How Things Fall Apart: What Happened to the Cuban Revolution 
by Elizabeth Dore.
Apollo, 341 pp., £10.99, August 2023, 978 1 80328 381 4
Show More
The Tribe: Portraits of Cuba 
by Carlos Manuel Álvarez, translated by Frank Wynne and Rahul Bery.
Fitzcarraldo, 336 pp., £12.99, May 2022, 978 1 913097 91 2
Show More
Show More

In​ 1968, Fidel Castro invited an American anthropologist called Oscar Lewis to interview Cubans about their lives. Lewis was famous for an oral history project, conducted in a Mexico City slum, which he had turned into a book called The Children of Sánchez (1961). By recounting a poor family’s struggles and hustles, legal and otherwise, Lewis angered the country’s ruling party, which still described itself as ‘revolutionary’. The Mexican Revolution, like the Cuban Revolution after it, wasn’t supposed to have an end date. But after major gains, including redistributing land to landless farmers, it had been ‘interrupted’, as the historian Adolfo Gilly later put it. Lewis exposed the revolution’s unfinished business, and didn’t shy away from discussing the sexual peccadilloes of the poor. The Spanish-language edition of Children of Sánchez was published in 1964, but thanks to a lawsuit claiming the material was ‘obscene and denigrating’, the book wasn’t freely available in Mexico for several years.

When Castro invited Lewis to Cuba, he had only been in power for a decade. People on the island – at least those who weren’t yet plotting an exit to the United States – still referred to the events of 1959 without irony as the ‘triumph of the revolution’. Castro told Lewis he could make an ‘important contribution to Cuban history’ by creating an ‘objective record of what people feel and think’. ‘This is a socialist country,’ he is said to have told Lewis. ‘We have nothing to hide. There are no complaints or grievances I haven’t already heard.’ Lewis hired a team of sociologists and started interviewing people in Havana.

Three decades later, with Castro still at the helm, another American scholar, Elizabeth Dore (who worked in the UK for much of her life), began planning a similar project: to interview Cubans about their lives and the way they felt about the revolution. Dore had funding and a rotating cast of about a dozen interviewers, but she didn’t have permission. In How Things Fall Apart, Dore, who died in 2022, describes doing the rounds in Havana, visiting officials who might help. ‘Your project is beautiful,’ one deputy minister who asked to remain anonymous told her. ‘I’d like to help. But remember Oscar Lewis. In Cuba, oral history is taboo.’

Lewis and his team spent eighteen months interviewing Cubans, but in 1970 the Communist Party shut down the project. Raúl Castro accused him of working for the CIA. A likelier explanation is that word got back to the Castro brothers that the interviewees were complaining too much. Party officials ejected Lewis from the island soon after Fidel announced that his much ballyhooed ‘zafra de los diez millones’ – a push to harvest a record-breaking ten million tonnes of sugar – was going to fall short. The zafra campaign was supposed to turn around the Cuban economy; office workers had been conscripted into the cane fields, along with supporters of the revolution from abroad who flew in to help. The target was missed by one and a half million tonnes and massive economic dislocation resulted because other activity on the island had come to a halt.

Some of the material from Lewis’s interviews was published after his death in 1977. In Four Men: Living the Revolution, an Oral History of Contemporary Cuba, some of the slum-dwellers he had interviewed in Havana praised the revolution, while others confessed that they were struggling to escape poverty despite their best efforts to become socialist new men. ‘Life is only a ball of shit and you must put up with it and live as best you can,’ one of them told Lewis.

When Dore began to plan her oral history project in the early 2000s, Cuba’s economy was once again in crisis. This had much to do with the US embargo. At first, the US had been suspicious of but ambivalent about the Cuban Revolution. Fidel Castro had overthrown a US-backed dictator, but Fulgencio Batista had been widely hated on the island, and it wasn’t yet clear that Castro was a communist. Two years later, by the time he announced that ‘I am a Marxist-Leninist, and will be one until the end of my life,’ the US had turned decisively against him. It announced an embargo in 1962: US businesses or those majority-owned by American citizens were prohibited from conducting trade with Cubans. The embargo remains in place, the longest-lasting in the modern world, and a dead hand on the Cuban economy.

The zafra was Fidel’s last-ditch attempt to sustain an independent export industry. Two years after its failure, he joined the Soviet economic bloc and relied on special trade agreements that kept Cuba afloat for the next three decades. The regime also continued its attempts to remake social life. This entailed getting women into the workforce and dispensing with bourgeois decadence: at every marriage ceremony, the couple were required to vow to ‘share equally in the duties of home, family and socialism’, as Ada Ferrer writes in Cuba: An American History (2021). Not all Cuban men were enthusiastic about sharing the housework in the name of the revolution and there was plenty of carping. No need for an outsider to jot it all down. Lewis never returned.

