Cuba Si : Anniversary of the Triumphant Cuban Revolution

26 Jul

Since 1959 , I have been interested in Cuba and its manifold attractions— the beginning a 12 year old’s admiration for the nascent ‘Triumph of the Revolution’. So many years later that fascination has held its place, though I do have a more balanced view of the Castro Brother’s regime. Now, with the long overdue restoration of diplomatic and other relations between the USA and CUBA, there is a heightened if not frenzied focus on the largest island in the Greater Antilles. So in honor the 26th of July,the Cuban anniversary of the beginning of its unshacking from Uncle Sam, here’s an idiosyncratic and unscholarly bibliographical primer on many things Cubano.

Cuba by Hugh Thomas

Cuba by Hugh Thomas

Cuba: The Pursuit of Freedom by Hugh Thomas

Published in 1971, this authoritative survey is an excellent introduction pre revolutionary Cuban history .Thomas is particularly exhaustive on the nexus of the Atlantic slave trade and Cuba’s biggest cash crop, sugar.

Cuba and Music by Ned Sublette

Cuba and Music by Ned Sublette

Cuban and Its Music From the First Drums to the Mambo by Neal Sublette

Musician/musicologist Sublette has already made a major cultural contribution with his Qbadisc recording label.The first volume of a projected series is described by the publisher

This entertaining history of Cuba and its music begins the collision of Spain and Africa and continues through the era of Miguelito Valdés, Arsenio Rodríguez, Beny Moré, and Pérez Prado. It offers a behind-the-scenes examination of music from a Cuban point of view, unearthing surprising, provocative connections and making the case that Cuba was fundamental to the evolution of music in the New World. The ways in which the music of black slaves transformed 16th-century Europe, how the claves appeared, and how Cuban music influenced ragtime, jazz, and rhythm and blues are revealed. Music lovers will follow this journey from Andalucía, the Congo, the Calabar, Dahomey, and Yorubaland via Cuba to Mexico, Puerto Rico, Saint-Domingue, New Orleans, New York, and Miami. The music is placed in a historical context that considers the complexities of the slave trade; Cuba’s relationship to the United States; its revolutionary political traditions; the music of Santería, Palo, Abakuá, and Vodú; and much more.

Smoke by Peter Balakian

Smoke by Peter Balakian

A History of Cuban Baseball by Peter Balakian

A History of Cuban Baseball
by Peter Balakian

A History of Cuban Baseball by Peter Balakian

In addition to cigars and revolutionary ardor, baseball remains am important feature of Cuban life and Balakian has made telling that story his life’s calling.

Los Gusanos by John Sayles

Los Gusanos by John Sayles

Los Gusanos by John Sayles

There is a plenitude of great literature about Cuba and by Cubans. I found John Sayles’s novel Los Gusanos (the Cuban word for ‘worms’, the official revolutionary designation for exiles) about Cuban exiles particularly engrossing. Here Sayles chats with Bookworm Michael Silverblatt about the book I consider Sayles’s magnum opus.

The Man Who Loved Dogs  by Leonardo Padura

The Man Who Loved Dogs by Leonardo Padura

The Man Who Loved Dogs by Leonardo Paduro

Cuban novelist Padura, best known for his noirish detective series Havana Quartet featuring Lt Mario Conde, creates a compelling and engrossing literary narrative featuring Leon Trotsky and his assassin traveling from the Soviet Union to the Spanish CivilWar to Mexico and finally to Cuba. Read Jon Lee Anderson’s (Che profile of Padura,which is an education in recent Cuban states of affairs:

“The Man Who Loved Dogs,” a fictionalized account of Leon Trotsky and his assassin, Ramón Mercader, who lived out his days in Cuba after twenty years in a Mexican prison. For half a century, official Cuba has seen Trotsky as the Soviets did: a traitor rightly consigned to the dustbin of history. Padura’s treatment of Trotsky is highly sympathetic, and his telling of Mercader’s life exposes the hideous legacy of Stalinism, which for decades amounted to a state religion in Cuba. These views are uncontroversial in much of the world, but in Cuba they are radical. The dissident blogger Yoani Sánchez wrote in a review, “There are books—I’m warning you—that open our eyes, such that we can never again sleep in peace.” Onstage, Padura acknowledged that he had frequently suffered from political anxiety: “Every time I finish a novel, I say, ‘This is the one they’re not going to let be published.’ ”

