A review by James Bloodworth for The Times of London.
Many dispatches from Cuba depict what Anthony DePalma calls a “cartoon fantasy version” of the island. We are sated with stories of glamorous barbudos— bearded revolutionaries — sweeping down from the Sierra Maestra mountains to overthrow an American-backed dictator. Either that or Cuba is presented as a medley of mojitos, classic cars and pearly white beaches.
This new exploration of contemporary Cuba avoids all that. As DePalma puts it in The Cubans, his book documenting everyday life under Fidel Castro’s fossilised revolution, “I decided the most valuable approach I could take would be to avoid the holy trinity of Cuban icons — Fidel, Che and Hemingway — and let the ordinary Cubans who are never heard from tell their own stories.”
DePalma, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, follows the lives of Cubans living in Guanabacoa, a district of Havana near the city’s marina. He is intimately familiar with Cuba and understands Cuban life better than most outsiders — he is married to a Cuban, Miriam, who left the island as a child. Rather than marinating himself in revolutionary theory, he prefers to document the reality that most Cubans live with: “broken streets, collapsing buildings, more garbage than flowers. Hot. Smelly. Noisy. Raw,” as he puts it.
DePalma’s subjects span six decades: from Fulgencio Batista’s overthrow in the late 1950s and the early days of the revolution; Sovietisation; the scarcity of the Special Period when aid from the Soviet Union ended; the rapprochement of the Obama years and the transition to a post-Castro leadership in 2018.
We meet Caridad (Cary) Luisa Limonta Ewen, a Cuban of Jamaican descent. She takes advantage of Castro’s revolution, which, to its credit, “made it possible for a poor black girl to get a degree at a foreign university”, as DePalma writes. Cary travels to Kiev to study a socialist bloc subject called economic engineering. A committed revolutionary, on her return to Cuba she impresses at the Ministry of Light Industry and is appointed to a prestigious role as vice minister. Yet disillusion sets in as a health scare opens her eyes to the inequities between party insiders, who get special privileges, and ordinary Cubans, who must make do with dilapidated hospitals and second-rate treatment.
Elsewhere we meet Arturo Montoto, an artist who was just five when Castro seized power. Over the years Arturo ekes out a modest existence as a member of the National Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba. This facilitates trips abroad and visits to prestigious arts events. Montoto survives by keeping the revolution at arm’s length while carefully adhering to Castro’s claustrophobic dictum: “Within the revolution, everything. Against it, nothing.”
There was a brief period during the Obama years when it felt as if real change might be achieved in Cuba. Restrictions on private business were relaxed and Cubans could for the first time in more than half a century register as self-employed, take out business loans from the state bank and sell houses and cars. Yet Raúl Castro’s attempt, while Fidel was incapacitated and close to death (he died aged 90 in 2016), at creating “un socialism prospero y sostenible!” (a prosperous and sustainable socialism) was short-lived, crashing up against stolid opposition from hardline Castristas as well as a new and belligerent occupant in the White House.
Thus luchando, or hustling, remains the main means of survival in today’s Cuba. Communism was supposed to create Che Guevara’s “New Man”; instead, poverty has disfigured Cuban morality so that pilfering from the state, bribing officialdom and ripping off tourists became widely accepted. The alternative is hunger. “You need to do whatever you can to survive,” an increasingly disillusioned Cary tells a younger Cuban textile worker as she tries to take advantage of Raúl Castro’s modest economic opening to start a business.
Foreign commentators often dwell on Fidel Castro’s “charisma” in explaining the longevity of the revolution. There was probably some truth to this in the early years, when he possessed what Bertrand Russell called the “divine fire”. Yet those acquainted with Cuba, as DePalma is, are acutely aware that the island’s relative stability is down to its Stasi-trained security apparatus as much as any lingering revolutionary ardour.
Ask a Cuban what they think of the regime and they will lower their voice or stroke an imaginary beard; the first Cuban I asked this question in Havana in 2006 motioned as if placing manacles over his wrists. “You say something, and then what?” one of Cary’s friends asks rhetorically. “Then the little bit you have, they take it away.”
Along with Cary and Arturo, DePalma relays the stories of Lili Durand Hernández, a friend of Cary and a regime loyalist; Maria Del Carmen Lopez, an inspector of Cuba’s fishing fleet; and Jorge Garcia, a veteran of the anti-apartheid war in Angola.
Garcia suffered a tragedy in the early hours of July 13, 1994 when he lost 14 members of his family in the deliberate sinking of the 13 de Marzo tugboat by the Cuban coastguard. That year was the revolution’s annus horribilis, when the regime seemed to totter as riots erupted in Havana and thousands of balseros(rafters) risked shark-infested waters to reach Florida. Of the 68 who boarded the 13 de Marzo, 37 died in the sinking, including several children.
Amnesty International described the incident as an “extrajudicial execution” — a warning from the dictatorship to other Cubans who hoped to flee the island. The Cuban government refused to recover the bodies, while regime-sponsored mobs besieged the homes of survivors and denounced them as “worms” and “counter-revolutionaries”.
Garcia escaped to exile in Miami in 1999 and continued his forlorn search for justice for those who died on the 13 de Marzo. His campaign recalls a haunting phrase that the Austrian-French novelist Manès Sperber used to describe fellow survivors of Europe’s wartime authoritarian regimes: “We are become the walking cemeteries of our murdered friends.”
DePalma has written a moving and rich account of a people who are often treated — by admirers of the revolution and anti-communists — as historical flotsam in a struggle between states and ideas. “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,” he writes. In avoiding this trap, DePalma’s book is overflowing with warmth and humanity — much like the Cuban people.
The Cubans: Ordinary Lives in Extraordinary Times by Anthony DePalma, Bodley Head, 352pp; £20, ebook £9.99