A review by Marie Arana for The New York Times.
Our thanks to Peter Jordens for bringing this item to our attention.
Ordinary Lives in Extraordinary Times
By Anthony DePalma
Almost exactly 40 years ago, in the spring of 1980 — even as cherry blossoms swept down the streets of Washington, D.C., the Iran hostage crisis crept toward a halfway mark and the World Health Organization announced the global eradication of smallpox — a flotilla of boats, creaking under the weight of a desperate humanity, began making the 100-mile journey from Cuba to Key West. By the end of that summer, the Mariel boatlift would bring 125,000 people to America: more than 1 percent of the total population of Cuba at the time and almost 20 percent of all Cuban migration since the Castro revolution. In motorboats, barges, yachts, cargo ships and shrimp boats, defying storms and a scorching sun, they streamed into the receiving halls of the Florida Keys, where United States government fliers welcomed them to a land of “full liberty” and “the chance for rebirth.”
By October of that year, when President Jimmy Carter, facing a difficult re-election bid and beleaguered by a struggling economy, put a stop to the incoming hordes he called “Freedom Flotillas,” the damage had been done. Carter was seen as too soft on immigration, even among the staunchly anti-Castro Cuban population of Miami. By then, an overwhelmingly liberal Florida had begun its gradual shift to the Republican Party. A month later, Ronald Reagan won the presidential election.
Who knows what share of America’s growing conservatism was spurred by Carter’s instinct to throw open the gates and welcome that flood of dissidents? Who knows what fears were struck in American hearts when Castro called the fleeing masses “scum,” “criminals,” “gusanos” (worms)? But one thing we do know: Cuba has always had a firm grip on the American imagination. More than Mexico, which quietly sent nearly a million and a half Mexicans north between 1970 and 1980; more than Puerto Rico or the Dominican Republic or all the Spanish-speaking world, for that matter, whose kin now make up nearly one-fifth of this country’s residents, it is Cuba that obsesses Washington politicians, stirs liberal hearts, shapes hemispheric policy and looms large in presidents’ minds. As Wayne Smith, a former Foreign Service officer who served in Havana, once said, “Cuba seems to have the same effect on American administrations as the full moon has on werewolves.” And yet, for all the romance of Cuba’s history, for all its pluck and poetry, it is a nation the size of Pennsylvania, with a population roughly equivalent to Ohio’s.
As Anthony DePalma, the perceptive and keenly observant author of “The Cubans,” puts it, Cuba may be tiny, “but it has had an impact on the world far out of proportion to its modest size. For generations, the world’s attention has focused on Fidel and Raúl as if they ruled a superpower. Revolutionary Cuba produced so many outsize characters like Che Guevara, so many terrible events like the Bay of Pigs invasion and the missile crisis that nearly triggered a nuclear holocaust, that it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking about huge events like revolutions on a grand scale and forgetting that real people are involved, that what happens on history-changing levels seeps down to local streets and utterly transforms” the lives of ordinary citizens.
In his thoroughly researched and reported book, replete with human detail and probing insight, DePalma, a former foreign correspondent for The New York Times, renders a Cuba few tourists will ever see. He burrows deep into one enclave of Havana, the historic borough of Guanabacoa, some three miles southeast of the capital. “Lying across the famous harbor from the city center, Guanabacoa is close enough to have ties to Havana’s businesses, politics and culture,” he writes. “Yet it operates at its own speed, with its own idiosyncrasies and an overriding sense, as one Cuban told me, of ‘geographic fatalism’ that comes from being so close to the capital, yet so very hard to reach from there.”
Famous for its Santería and Indigenous history, with grand 18th-century mansions now gone to ruin, Guanabacoa is home to the diverse and colorful individuals who populate this book. At the heart of its tightly braided narrative is Caridad Limonta, whose complicated story we trace from a childhood of abject poverty to her engineering studies in Kyiv and, finally, to a triumphant rise to the post of Cuba’s vice minister of light industry, one of few Afro-Cuban women in that lofty realm. A fierce revolutionary dedicated to the communist vision, she passes from euphoria to disillusionment, given the racism and machismo she finds along her way. Finally, she comes to the gnawing recognition that hers is a life of unimaginable privilege (the coveted apartment, the superior medical attention, the special favors, the car and chauffeur). Suffering from a failing heart, Caridad removes herself from her exalted position and reinvents herself as a seamstress.
There is Arturo Montoto, a Moscow-trained artist, whose trajectory from nowhere to internationally known painter confirms the Cuban lesson that if you become famous beyond your borders, you become untouchable — can do what you like, live well. Or Jorge García, a veteran of the Angolan wars, who, in the course of one starless night, lost all faith in the system. It was during 1994, the nadir for Cuba’s struggling economy, that 14 members of Jorge’s family stole out of Havana’s harbor in the night in a tugboat named the 13 de Marzo. As they frantically tried to escape toward Florida, their rickety vessel was rammed and sunk by the Cuban Coast Guard, killing more than half the passengers. The episode provoked fury around the globe.
And then there is the hard-working, no-nonsense hospital worker Lili Durand Hernández, who has no other recourse in lean times than to lock her demented father in a closet and muck it out every morning as if he were a caged beast. If this sounds like something out of Charles Dickens or Victor Hugo, it is because it is. During what Castro called “the special period,” after the Soviet Union collapsed, the United States imposed a punishing trade embargo and Cuba was abandoned to rampant shortages and deprivation; the people of Guanabacoa did what all Cubans had to do to survive: fry up banana peels to dull hunger, grind a few dried peas to brew “coffee,” scrounge a scrap of gristle from a slaughterhouse and roam the streets, luchando — Cuban for stealing, cheating, hustling or subverting the system.
If DePalma’s book differs from the work of Dickens and Hugo, it is in that it isn’t meant to be literature. Although his is an admirable feat of journalism, a remarkably revealing glimpse into the world of a muzzled yet irrepressibly ebullient neighbor, a reader looking for delightfully original turns of phrase is not likely to find them here. This is not Katherine Boo’s eloquent portrait of India, “Behind the Beautiful Forevers,” nor is it Bruce Chatwin’s bracing chronicle “In Patagonia,” a work that transports you through its prose as much as through time or geography. All the same, you won’t forget these people soon, and you are bound to emerge from DePalma’s bighearted account with a deeper understanding of a storied island. Devoid of bias or facile judgments, “The Cubans” is filled with a simple human tenderness that is rare in these politically charged times.