Society and communities
It started with a newspaper article – a report on the death of revolutionary Che Guevara in October 1967. To a teenaged Antoni Kapcia, it was the first step on a journey that has led him to become an internationally recognised authority on modern Cuba.
“To be honest, I had never heard of him before,” Professor Kapcia said. “And it interested me. I already knew I wanted to go to university and that helped persuade me to choose Latin American studies. It was the time of the so-called student rebellion, everybody was becoming radicalised and there was political interest in what was going on in Cuba.
“But there was so little written on it at the time, and a lot of it was highly politicised one way or the other – it was either hell on earth or it was the solution to everything, depending on who you listened to. So it was actually difficult to get to grips with at first, but I found it fascinating.”
"There was so little written on it at the time, and a lot of it was highly politicised one way or the other – it was either hell on earth or it was the solution to everything."
Over the next half-century his research took him to Cuba more than 60 times, documenting the nation’s unique interpretation of communism, through the collapse of support from the Soviet Union, the continuing US trade embargo and the death of revolutionary leader Fidel Castro. His research has focused on getting under the skin of the country in a way that few others have, digging into the reality of political, social and economic life as part of the University’s Centre for Research on Cuba (CRC).
Professor Kapcia said: “For three decades people thought of Cuba as though it were an Eastern European country in the Caribbean, and yet it was so different from anything in Eastern Europe in all sorts of ways. And then the next stage was that people tended to think of it as some sort of Latin American dictatorship – but again, it’s just so different from any other country, it doesn’t fit into any category you try to force it into. It’s unique in that respect, but also in its capacity to survive all the challenges, not least the onset of Covid, even producing 5 vaccines of its own and vaccinating almost all the population”
His insights have been in demand since the early 1990s, when he was first asked to contribute to reports being compiled by the Economist Intelligence Unit and work of the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO). Since then he has briefed seven British ambassadors as they prepared for Havana postings, updated researchers in the Americas Department (and created a blog for other ministries) and worked with other countries’ foreign ministries and organisations.
48.9% of seats held by women in national parliament in 2016
99.75% adult literacy rate in 2012
11.1% of GDP spent on health in 2014
150% of GDP – the $130bn total cost of the US trade embargo is 1.5 times Cuba’s current GDP of $87bn
A new CRC initiative at Nottingham – the Consultancy and Education Unit – launched in 2018 and soon became a magnet for future collaborations for the University, highlighting its potential to influence international policy, generate impact and income, with a remit extending into consultancy for business and others seeking expert assessment on Cuba. Through the unit, Professor Kapcia’s research has made a substantial contribution to the shaping of policy decisions in government and business, and to a wider and more nuanced understanding of contemporary Cuba.
The need for detailed, objective and informed knowledge about Cuba shows no signs of abating in the current political climate.
“Despite a widespread public perception to the contrary,” he said, “Obama’s diplomatic détente in 2014-17 did not affect the post-1960 US economic embargo. Since this remains fully in force and, having been extended by Trump way beyond the scope of any previous US presidency but then, despite all expectations, not restored by Biden to its pre-Trump levels, it seems likely to last until at least 2025, such an understanding, and consultancy service, is more vital than ever for government, business and media.
“The embargo’s reach affects all the UK’s relations with Cuba, while offering unique openings for UK trade and to shape receptive Cuban attitudes towards the UK, making the existence of the Consultancy and Educational Unit especially valuable.”
Antoni Kapcia is now Emeritus Professor of Latin American History in the School of Cultures, Languages and Area Studies. His research expertise lies in modern Cuban history and the influence of the 1959 revolution on questions of nationalism, national identity and ideological patterns, and contemporary Cuban history and politics. Until September 2020, he led the University’s Centre for Research on Cuba, but is still an active member of the Centre.