Much of what we in the United States know about Cuba is in the form of stereotypes, often cartoonish and unrevealing: there is Fidel (the dictator); and Raúl (no different from Fidel). But of course, how things work in Cuba is in fact nuanced and complex. The recent thaw in U.S.-Cuban relations has opened up new possibilities for Americans to acquire a sense of what Cuba is really like.
Marc Frank is one of the few Americans who has lived in Cuba long enough to have a deep understanding of the country. But more than that—he can interpret Cuba for Americans in a way that makes it possible to understand how it works and where things do not work at all; which political leaders are viewed as credible and legitimate and why that is so. Frank, a reporter for Reuters, has been living and working in Cuba for nearly three decades, and he is considered the dean of the foreign press corps in Havana. This has given him an understanding of the country that few foreigners can claim.
Cuban Revelations: Behind the Scenes in Havana is a vivid, engaging exploration of Cuban politics, culture and economic life. Frank witnessed the collapse of the economy in the early 1990s and the desperation that gripped the entire population. He captures the complicated relationship between the state and Cuba’s religious communities; the movements of the state as it scrambles in the face of one crisis after another; Cuba’s artistic and intellectual life; Cuba’s foreign relations and its role in the region; Cuba’s history and the ways daily life in the country is permeated by a deep sense of history.
Frank also has personal roots in Cuba. His grandfather went to Cuba in the 1960s and wrote a book on it, after decades of writing about Latin America. Frank married into a Cuban family and raised two daughters in Cuba. He has a deep feeling for the country, but that is not to say that he is an apologist. Frank writes: “Discontent runs deep in Cuba, where no one has made a living wage for two decades.” He describes the heavy-handed tactics of the state and does not shy away from describing the state as repressive. But at the same time, he points out that the nature of the Cuban state’s repression is rather different from what is portrayed in the United States. The “official” dissidents who are touted in the United States and elsewhere are for the most part marginal and within Cuba are widely viewed as corrupt and ineffectual. There is far more political space than we would think, and it works rather differently than we would expect. The Cuban mass media have often been quite narrow and limited. But, as Frank shows, the views expressed by filmmakers, artists and intellectuals are diverse and often sharply critical of the state.
Cuban Revelations also makes clear that Cuba must be understood in part through the lens of its turbulent relationship with the United States. There is a generation of political exiles in Miami, marked by bitterness and obsession. There is an economic embargo, more than a half century old, which undermines Cuba’s access to everything from Braille printers to science conferences to global financial institutions. Every Cuban child knows about the Platt Amendment of 1901, in which the U.S. government authorized itself to intervene at will in Cuba, while few Americans have ever heard of it. There are family members in the two countries who have not seen each other in decades, sometimes out of rancor, sometimes because of visa denials and the ever-changing travel restrictions. At the same time, U.S. politics are influenced by the outsized influence of the Cuban American community, which has more representation in Congress than any other immigrant population, as well as a strong grip on Florida’s electoral votes in any presidential election.
Frank also explores the complicated relationship between the Cuban state and the Cuban Catholic Church, which is the largest organized body in Cuba apart from the state. In the period after the revolution, the church was deeply antagonistic to the state. Jaime Ortega, now the cardinal, was subjected to a “re-education” camp in the 1960s and has long been an outspoken critic. But the relationship of the state and the church has become increasingly civil, particularly since the visit of St. John Paul II in 1998. The first diplomat received by Raúl Castro upon assuming the presidency in 2010 was Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, the Vatican’s foreign minister. Relations between the state and the Catholic Church are now quite cordial, with the church providing a voice that both carries moral weight and also has the respect of the state. In 2010, Cardinal Ortega played a critical role in negotiating the release of the dissidents arrested in the crackdown in 2003. The Catholic Church in Cuba has, for the last several years, been a respected advocate for reform. It played a central role in brokering the recent exchange of prisoners and the reopening of diplomatic relations.
But perhaps the book’s greatest strength lies in making sense of Cuba’s economy, including the implications of the dual currency system. If you have not lived in Cuba, then it is hard to fathom exactly how the dual currency system works, much less how much it shapes everyone’s lives. Frank does a superb job of capturing the state’s profound ambivalence about ceding control over the economy. Even for those who follow Cuba, the economic policies can seem like a sequence of baffling and unpredictable measures—licenses for home barber shops are offered, then cancelled, then offered again, then cancelled again. Cuba eagerly pursued foreign investment with scores of new trade partners, then jettisoned many of them and focused much of its trade in large-scale partnerships with allies, particularly China and Venezuela, and more recently Brazil.
Frank also shows that, while the U.S. embargo creates an endless series of obstacles and burdens, Cuba’s economic difficulties are at least equally rooted in the tremendously inefficient practices that have been in place for decades. Cuba’s efforts at economic reform are tied to everything else—the emigration of Cuba’s best and brightest, the corruption, the sense of uncertainty that young Cubans have about their future. At the same time, the economic reforms are sending shock waves throughout the population, particularly the massive layoffs and reduction in food subsidies. As Frank points out, Cuba has long been the most egalitarian society in Latin America. But the inequalities have grown since the economic crisis, and Frank provides a clear sense of how that has occurred and what it means for the Cuban population.
In his portrayal of Cuba’s economic life, as well as throughout the book, Frank gives us insights supported by considerable research and analysis that is sharp and compelling. Cuban Revelations offers fine storytelling through the lens of Frank’s life and work and does much to bring its readers an understanding that is both vivid and deeply substantial about this remarkable country.