in the government of Cuba. Trade union activities are given less of a focus. Also what was really fascinating is that the book mentions a Cuban Communist Party delegate heading to Europe (I forget which country) to attend the general assembly of the World Federation of Democratic Youth. I was a delegate to the same assembly (much more recently though!) in Havana.

I felt some of the minor political details of the 1800's and early 1900's could have been left out in favour of a more overarching historical narrative in the vein of 'the political debate gradually shifted towards x which eventually led to y taking place' rather than tedious page after page of relatively insignificant facts that would be more suited to books with a more defined topic than just a general history of Cuba. Although fair play to Thomas for putting the hours in.

What really irritates me is the author's biased against Castro. He must spend at least the latter quarter of the book focusing on this man he obviously doesn't like. The author also uses some very loaded terms to describe Fidel. Comparing Fidel's speeches to Hitler's is not clever. 'Oh! This guy is a very charismatic speaker, so was Hitler!' is a fucking dumb thing to say considering both people's politics are completely different and have led to vastly different things. This is merely the author's cheap way of trying to dismiss someone who's politics he doesn't like with a flippant sentence rather than engaging in an intellectual critique.

Thomas is also very down on some of the immensely positive things Cuba has done. 'What literacy levels taken from like 30% to near 100%? Nah, let's make that seem not important.' His account of the Cuban Missile Crisis is also brief and fleeting which, you would think, would be an important topic to dwell on considering. Weirdly, nothing is mentioned of the Sino-Soviet split which, considering it happened a decade before the book ends, might be considered worth a mention, especially considering it was a deciding factor in Cuba's direction at the time.

Also the book proper ends in 1970 (the author says that by the time the book reaches 1959 he is treading the line between history and journalism). Although the author adds a tiny little epilogue in an attempt to update it. This doesn't make up for the near half-century since the book was first published. Yes things are in flux, the process of history makes that inevitable. But fifty years? This book's perspective is out of date.

TL;DR: book is ok for some of the facts and figures and the earlier portion but basically get something newer (I found Gott's Cuba: A New History better and more concise).
2 reviews
January 8, 2018
I admit I only read half of it (I was interested in Castro's antecedents and first months in power, so I only read starting from the fall of Machado in 1933 to october 1959) but this book is amazing. The research put into it is stunning. It is highly detailed, but it is able to leave only relevant information and form a coherent narrative where even if the reader does not remember each one of the details, they all serve a purpose to make us understand the context where the outstanding events happened.

It undertandably puts a lot of emphasis in the revolution, and the chapter "Dawn of the old Cuba" is astounding. I'm yet to find such a detailed panorama of the social situation in another historical time.

That being said, the writing is a little lacking. Sometimes the details are overwhelming and force the writer not to put emphasis in the right places. While he devotes a lot of citations about the political situation (that could be understood just by explaining it), the protests and uprisings are narrated in an even more sterile way. I believe books like "the last two years of Salvador Allende", with all of its faults, did a better job on calibrating the emphasis for the layman reader.

Also, I missed sourcing. Nowhere in the book are the sources mentioned in text. As much as that is not in any way discrediting of his work, it is a good practice in history books and lets the reader check the sources (especialy primary) for themselves.

Nontheless, it is one of the best books to read if you are interested in the details of the history of Cuba, and wish to understand where the revolution came from and what could've been different.
Profile Image for Julio Pino.
713 reviews28 followers
August 24, 2022
"What other country in the world has a province named Matanzas (massacres?"---Guillermo Cabrera Infante, A VIEW OF DAWN IN THE TROPICS
"Cuba was the Viet Nam of the Nineteenth century".---Fidel Castro

Yes, and what other country has played a pivotal role in the histories of the United States, Spain and Great Britain? Perhaps it was inevitable and appropriate that a British historian should have written the best history of Cuba in any language. The iconoclastic Hugh Thomas, before Thatcher granted him a peerage and he became Lord Thomas, published this mammoth yet eminently readable account of the tragedy of Cuban history by beginning not with Columbus and 1492 but the English occupation of Havana in 1762, which launched the first large-scale sugar plantations in Cuba before the island was traded back to Spain. (Stupidest idea in geopolitics until Russia sold Alaska to the U.S.) After that came waves of slaves with their idioms, religions and dances, and the rise of the Creoles, Cuban-born plantation owners who naturally wanted to trade the Spanish empire for the American, without losing their slaves in the process. What followed was war, slave rebellions, U.S. invasion in 1898 (to be repeated ad infinitum in the next century). This cycle would not be broken until Fidel Castro convinced his compatriots that only an anti-U.S. revolution and the abolition of capitalism went hand-in-hand. All of this is told by Thomas with sharp observation and even irony:"From who else but Castro would Jean-Paul Sartre have accepted the line,"If someone asked me for the moon it is because they needed it?"

