Cuba might be world-famous for its rum and cigars, but is also known as a country that has dared to march to the beat of its own drum. Some might be keen to point out that the only drummers around in Cuba over the last 70 years have been the Castros, their dictatorship being a far cry away from any socialist utopia they might have promised. Others would counteract such criticism by launching into an impassioned enumeration of Cuba’s many accomplishments, such as their education and healthcare, wagging an angry finger at the US and its embargo as the source of all misery. The books reviewed below provide some interesting background reading for anyone trying to judge the weight of such widely differing narratives and will give texture to any debate about Cuba’s past and future.
Breathe: Stories from Cuba (2016) by Leila Segal is a set of fictional short stories relaying the realities of various Cubans through their interactions with foreigners. The book zooms in on ordinary Cubans’ daily struggles and victories, resulting in an intimate and uncompromising exploration of what it means to be Cuban in the early 21st century, and how this is perceived, and often misconstrued by those from abroad.
Each story displays a clash of values and worldviews, the Cuban and the foreigner always struggling to meet in harmony without either side being portrayed as wholly infallible. The eyes of western tourists tend to overemphasise and blindly celebrate Cubans’ zest for life, their extroversion and sensuality, and laud the Cuban art of resolver – of making do and muddling through within material constraints. Segal doesn’t allow neither the foreign protagonists nor the reader to romanticise these characteristics however and forces us to acknowledge the other, bleaker side of the coin. By underlining the simple and often poor conditions in which Cubans have lived and still often live today, she stresses that happiness does not equate to a lack of hardship and the worries that come with it.
Segal’s poetic writing engages all of the reader’s senses, evoking the smells, sounds and vivid images that are bound to impress any visitor to the Cuban island.
Cuba: a revolution in motion (2004) by Isaac Saney is a non-fiction book about Cuba’s recent history, each chapter investigating a different topic: governance, race, crime and the criminal justice system, and U.S.-Cuban relations. The chief aim of Saney’s work is to encourage readers to situate Cuba’s development in its wider context when trying to understand the choices the country has made.
While aiming to provide an objective, evidence-based account of events, Saney’s depiction ends up being mostly sympathetic to the Castros’ course of action. The author emphasises the accomplishments Cuba has achieved in the face of continuous adversity, and most interestingly, calls into question the widely held view of Cuba as undemocratic by outlining its governance structure built around popular participation at all levels.
Saney’s book makes for a thoroughly interesting read that strays from the more commonly negative descriptions of the Castros and the system they built by focusing on parts of the puzzle often ignored. It is worth pointing out, as many critics have, that the lack of recourse to primary sources arguably undermines the depth of Saney’s analysis. Nonetheless his work fulfils its promise of showing how the Cuban revolution is still in motion, the socialist project being refined and amended in line with modern ideas, and realisations.
In The other side of paradise (2014), journalist Julia Cooke uses her experience of residing in Havana to paint a vivid portrait of life in the Cuban capital today. Each chapter focuses on one of the Cubans she got to know during her time in the city, all belonging to the last generation of Cubans growing up under Fidel Castro’s reign. We thus meet a host of characters spanning Cuban society, whose realities are presented to us in raw, intimate detail and with all of their complexities. Interspersed with historic facts and cultural insights, their stories are weaved together to create a sense of the restlessness and uncertainty that pervades life in Havana. The reader is left contemplating the future of a country on the cusp of change, wondering how and when it will come, and what a ‘new’ Cuba might look like.