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Ever since Fidel Castro assumed power in Cuba in 1959, Americans have obsessed about the nation ninety miles south of the Florida Keys. America's fixation on the tropical socialist republic has only grown over the years, fueled in part by successive waves of Cuban immigration and Castro's larger-than-life persona. Cubans are now a major ethnic group in Florida, and the Ever since Fidel Castro assumed power in Cuba in 1959, Americans have obsessed about the nation ninety miles south of the Florida Keys. America's fixation on the tropical socialist republic has only grown over the years, fueled in part by successive waves of Cuban immigration and Castro's larger-than-life persona. Cubans are now a major ethnic group in Florida, and the exile community is so powerful that every American president has kowtowed to it. But what do most Americans really know about Cuba itself? In Cuba: What Everyone Needs to Know, Julia Sweig, one of America's leading experts on Cuba and Latin America, presents a concise and remarkably accessible portrait of the small island nation's unique place on the world stage over the past fifty years. Yet it is authoritative as well. Following a scene-setting introduction that describes the dynamics unleashed since summer 2006 when Fidel Castro transferred provisional power to his brother Raul, the book looks backward toward Cuba's history since the Spanish American War before shifting to more recent times. Focusing equally on Cuba's role in world affairs and its own social and political transformations, Sweig divides the book chronologically into the pre-Fidel era, the period between the 1959 revolution and the fall of the Soviet Union, the post-Cold War era, and-finally-the looming post-Fidel era. Informative, pithy, and lucidly written, it will serve as the best compact reference on Cuba's internal politics, its often fraught relationship with the United States, and its shifting relationship with the global community.


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Ever since Fidel Castro assumed power in Cuba in 1959, Americans have obsessed about the nation ninety miles south of the Florida Keys. America's fixation on the tropical socialist republic has only grown over the years, fueled in part by successive waves of Cuban immigration and Castro's larger-than-life persona. Cubans are now a major ethnic group in Florida, and the Ever since Fidel Castro assumed power in Cuba in 1959, Americans have obsessed about the nation ninety miles south of the Florida Keys. America's fixation on the tropical socialist republic has only grown over the years, fueled in part by successive waves of Cuban immigration and Castro's larger-than-life persona. Cubans are now a major ethnic group in Florida, and the exile community is so powerful that every American president has kowtowed to it. But what do most Americans really know about Cuba itself? In Cuba: What Everyone Needs to Know, Julia Sweig, one of America's leading experts on Cuba and Latin America, presents a concise and remarkably accessible portrait of the small island nation's unique place on the world stage over the past fifty years. Yet it is authoritative as well. Following a scene-setting introduction that describes the dynamics unleashed since summer 2006 when Fidel Castro transferred provisional power to his brother Raul, the book looks backward toward Cuba's history since the Spanish American War before shifting to more recent times. Focusing equally on Cuba's role in world affairs and its own social and political transformations, Sweig divides the book chronologically into the pre-Fidel era, the period between the 1959 revolution and the fall of the Soviet Union, the post-Cold War era, and-finally-the looming post-Fidel era. Informative, pithy, and lucidly written, it will serve as the best compact reference on Cuba's internal politics, its often fraught relationship with the United States, and its shifting relationship with the global community.

