Level heads about Cuba are few. Since the revolution of 1959, most writing about the island has been polarised: either ardently sympathetic or passionately hostile. Hugh Thomas's monumental history from Christopher Columbus to Richard Nixon, although by no means immune to the ideological currents of its time, has until now been virtually alone among English-language works in surveying Cuba's past with a sense of distance and proportion. Thirty years have passed since Thomas's work appeared, however, and for some time it has been clear that there is a need for a more up-to-date - and less unwieldy - account of Cuba's extraordinary history.
Richard Gott's new book fits the bill splendidly. In a little over 300 crisp pages, he covers the island's four centuries of Spanish colonial rule and single century of independence. He writes with balance, penetration and an eye for detail. His achievement is all the more impressive in that he lays his own political cards on the table, without fuss. Gott is a long-time reporter and observer of Latin America's guerrilla and revolutionary movements, from Che Guevara's expedition to Bolivia, to the nine lives of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela (about which he has written what is still the most informative book). He has always been staunchly radical and independent-minded: his outlook is that of a maverick with little time for cant from any direction.
Gott makes short work of the conventional image of Spanish colonisation of the island, which has it that the native Indian population was rapidly exterminated, leaving little or no trace in Cuba's subsequent history. With similar briskness, he dismisses the idea that the 26 July movement against Fulgencio Batista accorded any importance to Cuba's blacks - whatever the policies Fidel Castro adopted towards them once in power. He pays due homage to Jose MartI, the most eloquent and remarkable voice of late 19th-century Cuban nationalism. But, he points out, no less decisive a blow for independence was struck in 1897 by Michele Angiolillo, an unknown Italian teenager whose valiant assassination of the architect of Spanish reaction, Antonio Canovas, finished off political will to hold down Cuba in Madrid.
American designs on the island form a central and continuing part of the story of modern Cuba. Gott handles these lucidly and coolly, without being swayed either by self-centred US narratives or their emotional opposites. He cuts down to size the overblown episode of the missile crisis, on which a vast and still spreading slick of hagiographic oil has been poured in the US, featuring John F Kennedy as a hero of lofty resolve and sagacity. However, in stressing the extent to which the despatch of rockets to Cuba was a Soviet initiative, never requested by Castro, Gott could have noted that it was US missiles in Turkey, at closer range to the USSR than Cuba was to the United States, that gave Nikita Khrushchev the idea of creating a counterpart platform in the Caribbean.
It is a strength of Gott's work that it treats the record of US rapine calmly, as the natural conduct of the world's largest capitalist power. As his account makes clear, virtually all the most ruthless acts of US political interference, military aggression and economic asphyxiation in the 20th century have been the work of Democrat rather than Republican presidents: Woodrow Wilson's deployment of marines to occupy Cuba in 1917; Franklin D Roosevelt's interventions to crush the revolution of 1933; Kennedy's invasion of 1961; Lyndon B Johnson's immigration scheme; and - last but far from least - the two vindictive landmarks of Bill Clinton's rule, the Torricelli and Helms-Burton Acts. This year, not surprisingly, it was John Kerry who clamoured for tougher measures against Chavez, while in the International Herald Tribune a Venezuelan gusana publicly wished for the defeat of Bush, to clear the way for a more effective assault on Latin American sedition.
In dealing with the 45 years of the fidelato itself, Gott pays discriminating attention to the different phases of its domestic record: its fumbling early economic experiments; the decade of relatively prosperous dependency on subsidised Soviet imports of its sugar; the catastrophe of the "exceptional period", when Cuba's lifeline was cut off by Boris Yeltsin; and, finally, the partial recovery of its economy through tourism in the late 1990s. In a chapter entitled "Cuba Stands Alone", Gott does not gloss over either the political duress or social drift of these final years. None the less, he regards the revolution's survival against the grain of the time as one of its most remarkable achievements, and one that he hopes may yet assure it a soft landing into some less than neoliberal version of capitalism in this century.
The history of the revolution has been as much international as national. Gott traces successive Cuban attempts to assist revolution on the Latin American mainland, and the despatch of expeditionary forces to Africa for major military campaigns in Angola and the Horn. Such acts, together with relatively low levels of repression, distinguish the Cuban revolution from its Russian or Chinese counterparts. Havana's foreign policies have always been marked by a lack of national egotism and by a sense of solidarity with the struggles of other peoples. Undoubtedly, the Latin American matrix of Cuban identity has helped enormously in this respect. No matter how tight or vicious the American - and often European - blockade of the island, the revolution has always had upheavals on the mainland to keep it moral, and sometimes material, company. As a result, an isolation greater than either Russia or China suffered at the hands of the west has never turned into an involution of the kind experienced in those countries.
What of the future? The Clinton regime concocted advanced plans for suborning the Cuban officer corps after the departure of Castro. The wealth and power of Miami, from where Cuban exiles can contemplate with satisfaction the recovery of properties lost far longer ago than those of their counterparts in eastern Europe, are bound to weigh heavily on the outcome. Reintegration of Cuba into the "international community" may not be such a harmonious affair as Gott, who takes Mexico rather than Afghanistan or East Germany as his model, would hope. It would be surprising if it all ended in a gentleman's agreement.
Perry Anderson teaches history at the University of California, Los Angeles