Are there any other places in the world that are both seductive and mysterious? It’s hard to think of a place that is so closely linked to revolution and yet is always associated with classic American cars in pink paint. There are places where the rebellious image of Che Guevara and the wrinkles of Ral Castro mix together. Democratic countries around the world stand up for authoritarian one-party systems when they see them imprison, harass, and isolate people who aren’t like them. Preconceptions about health care, education, or culture fill in for what that closeness blurs. We think we know Cuba because it is so close to us. Those old Chevys? Under the shiny paint, there’s usually rust and a wheezy Russian engine under the hood. Some tourists like to smoke the best Cohibas and Monte Cristos as they walk along the Malecón. The friend of a friend of a friend of a friend at the factory made them out of floor scraps. He sells them for cheap. All those lilting songs from the Buena Vista Social Club that come out of Havana’s bars, restaurants, and clubs? Lures to bring back old memories and tourist tips.
People in Cuba have always told me the same thing about their lives: They say it’s hard, but it’s worth it. It’s hard. It’s hard to explain. And because of the complexity of their politics, their economy, their customs, and even their language, it can be hard to get a sense of how a tiny island with a land mass smaller than the state of Florida, the dreamland of many Cubans, came to play such a big role in world affairs for so long without actually being there. A tour that allowed Americans to visit promised to give them more than just stereotypes, but it didn’t give them much more than that. If you live in the U.S., you can’t visit Cuba, but there are ways to get a sense of this island of illusions without actually going there.
Hugh Thomas, Cuba: A History
Books about Cuba that were written by Cubans, often with poisonous anger or blind awe, need to be separated from those written by non-Cuban experts. This is because the Cuban revolution was very ideological. It’s here that the late British historian Hugh Thomas’s monumental book about Cuba shines the best. Though its size and scope can be intimidating, its more than a thousand pages show that Cuba is a major player in the world. In a brief mention, Thomas mentions that Columbus said Cuba was one of the most beautiful places on Earth. He starts his history of Cuba with the invasion and one-year occupation of Havana by the British navy in 1762, and he keeps going through the last years of the 20th century with a lot of facts about its history. When he criticizes the country’s complicated racial history, he doesn’t hold back. He also talks about the long fight for independence that led to the United States’ neo-colonial occupation of the island. When he gets to the modern era in his history, Thomas isn’t afraid to be fair when he talks about the good and bad things that happened in Cuba under the Castro regime.
Tom Gjelten, Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba
It’s important to think of modern Cuba as a whole in terms of after the Revolution, which is the main point of reference for the country. This helps put the country’s recent history into perspective. In Tom Gjelten’s book “Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba,” he shows how support for Castro and his movement turned into resistance and long-term efforts to bring back Cuba to what it was before 1960. This book by Norwegian author Gjelten shows how mysterious, angry, and betrayed post-revolutionary Cuba is through the Bacardi rum brand and the powerful family that ran the company.
Herbert L. Matthews, The Cuban Story
A book written by Herbert L. Matthews called The Cuban Story can help you understand how the United States went from being one of the first countries to recognize Castro’s government to being the enemy against which he and his successors have railed for six decades. People thought that Castro had died in a failed landing on the Cuban coast a few months earlier. Matthews was the New York Times correspondent who interviewed Fidel in February 1957. He was clearly in love with Fidel, and Matthews painted him in glowing terms that helped him get more support without hinting at the radical direction his revolution would soon take. People in Cuba love Matthews because of his coverage. People in the United States don’t like Matthews because they say he helped Castro take over. Matthews wrote The Cuban Story while he kept saying that Castro didn’t become a communist until the U.S. tried to force him to, so he kept saying that.
Carlos Eire, Waiting for Snow in Havana
How to understand why Cuba went from being a capitalist country in the western hemisphere to being a communist stronghold is to look inside the hearts and minds of the Cuban people. Carlos Eire has done that better than anyone else. His memoir, Waiting for Snow in Havana, won him the Pulitzer Prize. It reads like a novel, but it is based on facts about his dreamy childhood in a Havana neighborhood that was being changed by Castro and his ideas. Eire, who is now a history professor at Yale, talks about how his father, who thought he was a reincarnation of King Louis XVI of France, and his mother, who was sensitive and disabled, were close. They made him dream about angels even as his world was falling apart.
Mirta Ojito, Finding Mañana
Eire left Cuba in 1962 when he was 12 years old. He was one of thousands of Cuban children who were brought to the United States without their parents in a program called Pedro Pan, which took place in the 1950s. During the Revolution, many Cubans who couldn’t vote for a different political party fled the country in any way they could. In 1980, after a disturbance in Havana made him look bad, Castro opened the floodgates to get rid of people he called “scum” because they didn’t agree with his idea of what Cuba should look like. It’s Mirta Ojito’s heartbreaking story of how she was part of the mass migration out of Mariel Harbor in Cuba. She arrived in Key West on a charter boat called Maana, which was overloaded, a few days later with little more than grit and determination. There was a lot of chaos before she left for Florida. Her story is smart, passionate, and heartbreakingly honest.
Chanel Cleeton, Next Year in Havana
As a final touch, a pair of novels written by American-born women who have Cuban relatives fill in some emotional content that the non-fiction books don’t have. After reading Telex from Cuba, Rachel Kushner’s first book, she makes a convincing case for how important Americans were in Cuba before the revolution. Before the revolution, the island was mostly run by Americans. In Telex, a finalist for the National Book Award, stories about Havana intrigue and sugar plantation greed and corruption come together to make a haunting picture of Cuba on the verge of revolution. Havana was full of rebellion in Chanel Cleeton’s next book. The book also brings the story to the present day with a parallel story about a return to the capital decades later and uncovering long-hidden secrets, which makes the story even more interesting. Next Year in Havana is told from the point of view of Cubans who lived through the revolution, as well as those who fled in exile. It shows the heartbeat of Cuba.