Social Policies and Decentralization in Cuba; Voces de cambio en el sector no estatal cubano; The Cuban Affair

In This Review

Social Policies and Decentralization in Cuba: Change in the Context of 21st Century Latin America
by Edited by Jorge I. Domínguez, María del Carmen Zabala Argüelles, Mayra Espina Prieto, and Lorena Barberia
Harvard University Press, 2017
282 pp.
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Voces de cambio en el sector no estatal cubano
by Carmelo Mesa-Lago, Roberto Veiga González, Lenier González Mederos, Sofía Vera Rojas, and Aníbal Pérez-Liñán
Iberoamericana, 2016
214 pp.
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The Cuban Affair
by Nelson DeMille
Simon & Schuster, 2017
448 pp.
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Undertaking professional social science in Cuba must be a labor of love, for the available resources are grossly inadequate, ideological overseers are watching, official statistics are scant, and the authorities generally permit only small-sample field studies. Yet the collection of admirable studies presented by Domínguez and his esteemed Cuban collaborators manages to convey a compelling, if depressing, portrait of Cuban society. Universal health and education have produced worthy outcomes, but their quality is visibly deteriorating, and efforts at reform have fallen short. Although good data are scarce, it is clear that socioeconomic inequalities are widening along gender, ethnic, and geographic lines. Cuba’s highly centralized bureaucracy and tightly planned economy, both of which rest on ideological foundations resistant to reform, have repeatedly frustrated attempts to decentralize decision-making and increase democratic participation. Even these erudite authors struggle to recognize that renewed economic growth and higher labor productivity will require sacrificing some egalitarian social ideals. 

Voces de cambio en el sector no estatal cubano supports a similar conclusion. The book was written by scholars at the University of Pittsburgh who teamed up with Cuban researchers to interview 80 Cubans participating in the island’s emerging business landscape. The researchers recognize that their sample is necessarily small and nonrepresentative. Nevertheless, their findings are valuable and generally confirm what other small-sample studies have uncovered. Despite the many obstacles confronting Cuban entrepreneurs, most report a high level of satisfaction and are earning handsome returns and reinvesting for future growth. The Cuban private sector has added jobs, generated tax revenues, and improved the quality of services. Yet in recent months, Cuban authorities have criticized small businesses for earning “excessive” profits and for allegedly engaging in illicit practices that, they charge, undermine socialist ideals. Officials would do better to digest the many well-founded recommendations in Voces de cambio and further encourage the productive capacities of the Cuban people.

Now more accessible to U.S. visitors than at any time in the past six decades, Cuba has become a popular backdrop for fictional adventures. The thrill master DeMille visited Cuba with Yale Educational Travel in 2015, just long enough to enrich his fast-paced, entertaining novel The Cuban Affair with some vivid local color. His handsome protagonist is a wry, jaded U.S. Army veteran of the war in Afghanistan who owns a fishing charter boat in Key West. Die-hard anti-Castro Cuban Americans hire his ship, The Maine (pun intended), to sneak into Cuba to recover property records squirreled away long ago by a fastidious banker fleeing the revolution. DeMille largely adopts the exiles’ political perspective: his Cuba is a poverty-stricken police state ruled by a regime “long past its expiration date.” DeMille sympathetically conveys the profound sense of loss of dispossessed elites, even as his world-weary veteran concludes that the Cuban American hard-liners had “such a big hard-on for screwing the Castro brothers that they couldn’t see straight,” and muses that those hidden property titles are worth little more than Confederate war bonds. The Cuban Affair features an amusing take on the Yale tour group, unsavory spies (Cuban and American), and a climactic firefight on the high seas.