Dore first arrived in Cuba as a graduate student in 1972, fresh from New York City. Had she been a decade older, she might have swung a machete as part of the zafra, given her attraction to revolutionary idealism. She says she always hoped to record life histories in Cuba but first completed other projects, working as an adviser for the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, writing a book about that country’s transition to capitalism and editing a collection of essays on gender in Latin America. Anthropologists often work in Cuba without official authorisation, but since Dore had something large-scale in mind, and since she intended to employ a team of Cubans, she sought permission. After many refusals, she secured a meeting with Raúl’s daughter Mariela: a colleague had told her that Mariela had ‘a reputation for fighting lost causes’, including on behalf of gay and lesbian Cubans. With Mariela’s help, Dore’s project was approved in 2005 and launched with some pomp at the University of Havana. Clips were broadcast on state television. ‘People interested in Cuba often make the mistake of thinking too much about Fidel Castro,’ Ferrer writes. Dore wouldn’t make that error. Over fourteen years, she and her team interviewed 124 Cubans, returning to many of them several times.

She selected a broad range of interviewees: men and women from the countryside and the city, from various social classes and racial backgrounds – though after the ‘triumph of the revolution’, race and class were not supposed to be relevant. She interviewed a former art student who remembered the relative social equality of the Soviet-funded years with great nostalgia. There was enough cash for a group of friends to go out to the famous ice-cream parlour Coppelia, and split the tab according to their means. During the 1980s, the egalitarianism of the early decades of the revolution was eroded by innovations like ‘free market stores’, where better-off Cubans could buy things not included in their state rations, such as jeans and evaporated milk. Dore notes that even then the ratio between the highest and lowest pay was only 4:1 (my note in the margin: ‘I would like to live in this society for a change’). According to Anthony DePalma in The Cubans: Ordinary People in Extraordinary Times (2020), one Cuban who studied in Ukraine during this period was proud that she and her cohort all travelled with the same blue cardboard suitcases and all wore the same brand of shapeless underwear.* She was shocked when her roommate from the Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan asked her if she owned a pair of ‘American jeanskis’. A bad communist, she thought.

The revolution was supposed to sweep away not just social class but racial discrimination. (Cuba received more than twice as many enslaved people as the US, and has a large population of African origin.) Reviving the unfulfilled goals of 19th-century Cuban nationalists such as Antonio Maceo, whose struggle was not just anticolonial but antiracist, Fidel said in 1961 that his government had ‘eradicated’ racism on the island. Not all Cubans got the memo. According to Ferrer, ‘job centres advertised for workers of “good appearance”, a euphemism for white.’ Black women still worked as domestic servants in white households. But mentioning racism was taboo, and race was one of the touchiest subjects in Dore’s interviews. During their first encounter, one Afro-Cuban told her he had failed the entrance exam for a prestigious art school, but only after ten years of interviews did he become comfortable with attributing his unfinished education, at least in part, to racial discrimination.

The creeping return to inequality in Cuba is the main theme of Dore’s book, hastened by the disastrous economic downturn after the collapse in 1991 of the Soviet Union, which had been providing Cuba with up to $5 billion a year in subsidies. After its fall, outsiders speculated that the Cuban regime would also collapse and the island would transition, quickly or slowly, to capitalism. But then interested countries have always persuaded themselves that revolutionary Cuba would collapse if it came under enough pressure.

Instead, Castro announced a Special Period in Times of Peace and called for extraordinary sacrifices. On the streets, jokes about the state economy outlived the Soviet Union: ‘They pretend to pay us and we pretend to work.’ Healthcare and education were still free, but there was little food and no oil to run electric generators. Beef was nowhere to be found, chicken and pork became rare, and coffee was ground with dried peas to bulk up the volume. Even rum, sometimes known as ‘Vitamin R’, became scarce. Cubans fried chopped grapefruit peel to fill themselves up. DePalma reports that women broke open old batteries and used the black paste inside as hair dye. There was no fuel for buses and all of Havana cycled round on clunky bicycles imported from China.

To survive the Special Period, some Cubans were forced to resolver, luchar, inventar (solve, struggle, invent) – euphemisms for petty theft. In the 1990s, the social understanding of theft changed so much that this was considered necessary, even sporting, as long as the injured party was the state and not an acquaintance or neighbour. The best gig in Havana was to work as a waiter in a tourist hotel with an all-you-can-eat buffet. After the tourists had finished, leftover ham, packets of butter and canned tuna – all of which had vanished from state-run stores – were spirited away by hotel staff and sold on the black market.

