The Other Side of Paradise: Life in the New Cuba, by Julia Cooke (Seal Press)
The Other Side of Paradise offers a loosely structured, highly interesting portrait of the generation of Cubans currently coming of age. The author, Julia Cooke, has traveled to Cuba a number of times—most of this book is based upon a ten-month visit she paid there in 2009. She entered Cuba for this visit on a tourist, not a journalist, visa, which both aids and hinders her explorations. As a tourist, she’s under less scrutiny than a journalist would be and is able to spend time with a variety of Cuban citizens in a variety of locations—but she also runs the risk of being ejected from the country if it becomes clear her visit is primarily journalistic in nature, which limits the kinds of research and record-keeping she can do.
The Cuba she depicts is contradictory. Yes, literacy rates are high (99%), but college graduates have difficulty securing work appropriate to their educations, and unacknowledged racism exacerbates this problem. Cooke cites Esteban Morales Domínguez, a Cuban economist and political scientist, who found that while the country is populated by almost equal proportions of people of European descent, African descent, and mixed heritage “73 percent of scientists and technicians were white. Eighty percent of the professors at the University of Havana [are also white].” In contrast, Cooke notes Morales Domínguez’s data showing that “Blacks were unemployed at twice the rate of whites, which…led to more blackmarket activities, and therefore jails filled with 85 percent darker-skinned Cubans.”
A significant number of women in this Cuba rely on the support of foreigners euphemistically labeled amigos, and Cooke points out that “there aren’t many pimps or third-party intermediaries in the sex trade…. And few relationships between locals and foreigners are deemed prostitution.” In other words, prostitution is allowed to exist in practice, while being proscribed in theory.
This Cuba has a variety of thriving youth sub-cultures—the equivalent of our punk, emo, and grunge cultures. These groups exist outside the mainstream—clubs rarely play the kind of music they listen to, and clubs that do play such music are often quickly closed down. But the members of these sub-cultures gather nightly on particular streets or in particular parks, sharing their music, dancing, and talking until daylight.
Reading Cooke’s depiction of this modern Cuba didn’t leave me with a clear sense of the nation’s culture or its people—but this is as it should be. No nation is as simple as its archetypal citizen and, if relations between the U.S. and Cuba are ever to move beyond the current rhetoric and political stereotypes, we will need to come to an acknowledgement of the diversity within Cuban culture.