The best books for understanding Cuba’s turbulent 1930s

Why am I passionate about this?

I was a history major when I left for a Havana study abroad semester in 2003, but I had not studied Cuba. My introduction was a University of Havana class on the period of the Cuban Republic, in which I sat surrounded by Cuban students. My classroom learning was aided by the public history representations all around me in the city. I was hooked. I wrote my undergraduate thesis at Yale on Cuban activist intellectuals of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and a few years later went on the begin my doctorate in Latin American History at Columbia. I have been a historian of Cuba ever since, 20 years.


I wrote...

No Barrier Can Contain It: Cuban Antifascism and the Spanish Civil War

By Ariel Mae Lambe,

Book cover of No Barrier Can Contain It: Cuban Antifascism and the Spanish Civil War

What is my book about?

Vividly recasting Cuba’s politics in the 1930s as transnational, Ariel Mae Lambe reimagines Cuban activism during an era previously regarded as a lengthy, defeated lull. In this period, many Cuban activists began to look at their fight against strongman rule and neocolonial control at home as part of the international antifascism movement that exploded with the Spanish Civil War. Frustrated by multiple domestic setbacks, activists found strength in the face of repression by refusing to view their political goals as confined to the island. As individuals and in groups, Cubans from diverse backgrounds and political stances self-identified as antifascists and moved, both physically and symbolically, across borders and oceans, cultivating networks and building solidarity for a New Spain and a New Cuba.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Cuba: An American History

Ariel Mae Lambe Why did I love this book?

Anyone interested in learning about any part of the history of Cuba should start with Ada Ferrer’s magnificent, Pulitzer Prize-winning Cuba: An American History. Ferrer is one of the premier historians of Cuba in the world, and an excellent writer as well. In Cuba, she begins with her own birth on the island, and then spans the history of her homeland from Columbus to COVID, covering major topics, trends, and events in between, and thoroughly engaging the reader throughout. The text is sophisticated but accessible, expansive but detailed—it is first-rate scholarship while simultaneously emotionally rewarding. I both laughed out loud and cried on various occasions while reading Ferrer’s book, and I learned a great deal, even though I am a scholar of Cuban history myself. The book will provide vital context to the reader of 1930s Cuban history.

By Ada Ferrer,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Cuba as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

WINNER OF THE PULITZER PRIZE IN HISTORY
WINNER OF THE LOS ANGELES TIMES BOOK PRIZE IN HISTORY

"Full of...lively insights and lucid prose" (The Wall Street Journal) an epic, sweeping history of Cuba and its complex ties to the United States-from before the arrival of Columbus to the present day-written by one of the world's leading historians of Cuba.

In 1961, at the height of the Cold War, the United States severed diplomatic relations with Cuba, where a momentous revolution had taken power three years earlier. For more than half a century, the stand-off continued-through the tenure of ten American…


Book cover of State and Revolution in Cuba: Mass Mobilization and Political Change, 1920-1940

Ariel Mae Lambe Why did I love this book?

Robert Whitney’s classic work on popular politics in Cuba from 1920 to 1940 is a must for the reader interested in the history of Cuba’s 1930s, especially Cuba’s “other revolution,” the Revolution of 1933. The book covers an absolutely crucial time in the island’s political evolution, and yet this time period is too often glossed over between interest in the Cuban Wars of Independence on the one hand and the Cuban Revolution of 1959 on the other. Whitney’s book, however, follows the politics of the island from the high corruption of 1920, through anti-dictatorial and anti-imperialist struggles, to the triumphant (if short-lived) arrival of constitutional democracy in 1940. An important scholar of Fulgencio Batista, Whitney traces the Cuban leader’s political twists and turns during the era, beginning with his critical role as a revolutionary in the 1933 uprising.

By Robert Whitney,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked State and Revolution in Cuba as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Illuminates a critical period in Cuba's political evolution Between 1920 and 1940, Cuba underwent a remarkable transition, moving from oligarchic rule to a nominal constitutional democracy. The events of this period are crucial to a full understanding of the nation's political evolution, yet they are often glossed over in accounts that focus more heavily on the revolution of 1959. With this book, Robert Whitney accords much-needed attention to a critical stage in Cuban history. Closely examining the upheavals of the period, which included a social revolution in 1933 and a military coup led by Fulgencio Batista one year later, Whitney…


Book cover of Revolution and Reaction in Cuba, 1933-1960

Ariel Mae Lambe Why did I love this book?

Samuel Farber grew up in Cuba and has been a prolific commentator on the island’s history and current events for decades. Although Revolution and Reaction is an older book, it is still a vital source for understanding Cuba’s Revolution of 1933 and its aftermath. Written less than two decades after the Cuban Revolution of 1959, Farber’s book begins from the premise that analysis of that revolution was oversimplified because observers lacked sophisticated, complex understanding of the island’s decades leading up to that event. In particular, he identifies the Revolution of 1933 as “a major turning point,” and sets out to “analyze the interplay of… structural conditions and historical processes and events” surrounding and following that conflagration. In addition to this overarching analysis, Farber offers discussions of various critically important organizations and constituencies of Cuba’s popular politics.

By Samuel Farber,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Revolution and Reaction in Cuba, 1933-1960 as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Revolution and Reaction in Cuba, 1933-1960 is an historical study of the Cuban Revolution of 1959 and at the same time an explanation of Castro's rise to power. Rather than an event-by-event description of this upheaval. it is a careful consideration of the entire period from the Revolution of 1933 until early in 1960 when Cuba became openly and fully Communist. Applying the techniques of the sociological method to his examination of historical facts. Mr. Farber places as much emphasis on Cuban society during this crucial period as on Cuban politics. He examines the development of political groups in terms…


Book cover of Black Political Activism and the Cuban Republic

Ariel Mae Lambe Why did I love this book?

In Black Political Activism and the Cuban Republic, Melina Pappademos studies the participation in and contributions to Cuban politics by Cubans of African descent, particularly those of relatively elite status, during the entire period of the Cuban Republic (1902–1958). This work is not primarily about popular politics in the manner of Whitney or Farber; rather, it examines the impressive ingenuity of the tiny Black elite at working the patronage system embedded in formal politics in Cuba to gain advantages for itself (and sometimes causing gains to trickle down to the Black masses in the form of vote-buying). Although she does not focus on broader areas of Black popular mobilization, Pappademos acknowledges the importance to this end of mass organizations such as labor unions and the Cuban Communist Party and discusses challenges to the Black elite by non-elite Black voices. 

By Melina Pappademos,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Black Political Activism and the Cuban Republic as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

While it was not until 1871 that slavery in Cuba was finally abolished, African-descended people had high hopes for legal, social, and economic advancement as the republican period started. In Black Political Activism and the Cuban Republic , Melina Pappademos analyzes the racial politics and culture of black civic and political activists during the Cuban Republic. The path to equality, Pappademos reveals, was often stymied by successive political and economic crises, patronage politics, and profound racial tensions. In the face of these issues, black political leaders and members of black social clubs developed strategies for expanding their political authority and…


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Book cover of The Wonder of Jazz: Music that changed the world

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Why am I passionate about this?

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What is this book about?

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