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Five Books to Better Understand Cuba

Olivia Snaije By Olivia Snaije Published on November 26, 2016

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The death of Fidel Castro at age 90 on November 25th, 2016, symbolized the end of an era, even if the man who incarnated the Cuban revolution had been out of day-to-day government since 2006, and had officially resigned as president in 2008. His death was met with deeply divided reactions; there were alternately celebrations for the passing of a dictator and a repressive regime, others mourned an icon who stood up to “US imperialism”. The relationship Cubans had with him was an intimate and familiar one, and even those who despised him referred to him simply as Fidel. No matter what one’s opinion of Fidel Castro was, he embodied a revolution with both its hopes and disillusionments. For those who might want to read more about Cuba, still in the grips of Castro's brother, Raúl, here are five books that will take you closer to the Caribbean island that has elicited so much passion: 

The Myth of José Martí: Conflicting Nationalisms in Early 20th Century Cuba by Lillian Guerra

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This is a superbly documented historical journey through the politics of power in the early Cuban Republic at the beginning of the 20th century. Guerra, a historian, explores how Martí, a Cuban intellectual and revolutionary nationalist who fought for Cuba’s independence from Spain, influenced Cuban society and its psyche in the late 19th and early 20th century. 

Telex from Cuba by Rachel Kushner

Soon to become a TV series, this 2008 novel recounts Cuba in the 1950s, seen through the eyes of two children. It’s the story of a couple of American executives prospering in a colonial paradise during the Batista dictatorship; the last days of the United Fruit Company, accompanied by greed and injustice, that ultimately paved the way for the revolution and the arrival of Castro. 

Dirty Havana Trilogy by Pedro Juan Gutiérrez

A down and dirty foray into Havana’s slums: sweaty, smelly, violent and desperate. Gutiérrez says his stories “illustrate the difficulty of achieving self-sufficiency and contentment in a dysfunctional and poverty-stricken society living under a paternalistic government.” Despite his grim and unflinching depiction of many aspects of Cuban life, Gutiérrez says his writing also “stresses his overriding love for Cuban culture.”

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The Island That Dared by Dervla Murphy 

Irish author and adventurer Dervla Murphy traveled to Cuba in 2008 with her daughter and three grandchildren. The result is a carefully researched travel book about the late Castro period, with detailed political, economic and sociological observations of a country with a government that so long defied the hegemony of the United States but deprived its population of freedom of expression and movement.

Everyone Leaves by Wendy Guerra

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Cuban author Wendy Guerra's novel is a semi-autobiographical account of the coming of age of Nieve Guerra, the solitude and fear she felt during her childhood and the profound feeling of abandonment because of the number of Cubans who leave the island. Guerra described her novel as “a fictional story that left my hands and belongs entirely to those people who, like me, suffered the State as an executioner-intrusion installed in the center of the most sacred relationship: the family. The novel talks of the desertions of the soul, not only does it touch on the heartbreaking geographical exodus, we are talking about the flight of family and close friends in the name of a slogan or political responsibility.”

    Olivia is a Paris-based journalist and editor.


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