In a stylish set of profiles now collected in a book, the Cuban journalist and novelist Carlos Manuel Álvarez describes the black market of this period:

At the Technical University of Havana José Antonio Echeverría – the CUJAE, the most important technological university in the country – most of the students in apartments 28 and 42 of building 34 were from the province of Matanzas, and thanks to a profitable trafficking business, all those from Matanzas, without exception, were earning twenty to thirty times the average monthly wage of a Cuban state worker. In a couple of years, they would be qualified engineers and traffickers. A sure-fire combination.

Álvarez, who was born in 1989, notes that his generation was the first to grow up knowing that the advantages of the revolution, including free education, wouldn’t guarantee them a decent living. The black market and trafficking businesses run by students represented major cracks in the revolutionary way of life. He has harsh things to say about his country, noting ‘our Cold War mindset, our deeply ideological, sentimental education, a boundless bureaucracy, a ravaged social infrastructure’, but also writes about what the revolution promised and lost sight of. ‘Solidarity is a sacrifice,’ he says, ‘and consists of making other lives better by making your own worse. It is a logic that runs contrary to the logic of success, and even that of instinct, which is why it is in such short supply.’

In 1994, to stave off economic freefall, Fidel introduced a two-tier currency: the nearly worthless local peso and the new ‘convertible’ one, pegged to the US dollar. The year before, he had also made it legal for Cubans to possess dollars. This created a new form of economic inequality that still persists: a social hierarchy divided not by inherited social class or profession but by access to convertible pesos or, even better, family in the US able to send dollar remittances. At the same time, Cuba changed its foreign investment laws to enable Europeans to invest in the tourist industry. Speciality stores sold appliances, foreign clothing (American jeanskis) and food not available at state stores, which only took Cuban pesos. ‘There are some people,’ Álvarez writes, ‘who believe a monument should be erected to the salseros and the jineteras – the dancers and the prostitutes – who, being the only reliable sources of foreign currency, saved 1990s Cuba from utter disaster.’

In order​ to write about ‘ordinary Cubans’, or to gather oral histories, interviewees must be able to speak freely. But has there been freedom of speech in revolutionary Cuba? It depends on who is trying to speak, about what and when. Castro put the boundaries around freedom of speech for intellectuals like this: ‘Within the revolution, everything. Against the revolution, nothing.’ The Padilla Affair, directed by Pavel Giroud and released in 2022, concerns the case of Heberto Padilla, a poet accused of writing ‘critical and ahistorical literature’ and imprisoned for ‘betrayal of the homeland’ in 1971. The film includes archive footage of his forced ‘confession’, a mea culpa that looks very much like a show trial. He had been tortured. Writers and journalists who want to stay on the island still face restrictions about what they can say. Álvarez calls Cuba’s state newspaper, Granma, ‘one of the most discreet newspapers in the world, which isn’t exactly ideal for a newspaper’. He runs a much more outspoken magazine, El Estornudo (great name: ‘The Sneeze’). Like so many independent journalists, he has now moved abroad.

Another count against freedom of speech are the Committees for the Defence of the Revolution. These neighbourhood defence groups are often headed by busybodies eager to rat out opponents of the party. But the bite has gone out of them since the 1990s, when they organised egg-throwing and sometimes stone-throwing at people planning to emigrate to the US. Some Cubans used to stroke an imaginary beard when criticising Castro, rather than utter his name, but others spoke openly about the regime’s flaws as well as its achievements. The poet Rafael Alcides told Álvarez that he had been in love with the dream of the revolution, and with Castro. ‘One of the greatest things he did, one of the most beautiful, was the literacy programme. And giving land to farmers. Who wouldn’t agree with that?’ (In 1961, the Year of Education, 300,000 Cubans volunteered to travel to remote rural areas and succeeded in teaching 700,000 people to read and write. The teachers showed up to revolutionary marches carrying giant pencils.) ‘Anyway, it was a wonderful time, honestly … you don’t take the money, you take the glory. We were rebuilding the world.’ But in the same interview, shortly before Castro’s death in 2016, Alcides told Álvarez that ‘there are only two dissidents in Cuba: Fidel and Raúl Castro. The rest of us agree that this isn’t working.’

Those who criticise the revolution aren’t necessarily dissidents in the usual sense. Dore recounts a Cuban joke: ‘A dissident organisation had three members: one was a US agent, one was a Cuban agent and the third was a fool.’ But tourists who visit Cuba rarely hear people talking like the man Dore calls Juan: ‘Yesterday the revolution drove me crazy, absolutely crazy.’ There had been a march in downtown Havana and Castro had spoken. ‘He said: “Reading from the pamphlet I have in my hand the general opinion is …” Well, if everyone thought the way the Comandante says we do it would be marvellous. The fact is everyone doesn’t think the same. What a joke.’

