A glimpse of Cuba, beyond tourist sites and faded heroes

By Anthony DePalma, Viking, 352 pages, $28

Finding three meals a day in Cuba is often a punishing challenge. But when the largest island in the Caribbean gets whacked by a hurricane or a pandemic, Cuba is can-do: The country’s typically lethargic Communist Party leaders leap into action efficiently and ruthlessly. When the coronavirus became an inescapable threat in Havana in March, the government shut the island down. Those who refused to wear a mask in public were fined heavily or sentenced to jail, charged with “spreading an epidemic.”

An army of nurses was dispatched, clipboards in hand, to go door to door to look in on all residents. Shuttering the country’s tourism-based economy (CoViD-19 risk remains high in Cuba) has not prevented mass suffering: Cuba has had over 3,000 confirmed cases and about 88 deaths, but it has braked a full-scale epidemic.

Door-to-door drills in Cuba have been in place since 1981, when the country was slammed by dengue fever. The following year, Decree-Law 54 was drafted to combat HIV/AIDS, granting the state full authority to separate infected Cubans from society. In 1986, the government did just that; compelling those afflicted, mostly young gay men, to live in sanitariums. There was withering criticism from human rights groups, but the quarantine stemmed the spread of HIV. With a population of 11.5 million, Cuba has recorded among the lowest numbers of per capita AIDS deaths in the world. The trade-off is clear: For the most part, Cubans survive the worst that nature offers up, but in return they are forced to endure an even tighter rein on their limited freedoms. Anyone questioning the equation can look 40 miles east to Haiti, where HIV/AIDS cases are the highest in the region.

That about sums up the good news and the bad news from the troubled island nation, 90 miles from Key West, Florida, that Anthony DePalma deftly delivers in his new book, The Cubans. DePalma tells his tale through five ordinary Cubans in the off-the-tourist-track, potholed barrio of Guanabacoa. Think of this book as an anti-Fidel corrective to the scores of volumes fixated on the ruler-for-life-force-of-nature-movie-star dictator, who passed away in 2016.

If you have visited Cuba, no doubt you saw a lot of Havana and the silk-white beaches of Varadero, and perhaps the prehistoric mogotes of Pinar del Rio and the colonial seaport of Trinidad on the southern belly of the island. Chances are slim that you made it to Guanabacoa — unless you mistakenly jumped aboard an overstuffed ferry in Old Havana and crossed the harbor to this township of about 120,000 people. “Guanabacoa is the gritty 3D reality most Cubans live with,” DePalma writes, with the eye and ear of a seasoned former New York Times foreign correspondent. “Hot. Smelly. Noisy. Raw.” Here you find the teeming world of daily survival: inventando — as DePalma puts it, “the process of finding raw materials, but ... what it often came down to was stealing” — and resolviendo, finding a solution or whatever it takes to survive. That might mean, for instance, making a gas tank out of a plastic soda bottle, or an antenna out of a hanger. If you’re sick of Fidelismo histories of Cuba’s interminable revolution and simply want to slip into the extraordinary lives of ordinary Cubans, this book is for you.

One of Havana’s 15 municipalities, Guanabacoa is a hilly, 500-year-old enclave. Residents are more likely to offer up a throaty “Wanna-ba-COE-ah,” not Havana, to describe their home, in the same way that Staten Island, not New York, is home to those who ferry across the harbor. It’s a place where one can take a deep dive into Santeria religious rituals or visit one of its two Jewish cemeteries or myriad churches. But it’s not on anyone’s bucket list.

DePalma delves into the lives of five disparate souls to narrate his everyman tale. There’s Arturo Montoto, who attended Havana’s prestigious art school, studied in Moscow, and lived in Mexico before settling in Guanabacoa, where he found unimaginable barriers to making his acclaimed art pieces — not to mention making dinner. Maria Lopez Alvarez refused to embrace state-mandated atheism, which derailed her career in the sciences but led to a marriage with another closeted Catholic and to a passion for Spanish dance. Fidelista firebrand Lili Durand Hernandez reads “Presidente” of the local Committee for the Defense of the Revolution, Cuba’s network of watch groups, also viewed as snitch societies. She was quick to say, “I am a revolutionary communist,” with an ardor matched only by her son’s contempt for the party.

Lili’s good friend Caridad “Cary” Limonata is the heroic heart of DePalma’s book and its most compelling storyteller. With her mahogany-hued skin, Cary was a beneficiary of the revolution’s much-improved race relations; she had been a stalwart Fidelista, a Russian-trained engineer who rose to a vice minister’s post. In March 2016, she was among those who met President Barack Obama during his historic trip to Havana — a visit that augured reconciliation between the two countries, albeit briefly. Some Habaneros even hailed the former president as “Santo Obama,” in part because he looked — at least, to many — like one of them. But by then, Cary had grown utterly disillusioned with the revolution, had left the party, and had become a clothing entrepreneur, hoping her son would take over her business. Instead, in 2018, he wrangled a passport by leveraging the family’s Jamaican heritage and left for La Yuma (Cuban slang for the United States, drawn from the title of an American Western movie). Around the same time, Cary’s twin sister and children left Cuba, becoming part of a diaspora of 1.5 million.

Finally, there is Jorge Garcia, whose life is dedicated to memorializing 37 people lost at sea when they tried to flee the island in July 1994 on an aging tugboat called the 13 de Marzo. Packed with 68 Cubans seeking to cross the Florida straits, the craft was repeatedly rammed by government vessels until it split in two, tossing its passengers into the Atlantic. Garcia’s son, grandson, and 12 other members of his family were among the dead. Three weeks later, on Aug. 5, the island was rocked by El Maleconazo — an unprecedented protest by thousands who rushed the shoreline boulevard of Havana hoping for boats to take them north. By the end of 1994, some 35,000 Cubans had fled on ferries, tugs, and rafts made of truck tires, known as gomas. It was the largest exodus of Cubans since the Mariel boatlift in 1980 brought 125,000 to U.S. shores. Eventually, Garcia would make it to Miami with his wife and daughter, who had barely survived the sinking of the tug.

It’s a fair assumption that whatever scarcities of food and medicine prevail in Havana, matters are worse in Guanabacoa. Yet, a much-prophesized uprising against the party’s leadership has never materialized, despite the efforts of several U.S. presidents to dislodge the Castros’ 60-year grip on power. Cubans have long been “cursed by their own greatest strength — their indomitable adaptability and bottomless capacity to make do,” DePalma writes. “The idea of making conditions on the island so intolerable that the people will rise up and crush the Castro regime ignores the Cubans’ innate ability to find a way to survive.” More tellingly, DePalma observes, Cuba revels in “the pretensions of a big country on a small island, a nation always playing a much bigger role than it had any right to play.” That about says it all. 

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