As a former foreign correspondent (1986-2008) for The New York Times, Anthony DePalma reported widely on Cuba (he also authored The Man Who Invented Fidel). He’s no stranger to its enigmatic idiosyncrasies and contradictions, not least because he married a woman—Miriam—whose parents had fled Cuba in 1960, taking her with them as a young girl, immediately after the Revolution. She was from Guanabacoa, a sprawling and quintessentially quirky Cuban town founded in 1607 across the harbor from Habana Vieja and once a major trading center for African slaves.
DePalma first visited Cuba in 1979 with his wife (plus her grandmother) during that brief window when President Carter lifted travel restrictions to the Communist isle. The country of that time was very different to the clichéd Cuba of chic private restaurants (paladares) and elegant colonial plazas that tourists experience today… and leagues different, of course, to how things were before the Revolution turned Batista’s Cuba on its head. The late ‘70s and ‘80s of DePalma’s first visit are wistfully recalled as the “Golden Years,” when Cuba was sustained by Soviet largesse and the State was able to provide a modestly impressive standard of living for its entire populace. The collapse of the Soviet bloc plunged Cuban into economic dire straits from which, three decades later, it has yet to recover.
In The Cubans: Ordinary Lives in Extraordinary Times (Penguin Random House, 2020), DePalma—today a faculty member at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism—chooses non-touristy Guanabacoa as focal point for an evocative, empathetic and elegantly told narrative about the complexity of life in Cuba during this chronological arc. He does so by weaving together the stories of five ordinary citizens and their family members from childhood to today.
It’s a refreshing take. (Perhaps only Julia Cooke’s The Other Side of Paradise: Life in the New Cuba comes as close to so vividly telling the contemporary Cuban experience from the Cubans’ perspective.)
So it was with glee that I devoured this insightful, in-depth, intimate and unvarnished take on revolutionary Cuba told from the perspective of those who have lived a kind of Caribbean pantomime as a daily routine.
The five principle protagonists, together with their families, comprise a well-balanced cross-section of Cuban society…
- Cary, a talented black woman of Jamaican heritage and a loyal Communist educated in the Soviet Union, who rises to the position of Vice-Minister of Industry before becoming a cuentapropista (self-employed entrepreneur) and ultimately finds disillusionment with the inequities and inefficiencies of the sclerotic system to which she’s been loyal.
- Arturo Montoto, an artist, also educated in Kiev, who from frustration leaves Cuba and finds fame and financial success abroad before moving back to Cuba and Guanabacoa, where he faces frustrations anew.
- Lili, another loyal Communist and president of the Comité para la Defensa de la Revolución (the neighborhood’s revolutionary watchdog committee) who, for lack of available care for her demented father, eventually locks him in a closet until he dies.
- María del Carmen, a devoutly religious flamenco fanatic whose educational dreams falter when she refuses to renounce Christianity and who in old age sequesters herself away in her decaying home.
- And, tragically, Jorge García, who now lives in Miami, where he is dedicated to seeking justice for his son, grandson, and twelve other family members killed when, in 1994, the Cuban government purposefully sank a tugboat which they and other escapees had commandeered in an attempt to flee Cuba.
DePalma skillfully weaves their individual tales and intertwined lives to the weft of a six-decade-long timeframe, from Fidel’s “heyday, through the devastation of post-Soviet collapse, to the false dawn and retrenchment of recent years.” The sensitive narrative, which unfurls with almost fictional grace, is anchored by almost all of the important historical touchpoints—the ‘Special Period,’ the Elizan González crisis, the Obama initiatives—that have impacted upon Cubans’ lives.
The result is a poignant and colorful roving snapshot of daily life amid the protagonists’ endlessly creative and frustrating efforts to redeem their aspirations and hopes (most of them shattered by kaleidoscopic trials and travails that most Cubans share in common) as they try to navigate an ever-morphing reality. Of course, there’s one constant: an inflexible governmental apparatus that weighs heavy upon their lives, and which DePalma gives full exposure. (The added weight of the U.S. embargo is barely mentioned–and is certainly not given the weight it is due–other than as an excuse offered by revolutionary loyalists for the system’s failings.)
