With sunsets crawling across decaying buildings, salsa music trailing from 1950s vintage cars and tales of debaucherous nights at the Tropicana, the country of Cuba — or its outward image — captivates.
This prefab, consumable version of daily life is romantic but far from reality. Now, with more Americans than ever visiting the island (despite the late 2017 political contention), it’s easy to kick back on a rooftop bar with live music and the tingle of rum and cola on your lips and conclude Cuba is either a revolutionary feat or a hellhole of tropical torture. Luckily, there are writers telling the stories of a more complex Cuba, which go beyond dichotomies and thoughtfully examine work, love and the behind-the-scenes economics in the country today.
So while this is not an exhaustive list, here are some key books to read before you go.
The Other Side of Paradise: Life in the New Cuba by Julia Cooke
This researched memoir illuminates, in a breathtakingly literary way, the daily struggles, joys and contradictions of the lives of the last generation to grow up under Fidel Castro in Havana. While also touching on important moments in contemporary Cuban history, Cooke uses seven interviewees to illustrate aspects of modern Cuban society — from jineterismo (swindling or prostitution) to practicing Santeria (an Afro-Caribbean religion) to representing Cuba as an international musician. It’ll make you wonder what side hustles your tour guide gets up to and what tricks are keeping your 1950s taxi running.
From Cuba With Love recounts the murky intersection between race, state intervention and the exploitative nature of sex-buying foreigners.
Cuba on the Verge: 12 Writers on Continuity and Change in Havana and Across the Country edited by Leila Guerriero
This is the book where you’ll find “deep Cuba,” explains Cuban journalist Abraham Jiménez Enoa. Here are stories by 12 writers — six Cuban, six foreigners — that explore versions of contemporary Cuban history often left undiscussed, such as long-distance relationships split by tight borders and a cultural love of baseball. Told through multiple perspectives, the stories represented in this book humanize the people who live these realities.
From Cuba With Love: Sex and Money in the Twenty-First Century by Megan Daigle
Guidebooks, locals and fellow tourists will warn you: Stay away from jineteros. But who are they, and how does the world of jineterismo function? Megan Daigle’s book of what she calls “sex-affective relations between Cubans and foreigners” recounts the murky intersection between race, state intervention and the exploitative nature of sex-buying foreigners. Yes, you might tire of the sex propositions along Havanna’s malecón (esplanade), but at least they’ll come with much more context.
Geographies of Cubanidad: Place, Race, and Musical Performance in Contemporary Cuba by Rebecca Bodenheimer
Throughout Havana, you’ll hear talented musicians replicating versions of Buena Vista’s Social Club tunes and see dancers articulating movements in a fury of fast motion. Journalist and independent academic Rebecca Bodenheimer’s book examines Cuban music and its role in shaping identity, race and place — what it means to exude “Cubanness,” Cubanidad. Through case studies of Havana, Matanzas and Santiago de Cuba, Bodenheimer discusses musical authenticity and how the revolution’s ideals of national unity contrast with the underlying reality of musical regionalism and songs whose lyrics are embedded with social tensions. You’ll never hear “Guantanamera” the same way again.
La Tribu by Carlos Manuel Álvarez Rodríguez
Available only in Spanish, this book is “the Cuban bible of our time,” a must-read for anyone who “truly wants to know the real Cuba,” according to Enoa. Cuban journalist Carlos Manuel Álvarez Rodríguez, who also contributed to Cuba on the Verge, tells the story of the fundamental shifts in U.S.–Cuban relations and Cuban society in 2014-2016. Sad, celebratory and fascinating, this book gives tourists an in-depth context to the ironic and juxtaposed society they’re stepping into.
- Trading With the Enemy: A Yankee Travels Through Castro’s Cuba by Tom Miller
- This Is Cuba: An Outlaw Culture Survives by Ben Corbett
- Cuba Represent!: Cuban Arts, State Power, and the Making of New Revolutionary Cultures by Sujatha Fernandes
- Sexual Revolutions in Cuba: Passion, Politics and Memory by Carrie Hamilton
Explore the world
This year, OZY is going Around the World, bringing you untold stories from every single country on the map, one day at a time, to introduce you to new people, new trends and new places.