The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion How to understand Cuba beyond Castro

Michael Bustamante is an assistant professor of Latin American history at Florida International University.

'I am Fidel! I am Fidel! " Cubans chanted as they memorialized Fidel Castro this past week. Indeed, much of the country's history since the 1959 revolution is seen as an extension of Castro himself. Still, the Cuban revolution is more than the story of one man's hold on a population. These works are useful for understanding the country he leaves behind.

On Becoming Cuban: Identity, Nationality, and Culture,” by Louis A. Pérez Jr.

All revolutions have origin stories. Cuba’s is linked to the island’s “mortgaged” independence from Spain in 1898 and the heavy-handed U.S. intervention that followed. This book shows that, actually, the relationship between the United States and Cuba involved both love and hate. Pérez argues that the revolution of 1959 was initially less a rejection of U.S. values than of Cuban governments that failed to make those values a reality for all.

Visions of Power in Cuba: Revolution, Redemption, and Resistance, 1959-1971,” by Lillian Guerra

The best treatment of the first decade of the revolution in power, this study shows the degree to which island citizens welcomed the destruction of pre-revolutionary institutions such as an independent press. Guerra also rescues the stories of Cubans — from forgotten filmmakers to the editors of a little-known communist humor magazine — advancing personal visions of what revolution should mean, and often becoming “unintended dissidents.”

Unfinished Spaces,” directed by Alysa Nahmias and Benjamin Murray

In 1961, after jokingly playing a round of golf at the former Havana Country Club, Castro proposed creating the foremost art schools in the world there. Architects Ricardo Porro (Cuban), Vittorio Garrati (Italian) and Roberto Gottardi (Italian) drafted ambitious plans; construction commenced. By 1965, however, authorities had labeled the avant-garde designs excessive and impractical. This film tells of the frustrated architects and of the art students who found refuge from mounting political orthodoxies, anti-intellectual sentiment and homophobia within the “unfinished spaces.”

Memories of Underdevelopment,” directed by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea

Set between the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban missile crisis, this film follows a character who neither identifies with his bourgeois inheritance nor embraces the revolutionary mobilization. While viewers were meant to hate him as a dilettante, his monologues resonated years later. The description of Havana as a city “of cardboard” seemed especially apt amid the urban decay of the 1990s.

Madhouse: Psychiatry and Politics in Cuban History,” by Jennifer Lambe

In this forthcoming history, Cuba’s foremost insane asylum serves as a window into the revolutionary state. Established in the late colonial period, it became a site to be newly cleansed and reformed after 1959. Through the stories of patients, physicians and political reeducators, “Madhouse” shows how Cubans “infused” the facility, and the revolution , with “their own fears, dreams, and alternate meanings.”

Picturing Havana: History, Vision, and the Scramble for Cuba,” by Ana Mariá Dopico, in Nepantla: Views From South, Volume 3, Issue 3

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba's gross domestic product plummeted by one-third and the island experienced a devastating economic crisis. Dopico analyzes the work of outside photographers in this period who treated Cuba as a place whose living ruins could be visually consumed. Talk these days of wanting to see Cuba "before it changes" will seem like deja vu.

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

Cooke’s trenchant reporting shows how, even in the context of slow reform under Raúl Castro , the legacies of that economic crisis — from the black market and dual currencies to ideological confusion — remain.

Lucha tu yuca Taíno,” Ray Fernández

Fernández’s most famous song, about an indigenous Cuban “fighting for his cassava” against his chief, winks at the contours of Cuban political power.

Twitter: @MJ_Busta

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