An important note on the publishing history is in order: a hardback book on the history of Cuba stretching over 1,000 pages naturally fell out-of-print the moment it was published. (My own copy is a Spanish translation of the original English!) In the late Seventies an abridged paperback came out, THE CUBAN REVOLUTION, covering only the years 1959-1969. (Avoid it at all costs; Cuban history can't be abridged.) Finally, in 1998 a full paper back English edition came out, with a new forward by Lord Thomas: "My history, THE SPANISH CIVIL WAR was banned by Franco and CUBA: THE PURSUIT OF FREEDOM by Castro. " We should all be so lucky in book-banning.
Profile Image for Christopher Saunders.
845 reviews830 followers
July 11, 2018
Hugh Thomas's Cuba: The Pursuit of Freedom (first published in 1971, intermittently updated over the years) is a massive look at the island's tumultuous history, from the British occupation of Havana in 1762 through the early years of Castro's regime. When I say massive, I mean the first edition's over 1,600 pages. It's to Thomas's credit that, for all the painstaking depth he provides, the book's never boring. He charts Cuba's evolution under Spanish rule from a complacent slave colony to an island seething with tension; the nationalist movements of the late 19th Century, culminating in the Spanish-American War and the island's nominal independence under American economic suzerainty; the succession of impotent democrats and authoritarian goons in the 20th Century; the constant interference of outside powers, and particularly the United States, in its affairs; the Batista Regime and, of course, Castro's rise to power. If nothing else, it's an interesting case study of how thoroughly imperialism and external meddling can warp a society struggling to forge its own identity. After centuries of abuse and trampling, even a despot like Castro (whom Thomas doesn't seem to particularly like) can seem appealing if he says and does the right things. To Thomas's credit, the book's not a diatribe but a clear-eyed analysis allowing facts, figures and events to tell their own damning tale.
Profile Image for Y.
10 reviews2 followers
January 28, 2017
Más bien una visión de cómo España, Estados Unidos y la URSS han influido en la historia cubana que la historia cubana propiamente tal. De todos modos, un buen libro que a pesar del tamaño no aburre en su relato.
Profile Image for Gus V..
Author 1 book
February 14, 2020
This is a comprehensive History of Cuba from 1762 to 1971. Although it has minor inaccuracies and a few typos, Thomas narrative is both entertaining and informative and easy to read despite the 1700+ pages. It covers the last 100+ years of the Spanish colonial period, the several wars for independence, and the days of the early Republic, with nearly the second half of the book covering the periods of the Batista and Castro dictatorships. Impressive is Thomas' coverage of the early days of the Cuban Revolution (1959-60): A detailed description of how the naïve and trusting provisional President Urrutia and his cabinet agreed to Castro's proposal for them to rule by decree, subtly dismantling rights in the 1940 constitution, with the purpose of prosecuting Batistianos; and we are also told how Castro deceived his liberal and moderate allies in the struggle against Batista and was able to form an alliance with the Communists starting in early 1959, consolidating his power as defense minister and the implementer of the agrarian reform, eventually having a strong enough power base by mid-1960 when he cancelled elections, suppressed freedom of the press, and continued a campaign of property confiscation. Thomas will sometimes go into detailed narration of events, such as the agrarian reform, and gives a brief description of the initial implementation of Castro's police state by the G2 (Cuba's undercover police equivalent of the KGB) and the neighborhood watch committees. Events in 1959-60, such as the cancellation of elections and the confiscation of private property, set up confrontations with the U.S., which resulted in the Bays of Pigs in 1961 and the Missile Crises in 1962. As a matter of fact, this book by Thomas is recommended in my own book about Memories from the Land of the Intolerant Tyrant (available from Blue Note Books) as one of the best about Fidel Castro Castro and the Cuban Revolution.
Profile Image for Marrick.
Author 1 book10 followers
November 15, 2008
The book gives a thorough history of Cuba. It takes a while to read and digest all of the information. It's more for studying Cuba than it is for pleasure reading, but its a very satisfying read. Best read in combination with the Motorcycle Diaries and Che: A Revolutionary Life.
97 reviews
February 2, 2021
Una obra quizá demasiado ambiciosa en cuanto al periodo de la historia que abarca, 1762 a 1962 y con algunos epílogos que se refieren a los años 70 y los años 90.
En general el autor trata de ser imparcial, pero aún así tiene algunos rasgos típicos de la historiografía anglo-sajona cuando se refiere al mundo hispano. El principal de ellos es la utilización de la corrupción para explicar la ineficiencia de las sociedades o bien españolas o bien latinas. En parte es así pero la realidad es que corrupción ha habido en todas las sociedades humanas y aún así han evolucionado y tenido éxito durante periodos largos de la historia. En realidad no es menos corrupta la sociedad del s.XIX estadounidense que la española del mismo período. El autor pasa de puntillas sobre lo que hoy llamaríamos 'capitalismo de amiguetes' que imperaba en la primera mitad del s.XX en USA sobre todo respecto a su política exterior y más concretamente en el favorecimiento de los intereses de un puñado de empresas estadounidenses en toda América latina. Esto también es corrupción y de hecho igual de dañina, o más, que un gobernador ingresando en su cuenta particular los impuestos recaudados en un país.

