Latin America, Havana; Continent: North America

The Other Side of Paradise: Life in the New Cuba by Julia Cooke

  • Summer is never quite over in Havana: this author’s descriptive style will help you feel its humidity even in crisp autumn days
  • 248 pages, less the Acknowledgements, et cetera. Content ends with the epilogue at around 238 (weirdly, the Kindle edition refuses to give me page numbers)

This book is less a history book than a a collection of portraits highlighting the paths of a few select Cubans, their ambitions, skills and worldviews. Cooke has researched the relevant history for this island nation, but she discusses it in the context of students, would-be punks, a musician, a religious figure, and a woman who resorts sometimes to prostitution. None of them seems to want to stay in Cuba as much as Cooke does, perhaps because only she has the option to leave legally.

Author Julia Cooke arrived in Cuba as a student and began interviewing Havana locals for a book about her experiences in the 1990s. Post-Fidel was not post-Castro, as his brother, Raul, had stepped into his place. Some policies necessarily changed with the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the ensuing Special Period in Cuban history impacted how the general population looked at their home with respect to the rest of the world. Many Cubans are choosing to leave if they are able.

Reluctant Exodus

Cooke is careful to make sure that Cuban frustration with living standards and employment opportunities doesn’t get mistaken for general dislike for Cuba, especially Havana. None of the people Cooke meets who are considering leaving (or do leave) do so for ideological reasons. They have a deep affection for their culture; indeed, this author’s commitment to rich description assists the reader in appreciating some glimmer of this feeling for an island often dismissed from American consciousness with the name “Fidel Castro”, the idea of cigars, and a few textbook sentences about the Bay of Pigs. Raw economics have driven these people to contemplate making lives elsewhere, not politics and not religion.

Despite the sense one might get from American news media, the United States isn’t necessarily the universally preferred destination. Many Cubans live all over South America and other parts of the world. Sure, the Clinton administration’s “wet foot, dry foot” policy brought many Cubans into the United States if they sneaked onto a boat, survived the passage between Cuba and southern Florida, and made it past the Coast Guard. However, the general feeling about America is unquestionably negative: capitalist and prone to excess. If tempted to seek a life abroad from their island nation, many Cubans will choose another destination. So much for the tired stereotype that everyone in Cuba wants to move to Miami.

Many Cubans find it simpler to “defect” to a country with which their government has a warmer relationship. Some leave by taking a career opportunity and never returning home, like the ballerinas in the Cuban dance troupe who disappeared when it was time to go home from the Brazilian tour. Some Cuban students study abroad and put down roots in Chile, Ecuador or another South American country. During Cooke’s stay in Cuba, an accomplished jazz musician she meets considers making his way to Europe.

Other Lessons and a Sense of Place

There are some surprises in Cooke’s book for the reader new to Cuban history and culture. For example, she emphasizes the central role of the arts in Cuban culture. The government sponsors development of Cuban arts: music, dance and the visual arts. She tells us that sports, too, are a source of Cuban national pride, although the reader might be surprised to notice that she barely mentions baseball. The accomplished musician she meets had his talents nurtured with state-funded schooling, an indication of this relatively poor nation’s commitment to the arts.

I struggled with writing this review despite having an overall positive impression of the book. In many of my reviews, I summarize and highlight some important moments in the narrative. This book doesn’t particularly have a story arc and feels more like gossiping about mutual Cuban acquaintances over the course of a year or so. If you read this book, then come to it hoping to absorb a mood, a sense of the place, rather than collecting facts about it. Cooke plainly has a deep affection for Havana and hopes to impart some of that warm regard to her readers. She also succeeds in creating rich portraits for the people she meets: their ambitions and frustrations with their island home prevent her book from reading too much like a love letter to pre-Revolution Havana. The casual writing style makes this book go quickly, so pack another if you travel with it.

Photo by Mariana Mercado, August 2014. Source: Pixabay.com.

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