Anthony DePalma, The Cubans: Ordinary Lives in Extraordinary Times. Viking, 2020.
Price: $28.00 | Length: 347 pages
For a number of decades, Anthony DePalma was a reporter covering Latin America for The New York Times. In The Cubans: Ordinary Lives in Extraordinary Times, he provides a look into Cuba, his wife’s birthplace and a country long under the thumb of a dictatorial system constructed around the personality of former Prime Minister Fidel Castro. DePalma focuses on a narrow slice of Havana—the Guanabacoa neighborhood and a number of its families. In doing so, he has created an excellent read about the lives of “ordinary” citizens, looking through the lens of a number of non-political peoples’ perspectives on their country and its path since 1959.
DePalma frames his story through the country’s omnipresent hand of the revolution and state, which has created a stagnating society where much of the younger generation seek to leave in order to find better opportunities abroad. Indeed, most Cubans, who do not live within the charmed circles of the Communist Party, find their life choices to be more limited. As the author notes of one of the story’s main characters, “For their entire lives, Cory and the others had no choice but to be minor characters in Cuba’s never-ending passion play, forced to take one of the only three paths the revolution has left open to them: they could join the masses and comply with the Castros’ dictatorship whether or not they believed in it. They could take the heroic path and resist, accepting that was suicide. Or they could flee.”
For those seeking to flee, the risk is high. One person DePalma follows was a survivor of the July 13, 1994 sinking of the 13 de Marzo tugboat. The ship held over 30 men, women, and children who were seeking to escape from Cuba. Most of them were drowned when the boat was rammed by Cuban naval ships, seeking to stop their departure and send a message to other Cubans thinking of trying to leave the island.
Despite the challenging nature of Cuban society, DePalma looks to the enduring strength of the Cuban character as his subjects weigh their options. Even for those who initially believed in the revolution, and benefited from it through sponsored foreign education in fellow Communist countries, superior access to healthcare, housing, and social standing, the endless grind of the Cuban government’s economic policy failures eventually eroded their faith. The Special Period, which followed the end of the Soviet Union—Cuba’s major aid donor during the Cold War—and dominated life through most of the 1990s, did much to disillusion their belief in the Communist Party and the institutions through which it ran the economy and society.
DePalma notes that for those who remained in what became an “impossible country,” life has been conditioned by a society that has been “on what amounts to war footing for three generations now.” In this he captures one of the major contradictions facing Cuba, “The regime has used the perpetual threat of American intervention as cover for every misstep, failed program, food shortage, or power blackout over the last six decades, but it also depends on the billions of American dollars that exiles send back to keep Cuba afloat.”
While the Cuban government’s propaganda depicts the United States as a hellhole of drug addiction, mass murder, and shallow consumerism, most Cubans are aware of the egalitarian façade of Communist rule and compare their challenging lives to those of their relatives in the U.S., Spain, or elsewhere in Latin America. Perhaps most revealing was the visit of President Barack Obama to Cuba in 2017. In the eyes of many Cubans, the contrast could not have starker: a young, engaging, Black U.S. president dealing with the two white, aging Castro brothers. President Obama’s engagement of the Cuban people upended elements of the regime’s propaganda.
DePalma also charts the departure of former Prime Minister Fidel Castro from the scene and the formal transition of power from Raúl to Migeil Díaz-Canel in 2019 as well as the writing of a new constitution. Both were heralded by the government as major steps forward, but many of the same people remained in power and there were no substantial changes in how the island was governed. Simply stated, the absence of a Castro at the government’s helm has not amounted to any major changes in people’s day-to-day lives. As DePalma writes, “What concerned her far more than a new president who acted the same way as the old one, or a revised constitution that offered no more rights than the one it replaced, was the survival of deeply personal traditions that linked her to the Cuba of fine manners and noble intentions that still existed in her memory.”
DePalma leaves the reader with a more hopeful note, constructed around the Cuban character. While he notes that Cubans face enormous challenges due to the government’s economic policy failures and U.S. economic sanctions—which intensified during the Trump administration—he points to people’s “indomitable adaptability and their bottomless capacity to make do.” He argues that this strength has allowed ordinary Cubans to endure decades of bad government, but that it has also become a weakness in that they will not rise up to overthrow the rule of a privileged minority.
Part of the Cuban adaptability is evident in the development of a proto-private sector, small businesses allowed by the government to provide services that the state does not provide. Indeed, many Cubans would prefer to work for themselves instead of for a failing state. There is frustration over the government’s inconsistent approach to the development of a viable private sector. Moreover, many in the government are highly suspicious of the private sector and see it as a threat to their privileged position in the economy.
Despite all of the difficult challenges facing ordinary Cubans, DePalma demonstrates that there remains a deeply rooted sense of patriotism.
The Cubans: Ordinary Lives in Extraordinary Times provides a penetrating look into the day-to-day lives of Cubans, that is refreshingly removed from the commanding heights of policymakers and geopolitical considerations. In many regards it reads much like a novel, leaving the reader eager to turn the page to see what happens next to the people at the heart of a deep dive into the life of ordinary Cubans. With Cuba shaping up to be a major policy issue for the Biden administration, The Cubans: Ordinary Lives in Extraordinary Times is strongly recommended for a nuanced perspective that reminds us not to forget the lives on the other side.
Scott B. MacDonald is the Chief Economist for Smith’s Research & Gradings, Senior Associate at the Center for Strategic & International Studies and a Research Fellow at Global Americans. He is currently working on a book on the new Cold War in the Caribbean.
If you would like to recommend a book for review, please reach out to Global Americans editor, Benjamin Henderson at: firstname.lastname@example.org.