30 review for Cuba

  1. 4 out of 5

    Lance Charnes

    If you're of a certain age, you probably know (or think you know) a few standard things about Cuba: Fidel, missiles, the USSR, Mariel, South Florida. If you're younger, perhaps not that much. If you're on your way to Cuba (as I was in December), you may want to get up to speed with what you're about to find. Cuba: What Everyone Needs to Know may not be the easiest way to do that, but you'll at least learn something from it. The author's basic thesis: 1959 was the very first time Cuba was ever If you're of a certain age, you probably know (or think you know) a few standard things about Cuba: Fidel, missiles, the USSR, Mariel, South Florida. If you're younger, perhaps not that much. If you're on your way to Cuba (as I was in December), you may want to get up to speed with what you're about to find. Cuba: What Everyone Needs to Know may not be the easiest way to do that, but you'll at least learn something from it. The author's basic thesis: 1959 was the very first time Cuba was ever able to run its own affairs, having been under the thumb of Spain and then America until then. Most everything that Cuba has done since then has been a way to exercise its sovereignty and help other nations out of the same predicament. A combination of ignorance, fear and revanchism on the U.S. side, and paranoia and macho bravado on Cuba's side, led to the most toxic bilateral relationship in the Western Hemisphere in the past century. The book sweeps quickly through the first 200+ years of Cuba's history as a Spanish colony, slows somewhat to discuss the American colonial role in the following sixty years, then dives deep into the island's political, social and economic development from 1959 through ~2012. It ends with a projection of Cuba's likely direction under Raul Castro (which is largely correct so far). Along the way, you'll pick up interesting bits and pieces that may revise what you think you already know. Fulgencio Bautista was originally seen as a reformer when he first came on the national scene in the 1930s; the 1940 constitution was perhaps the most progressive in Latin America at the time; the Soviet Union had very little to do with the Revolution, and distrusted it; women were involved extensively in both the political and military sides of the Revolution; the Cubans came to resent the Soviets as much as they had the Spanish and Americans before them; and, the South Florida Cuban community wasn't the organized force we know now until the Reagan Administration prompted Jorge Mas Canosa to found the Cuban American National Foundation, using AIPAC as a model. In an effort to avoid writing just another textbook, the author has organized this book as, essentially, an FAQ, posing questions and then answering them. As a device to break up what might otherwise be endless blocks of text, it works...sort of. However, she's still an academic, and interweaving personality and incident into her recounting of history is largely beyond her. Also, the questions are often of the graduate-seminar type; it's unlikely the average Joe/Jane will know to ask about, say, the effect of the Platt Amendment on the development of the post-independence Cuban economy. The greatest drawback to this approach is that it fragments the narrative. You'll find various aspects of the same issue spread across multiple different places, and it's a challenge to make a coherent whole of the parts. The author is a specialist on U.S.-Latin American relations, a Council on Foreign Relations alum, and holds a doctorate from Johns Hopkins. She's written several books on Cuba. It's clear that she knows the material and can discuss in detail the minutiae of Cuban economic policy or its strategic aims in Angola. That's both a strength and a weakness. You get a lot of information and legions of names (good for knowing for whom the schools you pass in your tour bus are named). You also can get lost in the cane field of data and lose sight of the larger trends and swings of history. Cuba: What Everyone Needs to Know isn't a popular history, nor is it an entirely scholarly work. That in-betweenness may or may not work for you, depending on what you're looking for. It's a reasonably quick way to get a lot of information about Cuba that's not tied to a single personality or period. Will you be smarter at the end than you were at the beginning? Sure. Will you be able to read it on the beach at Varadero? Probably not. Then again, after a few mojitos, you won't be reading anything.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Elaine

    This is basically a high-level textbook for a survey course on Cuban history and international relations from the late 19th century to 2016. It is extremely focused on Cubas interactions with the US and will give you little insight into the daily life, concerns or political beliefs of Cubans themselves. It also only presents the scantest view of the Revolution and how Cuba has been governed for the past 60 years. In this sense, it is almost certainly NOT exactly what you need, or want, to know This is basically a high-level textbook for a survey course on Cuban history and international relations from the late 19th century to 2016. It is extremely focused on Cuba’s interactions with the US and will give you little insight into the daily life, concerns or political beliefs of Cubans themselves. It also only presents the scantest view of the Revolution and how Cuba has been governed for the past 60 years. In this sense, it is almost certainly NOT exactly what you need, or want, to know about Cuba. On the other hand, I felt I did gain a better understanding of Cuba/US relations, including of the political activity of the Miami exile community. Cuba’s relationship with other countries in Latin America was also well handled. While it is capably written, and not overly challenging, the writing is pedestrian, rather than engaging. Although I was extremely interested in the subject matter, I could not escape the (usually blissfully forgotten) feeling of cramming utilitarian material for a final exam. On the positive side, the book is fairly evenhanded. Ms. Zweig avoids polemic, although her empathy for the Cuban David v. the US Goliath shines through. But she doesn’t gloss over the suppression of dissent in Cuba, although as noted, internal affairs is not her primary project. Finally, this edition had the misfortune to be completed in the summer of 2016. It ends on a rather triumphal and optimistic note with the close of the Obama presidency and the historic Raul/Obama opening initiatives. Sadly, as we know, history didn’t end there and while it remains to be seen how drastic the setbacks of the Trump era will be, the final chapter seems to have been written in another era. Useful for students or people needing knowledge of the field but only as prep for a Cuba visit for a political junkie. (Although this book did give me the material to discuss both the Guantanamo treaty and title III of Helms Burton at a Havana dinner party, to the delight of my Cuban hosts who were passionate about both and used to drawing a blank with most Americans. So thanks Ms. Zweig for making me look smart).

