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Fatal Glory: Narciso Lopez and the First Clandestine U.S. War Against Cuba.

Fatal Glory: Narciso Lopez and the First Clandestine U. S. War Against Cuba, by Tom Chaffin. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1996, xxii, 282 pp. $34.95.

Fatal Glory, by Tom Chaffin, Is an engaging narrative of the mid-nineteenth-century expeditions by Narciso Lopez to bring about Cuban independence. Lopez, a Venezuelan-born military and political official in both Spain and Cuba, left Cuba for the U. S. in 1848 after a pro-independence conspiracy he was involved in was discovered by colonial officials. Afterwards, he launched several unsuccessful filibuster crusades from the United States to eradicate Spanish colonialism in Cuba. Although Lopez was supported by an eclectic network of Southern and Northern business and military men, and by some sectors of the Cuban elite, he was also persecuted and tried by U. S. federal authorities for breaking filibustering laws. Although Lopez was acquitted of all charges, the more permanent tribunal of a Spanish garrote ended his filibustering career in Havana in 1850.

The book's main argument is that Lopez's failed crusades were the result of "competing versions of antebellum nationalism" (p. 8) which both fueled and limited filibustering and expansionism in the 1850s. Lopez was not, as many have asserted, a mere puppet of Southern planters who wanted to annex Cuba to increase the number of slave-holding states. Chaffin presents his view in a historiographical chapter which serves as the book's introduction. In this introduction--one of the best sections of the book--Chaffin discusses how Lopez's expeditions have been interpreted by generations of U. S. and Cuban historians. By looking at what Lopez and other filibusters thought about what they were doing--being "republicans and patriots of the United States" (p. 8)--the author hopes to correct the erroneous interpretations that have associated filibusterism exclusively with Southern nationalism and pro-slavery ideology.

Chapter 5, "A Contagious Enthusiasm," is perhaps one of the most important chapters in the book. Chaffin asserts that "Lopez's stellar arc across the U. S. imagination, after all, belonged to an age in which a new generation of newspaper editors was transforming both the nation's journalism and its politics" (p. 143). Lopez then benefitted not only from an era fascinated by filibusterism and U. S. expansion but from the proliferation of new cheap, accessible, and sensationalistic newspapers desperate to grab a share of an expanding urban market. Although one might disagree with the author about the extent to which this newly emerging press played a role in Lopez's popularity, Chaffin has added a neglected perspective to the attempts to explain Lopez's ventures. The link between a jingoistic press and belligerent junctures in U. S.-Cuba relations is one that will resurface during the Spanish-American-Cuban War (1898) and Castro's revolution (1959).

The emphasis on the complexity and the changing nature of U. S. politics is a welcomed contribution to the scholarship on Narciso Lopez, and on U. S. filibustering expeditions to Central America and the Caribbean in general. Nevertheless, a weakness in Fatal Glory is that Chaffin is not sufficiently attentive to developments in Cuba and in Spain. Cuban support for independence and for annexation to the U. S., was also a complex political phenomenon--so was Spanish colonial policy--which is not fully explained in the book. Although the book opens with an account of a meeting in Havana, the Cuban and Spanish dimensions of Lopez's movement quickly fade into the background. Chaffin might have acheived a more balanced perspective had he gained access to materials from the Spanish government archives--the author did visit Cuba to do research--and relied less on the correspondence from Spain's foreign relations ministers to U. S. officials. These records might have provided, for example, additional information on Lopez's military career and on his connections among Cuban and Spanish supporters of independence.

Chaffin's book provides a very precise, enticing and context-sensitive account of the attempts by Narciso Lopez and his supporters to end Spanish colonialism in Cuba. Lopez's goal, according to the author, was shaped by the shifting terrain of mid-nineteenth-century U. S. domestic politics. Knowledge about that changing political landscape is one of the main contributions of Fatal Glory, particularly for those readers, like myself, who approach the book from a Caribbean or a Latin-American perspective. The book also has a very detailed chronology which will probably be valuable to those unfamiliar with Lopez's story. At a time when U. S.-Cuba relations are experiencing one of their most intransigent moments, Chaffin's study provides a refreshing new perspective on an earlier phase of the relationship between the two countries.
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Author:Rodriguez, Felix V. Matos
Publication:The Mississippi Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1998
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