But these are minor issues. What matters is that Gjelten has managed to capture in a single book almost all that one needs to know of Cuban history. His exhaustive reporting allowed him to delve deeply into the Cuban character and soul and reach conclusions that many Cubans will not like to hear, but which are nevertheless true.

“A readiness to resort to violence in pursuit of political aims was part of the national culture in Cuba,” Gjelten writes. He goes on to note that “the anti-Castro movement was characterized by petty internal rivalries, in a pattern reminiscent of the way Cuba’s political parties had fragmented in previous decades and made dictatorships possible. Finally, the opposition was tainted by its close association with the U.S. government, another longstanding issue in Cuba’s uneven political development.”

All so true.

It is easy to conclude, as a U.S. general notes toward the end of Cuba’s Independence War, that Cubans are “incapable of creating a viable government.” Gjelten quotes him as an example of the scorn and weird paternalism that Americans felt toward the island at the turn of the twentieth century. A wealthy island—the wealthiest Spanish colony—in the hands of a people too easily impressed by Caudillos can be a corrosive, self-destructive combination, as history has proven time and time again.

Yet Gjelten ends the book on a positive note. He returns to the example of Emilio Bacardi, whom he calls “a wise man who always counseled against despair,” and suggests that in the post-Castro era, Cubans should be able to find the president they deserve. A wise man himself, the author stops short of predicting the future. On the eve of the fiftieth anniversary of the so-called Cuban revolution, there is still no clear road for the future of a nation that emerged from conflict more than a century ago and that remains mired in a soul-crushing regime with no ideological compass and no other purpose than sustaining its own survival. 

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Mirta Ojito is an assistant professor at Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism and the author of Finding Mañana: A Memoir of a Cuban Exodus. She shared a Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting in 2001.