DePalma, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, has a great nose for a story and the talent to bring it to life. He spent more than three years researching this book, and the result is an immersive and compelling read. DePalma also has a very personal connection to his subject: his wife, Miriam, was spirited out of Cuba, aged just eight, shortly after Castro took power. As he notes, it is all too easy, especially given the outsize personalities of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, to ‘fall into the trap of thinking about huge events like revolutions on a grand scale and forgetting that real people are involved, that what happens on history-changing levels seeps down to local streets and utterly transforms the lives of not only presidents and generals, but sassy eight-year-old girls’. In writing The Cubans, DePalma wanted to ‘reach beyond the myths, to show the real Cuba and the real Cubans who live there, to pull back the curtain on Cuba’s long-running political theater and concentrate on the people who were living the lives that Miriam might have lived had her grandma not carried her away’. In this, he has succeeded brilliantly.
It’s not quite true to say that The Cubans seemingly confirms that this is an island of dead-end lives. In one telling moment, Cary’s son Oscar, a prime exhibit of younger Cubans’ “seething nihilism”, glimpses the nouveau riche wealth of the island’s communist managers-turned-capitalists. They travel abroad, live well, wear expensive jewellery and remain confident (probably with good reason) that US pressure can do little to affect them. The stories of their privileged lives, kept deliberately discreet by both themselves and the state, remain largely untold.
DePalma has written a moving and rich account of a people who are often treated — by admirers of the revolution and anti-communists — as historical flotsam in a struggle between states and ideas. “It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking about huge events like revolutions on a grand scale and forgetting that real people are involved,” he writes. In avoiding this trap, DePalma’s book is overflowing with warmth and humanity — much like the Cuban people.
This book’s underlying theme is the betrayal, of an ideal: how a noble promise of equality for all became privilege for the few at the expense of the many. But also how the dignity of the Cuban people has prevailed in the worst of times – always hoping, fruitlessly, for the best.