 Mea Cuba by Guillermo Cabrera Infante

Mea Cuba by Guillermo Cabrera Infante

Mea Cuba by Gulliermo Cabrera Infante

This is an anthology of some 60 articles written over a quarter-century and published in a variety of different periodicals. Despite some overlap and repetition, these essays and critiques are valuable snap shots of Cuban culture under the Castro reign. Cabrera Infante is an engaging polemicist with a penchant for the pun and an articulate opponent of the Revolution.My favorite piece is his recounting the great Cuban chess champion Capablanca‘s funeral.

Read Cabrera Infante (from a Paris Review interview) excoriating the Cuban Revolution:

There are too many people who go around saying that despite shortcomings the revolution has at least done a great job on education and public health. This is like praising Hitler for pulling Germany out of the economic quagmire of the Weimar Republic and exactly like those damned Italian trains that always arrived on time under Mussolini. Those fellow train travelers were saying this time that culture was now a big thing in Cuba because Fidel Castro had taught everybody to read and write. What’s the use of being literate if you lack the freedom to write, publish, and read what you want? The Sforzas, the Gonzagas, and of course the Medicis were upstarts and boors compared to this Cuban condottiere, this self-made patron of the arts and sciences. These were, of course, the lies of the land…


Cuba:Literary Companion edited by Anne Louse Bardach

Cuba:Literary Companion edited by Anne Louse Bardach

Cuba:Literary Companion edited by Anne Louise Bardach

Bardach, author of a number of books relating to Cuba — Without Fidel: A Death Foretold in Miami, Havana and Washington and Cuba Confidential, and the editor of The Prison Letters of Fidel Castro assembles a thoughtful and useful compendium of Cuban literature. The seventeen selections include: Reinaldo Arenas, Alejo Carpentier,Calvert Casey, Christina Garcia, Pedro Juan Gutierrez. Jose Lezama Lima, Achy Obejas Vergilio Pinera and Zoe Valdes.

The Auto biiography  of  Fidel Castro by Norberto Fuentes

The Auto biography of Fidel Castro by Norberto Fuentes

The Autobiography of Fidel Castro by Norberto Fuentes

There are, of course, numerous biographies of Castro.Writer Norberto Fuentes, having spent many years as a close associate of Fidel, uses that experience to goo advantage to present a fictionalized autobiography. Tom Miller (Trading With the Enemy: A Yankee Travels Through Castro’s Cuba )writes:

Castro’s revolution was sui generis; nothing like it had ever happened before. Despite his dialectical approach to everything from inviting attractive women, the blonder the better, to assignations (“I don’t recall anyone ever turning down the invitation”) to organizing the Communist Party, much of what’s transpired since 1959 has been impromptu. He’s been winging it for more than half a century. Yet his Machiavellian philosophy, as laid out by Fuentes, has its own internal logic — instructive, perhaps, for military and intelligence strategists.

The book can be a slog, and it gets a little sloppy, but you never know if that’s Fuentes, or Fuentes channeling Castro, or a question of translation. I vote for the channeling theory. Since Castro has never written his memoirs, Fuentes’s version will have to do. Fidel couldn’t have written it better.

Movie poster for Before Night Falls

Movie poster for Before Night Falls

Before Night Falls by Renaldo Arenas

Roberto Gonzalez Echevarria (The Pride of Havana: A History of Cuban Baseball) wrote

