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"A welcome antidote..."

     So far, the reaction to The Cubans in the UK has been quite positive. It has been reviewed by The Times of London, The Telegraph and, most recently, the Financial Times, which called it "a welcome antidote to the spell of tropical lyricism that Havana casts over so many visitors."

Here is the review by the great John Rathbone.

The Cubans — life in a world of lost charisma

Financial Times July 28, 2020

Elisa García screamed so loudly when she learnt that her son, grandchild and son-in-law had drowned that her husband Jorge took her to the roof of their house to hide her distress from their neighbours. The state security official who had brought the news meanwhile slipped out the front door.

The sinking of the 13 de Marzo tugboat in July 1994, which left 37 of its 68 passengers dead, almost reshaped Cuban history. Commandeered by Cubans desperate to leave the island amid the economic crisis after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the boat was rammed and sunk by Cuban coastguard cutters seven miles offshore.

Reading news reports in London at the time, I vividly remember the rising political temperature of that hot summer. The unrest culminated in riots where Cubans yelled for the end of the regime and were only quietened after Fidel Castro waded into the crowd.

The ensuing sense of futility is a central sadness of the lives knitted together in this otherwise often joyful book

The sinking of the 13 de Marzo also forms a central moment in The Cubans, Anthony DePalma’s perceptive portrait of the lives of ordinary citizens, their hopes and inevitable disillusionment after 60 years of revolution.

DePalma, a New York Times correspondent, first went to Cuba in 1979 and has gone back often ever since (unlike his wife, an exile, who was so saddened after one trip that she could not bear to visit again). The result of his clear-eyed affection for this midsized communist island — with its “ego the size of a continent” and courageous people living with “an excess of prohibitions and a minimum of inhibitions” — is a deeply reported if somewhat rambling account of Cuba’s bittersweet realities. He has a deep feeling for the place and I suspect the project was hatched before Donald Trump dashed hopes of US détente and, with that, the waves of American tourists who might have visited and found through DePalma’s book a deeper understanding of the Cubans buzzing around them.

Guanabacoa, a gritty working-class neighbourhood across the bay from colonial Havana, is where the life stories unfold. It is the “real Cuba” that DePalma stresses. As such, it is also a welcome antidote to the spell of tropical lyricism that Havana casts over so many visitors.

There is Jorge, who is hounded by the state after he investigates the government’s cover-up of its role in the 13 de Marzo sinking, escapes to Florida and spends the rest of his life denouncing the regime. There is also Lili, a faithful revolutionary, and Arturo, an artist who finds success abroad but returns to Guanabacoa when he discovers that he cannot live or paint without Cuba’s tropical light. DePalma leaves it to the reader to draw their own political conclusions.

The most illuminating story belongs to Cary, a ferociously spirited woman with a life that traces an archetypal arc. An Afro-Cuban born to an illiterate mother, Cary benefits from everything the revolution offered. She is educated in Kyiv, becomes a factory manager in Cuba, then provincial commissar, and has a free pacemaker installed when her heart threatens to give out. She is a committed revolutionary, yet when her career culminates with the position of vice-minister for light industry, disenchantment soon follows. Appalled by the two-tier society of supposedly egalitarian socialism and disgusted by the machismo and racism of her apparatchik colleagues, Cary resigns and reinvents herself as an entrepreneur.

Her success is mixed. But how could it be otherwise? For all its talk of economic reform, the communist regime, DePalma writes, toys with capitalism “the way a tiger plays with its prey”. The halfhearted nature of these reforms also undermines constituencies abroad who seek a relaxation of the hardline US policies reinstated by Trump.

The ensuing sense of futility is a central sadness of Cary’s life and of all the other lives knitted together in this otherwise often joyful book. “Nothing’s going to change,” was the weary response in Guanabacoa when Miguel Díaz-Canel, a bureaucrat, took up the Cuban presidency in a carefully staged transition from Castro rule in 2019. Even the rest of the world’s prolonged romance with Cuba, no longer the charismatic symbol it once was, has waned.


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