Cuban Perestroika

Tracing the decline of socialism through the lives of ordinary Cubans.

revolutionary mural, Havana, 20th century.
Revolutionary mural, Havana, 20th century. Bridgeman Images.

In 2010 Fidel Castro told a US journalist: ‘The [Cuban] model doesn’t even work for us anymore.’ Castro, who had retired two years earlier, was admitting that the government needed to loosen its strict control over the economy. After half a century, Cuba’s socialist state could not survive without private capital. 

In How Things Fall Apart: What Happened to the Cuban Revolution Elizabeth Dore – who died in May this year – uses oral histories to trace the decline of Cuban socialism. She recounts the lives of ordinary Cubans who were raised in the relative plenty of the 1980s, suffered the hardships that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union and endured the inequality that emerged following the economic reforms hinted at by Castro in 2010. For Dore, this Cuban perestroika destroyed the basic tenets of the Revolution.

The government promised that reducing its role in the economy, promoting tourism and legalising the private sector would bring island-wide prosperity. Instead, the benefits of the reforms were mainly enjoyed by wealthier, white Cubans who received remittances from family in Florida. They used the capital to build small enterprises, often in tourism – an industry that offered riches to those who spoke foreign languages, had homes with spare rooms in tourist towns, or had a car. Sometimes the new employers promoted discrimination. One of Dore’s interviewees, an Afro-Cuban man called Mario, showed her a job advertisement in a gentrifying part of Havana: ‘Waitress needed. Preferably white, twenty to twenty-five years old, ideally blonde and blue eyed.’

Those left out of the tourism boom were doubly hit. Dore explains that ‘state sector jobs were hard to come by and didn’t pay a living wage’. Thus began a cycle of inequality in which, to meet everyday needs, corruption became commonplace. According to Mario, ‘it used to be that people wanted to have one doctor and one lawyer in the family. Now they want a butcher and someone who works in a company or a hotel. It doesn’t matter if they are a driver or a chambermaid, what’s important is they can steal. If they can’t steal at least they will get tips in hard currency’.

Low-earning state employees had no option but to take bribes. Alejandro, an engineer who graduated first in his class, explains that he has to be at home on the one day a week his neighbourhood receives water so that he can fill his own tank: ‘The state employees who drive the water trucks don’t come to our house because other people pay higher bribes, and the drivers have to take the bribes because they can’t live on their salaries.’

Some of the most marginalised people in Cuba are the island’s internal migrants. Alina, the director of the documentary Buscándote Havana (Looking For You, Havana), filmed migrants from the east living in flimsy shacks in illegal settlements or in open sewers. As relocation between provinces is strictly controlled, the migrants became, in effect, undocumented. They were denied the state ration and their children were not allowed to go to school. A civil servant told one migrant mother: ‘In the eyes of the Revolution your baby does not exist. We can’t give her milk because she doesn’t have an identity card.’

Outside Cuba, criticism of the government usually focuses on abuse of civil liberties. Although Alina’s camera was confiscated and almost all her footage deleted, one of Dore’s major contributions is to explain that, for most Cubans, these issues are of lesser importance: 

Almost everyone we interviewed griped about prices, housing, food shortages, salaries – material difficulties, and few complained about the lack of democracy – censorship, repression, and undemocratic elections.

The testimony of Dore’s characters is compelling. She also provides helpful context, which is important because she is often sceptical about details in her interviewees’ stories (‘He paused, perhaps weighing up how far he could stretch the truth, or what he shouldn’t say’). Sometimes, however, Dore struggles to balance her contributions with the interviewees’ monologues, interjecting to include clarifications or corrections to the language of gender and race. Although academically rigorous, these incisions truncate the narrative and mollify the often brilliant primary sources.

Dore is sympathetic to the Cuban Revolution, but critical of its turn to the free market. Her conclusion – that the reforms of the 2010s recreated the fierce inequality of the pre-revolutionary era – is convincing. The Castros knew that liberalisation would create wealth, but thought it would save the Revolution. Instead, Dore argues, it destroyed what had been a basically egalitarian society.

How Things Fall Apart: What Happened to the Cuban Revolution
Elizabeth Dore
Head of Zeus 304pp £9.99
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Daniel Rey is a writer and critic based in New York.