In 2018 the Cuban government passed Decree 349, which requires artists to seek advance permission for shows and performances. It provoked the largest free speech protests in Cuban history, known as the San Isidro movement. One of Castro’s slogans was ‘¡Patria o muerte – venceremos!’ (‘Homeland or death – we will win!’) In 2021, a group of Cuban rappers released a song called ‘Patria y vida’ (‘Homeland and Life’), which openly praised the San Isidro movement: ‘My people ask for liberty, not more doctrines/Now we don’t shout homeland or death but rather homeland and life.’ ‘Patria y vida’ became a huge hit, spreading across the island on thumb drives, becoming a slogan at the protests.

One of the leaders of the San Isidro movement, the performance artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, was arrested several times on trumped-up charges. In 2020, Álvarez helped secure his release from jail. Soon afterwards, Álvarez was at the airport in Havana when he was taken aside by security officials. ‘So this was who they were,’ he thought, looking at the two men wearing dark green face masks. ‘I had seen them so often before, I ran into them on every street, every day of my life in Cuba.’ The officials conducted a half-hearted interrogation, asking how much he was paid for his Facebook posts and by whom. (Nothing, no one.) They asked how he knew Otero Alcántara. ‘It was they who had brought us together, obviously, though I’m not sure I told them that.’ They let him go, just in time to catch his plane. ‘The whole encounter seemed utterly anachronistic. This was 14 March 2020, a time when Stalinist aesthetics could be seen only as folklore.’ Otero Alcántara was soon back in prison, where he remains.

Since Dore started work on her book, the situation in Cuba has worsened considerably. People got through the Special Period thanks to tourist dollars and remittances. After Hugo Chávez came to power in 1999, Venezuela provided a major boost to the Cuban economy with oil subsidies and special trade agreements. But since 2014, following Venezuela’s own economic meltdown, no patron has stepped in to subsidise Cuba’s revolution. Hundreds of those who marched for freedom of speech are still in jail. New protests periodically break out, often over access to basic goods and food. Juan told Dore that

a Cuban’s greatest drama is worrying about what’s in the fridge, what to cook for dinner. It’s not the same as if you were to get home, open the fridge and there is chicken, shrimp, fish, eggs, beef and cooking oil. Then you’d have no worries. But when you don’t have anything, when there are scarcities, you say: ‘What can I do? What can I inventar, come up with, to stop my boy from crying? What can I put on the table?’ … The Cuban people love food, partying, bachata, dancing and music. Take that away, and bam, you’ve got very little left.

When there is nothing left, people are forced to leave. Since the revolution’s earliest days, the loudest expression of Cuban free speech – at least in a register audible to foreign ears – has been migration. There are 1.4 million Cuban-born people in the US, most of them given asylum as escapees from communism. During one spike in arrivals, in 1980, nativists in Florida had bumper stickers that read: ‘Will the last American to leave Miami please bring the flag?’ Cuban refugees have been used as propaganda by various US administrations, especially Reagan’s. They chose freedom over communism! But things have changed. Now Cuban arrivals find themselves in the more challenging situation of being considered migrants.

In 2014, Barack Obama and Raúl Castro came to an agreement to normalise diplomatic relations. It wasn’t really noticed at the time that thawing relations would also mean phasing out special provisions for Cuban immigrants, who had previously been ‘paroled’, facing many fewer restrictions than other asylum seekers. In 2022, 225,000 Cubans were apprehended at the US-Mexico border, many more than arrived during the famous 1980 Mariel boatlift or the 1994 balsero crisis, which saw 35,000 Cubans make the journey across the Florida Straits on rafts. The vast majority of those leaving Cuba aren’t dissidents but simply people who can’t get enough to eat, can’t inventar their way out of worsening poverty. They seek asylum not as a result of repression but in order to navigate America’s broken immigration system – there is no other way to get permission to work.

Despite the dire situation in Cuba, some nostalgia for the language of the revolution lingers. Everyone knows the story of the Cuban Five: spies arrested by the FBI in 1998 for infiltrating an anti-Castro group in Florida. After they were imprisoned in the US, they became national heroes in Cuba. In 2014, three of them were released and returned to the island. The singer-songwriter Silvio Rodríguez, a revolutionary faithful, staged a free concert in Havana in their honour. After the performance, one of them grabbed the microphone and chanted the old slogans: ‘Viva Cuba libre!’ and ‘Seguimos en combate!’ But these were ‘obsolete mottos’, Álvarez writes, ‘things no one says anymore’. ‘What tone should we adopt when the speech patterns of fearless heroism have faded?’ he asks. ‘Those same speech patterns that were the backbone of our education.’

Even after kicking out Oscar Lewis, Fidel didn’t give up on the idea of an oral history of Cuban life under communism. In 1975 he asked his close friend Gabriel García Márquez, who was enamoured of the revolution, to write it. García Márquez worked on the project for a year, then gave up. He told friends that what Cubans said didn’t fit the book that he wanted to write.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences