Capitalism, God and a Good Cigar
Cuba Enters the 21st Century
Edited by Lydia Chávez, with photographs by Mimi Chakarova
DUKE UNIVERSITY PRESS; 253 PAGES; $21.95 PAPERBACK
Cuba, as seen by Cubans
Insights leave ideology and nostalgia behind
Reviewed by Joshua Jelly-Schapiro
Sunday, July 24, 2005
As journalist and author Alma Guillermoprieto has written, "[I]t seems to be part of Cuba's destiny to exist in the imagination of the world, to be always a dream and a desire." For those rightist exiles who recall so fondly a mythic isle of palm fronds and mojitos pillaged by a demonic despot, Cuba will always exist as a nostalgic dream of what might be again. To those on the left, particularly in the Americas, Cuba will always represent the quixotic tragedy of a Creole people of the New World, thrown together on an island in the Caribbean and dominated from without for centuries, searching for an autonomous selfhood.
Through the ecstasies and disappointments of that search, Cuba remains to many a great parable of the 20th century, one of decolonization and of the Americas. That narrative, however, just like the one about the tyranny of Castro, is very much about the nation as a singular, almost mythic entity and not about Cuba as a collection of individual human beings. It is a story about the quest for identity in which the identities of the people in question are rarely considered.
What often gets neglected is what Cuba means to Cuba and to Cubans -- of how the Cubans perceive themselves, their nation and their present situation. For reasons ranging from state censorship to the paper shortage of the post-Soviet period to the lack of foreign translation, few voices from the island have reached readers and cultural consumers abroad. With the notable exceptions of a few remarkably candid films of recent years and a handful of international music stars, the regrettable irony is that this nation that takes such pride in making its voice heard internationally has allowed so few of its citizens to speak for themselves.
It is for this reason in particular that "Capitalism, God and a Good Cigar" is such a welcome and noteworthy addition to the voluminous bibliography of the island. Edited by Lydia Chávez, a professor at UC Berkeley's School of Journalism, and accented by beautifully evocative photographs by Mimi Chakarova of this most photogenic of lands, the book is a collection of first-person investigations into a terrifically wide array of social strata on the island and in its diaspora. The earnest essays included - - many penned by Chávez's former students -- vary in quality, but all share the virtue of putting individual Cubans at the center of the story, in letting the voices, stories and lives of their subjects determine their content and conclusions.
Chávez's book is filled with stories of both heartbreak and triumph. As any honest book about Cuba must, it includes stories of the most reactionary and inexplicable repression, such as Havana students' fear of lengthy jail sentences for the "crime" of clandestinely logging onto the Internet. And it includes the stories of talented dissident writers such as Antón Arrufat, Raúl Rivero Castañeda and Heberto Padilla, all of whom were forced to deal with the state's threats of censorship and have suffered distinct but equally devastating consequences.
Yet as anyone who has spent time in Cuba knows, the country always defies easy definition. In a chapter on Havana's exploding hip-hop scene, we get a vibrant portrait of state-supported young artists not only spouting national pride but criticizing a racist state police. The book also includes scenes in which the socialist dream seems very much a reality. One chapter focuses on a successful tobacco cooperative in pastoral Pinar del Rio populated by convivial cigar-rollers who manage their plant collectively, share their profits equally and want for nothing, even enjoying yearly beach holidays and paid medical leave at state expense.
Though the Cohibas and Montecristos rolled in such settings remain a sought-after global commodity, Cuba's economy is now kept afloat by the tourist trade, embraced out of necessity by the government after the dissolution of its Soviet patron. On the island today, proximity to that industry or its grimy sex-trade underbelly tends to determine whether a Cuban's diet goes much beyond the beans and rice provided by the ration card. In Chávez's book, this nearly universal predicament is explored through the vivid tale of Dany, a young jinatero (literally "jockey") in the picturesque south-coast city of Trinidad. Dany, like all Cubans, holds the right from birth to a home, health care and excellent education, but today spends his days latching onto French and Italian tourists in the hope that he might be able to guide them somewhere that will yield a few dollars, dollars that he might someday use to fix the roof on his father's house or buy a VCR. "Every country has a national sport," he explains, correcting those who think it is béisbol. "Cuba's is looking for dollars."
Sitting in the town's beautiful square under a starry sky, new Adidas on his feet, his quarry having retreated to their resort hotels, Dany proclaims that he will never leave his island. "With enough money," he says, "Cuba is everything."
Very few, of course, have "enough money." Many confront this truth with fervent dreams of the unimaginable wealth to the north. Some cannot wait until the repressive regime that keeps them from joining the capitalist world in full is no more. Many others, no matter their current frustrations, remain sustained by their Revolution's ideals and their memory of its victories, from defeating illiteracy at home to battling South African apartheid abroad. To all, the great array of symbolic meanings attached to their island remains largely irrelevant against the banal struggles, the dire hardships and the joys of everyday life.
Illuminating these quotidian gray areas in which Cuban lives are lived is the virtue of a book written by journalism students who lack the need to fit the narrative of all Cubans into one ideological rubric. In seeking to provide as full a picture as possible of the never-neverland that is proto-capitalist Cuba, Chávez and her contributors have produced one of the most useful and nuanced portraits of contemporary life on the island in years.
San Francisco writer Joshua Jelly-Schapiro spent a year in Havana as a Parker Huang Fellow from Yale.