By Anthony DePalma
In the Author’s Note at the end of the book The Cubans – Ordinary Lives in Extraordinary Times, author Anthony DePalma mentions that he wanted to avoid ‘the holy trinity of Cuban icons – Fidel, Che, and Hemmingway’ – hoping instead to shed light on the lives of ordinary Cubans and how they survive life in Cuba.
What one comes to realize, sadly, when reading The Cubans, is that it has become hard to describe the suffering as ‘extraordinary’ anymore. Life as it is has been persistent since the revolution took hold in 1959, and can be seen in the rhetoric even today through a voice not attached to a Castro.
The extraordinary nature of these stories of life in Cuba only comes when viewed from the outside. The suffering is as ordinary in Cuban life as the system of survival, the luchando.
The Cubans – Through the Eyes of Guanabacoa
DePalma tells these stories through the eyes of Guanabacoa, a neighborhood across the port from Old Havana.
By encouraging the reader (at least this reader) to look up Guanabacoa on a map and begin to visualize the character’s long commutes across the bay by ferry or around it by bus, De Palma grows our understanding of Havana beyond the tourist photos along the Malecon and separates the sprawling city into its neighborhoods – each with its own culture and identity – much the same way you wouldn’t refer to Brooklyn as New York City.
The heartbreaking tales of decay and neglect – of people, culture, and structure – contrast with what tourists think when they show up to Havana and bask in the nostalgia of driving around in a 1950 Ford.
The old cars are there out of necessity and are held together with tape, wire, and metal scrapped from crumbling buildings or wherever else materials can be found.
Protest in Cuba – Still Rare Today
Just as I wrapped up The Cubans, protests broke out in Havana. Newspapers are commenting on how rare an event this really is, and having just finished this book, I understand this in the context of the Maleconazo uprisings in 1994.
Despite the suffering, there just haven’t been many political protests in Cuba.
Why Cubans have been subjected to this existence seems so unnecessary, yet The Revolution is so engrained in the fear culture that, much like an abusive relationship, those attached to it had a hard time letting go.
Indeed, in response to current protests, groups of government supporters – out of fear, duty, or perhaps loyalty to the revolution – apprehended protesters on their own.
The ability and necessity for the Cuban people to just get on with life, to accept things as they are is both strength and weakness.
Of course, I appreciate a book that helps me understand the world just a little bit better. As I watched videos of the current protests and the reaction by Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel, the words of this book rushing back.
Oscar, the son who wouldn’t vote (why?) or watch events on the official news channel would say, ‘Nothing is going to change.” As the Cuban President blamed America for the protests, calling them “counter-revolutionary”, it certainly seems that he was right.
Outsized Attention Of A Tiny Nation
Cuba is the largest island in the Caribbean by landmass and has a population of just over 11 million people This makes it the second most populated country to Haiti, although Haiti and the DR combine to have almost 23 million on that small chunk of land.
Yet this country, the size of Pennsylvania and population of Ohio, as it is often noted in the book, has for decades held outsized attention in American geopolitics due to its proximity to our shores and its use as a tool for Russian ambitions in the region.
People in the United States are notoriously ignorant of foreign policy and events, but we all know about Cuba.
The Cubans sheds some light on this phenomenon and also explains how Cuban people are able to separate Americans, the people, from America, the political beast.
Understanding Our Neighbor
I didn’t go out looking to learn more about Cuba despite being an avid reader of travel and cultures, a fan of life on islands. To be honest, this book was an impulse buy when I needed something in the middle of a road trip while browsing the shelves of Politics and Prose bookshop on the Wharf in Washington DC.
However, anything Caribbean-related is always going to grab my attention. Despite my own island experience, the fact that I have never been to Cuba is a bit of a sticking point in my desire to travel, especially when something so profoundly beautiful and interesting is such a short flight away.
The Cubans instantly roped me in. DePalma’s 20+ years as a journalist covering Latin America for the New York Times shines through. His experience and compassion are evident in the way he got these people to open up in such a closed society where neighborhood informants are still very real.
The adventure in Cuba is surviving every day, something no tourist will ever comprehend. The Cubans offers you a chance to understand the culture and the reality as much as an outsider can.
Articles by Anthony DePalma
How Cubans Lost Faith in Revolution – NYTimes
References in The Cubans
Here are two people referenced in The Cubans that I intend to look into further. While Arturo Montoto was a central figure in the book (so I briefly looked him up already), Leonardo Padura was only briefly mentioned as an attendee at one of Montoto’s art openings.
I always enjoy when books send me down the wormhole of local writers (Paul Theroux is the king of this), so I’ll update if I am able to find translated versions of Padura’s writing that I am able to dig into.
Arturo Montoto – Artist
Montoto: Change of Direction or Continuity? On Cuba News
Leonardo Padura – Novelist
DePalma describes Padura briefly as “one of Cuba’s most popular authors”. Some brief research revealed plenty to read. Here are some links to get you started.