Referente a la actitud de EEUU durante el s.XIX y principios del s.XX respecto a Cuba, creo que el autor da en el clavo comentando que no quería ser colonialista al estilo inglés pero tampoco quería ser realmente respetuoso con la soberanía de lo que de hecho eran sus colonias. De esta manera, ni hacía una cosa ni otra, se quedaba corto o se pasaba. El resultado es que el resto de América ha entrado en el s.XXI con grandes problemas que muchas veces se tratan de justificar por ser sociedades latinas, cuando el causante de dichos problemas es la cercanía de la principal potencia.

Me he leído la obra en inglés pues me interesaba practicar un poco con un tipo de prosa que no fuera demasiado poética y en este sentido creo que el autor escribe razonablemente bien aunque a veces utiliza frases demasiado largas.

En el tema de Castro también creo que el autor es demasiado indulgente, aunque lo critica severamente y hace un retrato de él que si se lee entre líneas, es desastroso. Creo que le ha faltado insistir en el tema psicológico, aunque insinúa el excesivo egocentrismo. Varias veces menciona el 'ajedrez internacional' como una de las obsesiones de Castro y lo que en el fondo le permitió perpetuarse en el poder a pesar de su absoluta incompetencia para mejorar la vida de su pueblo. En este sentido sería interesante hacer un paralelismo entre Franco y Castro. Ambos aprovecharon la guerra fría para gobernar largos años y morir en la cama y en el poder.
Profile Image for Keith.
69 reviews1 follower
September 7, 2017
Very boring and poorly structured. It is shamefully easy to lose salient points in a book like this.
February 25, 2018
Lo compré justo antes de mi viaje a Cuba. Quería empaparme de la historia de Cuba, tratar de comprender a ese pueblo encapsulado en el tiempo y de la magnánima figura de Castro. Si bien es la historia a grandes rasgos quedé perplejo ante ella. Existe una Cuba antes de Castro y una Cuba después de Castro. En la primera, Cuba siempre dependió o se sometió a países extranjeros como España o USA. En la segunda Cuba es independiente aunque aún arrastró su característica de dependencia ahora por la URSS. En síntesis es un buen libro que me ayudó a comprender la historia de esta revolucionaria isla.
Profile Image for Eduardo Garcia-Gaspar.
288 reviews10 followers
October 30, 2018
Una historia de Cuba a partir de 1762, el año de la invasión inglesa, hasta después del colapso de la URSS. Fascinante, especialmente los años últimos de Batista y los primeros de Castro. Muy recomendable.
June 24, 2016
Impressive historical account of the people of Cuba, whose whole philosophy of life is revolution, and mostly for the sake of it.
Displaying 1 - 13 of 13 reviews

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