The Cubans: Ordinary Lives in Extraordinary Times

Viking. May 2020. 368p. ISBN 9780525522447. $28. HIST
To conservatives, Cuba is a communist ­dictatorship controlled by revolutionaries in the mold of Fidel Castro and Ernesto Guevara. Progressives laud Cuba for its achievements in health care, education, and sustainability. Lost in this duality are the millions of ordinary Cubans; most of whom have remained in Cuba and who carve out meaningful lives by working around bureaucracy, ­corruption, and deprivations inflicted by the U.S. trade embargo. Former New York Times correspondent DePalma (The Man Who Invented Fidel) uses interviews and personal narratives to shadow ordinary Cubans from the 1950s to 2018. The book revolves around Cary, an Afro-Cuban-Jamaican whose single mom cleaned houses in Havana’s suburbs. Cary studied economic engineering in the Soviet Union and become a factory manager, senior official, and ultimately an entrepreneur. Her circle includes Arturo, an artist who turns a crumbling church into his studio; Lili, a loyal Communist; Jorge, an anti-regime activist; Mari, a health inspector; and various neighbors and family. DePalma is light on geopolitical and ideological context; for more historical grounding, readers should see Richard Gott’s Cuba. ­
VERDICT Overall, a rich, intimate, evenhanded narrative that reveals the Cuban people’s resilience and resourcefulness amid oppression.

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