  3. 4 out of 5

    Kathy

    Very textbook-like. Writing is very dry, but lots of good info.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Catherine

    There's a ton of information in this book. But the writing is very dry, and the format is similar to a textbook. It's divided into periods of Pre-1959, 1959-1991, 1991-2006, and Under Raul (which goes through 2009 when the book was published). Within these periods, the format consists of questions and answers; for example, "What were the early years of Cuban independence like, and how did the Platt Amendment impact Cuba's Political Future?" or "How did Cuba adapt at home to the loss of Soviet There's a ton of information in this book. But the writing is very dry, and the format is similar to a textbook. It's divided into periods of Pre-1959, 1959-1991, 1991-2006, and Under Raul (which goes through 2009 when the book was published). Within these periods, the format consists of questions and answers; for example, "What were the early years of Cuban independence like, and how did the Platt Amendment impact Cuba's Political Future?" or "How did Cuba adapt at home to the loss of Soviet subsidies and global realignment brought by the Cold War's End?" (the answer to this question could be a book unto itself!) This would be an excellent reference book when you want to know something specific about the history of Cuba, but was really boring to read cover to cover.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Zahreen

    Great look at the geopolitical history and importance of Cuba - definitely recommend reading before going to Cuba.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Lindsey Greto

    Very informative and useful to prep for my Cuba trip. I found the format to be really user-friendly (basically a series of questions and answers) but know it's not everyone's cup of tea. If you're planning a trip to Cuba, I think this book is essential reading.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Kevin

    Full of fascinating information, but a little academic for my tastes. Still, I had motivation to persevere.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Carole

    Shortly after I stared this book, we came to Cuba on a group cultural tour. This book was perfect because of the detail about the shifts in US and Cuban policies over the years. In another setting, I might have had a hard time keeping it all straight but not with the the immediacy of the travel and being able to ask a guide questions.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Mike Fedewa

    I began reading it when visiting Cuba in October of 2019. I wish I would have read it before we went. So much good information. I appreciated the format: question and relatively short answers about a wide range of topics. Sadly, the situation has changed so much since June of 2019. So much that was hoped for has not come to pass.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Lisa

    Good material, dryyyyyy writing.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Judith

    A must read for anyone traveling to Cuba . Very factual. Gives amazing insight into the history of Fidel's relations with the US and Russia .

  12. 5 out of 5

    Lindsay

    Terrific reference guide. I will pick up again and again. Sweig's writing is fantastic and clear.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Merittlohrsawyer

    Going to Cuba? Read this book! It is beautifully written and organized, with a detailed history of Cuba and its relationship to the U.S. and the world

  14. 4 out of 5

    Jeanell

    I really enjoyed this book because of the FAQ format. It provided all the important things historical and present day Cuba.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Mandy Honeyman

    Interesting and absorbing But this book suffers from the lack of a good editor. The structure, basically a timeline of questions and answers, is useful for a website but unsatisfying in literature.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Angel

    This book will give you a very good overview of Cuban history and politics. If all you know about the island is that the U.S. has an embargo on it and something about a bearded guy called Fidel, then you really need to read this book. If you think Che Guevara is just some guy on a tee shirt, you need to read this book. Sweig makes this book very accessible to readers by using a nice question and answer format. The book is arranged somewhat chronologically. I say "somewhat" because, on the one This book will give you a very good overview of Cuban history and politics. If all you know about the island is that the U.S. has an embargo on it and something about a bearded guy called Fidel, then you really need to read this book. If you think Che Guevara is just some guy on a tee shirt, you need to read this book. Sweig makes this book very accessible to readers by using a nice question and answer format. The book is arranged somewhat chronologically. I say "somewhat" because, on the one hand, the books parts are arranged chronologically: the colonial period, the time before Fidel, the Cold War, the end of the Cold War and Cuba after Fidel. On the other hand, due to the question and answer format, the narrative is not fully linear. You get parts where it says, "see page such and such" to learn more (or to go back to something you have read already). However, that is not a big deal. Sweig does provide some depth within the question and answer format. You do get a look at Cuba that goes past just what you may have heard in Miami if you talk to an exile (or more likely his or her children as time has moved on) or heard from the U.S. government. You learn in the end that the nation of Cuba is a complex and unique nation. You also learn why it is that the revolutionary movement has lasted as much as long as it has, and you learn a bit about what the future holds for the island nation. Oxford, the publisher of this book, has other books in a series of "what you need to know" on other topics. So, after you pick this one up, you may want to pick up others and learn a bit more. I know I will.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Anna

