First reviews in the UK are in, and the verdict is: "vibrant and hugely enjoyable.."
The Telegraph (five star review)
By Mick Brown 05 Jul 2020 10:00:00
Cuba. Beautiful, tragic, crazy Cuba. “An impossible country”, as Anthony DePalma puts it in this vibrant and hugely enjoyable book, which has exerted a significance on the global stage, and in the popular imagination, wildly disproportionate to its size. A mere 90 miles separates Cuba from the tip of Florida, but for more than 60 years, since Fidel Castro toppled the US-backed dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, it might as well be 9,000 miles.
It is Americans who would be the biggest consumers of its sugar, its cigars and its rum, if decades of absurd embargo, mutual suspicion and ideological entrenchment did not prevent it. As it is, almost 60 years under the dynastic rule of Fidel, then his brother Raul, has left Cuba with what DePalma calls a “mash-up” economy – socialist central control of everything, with half a million would-be entrepreneurs struggling to run their businesses without a wholesale market, with two different currencies, and muddled policies that change every month. The government blames America for every failed programme, food shortage or blackout, and brands Cubans in the US as worms and traitors, yet it runs an economy largely kept afloat by the billions of dollars sent back by Cuban exiles.
DePalma, a former Latin America correspondent for The New York Times, tells his story of Cuba, from the revolution to the present, through the lives and fluctuating fortunes of the people of Guanabacoa, a scruffy, working-class neighbourhood across the bay from Havana. Dozens of people throng the pages – despairing, hopeful, resourceful, venal, blessed and cursed – but two in particular stand out.
The first is Jorge, who as president of the Doberman Club of Havana, went without food in order to feed his beloved dogs, and as a young man eked a living selling bootleg cassettes of banned albums by the Beatles and José Feliciano. In 1970 he was sent to work in the sugar fields, delivering Castro’s “ten-million-ton harvest” (which produced 8.5 million tons); in the 1980s he was sent to Angola with the Cuban army, to further the cause of revolution.
The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990 had dire repercussions for Cuba. Sugar exports fell by 80 per cent, and the economy imploded. Castro talked of a “special period” – a euphemism for years of acute shortages, testing to breaking point what DePalma describes as the famous Cuban trait of “putting up with anything to the limits of what a sane person could endure”.
Tens of thousands of Cubans attempted to make the short but perilous crossing to Florida by any means possible. In July 1994, Jorge helped to organise an escape bid for 68 men, women and children on an old tug boat. Among them were his son, daughter and grandson. Jorge stayed behind because his wife was too weak to undertake the journey.
Leaving Havana under cover of darkness, the boat was pursued and rammed by a government tug and sunk at the cost of 37 lives, those of Jorge’s son and grandson among them. The government said “anti-social elements” had stolen the tug in “an irresponsible act of piracy”, it had capsized, and the survivors had been rescued “heroically” by the Cuban Coast Guard. Those same survivors were pressured into corroborating the government account. Only when Jorge’s daughter talked to a foreign correspondent did the true story emerge, sparking international condemnation.
Eventually, Jorge left Cuba for Miami to make a new life, but, “awed” at the ease with which he was able to acquire a credit card, he fell into debt, then bankruptcy, working menial jobs while writing a book about the sinking, and petitioning for the Cuban government to be prosecuted for crimes against humanity.
Then there is Cary, the granddaughter of a Jamaican immigrant, who dreamt of being an artist but followed a more pragmatic path, winning a place at a Russian university to study “economic engineering” in the 1970s. Back in Havana, she was given a job in the textile industry and, fired with revolutionary zeal, joined the Communist Party.
But doubts soon crept in. She was asked to sign a petition for the execution of General Arnaldo Ochoa, a rival to Castro, on trumped-up charges of drug smuggling and treason. “She wanted the party to see that she had been loyal,” DePalma writes, “but there was nothing about the execution that made sense to her.” Cary only signed after a friend pointed out that Ochoa would be executed whether she signed or not: “Don’t look for problems for yourself in the future.”
Overcoming the innate racism and sexism that permeates Cuban society, Cary rose to be manager of a factory making pots and pans, then was put in charge of a state-run company with 26 textile plants and a workforce of 2,500. Eventually she became a minor minister, but the further she advanced under the graces of the party, the more disillusioned she became, culminating in the moment when she was admitted to hospital and given a private room with a television reserved for party officials.
Unable to live with the hypocrisy, Cary resigned from the party, sacrificing her state salary and privileges. With her mother’s old sewing machine, she started a business making household linens, scraping a living within the narrow margins of entrepreneurialism allowed by the government. Her son departed for America. The revolution, she concludes, “is lost”.
DePalma is a terrific reporter, with a novelist’s eye for detail. He uses the extraordinary trust he has gained from his subjects to paint a vivid, deeply sympathetic picture of Cuban life, and the quiet fortitude of its people, faced with the daily round of food shortages, power cuts and limitations, great and small, on freedom. Much has changed in Cuba in 50 years, not least the marginal relaxation of total state control. People are now able to run their own businesses, but they are tied up with so many restrictions that the freedom to do so becomes meaningless, obliging almost everyone to resort to hustling – luchando – and cheating the system to survive.
Nor can Cuba look abroad for foreign aid as it once did. First it was Russia, then Venezuela. Now, to borrow Margaret Thatcher’s phrase, Cuba has “run out of other people’s money”. Miguel Díaz-Canel, who in 2018 was elected – unopposed – to take over from Raúl Castro, shows no sign of deviating from the path that has kept Cuba in penury.
This book’s underlying theme is the betrayal, of an ideal: how a noble promise of equality for all became privilege for the few at the expense of the many. But also how the dignity of the Cuban people has prevailed in the worst of times – always hoping, fruitlessly, for the best.
The Cubans by Anthony DePalma is published by Bodley Head at £20. To order your copy for £16.99, visit Telegraph Books