Thursday, April 24, 2014

Book Review: The Other Side of Paradise: Life in the New Cuba

Readers of this blog might remember my trip to Cuba in 2010. I experienced and shared a one-sided view of the country, the side officially presented to tourists. Julia Cooke recently published a book called The Other Side of Paradise: Life in the New Cuba in which she captured the reality of life in Cuba that I could not access. I just read it, and a review follows below.

The Other Side of Paradise: Life in the New Cuba by Julia Cooke is nothing short of the masterpiece. And by that, I refer to every part of it, starting with her obvious fluency in the local language and her ability to evade authorities and gain the trust of locals in order to capture the story, and then ending with her ability to translate her experiences into rich, descriptive language that captivates readers and transports them to Cuba.

The book focuses on young adults in Havana over a period of years between 2003 and 2012. Many are simply treading water, waiting until they can leave Cuba for Miami, Chile, Spain, or anywhere. Some are completing their government-mandated community service following college, and others are just drifting, after dropping out of high school, college, or their post-college jobs. Evading Cuban law is a way of survival, although many of the illegal activities are inconceivable to Americans, who would not imagine selling yogurt or renting a spare room could ever be illegal.

Cooke even captures the life of a jinetera, a Cuban sex worker who hangs around fancy hotels looking for foreign men to become her "amigos." She also attends a ritual of Santeria, the local African-inspired religion, and befriends a young man who works as a painter but wants to devote his life to Santeria instead. And she meets a few for whom the current system in Cuba works - an up and coming musician who travels the world, making money, and buying toys, which he brings home to Havana, and an ardent young Communist.

As many of these young people plot to leave Cuba, legally or otherwise, the demographics of the nation are changing. Only adults over age 18 can obtain exit visas, so having a child means recommitting yourself to life in Cuba for another 18 years or, for some, leaving their children behind in Cuba.

For me, Cooke's ability to penetrate the real Havana began in the opening scene, a seedy bar that serves cheap mojitos only a few blocks from the Hotel Nacional, which sells them for 15 times the price. Of course, the Hotel Nacional, where I stayed and drank countless mojitos, uses better ingredients - but few Cubans would spend one-fifth of a typical monthly salary to buy one.

The other side of Havana was hidden only a few blocks from the illusion of Havana tourists like me get to see, and yet I never encountered it. When I asked a Cuban friend what he thought the country would do after Fidel died, he told me that Fidel was so important to Cuba that they could not ever imagine a Cuba without him. Years later, over email, his attitude was different. I want to go to the United States. I want to be free. In his last email, he told me he's engaged to a Mexican woman and is leaving Cuba soon to be with her. This is a young man with a PhD, leaving his country and taking his excellent free education with him.

It's this story, young people's desire to leave Cuba for a better life, that Cooke captures so well. And yet, when they do leave, or even get close to leaving, a bit of reality and perhaps fear sets in. Cuba's deeply flawed, but what will life be like in the outside world, where you have to pay for your own healthcare and education? Where neighbors do not even know one another, and people drive alone, never stopping to pick up a friend who needs a ride or a stranger willing to pay a few bucks for a ride?

Cooke does not tell a monolithic story, but an incredibly nuanced and changing one. Because it does change. In the years after her visa expires and she moves off the island, Cooke comes back to find many changes. Careers like "tattoo artist" are now legal. The government no longer stops travelers to demand they provide their address while they stay in Cuba. Cubans can buy and sell houses and cars. Cubans no longer need difficult-to-obtain exit visas if they wish to leave. And Cubans who do leave can spend more time away without being considered a "defector" and losing their property in Cuba.

All in all, this is a fantastic book, and a tremendous accomplishment for Cooke, who encapsulates an era in Cuba that is now, to some extent, gone.

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