The baby’s name is Gema Hernández Perez, and she’s “very pretty,” boasts her father, Gerardo Hernández. Gema was born in January in Havana and owes her existence not only to her parents, but also to historical forces — and a 75-year-old Vermonter. That would be Senator Patrick Leahy, who went on a peace-making mission to Cuba in early 2013 and was approached by Adriana Perez O’Connor, then 44; her husband was sitting in a U.S. prison, as one of the “Cuban Five” spy ring. She wanted permission to obtain a sperm sample from Hernandez and bear their child before it was too late.
After lobbying by Leahy and his staff, Washington allowed the sample to be transported to Cuba, and Perez became pregnant; the good faith gesture was duly noted by Raúl Castro. Soon after, President Obama released the Cuban Five; back-channel talks took place in Canada; and Castro released Alan Gross, the State Department contractor jailed in Cuba since 2009 for illegally bringing telecommunications gear to Havana’s Jewish community. Two roadblocks, gone like that.
Historical change is sometimes undeniably tied to generational change, and our brand new day with Cuba bears this out. As President Obama said last month: “I’m not interested in having battles that frankly started before I was born.” So it’s only fitting that I open with a book from Generation Y, the dissident Cuban blog — “this raft made of binary code” — founded by the activist Yoani Sánchez. Her “Havana Real: One Woman Fights to Tell the Truth About Cuba Today” (Melville House, English translation 2011) speaks for the generation who came of age after the U.S.S.R. collapsed. This devastated Cuba (the Soviets supplied 80 percent of Cuban imports) and marked the start of the “special period in a time of peace,” to cite Fidel Castro’s Orwellian term. So why the Y? In the tightly controlled ’70s and ’80s, “one small area of freedom was left unsupervised; the simple act of naming children,” writes Sánchez, and those starting with Y led the trend (Yanisleidi, Yusimi, etc.).
The book unflinchingly recounts the Special Period and after: the food ration cards, the “hamburgers” made of fried grapefruit rinds, the convicts who opted to have their teeth pulled since the prison soft diet was more nutritious than the standard one. But “Havana Real” also plumbs the slog and chess game of daily life for Cubans, from the knack for repairing elderly appliances to the constant insinuations of the propaganda state. In 2008, Time Magazine named Sánchez one of the world’s 100 most influential people. “Without aspiring to utopias,” she writes, “our generation is firmly planted on the ground, inoculated against social dreams.”
Our man (or woman) in Havana can’t know privations quite like the natives — foreigners get special privileges, which Cubans dub “tourism apartheid” — but the young writer Julia Cooke comes close in “The Other Side of Paradise: Life in the New Cuba” (Seal Press, 2014). During the first half of the 1990s, perhaps the worst part of the Special Period, Cubans lost an average of 5-25 percent of their body weight, reports Cooke, who keeps her eyes open to this continuing culture of indignities met by ingenuities. She meets one woman who churned butter from black-market milk, for instance, and another who stuffs pillows with obsolete VHS film tape, since actual stuffing is a rarity.
You could go reductionist here: American plenty/good versus Cuban scarcity/bad. But Cooke also points out that the Cuban infant mortality rate is lower than ours. And, under Castro’s socialism, Cuba’s literacy rate rose to 99 percent (in nearby capitalist Haiti, it’s 52.9 percent). Meanwhile, Cooke is touched by the hardscrabble humor and grace of everyone she meets, from Marxist philosophy students, to Santería trainees, to prostitutes.
Sánchez and Cooke are impressionistic, but Julia E. Sweig goes comprehensive in “Cuba: What Everyone Needs to Know” (Oxford University, 2013, first out in 2009). The former director for Latin America studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, Sweig makes for smart company, with a fine taste for the surreal (I love the scene where she and Fidel Castro visit the Cuban national aquarium together). The book is one big Q&A (“How did the United States and Cuba resolve the 1994 refugee crisis?” “How did Cuba cope with HIV/AIDS?”), and it covers a lot of terra. No wonder Cubans are sensitive to American condescension, given its long arc; John Quincy Adams called Cuba and Puerto Rico “natural appendages” of North America. And no wonder they’re proud of their world-renowned health care system, “one of the revolution’s flagship achievements.”
Sweig gazed at glassed-in dolphins with Castro; Marc Frank ticked off el comandante when he outed the bad sugar cane harvest of 2006. Frank’s “Cuban Revelations: Behind the Scenes In Havana” (University Press of Florida, 2013) offers 25 years of reportage and commentary, hauling up a sort of core sample of telling details. How, during the Special Period, ladies used the black powder from batteries to dye their hair, how job security is mandated in the Cuban Constitution, how mortgages are capped at 10 percent of the top breadwinner’s income, and how “paternalism, passivity, and pilfering” are giving way to a system a bit more like ours, with winners and losers, innovation, taxes, the whole thing.
Cuban exiles write of their native land with a sweet-sour mash of nostalgia and invective, while locals (Yoani Sánchez excepted) can’t afford to say anything negative. That leaves a reality vacuum, and it’s been filled, with mixed success, by Yanqui quasi-travel books. One of the better ones is Tom Miller’s “Trading With the Enemy: A Yankee Travels Through Castro’s Cuba” (Basic, 2008, first out in 1992). He had me at hola: “Havana knew me by my shoes” is the book’s first sentence, meaning Miller’s Nikes mark him as an outsider since Cubans only wear flimsy Chinese-made sneakers. Like Cooke, he meets all sorts on this “heartbreakingly lovely’’ island by waiting on line to buy goods, or by taking oboe lessons with a Cuban symphonist, or by hanging out with a muralist who reminisces about Che Guevara (“he was the electricity that charged us all”).
I’ll end with two titles on the more academic side. Lars Schoultz, a political scientist at the University of North Carolina, reminds us that Cuba is 90 miles away and its economy is 1/250th of ours, yet it still won’t bend to our will — which has galled every president, including Theodore Roosevelt, who supplied the title for Schoultz’s “That Infernal Little Cuban Republic: The United States and the Cuban Revolution” (University of North Carolina, 2009). Infernal is nothing compared to other slurs cited here, like this gem from Alexander Haig to Ronald Reagan: “You just give me the word and I’ll turn that . . . island into a parking lot.”
Call in the couples therapist: Cuba feels perennially disrespected, while the United States feels ever-stung by ingratitude (“We are only here to help you,” as President Taft once implored). But at least we haven’t quit therapy altogether; for, it turns out, both parties have secretly been trying to save the marriage all along, according to “Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations Between Washington and Havana” (University of North Carolina, 2014). By ranging through years of declassified files, William M. LeoGrande and Peter Kornbluh discovered how each president has tried to de-escalate privately, while posturing publicly. For tactics, most nibbled around the edges: Carter led off with Cuban-American fishing boundaries, Obama talked of narcotics control.
Even so, the authors hold that incrementalism is a losing game; every time lag gets filled with setbacks or bruised feelings: “Ten presidents before [Obama] have tried in vain to untie this Gordian knot.” But generational change is loosening the strands. In a recent poll of Cuban-Americans, for instance, 69 percent of those 18-29 approved of normalizing relations with Cuba, versus 38 percent of those over age 65. And now, in his final term, Obama no longer has to court the Cuban voting bloc in the prize electoral state of Florida. It gives you hope — hope for the world Gema Hernández Perez has enabled, and inherited.
Katharine Whittemore is a freelance writer based in Northampton. She can be reached at katharine.whittemore@