    My intention was to read this book before going on vacation to Cuba. I have been 2 times before and I wanted to learn more about the country. I actually ended up bringing the book with me and reading on the beach :) What I first liked about the book was the format, questions and answer structure, so it was very easy to jump from topic to topic without losing the connection between the events.The main focus of the book is the political situation in Cuba examined over period of time and how it My intention was to read this book before going on vacation to Cuba. I have been 2 times before and I wanted to learn more about the country. I actually ended up bringing the book with me and reading on the beach :) What I first liked about the book was the format, questions and answer structure, so it was very easy to jump from topic to topic without losing the connection between the events.The main focus of the book is the political situation in Cuba examined over period of time and how it affected lives of Cuban people, as well relations with other countries. The author has a very thorough knowledge of Cuban's history in a political contest and offered detailed explanations to some very hot/interesting topics such as the Guantanamo Bay naval base;Fidel Castro's relations with Soviet Union and United States;the health care and education systems; Cuban's refuge crises and Raul Castro... One thing I noticed, the author offers somewhat favourable view of Fidel and his politics, which made me think if we are programed to believe that he is this evil dictator and he actually brought some good things to the Island. This is why, I would like to explore more books on the subject. I really enjoyed the book and find very educational and easy to follow. However, I find myself wanting to learn more about the cultural and social life, which was not much covered in the book. One last thing, a list with suggestions for further reading is provided at the end of the book, nice addition for people who would like to find out more about Cuba.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Marko

    This is a precise and very well organized introduction to Cuba, especially to the history of Cuban domestic and foreign policy and U.S. foreign policy toward Cuba. Sweig writes with a North American reader in mind, including the reader whose knowledge of Cuba is made up mostly of myths and misinformation. I would never have chosen to read a book that was written in Q&A format, but this was the only general history of Cuba at the Subiaco Library, so I took a chance. To my surprise, I found the This is a precise and very well organized introduction to Cuba, especially to the history of Cuban domestic and foreign policy and U.S. foreign policy toward Cuba. Sweig writes with a North American reader in mind, including the reader whose knowledge of Cuba is made up mostly of myths and misinformation. I would never have chosen to read a book that was written in Q&A format, but this was the only general history of Cuba at the Subiaco Library, so I took a chance. To my surprise, I found the format extremely engaging and it made it very easy for me to go back to earlier sections and remind myself of who did what and when and where. The danger, of course, is that if the author doesn't ask herself a certain question, I'll never know it's missing. But that's true of any history, even one written in a traditional exposition.

  19. 5 out of 5

    David

    Not a literary work, or the kind of non-fiction I would generally recommend for casual reading, but if you are trying to get caught up on the revolution through the Raul Castro years I found it incredibly valuable. Written in Q&A format, it does a great job helping one get up to speed on the back and forth of US policies toward Cuba, the changes under Raul, the Anti-Castro movement. I was very impressed with the line the author was able to walk of thoughtful critique of US policy without Not a literary work, or the kind of non-fiction I would generally recommend for casual reading, but if you are trying to get caught up on the revolution through the Raul Castro years I found it incredibly valuable. Written in Q&A format, it does a great job helping one get up to speed on the back and forth of US policies toward Cuba, the changes under Raul, the Anti-Castro movement. I was very impressed with the line the author was able to walk of thoughtful critique of US policy without knee jerk support for Castro and vice-versa. I thought the section on how US policy evolved from Kissenger, the Carter years, the Clinton years and then in the aftermath of 9/11 was particularly interesting having not been close enough to it during those years to have followed it in real time.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Nick Moy

    Like many, I read this in preparation for a trip to Cuba, finishing it as we were about to land back in the States. A relatively grounded approach to the subject matter, from a source who is clearly extremely knowledgable and rational. A remarkable number of her insights seem right on the money. Recommended to anyone who seeks a cogent overview of what's happened and what is happening with respect to Cuba. Note that I read the second edition, published in late 2012. Only the format, which Like many, I read this in preparation for a trip to Cuba, finishing it as we were about to land back in the States. A relatively grounded approach to the subject matter, from a source who is clearly extremely knowledgable and rational. A remarkable number of her insights seem right on the money. Recommended to anyone who seeks a cogent overview of what's happened and what is happening with respect to Cuba. Note that I read the second edition, published in late 2012. Only the format, which occasionally results in some jumping around to cover a topic, held me from giving this book a fifth star.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Frank Kelly

