Since the revolution of 1959, Cuba has walked a tightrope. With the collapse of the USSR and the onset of the “Special Period,” that tightrope grew thinner. Yet Cuba has not lost its balance.
helen yaffe we are cuba
We Are Cuba by Helen Yaffe

In her book “We Are Cuba! How a Revolutionary People Have Survived in a Post-Soviet World” (Yale University Press, 2020, 288 pgs), Helen Yaffe examines this balancing act, outlining the cycle of crises, struggles and innovations that have marked Cuban society over the past three decades. Drawing on a rich set of archival data and dozens of interviews, Yaffe illuminates a Cuba that others ignore. Crucially, the book engages with the country on its own terms, avoiding the common pitfall of imposing an outsider’s perspective on Cuban reality.

“We Are Cuba!” provides just enough historical context for readers to understand early debates over Cuba’s development model, but without getting bogged down in the particulars of the Soviet-Cuban alliance. This approach is refreshing; nearly thirty years have passed since the USSR was dissolved, yet historians remain enraptured by Cold War-era Cuba. The book’s central theme is clear: the challenges of building a socialist state in the face of hostility and underdevelopment.

…Yaffe announces her intention “to write about Cuba as a ‘real country,’ without the cynicism or condescension that characterizes so much of what is written about the island by outsiders.

In the introduction, Yaffe announces her intention “to write about Cuba as a ‘real country,’ without the cynicism or condescension that characterizes so much of what is written about the island by outsiders.” This commitment to understanding life in Cuba from a Cuban point of view is “We Are Cuba!”s greatest strength. Yaffe builds on Cuban scholarship, candid conversations with Cuban people, and her own experiences on the island to provide a rare view of the Cuban perspective. In her words, “instead of judging socialist Cuba based on the internal logic of the capitalist system, greater insight and appreciation are possible by evaluating the island on the basis of its own strategic objectives, while acknowledging the challenges the island has faced.”

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This approach may seem unfamiliar, uncomfortable even, for readers accustomed to a narrative constructed by “outsiders” — analysts and academics who may strive for objectivity, but struggle to see past their own worldview. Those expecting a description of the Jurassic Park of socialism will be surprised to find that amidst chronic shortages and vintage cars, Cuba is remarkably dynamic.

She argues that for the United States, normalizing relations did not mean forswearing its goal of regime change; it meant changing its rhetoric…

Having studied and lived in Cuba, I do not consider myself an outsider. But “We Are Cuba!” still challenged my beliefs about the island, forcing me to confront my own biases. At times, I was frustrated with what I perceived as Yaffe’s resolute anti-Americanism. Recognizing this gut reaction, I wondered where my defensiveness was coming from. After all, I had seen firsthand the devastating impact of the US-imposed economic embargo on the island.

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Perhaps I was searching for ways to redeem my country after reading Yaffe’s account of decades of unsuccessful American attempts to undermine Cuba’s revolutionary government. These attempts did not end with the CIA’s 60s-era plots to assassinate Fidel Castro with a poisoned pen and an infected diving suit. In 2009, a US contractor attempted to infiltrate Cuba’s Jewish community with satellite and internet equipment using funds from a USAID contract. Small, isolated Cuba posed no threat to the United States, particularly after the Soviet Union had collapsed. But the American government could not tolerate the defiant island 90 miles to its south.

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Even Barack Obama’s rapprochement with Cuba was, as Yaffe writes, “contentious.” She argues that for the United States, normalizing relations did not mean forswearing its goal of regime change; it meant changing its rhetoric: “Obama sought to erode Cuban socialism by persuasion, seduction and bribery, through ‘engagement’: foisting the logic of the capitalist market, social relations and cultural values on the revolutionary people.”

But if the goal of an historian is to spark critical thought and debate (and I think it is), then “We Are Cuba!” succeeds brilliantly.

That Cuba has managed to preserve its socialist development model despite the formidable obstacles it has faced —the loss of its primary trading partner, natural disasters, and economic strangulation, to name a few— is extraordinary. In fact, the country not only survived, but thrived. Yaffe devotes entire chapters to Cuba’s Energy Revolution and innovations in biotechnology. As climate change threatens the future of our planet, Cuba has become a champion of sustainable development. Even when the collapse of the USSR devastated the Cuban economy, investment in medicine and healthcare remained a priority. And it paid dividends: Cuba was the first country to eliminate mother-to-child HIV transmission, and it currently produces the majority of the medicines it consumes. As Yaffe puts it, “Necessity is the mother of invention.”

Cuba also sends thousands of doctors to confront public health crises abroad. Although these doctors can be a source of much-needed hard currency for the government, their services are often rendered for free. In 2014, Cuban doctors played a pivotal role in combating the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. During the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, Cuba has dispatched medical missions to countries across the globe.

helen yaffe we are cuba
Photo credit: Helen Yaffe

Yaffe’s account of the island’s struggles and successes in the post-Soviet period is compelling. “We are Cuba!” sheds light on Cuban actions that receive little attention in the international press, and even less in the United States. Yet she does not claim to present an objective truth; good historians recognize that every account has its own perspective.

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Often I found myself questioning the way Yaffe chooses to highlight certain facts and downplay others. For example, she notes that the average Cuban adult lost 5.5kg during the first few years of the Special Period, but deflects this shocking fact by adding that obesity rates declined, suggesting that “the most severe weight loss was experienced by those who could most tolerate it.” While she describes the rising economic and gender inequality that have accompanied the development of private business, the topic of race is notably absent. Her comments about censorship and political repression struck me as soft. Perhaps I am simply unable (or unwilling) to fully set aside my own beliefs and see Cuba from a Cuban viewpoint.

But if the goal of an historian is to spark critical thought and debate (and I think it is), then “We Are Cuba!” succeeds brilliantly. If a reader finishes a book, nods her head in agreement, and shuts it, then it has not served its purpose. Helen Yaffe’s work is invaluable, as it adds diversity and nuance to a literature that so often tells only one side of the story.

Again and again, I returned to Yaffe’s words: “How ‘errors’ are defined and by whom, the way they are addressed and in whose interests, is the essence to understanding the revolutionary process in Cuba.” Each individual reader must consider this puzzle for herself. I, for one, am still working on it.

How will Cuba survive going forward, as its government tiptoes along a tightrope, balancing economic reforms to promote efficiency with a strong commitment to socialist principles? Yaffe addresses this question in my favorite quote from “We Are Cuba!”: “There is no attempt here to predict the future, a vainglorious habit which historians, of all people, should avoid.” Nor does she take the easy way out. “The prospects for the revolutionary people of Cuba are deteriorating,” she writes frankly. “No one, however, should underestimate [their] resilience.”

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Isabelle DeSisto researches Soviet-Cuban educational collaboration. She first became interested in Cuba after spending a semester studying abroad at the University of Havana in 2018, and later conducted extensive research in Cuba for her master's thesis. Isabelle holds a B.A. in Government and an M.A. in Regional Studies: Russia, Eastern Europe, and Central Asia from Harvard University. She is an avid swimmer and one day hopes to get a SCUBA diving license.

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