Cuba, our nettlesome neighbor

In his introduction to "That Infernal Little Cuban Republic," Lars Schoultz compares Cuba with the neighbors across the street who irritate you. But the street is wide, so you try not to be bothered by things like your kids going over to play and coming home under the influence of marijuana, suspicious out-of-town guests who make you nervous, and the neighbor's children pitching a tent in your front yard.

Extending the analogy, Schoultz summarizes: "Cuba has always been a pain in the neck."

The book's title, taken from one of Theodore Roosevelt's letters in 1907, captures the U.S. frustration with Cuba that dates back to the early 1820s, when pirates based in Havana plundered U.S. shipping.

This comprehensive, 760-page chronicle of U.S. policy toward the Cuban Revolution is timely. Nearly 50,000 U.S. citizens visited Cuba legally in 2008 for educational, religious or family reasons. Another estimated 25,000 U.S. tourists visited Cuba illegally.

Schoultz, a political science professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, employs admirable storytelling as he analyzes the policies of U.S. presidents from Harry Truman through George W. Bush. He tells of the infamous 1960s CIA plot to assassinate Fidel Castro with a poisoned ballpoint pen. He notes that more recently, a quote attributed to the late rocker Frank Zappa ran across the electronic billboard of the U.S. interests section in Havana: "Communism doesn't work because people like to own stuff."

Schoultz uses documents and interviews to critique the attempts and failures of U.S. administrations to deal with Cuba. The author, a past president of the Latin American Studies Association who has studied U.S. policy toward Latin America for almost four decades, explains why the U.S.has openly and actively tried to overthrow Cuba's government for about five decades. Schoultz says Cubans have historically insisted on their right to self-determination and that this has irritated U.S. administrations.

Anyone with an interest in U.S. foreign relations will appreciate Schoultz's careful historical detail, narrative style and clear analysis.

Schoultz also offers some positive prospects for this new century. He says that most of President Barack Obama's foreign policy advisers are opposed to the Cuban embargo and suggests that demographic changes in Cuba and South Florida will prompt change.

His optimism, however, comes with the caution that change has been predicted since 1959. Even Castro, in a 1974 interview, surmised that "someday some sort of ties will be established." Schoultz quotes Castro's reasoning: "We are neighbors."