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Cuban Oral History: Memories of the Cuban RevolutionAbout the Project - English

Cuban Lives: What Difference Did a Revolution Make?

Forthcoming book by Elizabeth Dore

Verso Books

 

The Cuban Revolution was known for equality. Under Fidel Castro’s leadership, and with help from the Soviet Union, Cuba had for thirty years one of the most equal societies in the world. Cuban society changed in 1990, when the fall of the Soviet bloc precipitated the worst economic crisis in the country’s modern history. Although Fidel endeavoured to preserve equality, circumstances worked against him. By the time his brother Raúl Castro inherited power in 2006, Cuban society was divided into a poor majority and a better-off minority. Charting a more pragmatic course than his brother, Raúl Castro declared that egalitarianism had been a major error of the Revolution.

In this book the life stories of five Cuban men of the Post-Soviet generation show how the shift from equality to inequality transformed everyday life in Havana and the surrounding countryside. Born in the 1970s and 1980s to families of diverse social, racial and political backgrounds, the narrators recount their experiences from the time of their birth until Fidel Castro’s death. Despite their different lives, they all remember the pleasures of growing up in a highly equal country, and the unhappiness they felt as inequality seeped into every pore of society.

Part 1: Equality was their birth right

The life stories begin in Cuba’s mythic Golden Age when most Cubans had adequate food, excellent health care and a good education. The narrators remember feeling content that everyone in their neighbourhood lived more or less at the same level, ate chicken on the same day, wore the same kind of clothing. They believed equality was their birth right, and they had faith in Fidel’s promise that the future was theirs. Mario planned to become an artist, Pavel a historian, Hernan an engineer. Juan took for granted he could have a job for life as a minor functionary, but he dreamed of becoming a secret agent. Esteban confided that from the time he was little he yearned to live with his cousins in Miami.

The narrators’ memories portray the Revolution in familiar and unfamiliar ways. Juan and Mario faced circumstances that do not fit the official history. Juan dropped out of school at the age of fourteen after his mother died. With no one to support him, he had to support himself. Mario failed to get in to Cuba’s number one art college, and for many years he blamed himself. However, thinking back over the events of his life, he concluded that his marginal background and a certain racial disconnect from teachers at his art preparatory school were largely to blame.

Part 2: Fidel’s final years in power

Just as the Post-Soviet generation was coming of age the Communist bloc collapsed. Its fall not only shattered Cuba’s economy, it shook many Cubans’ faith in socialism. By 1991 Soviet trade and subsidies had ceased. Food was scarce. Long blackouts were part of Cubans’ everyday routine. Buses and cars all but vanished, factories closed, tractors rusted in the fields. In 1992 the US government tightened its blockade of Cuba. Fidel called the crisis the Special Period of wartime austerity in a time of peace.

In Post-Soviet Cuba, while most people are engaged in illegal side-lines in order to survive, the crisis provided lucrative opportunities for a few. Mario recounts that in the depth of the Special Period he warded off hunger by poaching cabbages and potatoes from state farms. When he needed shoes, he covertly sold sandwiches in school. Juan got by raising chickens and piglets which he sold to his neighbors. Esteban’s illegal activities were of a different order. He worked in his brother’s business which specialized in stealing from the customs department at the Havana airport.

Laments about the loss of equality permeate these accounts of the Special Period. The narrators describe the agonies, and a few of the ecstasies, of inequality. Pavel, an opponent of the Castro government, a dissident, reminisced about going to primary school in a glorious mansion that had belonged to a sugar magnate before the revolutionary government converted it to a school. Mario, a member of the Communist Party, protested that although everyone once enjoyed equal health care, lately a few dollars could buy you better treatment via bribes. Esteban too complained about the changes. Although doing well economically, as a mulatto he felt a new kind of racism. “Now people with more money look down on those with less. And guess who has less? The blacks.”

The narrators bemoaned not only the loss of equality but individualism and the lack of solidarity.

Part 3: Raúl Castro and the new economic model

Memories are malleable. In all societies memory provides a mirror on changes in politics and ideology. Oral history has shown again and again that when public politics and personal circumstances change, memories are likely to somehow reflect the changes. Also, what people are willing to say, or how they say it, in oral history interviews is conditioned by the politics of the times.

After Raúl Castro settled into his position as Cuba’s head of state he altered the official discourse and the government’s economic policy. He declared in speeches what many Cubans had been whispering for years, that the state apparatus was bloated and inefficient. Slowly and cautiously Castro reduced state employment and rolled back restrictions on Cubans’ private enterprises. He announced that the principle of egalitarianism, a founding tenet of the Revolution, was an anachronism. It belonged, he said, to an earlier age.

Castro’s statement astonished Cubans. But in a remarkably short time men and women I had been interviewing for years changed their stories, or they repeated old stories about growing up, but gave them new meanings. After hearing Raúl Castro speeches about the shortcomings of egalitarianism Mario’s interviews were full of, “I’m confused. I don’t know what to think.” His interviews were also full of silences. Mario always spoke honestly and sincerely. Suddenly, the stories he used to tell himself and tell others about the pleasures of growing up, about the injustices of inequality, seemed inappropriate. But he hadn’t yet figured out what he thought, or how to talk about the new politics. Over time, as Mario absorbed the new ideology, he told different stories about his past and present life.

Cubans’ Oral Histories

The life stories in this book are the voices of the Post-Soviet generation, voices of men whose lives have been turned upside down in similar and dissimilar ways by Cuba’s Post-Soviet revolution.

None of the narrators in this book are women. Listening to interviews with Cuban women of all ages and walks of life I decided that they needed a book of their own. My next book will be Cuban women’s stories.

 

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