What I Read to Prepare for Cuba

I read a lot for fun and I always diligently pour over guidebooks before a trip, but I’ve never made much effort to read fiction or memoirs set in a destination before a trip. That’s something I’ve been meaning to change, and my trip to Cuba seemed like the perfect opportunity to do so. I was traveling with a tour group, which meant I had little to do in the way of traditional trip-planning, freeing up my time for reading. Plus, Cuba is a country with a complex history, much of it recent, and it’s a place that until recently has been pretty much off-limits to Americans, so many of us here have little knowledge about the country beyond the sensational soundbites we hear on the news.

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I started my reading with Julia Cooke’s The Other Side of Paradise: Life in the New Cuba. Cooke studied abroad at the University of Havana as a college student and returned (illegally) as a journalist to learn about the lives of ordinary Cubans. It’s set entirely in Havana, which made it especially on point for my trip, which was just to Cuba’s capital. Each chapter is told from the perspective of a different Cuban person she meets and they are some fascinating characters – including a pregnant teenage prostitute who is always asking her for money, a talented jazz musician who travels the world with his band and chooses to return to Cuba, and an aspiring filmmaker who is desperately trying to leave the country. Her inquisitive nature means that she really gets inside people’s head and gains their trust, and she writes vividly about the daily lives, dreams and frustrations of ordinary Cubans. I felt like it was by far the most unbiased book I read, presenting not the Communist regime’s rosy view of life in Cuba or the hardline Cuban-American perspective, but the murky reality that’s somewhere in between. The book tosses in some practical details that will be useful for a trip to Cuba (for example, the difference between the local’s Cuban peso and the tourist currency, the convertible peso, abbreviated CUC and pronounced “kook”), but it reads much more like a feature news story than a travel guide. If you read only one book before a trip to Havana, I would make it this one.

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To learn more about the Cuban-American exile experience, I picked up Carlos Eire’s memoir, Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy. Eire was one of the approximately 14,000 Cuban children who were sent to the United States without their families as part of Operation Pedro Pan in the early 1960s. Eire is an excellent writer and he captures his childhood in Havana vividly, but the book would have benefited from some editing. His memories, particularly the pre-Revolution ones, are all pretty similar and far too many of them are included, which makes the first half of the book is a bit of a slog (the book jumps around in time a bit, but for the most part the first 200 or so pages are set before the Revolution; it picks up considerably when Fidel storms into town). Although memoirs are not expected to be unbiased, I have to admit I was a little bothered by the broad strokes he uses to paint pre- and post-Revolution Cuba. Before Fidel, it was all turquoise seas, lazy days at the beach with family and happy holiday celebrations at home. After, it was firing squads, daily round-ups and run-ins with the secret police. There are a couple of passing references to Batista’s regime torturing people, but someone who read only this book could easily assume that Fidel showed up out of nowhere and destroyed a perfectly good government and way of life, when the reality is a lot more complex, especially for citizens who weren’t members of the upper class. Those criticisms not withstanding, I learned a lot about life in Cuba before and immediately after the Revolution, and it’s an interesting glimpse into a complicated childhood and family life (including things that have nothing at all to do with Cuba).

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“Isadora Tattlin”‘s (her name is a pseudonym) Cuba Diaries: An American Housewife in Havana is a memoir by an American woman who, with her two school-age children, followed her foreign husband’s career to Havana for four years (in the book she implies his career is in energy consulting but since Fidel Castro himself was a guest in their home, I think he must be a diplomat). I couldn’t put this book down and really enjoyed vicariously experiencing her culture shock. I’ve seen it criticized online for being too negative about Cuba, but I thought it fairly presented the negatives – such as the rampant tourist apartheid – while also portraying the kind people and beautiful albeit decaying architecture. It’s also important to remember that she lived in Cuba in the mid-1990s in the “Special Period” right after the Soviet Union collapsed, when Cuba was in an extreme depression and food shortages were so severe that people’s pets suddenly disappeared (I recommend Julia Cooke’s memoir mentioned above for a more recent perspective that provides insight into how Cuba changed between 1995 and 2010). There’s one anecdote in particular in this book that has really stayed with me. She and her household staff find a tarantula they assume is dead, and for some reason they put it in a glass jar as a kind of keepsake. Two weeks later they notice it moving. She’s absolutely astonished – “No water! No air! No food! How did it possibly survive!?” – but her household staff just shrug nonchalantly and say, “It’s Cuban.” It struck me at the time I read it, but now that I’ve been to Cuba, I’d be hard-pressed to come up with a better one paragraph summary of the country. The one thing that drove me crazy about this book was that she drops hints about her husband’s home country, X, all the time, and I could not for the life of me figure out what it is. Just when I think I’d have it figured out, she’d put in another detail that totally threw me for a loop. I spent an embarrassing amount of time Googling this and finally concluded that some of the details about X must be fake (which doesn’t seem implausible given that she used a pseudonym and changed details about his career) because there is no single country that fits all her descriptions. Seriously, if anyone can shed light on this mystery, please email me.

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The obvious choice for fiction set in Cuba is Hemingway’s books, but I read The Old Man and the Sea in high school and wasn’t really a fan, so I read Cristina García’s Dreaming in Cuban instead. (For what it’s worth, in the end I did kind of regret not picking up some Hemingway because our tour was riddled with spots where he drank, ate and slept.) Dreaming in Cuban is a novel that tells the story of three generations of Cuban women from the early 1970s to the early 1980s. There’s Celia, the proud matriarch who remained in Cuba when her children and eventually her husband emigrated to the US, her daughters Felicia, who is mentally ill and struggling to raise her children in Havana, and Lourdes, who is living in New York and is the typical anti-Castro Cuban-American exile, and Lourdes’ daughter Pilar, who was born in Cuba but left as a child and longs to go back and reconnect with her grandmother. I really enjoyed the family drama and the book also provides a good depiction of how the Straits of Florida divide families by much more than 100 miles.

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For a somewhat more academic view of the country, I read Julia Sweig’s Cuba: What Everyone Needs to Know. The title is a bit of a misnomer, since her book doesn’t really  have much to say about Cuban culture or daily life or what it’s like to travel there. But if you can tolerate a dry, fairly textbook-like writing style, this is a good overview of Cuban history, politics and relations with the US from the time of the fight for independence from Spain though George W. Bush’s presidency. I was particularly interested in the last part of the book, which highlights changes that took place when Raul Castro took over from Fidel. Many of the other books I read were set pre-2008, so this book was unique in really discussing the changes that have taken place in the country since then. Once nice thing about this book is that it has a lot of subheadings, so even if you don’t want to read it cover to cover (and you probably don’t), you can easily flip through and read the segments you’re interested in.

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Most Americans associate Bacardi rum with Puerto Rico, where the brand is now made, but it’s actually a Cuban company through and through, founded in Santiago, Cuba in the 1860s and drunk by everyone from Hemingway to the tourists who came to play at Havana’s mob-run casinos in the 1940s and 50s. Tom Gjelten’s Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba details the family’s story and important place in Cuban history, from the founder’s son’s role in the fight for Cuban independence to the family’s initial support of the Cuban Revolution and eventual exile after Castro tilted towards socialism and seized their assets. There’s obviously a lot of Cuban history woven in, but at its core it’s really the story of the Bacardi family and the history of their business, which made it a nice change of pace from the other books about Cuba that I read.

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I really felt like I got so much more out of my trip to Havana because of all the background reading I did beforehand. I’m under no illusion that I can do this level of pre-departure research for every trip, but going forward I hope that for my major trips I can at least do some reading that goes beyond the guidebooks.

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