Ever since President Obama's December announcement that the United States is resuming full diplomatic ties with Cuba, the Powell's buyers' office has been suffering from an epidemic of reverse island fever. It turns out that almost all of us harbor a secret desire to visit Cuba. Some of us want to eat lobster, swim in a turquoise ocean, and drink mojitos, while others are motivated by politics, music, or wildlife. The origin of my interest is easy to trace. When I was 18, I spent a miserable, sunburnt week on the deck of my grandmother's Palm Beach condo, reading the New Testament for school and watching my family play on the beach. One day, maybe to rescue me from the Bible assignment or my grandmother's morbid habit of inviting neighbors to look at my burns, my parents decided to take us on a day trip to Miami. That evening we had dinner at a sidewalk restaurant in Little Havana, Miami's Cuban neighborhood. It was a little La Cage aux Folles
meets Buena Vista Social Club
: couples in neon thongs rollerbladed past our table, while old men drank espresso and Afro-Caribbean music blared out of open car windows and cafes. I loved the salty-sweet plantains and rich black beans and the absurdly naked pedestrians. I loved the thumping music and the sea breeze and the old men in their dapper hats. Cuba, I decided, my mouth full of fried fish, must be an excellent place to visit.
I still feel that way, though I know enough now about Cuban politics and daily life to realize that Cuba isn't all charmingly rusted Studebakers and white sand beaches. In fact, the frozen-in-time quality of Cuba's old cars and crumbling Art Deco mansions, which I find so romantic, is simply the result of economic stagnation and limited resources. According to Julia Cooke's fascinating The Other Side of Paradise: Life in the New Cuba, the majority of Cuba's post-revolution youth feel trapped on a desert island with a 99% literacy rate but little employment opportunity, a much-lauded organic agriculture movement but persistent food shortages, and pervasive racial and gender inequities that favor the advancement of white male Cubans. The Other Side of Paradise is a sobering read, but it is also deeply sympathetic and remarkably apolitical. Cooke offers detailed portraits of everyday lives, as well as of her own experiences living in Havana, and allows the reader to develop his own opinions of the Castro brothers' regimes and American–Cuban relations.
What Cooke's account lacks in historical and political detail can be found in Julia Sweig's comprehensive Cuba: What Everyone Needs to Know. A concise reference on Cuban political and cultural history from colonial Spanish rule through President Obama's initial easing of remittance and travel restrictions in 2009, Cuba: What Everyone Needs to Know provides the best essential background reading on the nation available in English. As a bonus, the question-and-answer format of the book makes it easy to skip to the subjects you're most interested in.
Readers seeking a greater understanding of both the current street impact of American foreign policy in Cuba and Cuban history should read Marc Frank's outstanding Cuban Revelations: Behind the Scenes in Havana, which combines Julia Cooke's expert sociological reportage with a profound understanding of Cuban social and economic policies. Frank is a veteran foreign correspondent living in Cuba, and his writing manages to be information dense without becoming academic or dull. A layperson with a serious interest in 21st-century Cuba — or future plans to visit — will find Frank's work enlightening, accessible, and balanced.
A reader's journey to Cuba wouldn't be complete without at least one book about or by Che Guevara, the influential Argentinian revolutionary and a major architect of the Cuban Revolution. There are many decent books about Che Guevara, but the two I recommend for people new to Cuban and Latin American history are Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life by Jon Lee Anderson and Guevara's own The Motorcycle Diaries: Notes on a Latin American Journey. Anderson's biography is massive and critics justly note a pro-Che bias, but Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life is meticulously researched and easily the most comprehensive life study of Guevara available. In particular, Anderson illuminates the relationship between Che Guevara and Fidel Castro, which was critical in setting Cuba on the road to a Communist takeover. The Motorcycle Diaries isn't about Guevara's time in Cuba (for his thoughts on Cuba, read Episodes of the Cuban Revolutionary War, 1956-58), but it's a charming introduction to Guevara as a very young man and provides critical context for understanding how he developed the ideological stance that led to his involvement in Cuba and other socialist revolutions. Given the American predilection for wearing Che Guevara–emblazoned clothing, it seems wise to first arm ourselves with a clearer understanding of who he was and what he continues to represent in Cuba and abroad, and both Anderson's and Guevara's works are excellent places to begin that process.
If a bit of fun is what you're after, try Alina García-Lapuerta's biography La Belle Créole: The Cuban Countess Who Captivated Havana, Madrid, and Paris or Ramiro Fernandez's beautiful photography collection, Cuba Then: Rare and Classic Images from the Ramiro Fernandez Collection. La Belle Créole traces the life of Mercedes Santa Cruz y Montalvo, a beautiful socialite and talented soprano who devoted her life to music and philanthropy. While her artistic friendships and French marriage are legendary, she's even more renowned as the first female Cuban writer, and García-Lapuerta mines the countess's trove of memoirs, letters, and travelogues to create a stunning portrait of a bright and indomitable woman in Napoleonic Paris. Ramiro Fernandez's photos recollect the Cuba of Hemingway and the Sugar Barons, images that are particularly stunning when paired with one of the analyses of 21st-century Cuba described above.
Reading these books won't replace the thrill of eating lobster on the beach or dancing the salsa until daybreak — they may even put a damper on those fantasies — but they will transport you to a beautiful, complicated island and introduce you to a vibrant group of people who are currently out of reach. So go ahead: cook a pot of frijoles, fry a pan of plantains, buy a fedora, and settle in with a book for a life-changing trip to Cuba.