BEFORE NIGHT FALLS” is an autobiography that covers the span of Arenas’s life, from early childhood to his suicide letter blaming Castro for all of his calamities, including his death. It is an absorbing book, with the fascination one finds in stories by survivors of death camps or in lives of the saints. Arenas is betrayed by friends, spied on by fellow writers working for state security, beaten by lovers and jailers, coerced into signing vile confessions, forced to labor in stifling cane fields and compelled to “reform” sexually and politically. He is such a pariah that he must seek escape in the most spectacular ways, from an attempt to swim across Guantanamo Bay to reach the United States naval base there to braving the Florida Straits in an inner tube. All his tries are thwarted by vigilant authorities and informers. Once, fleeing the police, he hides for weeks in Lenin Park, a Communist theme park on the outskirts of Havana. There he spends his time writing the first version of these memoirs (his manuscript is later confiscated) and reading Homer, a flight from reality that necessarily ends every day as night falls (hence the title of his book). To lure people into turning him in, the police announce that a C.I.A. agent and rapist is on the loose. Arenas is careful not to be seen by anyone, but is eventually caught and barely saved from a lynch mob. In episodes such as these Arenas appears as a kind of Jean Valjean, and his book reads like a romantic adventure novel.

Arenas died of AIDS in New York City. He was 36 years old

Julian Schnabel’s brilliant film adaptation is a extraordinary complement to Arenas’s opus as well as a fine snapshot of Revolutionary Cuba.

By the way, Schnabel’s film features a fine soundtrack, including the immortal Cuban crooner Beny More (called by some Yanquis, the “Frank Sinatra of Cuba”)Here he sings the classic ‘Como Fue’

Here’s some more of More, also known in Cuba as El Bárbaro del Ritmo and El Sonero Mayor:

A Planet For Rent  by Yoss

A Planet For Rent by Yoss

A Planet for Rent by Yoss

Here’s a novelty, contemporary Cuban science fiction.

A Legend of The Future  by Augustin de Rojas

A Legend of The Future by Augustin de Rojas

A Legend of The Future by Augustin de Rojas

More Cuban science fiction.

The Last Soldiers of The Cold War   by Fernando Morais

The Last Soldiers of The Cold War by Fernando Morais

The Last Soldiers of The Cold War by Fernando Morais

The story of Cuban political prisoners finally freed in December 2014, after being held captive by the United States since the late 1990s.

 Listen Yankee by Tom Hayden

Listen Yankee by Tom Hayden

Listen Yankee: Why Cuba Matters by Tom Hayden and Roberto Alacron

SDS founder, author of the Port Huron Statement, tried in a Chicago federal court in 1969 as member of the “Chicago Eight”, formerly married to (Hanoi)Jane Fonda, Tom Hayden has been paying attention to Cuban affairs as long as he has been revolutionary student leader turned progressive social activist.This tome covers the writings of Che Guevara, Régis Debray, and C. Wright Mills; the Cuban missile crisis; the Weather Underground; the assassination of JFK; the strong historical links between Cuba and Africa; the Carter era; the Clinton era; the Cuban Five; Elián González; and the December 17, 2014 declaration of normalization by presidents Obama and Castro.

Here’s a piece of a longer conversation with Hayden:

The Domino Diaries  by Brin Jonathan Butler

The Domino Diaries by Brin Jonathan Butler

The Domino Diaries by Brin Jonathan Butler

Here’s the publisher’s description of Butler’s riveting tome:

This book is the culmination of Butler’s decade spent in the trenches of Havana, trying to understand a culture perplexing to Westerners: one whose elite athletes regularly forgo multimillion-dollar opportunities to stay in Cuba and box for their country, while living in penury. Butler’s fascination with this distinctly Cuban idealism sets him off on a remarkable journey, training with, befriending, and interviewing the champion boxers that Cuba seems to produce more than any other country.

In the process, though, Butler gets to know the landscape of the exhilaratingly warm Cuban culture-and starts to question where he feels most at home. In the tradition of Michael Lewis and John Jeremiah Sullivan, Butler is a keen and humane storyteller, and the perfect guide for this riotous tour through the streets of Havana.

Butler traveled to Cuba in2000 to interview several of Cuba’s Olympic champion boxers — Teofilo Stevenson, Felix Savon, Hector Vinent — for his documentary Split Decision, contrasting the boxers who stayed in Cuba with those like Guillermo Rigondeaux, who defected for the promise of riches.

Here, from an interview with Brin Butler:

You wrote that Cuban boxers’ struggles in the ring are intertwined with all Cubans’ struggles. Is that one of the reasons you wrote this book?