    "Julia is one of the smartest people I know when it comes to Cuba. She's written a unique book here -- a series of questions and answers that somehow covers everything you really would want to know about Cuba (history, politics, culture, arts, etc.). With Congress now increasingly looking toward dropping the Kennedy era sanctions and President Obama's recent moves to allow easier visitation, higher remittances being sent and even US wireless telecoms to offers services in Cuba, this is a book "Julia is one of the smartest people I know when it comes to Cuba. She's written a unique book here -- a series of questions and answers that somehow covers everything you really would want to know about Cuba (history, politics, culture, arts, etc.). With Congress now increasingly looking toward dropping the Kennedy era sanctions and President Obama's recent moves to allow easier visitation, higher remittances being sent and even US wireless telecoms to offers services in Cuba, this is a book (if you are interested at all in Cuba) you have to have (on your desk, not just the bookshelf). Julia really did a great job here."

  22. 5 out of 5

    Roxana

    I appreciated her attempt to present both the United States' and the international community's view on Cuba; it was illuminating to read how they both interacted with the island and how Cuba to them. However, I am of the opinion that there is no such thing as a neutral stance on any issue no matter what it is because of very real and palpable power relations. Although she called out both the United States and Cuba in various instances, she was far too easy on the United States and tended to I appreciated her attempt to present both the United States' and the international community's view on Cuba; it was illuminating to read how they both interacted with the island and how Cuba to them. However, I am of the opinion that there is no such thing as a neutral stance on any issue no matter what it is because of very real and palpable power relations. Although she called out both the United States and Cuba in various instances, she was far too easy on the United States and tended to equate neoliberalism and privatization with "freedom" and "democracy". Still, it was an easy read thanks to the question and answer format and I'd recommend it to anyone unfamiliar with Cuban history.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Carol

    Julia knows Cuba, and Latin America. Very authoritative. Unbiased. Accurate (based on my limited experience as a visitor to Cuba). Excellent primer on Cuba. Extremely readable. Arranged in a question and answer format, I found it easy to pick up and put down over a 6 month period without loss of continuity. This format is also useful for a quick look up on a particular subject/issue. While somewhat scholarly, the language was easily readable and understandable. It ends at the beginning of the Julia knows Cuba, and Latin America. Very authoritative. Unbiased. Accurate (based on my limited experience as a visitor to Cuba). Excellent primer on Cuba. Extremely readable. Arranged in a question and answer format, I found it easy to pick up and put down over a 6 month period without loss of continuity. This format is also useful for a quick look up on a particular subject/issue. While somewhat scholarly, the language was easily readable and understandable. It ends at the beginning of the Obama administration. I hope she will update it as we move to a new presidency.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Cathy Unruh

    I read several things in preparation for a trip to Cuba and found this to be the best. It's written in handy little nuggets that are easy to find if you are looking for specific guidance, and covers everything from history to current culture. Even if you are not planning to visit Cuba anytime in the near future, it's a great way to learn more about our neighbor which is so close and yet in many ways so far away.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Linus

    Informative, succinct and unique. At first the format of the book put me off, but I found the author's approach quite refreshing and engaging after a while. The division between domestic, US-Cuba and Cuba and the World made it easily understandable. It has certainly improved my understanding of Cuba. Hopefully I'll get to visit Cuba before I leave the Western Hemisphere for good.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Misha

    While it is hardly everything that "everyone needs to know" about Cuba, this book should probably be a component of any overview of the country. While I am not a big fan of political histories, I read the book in preparation for a trip to Cuba and appreciated how thorough, clear, and well-organized it is. No prior knowledge of Cuban history required.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Owen Myers

    Ms. Sweig does a very good job explaining the complex evolution of Cuba. She breaks down everything involving Cuban society with special emphasis placed on the island since the 1950s and the Revolution to the election of President Obama and the implications this may mean for the future of the U.S. and Cuba.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Keith Skinner

    Wonderful overview of the history and culture of Cuba, offering many jumping off points for further research. The book left me with a sense of the complexity of Cuba's political and cultural id, the underlying conflicts that have made it so difficult for Cubans to obtain the independence and freedom they've been fighting for since they were a Spanish colony.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Russell

    A wonderful introduction to Cuba. Very up to date and the question and answer format is a very effective way to introduce all the issues that come into play when approaching this fascinating subject. For such a small country Cuba plays quite a role on the world stage.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Rachael

    Had to read this for school. Very informative, but lacked citations of evidence...just sort of stated things as if they were accepted facts. Also, stop saying "The lion's share" so much, Sweig. I never want to see that term again...

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