Waldo Frank’s Cuba, Prophetic Island was in many ways prophetic itself. Written at the express invitation of the revolutionary government that had only recently established itself in Havana, the book was expected to be a portrait of Cuba—and a snapshot of the Revolution—similar to other books Frank had written about Latin America and Spain, books the “younger generation, now in command,” had read and admired.
The invitation, of course, would not have come if my past work had not revealed simpatia and what to them seemed comprehension of America Hispana. But there was never the slightest inquiry as to what the book would say, what it would be.
These were heady optimistic days, and the Cuban leadership wanted their story told by someone whose sympathies were obviously with the Revolution. Apparently they were able to pay for the job as well, with a two year grant.
That being said, the book is not dishonest. In some ways it is, however—like so much that has to do with Cuba today—stuck in time. But it is no less interesting or informative for that.
On the contrary, Frank’s study of Cuba’s unique history among the Spanish colonies and the effects of the peculiarities of this history upon the formation of the character of the Cuban people provides enduring insights that you won’t find anywhere else. This, and a sense of the widespread enthusiasm and hope among intelligent and informed observers of the time that with the Cuban Revolution a new world might be dawning.
Of course modern Cuba’s “birth”—as Frank regarded the Revolution—occurred at the worst of times, the height of the Cold War, when everything that happened everywhere was understood in terms of black (Soviet and Communist influence) and white (U.S. and Western Democratic ideals). And Frank was quite simply wrong, or at least mistaken, on a number of issues.
Che Guevara, for example, was never a “psychiatrist, practicing psychoanalysis in Buenos Aires.” Nor did he have “blonde disheveled hair.” But these are petty, though difficult to understand, errors. Most of what Waldo Frank says in Prophetic Island has stood up to the test of time.
And that’s only part of the reason this book makes for a fascinating and indispensable read for anyone interested in Cuba and its history. The book is full of eloquent insights that are the product of an extremely well-read and deeply observant mind.
There are far too many of these sentences and paragraphs to quote, but Frank points out, for example, that “in economics and political mood, Cuba differed deeply from the greater colonies of Spain; and in its preponderantly European ethos, differed from the slave-run factories of the Caribbean.”
For an empire hungry for gold and silver Cuba was regarded as a failure. There were no riches to be mined and no massively profitable latifundias on the island, as in Mexico and Peru, but instead smaller more modest hacendados concerned with the raising of cattle. Although sugar cane production was labor intensive and Cuba imported more slaves than the United States, prior to independence from Spain in 1898 there was no monoculture as in the neighboring islands. Even during the half century of U.S. domination—during which most of the land on the island and most of the major companies operating there were American owned—the tobacco industry, and particularly the rolling of the cigars for which Cuba remains famous, was operated with a largely non-slave craftsman-like labor force.
Cuba’s independence from Spain was late in coming, and during the sixty or seventy years that separated that event from those which resulted in the independence of most of the other former Spanish colonies in the Americas, a class of patriots—led by the words and foolish example of José Martí—emerged, thirsting after waiting far too long for the day when Cuba would finally be free of its former master.
I say foolish because Martí died in the first battle of the third war of independence, an engagement that ended in a draw. His death was pointless, even absurd, and unnecessary.
But as Frank points out “Cubans are bearers of the Hispanic culture, whose hero is Don Quixote, the knight who assails windmills and frees a gang of brutish convicts in the desperate effort to bring justice to the modern world.” Martí’s death—like Castro’s storming of the Moncada barracks fifty-eight years later; and his return to Cuba with a small band of seasick fighters in December of 1956—was senseless but not futile: for it inspired the men who came after him and helped enable them to embrace what Unamuno called “the tragic sense of life,” and overcome the odds that were stacked against them.
Cuba was weak—and somehow strong; Cuba was minor—and somehow major.
And with the triumph of the Cuban Revolution this statement, regarding the situation in the country in the 19th century, became prophetic.
But when Frank wrote his book he didn’t know this. He knew only what he had learned of the history of Cuba, and what he saw firsthand of the Cubans. What, he asks rhetorically, do the largely inexperienced leaders of the new Cuba have in common?
They are improvised agronomists, economists, bankers, buyers, soldiers, leaders of industry and of labor. They are improvised statesmen and diplomats: one might almost say they are improvised Cubans in their exalted meaning of the name. Doubtless they make mistakes, for while they act they are still learning. Time will judge their capacities of mind in their perilous undertaking. What composes them together on so many and such complex levels is their sharing, at deep sources of energy unknown to the conventional office-holder, in the immediate work inspired by Cuba’s political, industrial and cultural incompleteness. Wonderfully surviving the centuries of blood, of piracy (old and new), and of corruption, the Cubans emerge into history with an experiment—not of mere production, not of mere political independence: an experiment in goodness.
Frank knew that these eager, highly idealistic young men and women might fail, just as Don Quixote failed. But he felt—passionately—that they should be given a chance.
“This is what I mean by goodness,” he wrote.
These men have their share of weaknesses and lusts. But preponderantly and devotedly they are in love with Cuba’s incompleteness, and with the task (they have all risked life for it) of Cuba’s self-fulfillment as a people. Alas! Since they are men and women, there is nothing necessarily permanent in this goodness If the day comes when they love Cuba possessively for what it gives them, for what they have given it, and for what it is now, they will cease to be good leaders.
Photograph by Alberto Korda [Public domain]