I think the beauty and mystery of boxing is just the immediacy of how it reveals people unlike anything else. In the United States in the 20th century, every major event that America was going through, there was a boxer who seemed to symbolically represent it, from slavery to the Vietnam War to the Depression — all the way along, you just seemed to have boxers that carried the narrative. I think in Cuba, it was the same, but midway through my journey in Cuba, you had these boxers who were meant to be entered into Fidel Castro’s symbolic chessboard against the United States, to fight his war against the American system.

What I found important while I was there was that so many of them were leaving, finally, and I thought if Castro’s gonna hold them up when they’re winning Olympic gold and turning down millions of dollars as being symbols of all the successes of the Revolution, you have to then balance the other side of the scale and say if they left, and then people supported their reasons for leaving, then it had to represent failures in the Revolution. That story wasn’t permitted to be told in Cuba.

Revolutionary Cuba A History  by Luis Martinez Fernandez

Revolutionary Cuba A History by Luis Martinez Fernandez

Revolutionary Cuba A History by Luis Martinez Fernandez

Surprisingly (quoting the book’s website):

This is the first book in more than three decades to offer a complete and chronological history of revolutionary Cuba, including the years of rebellion that led to the revolution. Beginning with Batista’s coup in 1952, which catalyzed the rebels it brings the reader to the present-day transformations initiated by Raúl Castro…

…[he examines the circumstances that allowed the revolution to consolidate in the early 1960s, the Soviet influence throughout the latter part of the Cold War, and the struggle to survive the catastrophic Special Period of the 1990s after the collapse of the U.S.S.R. He tackles the island’s chronic dependence on sugar production that, starting with the plantations centuries ago, continues to shape Cuba’s culture and society today. He analyzes the revolutionary pendulum that continues to swing between idealism and pragmatism, focusing on its effects on the everyday lives of the Cuban people, and–bucking established trends in Cuban scholarship–Martínez-Fernández systematically integrates the Cuban diaspora into the larger discourse of the revolution.

José Martí: A Revolutionary Life

José Martí: A Revolutionary Life

José Martí: A Revolutionary Life by Alfred J. Lopez

There are some glaring gaps in English language Cuban scholarship This is first major biography of Martí (1853–1895) in over half a century and the first ever in English (there is another biography coming by the well regarded Esther Allen) which given Marti’s signifigance as the great pan American revolutionary and political thinker and a titan of Latin American letters, whose poetry, essays, and journalism still rank among the most important works of the region. Lopezs uses original Cuban and U.S. sources, including materials never before used in a Martí biography, López strips away generations of mythmaking and portrays While Martí was Cuba’s greatest founding father and one of Latin America’s literary and political giants, Lopez presents a clear eyed view including Marti’s rarely acknowledged missteps and personal flaws.

The Double Life of Fidel Castro   by Juan Reinaldo Sanchez

The Double Life of Fidel Castro by Juan Reinaldo Sanchez

The Double Life of Fidel Castro: My 17 Years as Personal Bodyguard to El Lider Maximo by Juan Reinaldo Sanchez

Here’s a made for the movies story or to quote the Daily Beast review “A new trash-talking biography by a disaffected bodyguard who says the Cuban leader owns houses galore, can’t dance, and always has to win when he shoots hoops.” Juan Reinaldo Sanchez,worked for Fidel for 17 years and now presents his memoir of those years. When he tried to retire 1994, displeasing the Lider maximo Castro, he was imprisoned and tortured. He managed to defect in 2008.

When Henry Kissinger was in The People’s Republic of China negotiating the Sino-American detente, he inquired of Chou En Lai Chinese Foreign Minister and revolutionary stalwart, his view of the French Revolution. Chou reportedly replied, “Its too soon to tell.”

And finally non- pareil hot zone journalist Jon Lee Anderson recently opined

We are in an age when, in the Middle East and elsewhere, the United States has had to grapple with the appalling consequences of some of its more egregious geostrategic mistakes. In return, it has also had to accept a diminished role in certain aspects of the world’s affairs. In that context, Obama’s decision to find a way forward with Cuba was not a sign of weakness, but of strength.

Cuban Flag

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