I’ve walked the streets of Guanabacoa many times while researching seven editions of my Moon Cuba guidebook. As I read The Cubans, in my mind’s eye I could see the Iglesia de Los Escolapios, Casa de las Cadenas, the Museo Histórico and other sites that figure prominently in the book. And, of course, I know Cuba—its societal “enigmatic idiosyncrasies”—as well as DePalma, or anyone else for that matter, from some 200 visits (many of them protracted) during the past 27 years.
DePalma’s thoroughly researched and detailed depiction is of a Cuba I know well: The frustrations and weariness, the daily lucha (struggle), the helplessness and even hopelessness in the face of an overbearing and dysfunctional government overseen by stubborn leaders and burrocrats who refuse to lighten up or reform for fear of losing control.
“Unflinchingly objective,” says Carlos Eire, the hardly objective embittered exiled author of his otherwise exquisite and heart-rending autobiography, Waiting for Snow in Havana. Other reviewers have also hailed DePalma’s book as “balanced” and “non-ideological.”
Call it Cuba sweet and sour. But mostly sour.
So sour, I grew increasingly frustrated waiting in vain for DePalma to flip the other side of the coin: The Cubans’ joyous levity in spite of their hardships… The astonishing community spirit… The music and dance… The clack of dominoes and clink of rum bottles… The kids safely playing in the streets at midnight… The refreshing lack of a consumerist culture as a counterbalance to the Cubans very real frustrations of resolviendo to replace a ceiling fan, put bread on the table, or get the rotting garbage in the street removed. (Cubans “have long been cursed by their own greatest strength—their indomitable adaptability and bottomless capacity to make do,” says the author, describing a fatalism that so frustrates anti-Castro Cuban-American exiles; to their chagrin, they can’t understand why Cubans on the island don’t rise up enmasse to overthrow the Castro regime.)
Above all, DePalma omits a nuanced and all-important analysis of pre-revolutionary Cuba: The vast poverty, illiteracy, malnutrition, homelessness, racism, and brutal injustices of the corrupt and thuggish Batista dictatorship. Without it, and without a corollary purview (rather than DePalma’s merely cursory mentions) of the very real accomplishments of the Revolution post-1959 in correcting these ills, the protagonists’ indisputable and overwhelming burdens take on a one-sided and potentially misleading disposition. (The exception is the subject of racism, where Cary’s personal story reveals the complexities of revolutionary Cuba’s claims to having eradicated racism. It hasn’t, but it sure has gone as far as any other country in the world, especially in eradicating institutionalized racism.)
“I set out not to bash the Cuban regime but to give voice to individuals whose lives have been overshadowed by… towering historical figures,” writes DePalma. Fair enough. He spent three years traveling “from one end of Cuba to the other, tracking down personal histories… Cary, Arturo, Mari, Jorge and Lili… spoke fearlessly, even when they lowered their voices and leaned in close as if someone was listening [I’ve had many of those conversations in Cuba!]. Old habits die hard. They understood the risks they were taking by laying out their thoughts so openly, yet they rarely asked me to skip anything they said because they feared reprisal.”
It’s a testament to the author’s empathetic, open-hearted affection for los cubanos that he was able to get them to openly bare their thoughts and feelings so fully. The beauty of the book is, above all, that these are the voices of individuals who opened themselves to DePalma in their simple desire to be heard.
DePalma’s The Cubans is a paean to a people resolviendo with resilience and resourcefulness, an irrepressible ingenuity, and an indefatigable good humor that, alas, is notably missing from its pages. For which reason I feel the book falls just short of a complete picture. Nonetheless, The Cubans: Ordinary Lives in Extraordinary Times offers a masterful, vivid and powerful portrayal of Cuban reality.