The Cubans

From The Wall Street Journal:

In 1976, Cary, a young Afro-Cuban woman, sailed out of Havana Harbor with 2,000 fellow students bound for the Soviet Union. They were thrilled to be going to the land that led the global communist movement, where they would earn university degrees that would help them build the Cuba of their dreams. But instead of discovering the thriving revolutionary society she’d heard about from regime officials in Cuba, Cary found herself surrounded by politically apathetic Russian classmates. They laughed at her for wanting to go to the May Day parade—the International Workers’ Day celebration. She realized: “These Russians don’t think the way we do.”

By the end of Anthony DePalma’s remarkable book “The Cubans: Ordinary Lives in Extraordinary Times,” Cary’s faith in the Cuban Revolution and the classless, race-blind system it promised has vanished. She’s gone from a rising star in the Communist Party—she returned from the Soviet Union as an economist and rose to become vice minister of light industry with her own car and driver—to a struggling business owner hunting for needles and thread. Cuba, as the author explains, permits some private businesses to operate, but restricts their growth and the accumulation of wealth. Mr. DePalma gives us an unforgettable analogy that sums up Cary’s plight. Cuba, he says, “is toying with capitalism the way a tiger plays with its prey: tapping it lightly one minute, squeezing the life out of it the next.”

Cary, who has resigned from her state post and redirected her analytical skills toward dressmaking, is one of the intrepid Cubans who opened up to Mr. DePalma, a veteran foreign correspondent, as he set out to capture “a more profound truth” about their country. The author accomplishes this by taking us behind the romantic veil that hides the day-to-day experiences of ordinary Cubans. Their voices are rarely heard, he believes, outside of Cuba and especially inside, where the government represses independent journalists and jails people who criticize it on social media.

Mr. DePalma plunges us into the lives of a diverse group of Cubans living in Guanabacoa, a 500-year-old township across the harbor from Havana. Some pray in Catholic churches. Some follow Santería. His five primary subjects are men and women in their 50s, 60s and 70s, busy with work, caring for their aging parents, and helping their grown children and young grandchildren. Lili remains a dedicated communist even after the government refuses to help her care for her dying father. His dementia and wanderings drive her to keep him in a locked closet, where he spends the last months of his life. Jorge, now 73 and living in the United States, still fights for justice for the 14 members of his family who drowned in 1994 when they tried to escape Cuba on a tugboat: Witnesses said the Cuban government rammed and sank the boat. Cuba denied any responsibility, but Amnesty International’s investigation, in 1997, concluded that the 37 men, women and children who died were “victims of extrajudicial execution.”

Younger family members become part of the narrative, offering their own stories as the elders share theirs with an astounding—maybe even dangerous—level of candor. Mr. DePalma walks with them through Guanabacoa, sits in their kitchens and workshops, and shows us what he calls “the gritty 3-D reality most Cubans live with—broken streets, collapsing buildings, more garbage than flowers. Hot. Smelly. Noisy. Raw.” As we learn about the Cubans’ triumphs and failures over the six decades since the revolution, Mr. DePalma weaves in the major events in Cuba’s history—from the wars of independence with Spain in the 1800s, to the recent ascent of Miguel Díaz-Canel to the presidency. One Cuban describes Mr. Díaz-Canel—the first non-Castro to lead post-revolutionary Cuba—with a popular expression: same dog, different collar.

. . . .

Some of the most harrowing stories take place during the so-called special period of the ’90s, when the Soviet Union fell and its subsidies to Cuba vanished. Cubans’ struggle for food and consumer goods went from difficult to desperate. They were forced to shred blankets, season and fry the material, and stuff it into bread for sandwiches. They pilfered industrial chemicals from factories and concocted household soaps and detergents. Women made hair dye with the black paste inside batteries. 

. . . .

The neighborhood committees that the Castro government installed on almost every block in 1960 still serve as the government’s watchdogs. Denunciations are a permanent threat, since many Cubans, in order to survive, end up breaking laws restricting private sales. And finding allies can’t be easy when, Mr. DePalma writes, “everybody in Cuba, at one time or another, suspected nearly everyone else of being an informer.”

But the biggest obstacle for would-be protesters might be time. The daily quest for food and basic supplies—from eggs to bedsheets—seems to demand every ounce of the families’ energy and creativity. Mr. DePalma believes that Cubans are “cursed by their own greatest strength—their indomitable adaptability.” Their inventive resilience has a downside. And it may be why Cuba is embargo-proof: “People who can turn a plastic soda bottle into a gas tank for a motorcycle . . . see the world differently from other more conventional societies.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Sorry, PG hasn’t figured out a way around the paywall)