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Volume 11, No. 5—July/August 2001  
Table of contents for this issue  

We asked five scholars to recommend the best recent books on Cuba.

Roberto González Echevarría, professor of Hispanic and comparative literature at Yale University and author of The Pride of Havana: A History of Cuban Baseball (Oxford, 1999).

"The best book by a Cuban exile is Mi vida saxual (Editorial Plaza Mayor, 1998), a memoir by the great jazz saxophonist Paquito D'Rivera. Miraculously, D'Rivera's musical talents—his pitch, his tone, his sense of rhythm, his Bach-like capacity for interweaving motifs—carry over into his prose. But what is most captivating is his insider account of the world of Latin music, a world whose racial, economic, and social borders he crosses with a passport stamped by talent and dedication. D'Rivera writes engagingly about the social and musical interaction of players from Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Argentina, Mexico, the United States, and other countries. The book contains texts by other musicians and a tremendous CD featuring much of the music discussed in the book. Within Cuba itself, Pedro Juan Gutiérrez is changing the direction of Cuban literature. Dirty Havana Trilogy (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), just published in the United States, is a fine example of his so-called dirty realism. The book is a frank—some would say pornographic—depiction of marginal urban characters who survive in today's Cuba by selling sex. It is an underworld full of pathos, even tenderness, and Gutiérrez describes it in a deliberately artless way. Though such provocative subject matter has been known to make repressive governments nervous, Castro's cultural apparatus has left Gutiérrez alone, so far."  

Eric Hershberg, Latin America program director at the Social Science Research Council and co-editor of Constructing Democracy: Human Rights, Citizenship, and Society in Latin America (Westview, 1996).

"American tourists are flocking to Cuba in numbers unseen for decades. American students, intellectuals, and journalists are ubiquitous in Havana today, their presence endorsed by Washington policy makers who expect the Castro regime to collapse once Cubans are exposed to the so-called American way of life. But as Louis A. Pérez Jr. makes clear in his masterful book On Becoming Cuban: Identity, Nationality, and Culture (North Carolina, 1999), Cubans were exposed to the American way of life for decades before the revolution. Pérez's exhaustive study spans everything from baseball to music to consumption patterns to religious practices; he provides countless examples of the ways Cuban culture has been influenced by the habits of its huge neighbor across the Straits of Florida. Pérez stops his tale in 1960, but his historical perspective on the formation of Cuban identity helps explain Cubans' ongoing fascination with Americana despite a political context that would seem to discourage it. Cubans have not lost their thirst for Hollywood, professional baseball teams, and the latest stars in contemporary music or fashion. Pérez also shows us, however, that this open invitation to American cultural influence has not extended to political and economic matters. In those domains, the United States has been able to prevail in Cuba only through coercion." 

Timothy Brennan, professor of cultural studies and comparative literature at the University of Minnesota and editor of Alejo Carpentier's Music in Cuba (Minnesota, 2001).

"Most of the best recent books about Cuba have been written by Cubans and are about Cuban music. Unfortunately, these books are rarely translated, and they rarely appear in high-profile editions. Many U.S. and European books merely attempt to cash in on the island's current trendiness in an age of cigar tourism and Ry Cooder-stoked romanticism. One exception is the brilliant urbanography Havana: Two Faces of the Antillean Metropolis (Wiley, 1997) by Roberto Segre, Mario Coyula, and Joseph L. Scarpaci. An exciting portrait of one of Latin America's most important cities, Havana takes us beyond the usual coffee-table-book photos of crumbling eighteenth-century archways, emphasizing instead the private experience of Havana's denizens. After assembling two definitive anthologies—AfroCuba: An Anthology of Cuban Writing on Race, Politics, and Culture (Ocean Press, 1992) and No Longer Invisible: Afro-Latin Americans Today (Minority Rights Group, 1995)—Pedro Pérez Sarduy and Jean Stubbs recently published Afro-Cuban Voices: On Race and Identity in Contemporary Cuba (Florida, 2000). This trilogy may be the most important English- language study of Cuba published in the last decade. Though they refuse to idealize the state of race relations in Cuba, Pérez Sarduy and Stubbs nonetheless demonstrate that there, more than anywhere else in the New World, blacks have found individual and collective success and occupy real positions of power. The trilogy is at once theoretical and archival, filled with moving personal testimonies by black Cubans." 

Esther Allen, translator and editor of José Mart": Collected Works (Penguin Classics, forthcoming).

"'Has any individual in U.S. history been so famous in his day, and now so forgotten, as Narciso López?' asks Tom Chaffin in Fatal Glory: Narciso López and the First Clandestine U.S. War Against Cuba (Virginia, 1996). With considerable verve, Chaffin tells the strange and illuminating story of López, a Venezuelan-born Cuban who in the mid-nineteenth century advocated the U.S. annexation of Cuba. In 1848, at the conclusion of the Mexican War, López worked with a group of wealthy Cubans to convince the U.S. government to offer up to $100 million to buy Cuba from Spain. (Senator Jefferson Davis, for one, took great interest in the plan: Cuba would have entered the Union as a slave state.) Spain refused the offer, and soon threw López out of Cuba for his part in a conspiracy—he had tried to persuade U.S. troops exiting Mexico to make a brief detour to 'liberate' Cuba before returning home. López spent the next couple of years in the United States, drumming up recruits and popular support for an invasion of Cuba. After a maneuver in 1850 during which he and five hundred American Southerners occupied the Cuban city of Cárdenas for all of a day, he became a famous figure in the United States, greeted by cheering crowds wherever he went. In 1851, he and a group of recruits attempted another invasion and were immediately captured by Spanish troops. Fifty-one of the Americans were put to death by a firing squad, and López was garroted. Chaffin's book is a timely and powerful reminder that relations between the United States and Cuba were complex and tortured long before the Cold War." 

John Palattella

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