IT IS A SHAME that a fog of controversy clouds these books, for it will tend to obscure their contribution to our understanding of life in contemporary Cuba. In 1969, Fidel Castro invited Oscar Lewis (the urban anthropologist, author of The Children of Sanchez and La Vida, studies of the "culture of poverty" in Mexico and Puerto Rico) to come to Cuba and study the impact of the revolution on the island. The ease with which the State Department granted visas to Lewis and his team and the generous funding of the Ford Foundation, aroused the suspicions of some members of the Cuban leadership (this was at the height of the CIA's secret war against Cuba). Castro, however, prevailed and Lewis and his team were allowed to spend 16 months in Cuba, after which, accused of interviewing counterrevolutionaries and of espionage, they were asked to leave. One of the men interviewed by Lewis was jailed, and Lewis himself died of a heart attack a few months later. As a result of all this, there is considerable bitterness on both sides. The first two volumes, Four Men and Four women, consist of transcriptions of taped interviews with eight principal informants and many secondary ones who tell the stories of their lives, and indirectly the story of Cuba from pre-Batista days to 1970. After Lewis's death, his widow and Susan M. Rigdon, a research associate at the University of Illinois, organized the taped interviews into three volumes. (Four Men is out now, Four Women will be available at the end of September, and a third volume, Neighbors, is scheduled to appear in 1978.)
Four Men describes the lives of men from Las Yaguas, a wretched slum of Havana that Lewis, familiar with the slums of India, described as "one of the worst I have ever seen." The slum comprised about a thousand palm-bark shacks thrown together along endless passage ways rife with open sewage and garbage. The people ate once a day, usually soup; children's clothes were made of boiled sugar sacks. For most of the men of Las Yaguas the rebel insurrection against Batista was a distant affair, irrevelant to the turmoil and anxiety of their lives. In this, they are in sharp contrast to the informants of volume two, who unlike the men of the lumpenproletariat are mostly working or middle-class women. The latter are not only acutely aware of the rebellion but have relatives and friends who were tortured and killed by Batista's police. One of the women even helped the underground. For these women, life has a purpose, a structure. Not so for the men whose lives, especially before the revolution, were a chaotic purgatory of meaningless events and hostile forces.
The appalling values of these male slum-dwellers, their racism, sexism, and assorted barbarisms, their guile and ingenuity, are actually the distorted reflection, the caricature if you will, of the Latin American urban ethos. The cult of the city slicker, the sharpie macho who has all the answers and outsmarts his dumb country cousin, is pervasive throughout Latin America. The Cuban Revolution, like the Chinese but unlike the Russian, is based on a profound rejection of these urban values and a longing for a rural and utopian code not altogether different from the American frontier ethic; one of neighborliness, hard work, and share-and-share alike.
Although harsh and extensive criticism of the system is voiced throughout these volumes, there is no doubt that almost all of those interviewed perceive the revolution as largely beneficial to their country as well as to themselves. Indeed, one comes to the realization that whether for good or ill, the Cuban Revolution has brought about some of the most massive and radical (in every sense of the word) changes of any country in the hemisphere. Central to this phenomenon is Che Guevara's concept about the revolution as shaper of a "new man." Almost all of the informants discuss at length their own attempts, successes and failures at becoming these "new men and women," which one of them describes as someone who "will not live in evil but will enjoy what is good." As noted by Lewis and Rigdon, the heart of the new morality is not in the absence of old vices but in the insistence on new virtues. Unlike the Western pursuit of self-realization and self-fulfillment, in Cuba becoming "new men and women" is a sort of massive and collective exercise led by Fidel.
When the informants attempt to explain to the authors why Cubans are so partial to their santos (literally saints, but much more since they embrace not only the Catholic variety but a host of African spirits or orishas ) one concludes that it must be because God is such a remote and static figure compared to these very human, battling and idiosyncratic Cuban icons. Indeed, the Cuban's worship of their santos is not unlike their veneration for Fidel --doubt large numbers of Cubans, including the subjects of these books, regard him as a savior. When a white dove alighted on Castro's shoulder during one of his rallies, it was interpreted as a supernatural sign. Like a true santo, Fidel may fail one at times, but overall he intercedes, protects from evil (American or otherwise), and leads toward the good.
There are some truly powerful and well translated passages, such as: Inocencia's idyllic childhood in Matanzas, Monica's account of the painful separation endured by most Cuban families, Pilar as a child helping her own mother abort a full-grown fetus, Pilar as an adult watching her classmates in the university cry when they realize what Pilar's life as a prostitute was like. Other passages, however, make one yearn for the Spanish original (jodido is a wonderfully rich and pejorative word that means much more than "screwed up"). But most sadly lacking from these 900 pages (except for a few instances) are any traces of that irresistible, irrepressible Cuban humor. Were all the informants that grim? Not likely.One detects on occasion the faintest trace of the old Cuban put-on of the gringo scientist with his earnest questions.
According to the interviewees, the two groups that have benefitted most from the revolution are, not surprisingly, blacks and women. It is also clear from what they say that it will be easier for the revolution to eradicate racism than sexism. Among the poor the worst insult is not "son of a whore" but "cuckold," because, among the destitute, women are the only property. There is even a Cuban epithet for that most contemptible of women --one who bears only daughters: hembrera.
In most other chronicles where the poor speak for themselves (Danilo Dolci's on Sicily, for example) the government is invariably perceived as either remote or malevolent. Not so in Castro's Cuba. True, the informants compain bitterly about shortages, inefficiency, corruption and other failures of the system, but the government itself is perceived as beneficial and positive, if often bumbling and ineffectual. Their explanation for the failures is that the government is made up of human beings who may not live up to, who may even betray, the revolution. For the revolution to these people is something else altogether, something above and beyond the government. Almost all of them describe the revolution as a sort of living epic, i.e. a great action carried out under heroic or supernatural guidance. In this sense, it is both a popular and national epic, but one which instead of embodying the conception of its own past, as the Iliad does, embodies the conception of its own future, a utopian future that will justify all the travails of the epic ordeal. In today's Cuba, the millenial impulse and the concept of struggle (lucha) are as central to this revolutionary epic as is the role of the hero, Fidel.