The Cuban 1970s: The Revolutions Second Decade from Without and Within

AHA Session 234
Conference on Latin American History 56
Saturday, January 7, 2017: 1:30 PM-3:00 PM
Plaza Ballroom D (Sheraton Denver Downtown, Plaza Building Concourse Level)
Michelle Chase, Pace University
Lauren (Robin) Derby, University of California, Los Angeles

Session Abstract

For Cubans, the 1970s began and ended ominously, with disarray as a result of the failed ten-million-ton Sugar Harvest at the decade’s start, and 125,000 island residents departing for the United States in 1980. Ideological dogmatism set in, too, enshrined in the pronouncements of the 1971 National Congress of Education and Culture. Yet if these years would later become known as the intellectual decenio amargo(ten bitter years), in the interim Cuba also “convert[ed] [economic] defeat into victory,” just as Fidel Castro pledged. On the backs of full integration into the Council of Mutual Economic Assistance (1972), the island’s more aggressively subsidized GDP grew at an average annual rate of fourteen percent. Nonetheless, despite being a period in which Cuba’s social welfare guarantees arguably began coming to fruition, the 1970s remain a veritable historical no-man’s land. To date, analyses have been limited to broad overviews of processes of state “institutionalization” and “Sovietziation,” or descriptions of official ostracism suffered by the island’s best-known (and once quite revolutionary) writers.

Looking past high politics and macroeconomics, on the one hand, and the struggles of artists on the other, this panel asks what alternative histories of the Cuban 1970s might be written when scholars embrace new scales of analysis from the bottom up and the outside in. Bringing together diplomatic, cultural, and social historical approaches, the papers collectively reveal a decade with more dynamic, unsettled politics than the monolithic character of state discourse would seem to suggest. How did Cuba’s reputation on the international stage shape domestic developments? Did daily, newly unequal consumption practices reflect or conflict with the ways Cuba’s “high socialist” triumph was admired abroad? If Cuba’s global engagements kept the Revolution’s international and, to an extent, domestic historical legitimacy intact, at what point did repetitive exercises in martyrology and museumification at home hint at signs of a political faith fraying at the seams as much as in overwhelming control?

Overshadowed in scholarship by the epic upheavals of Cuba's 1960s, the 1970s, these papers argue, are long overdue for critical reappraisal. As Janus-faced as it is understudied, the Cuban Revolution’s second decade represents a chronological unit worthy of sustained reflection, not just an unhappy interlude that even the island’s own textbooks tend to skip.

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