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Travel and tourism throughout Latin America.

Cuba Diaries: Book Review

I picked up the copy of “Cuba Diaries” at my local bookstore because  I’m interested in Latin American countries (obviously) and I liked books like “A Year in Provence” and “Bella Tuscany.”  Well, Cuba is no Provence or Tuscany, but the book was fascinating all the same.

The book records the experiences of Isabella Tattlin, the American wife of a European businessman who was posted to his company’s Cuban division.  The Tattlins and their two young children lived in Cuba for four years during the mid-nineties, a particularly difficult time in Cuba’s history when the Soviet Union was dissolved and Cuba lost important financial support from the Soviets.  The Tattlin’s arrived in a country where on any given day basics like flour and toilet paper might not be available at the store, and items like plastic garbage cans were simply not to be had at all.

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The subtitle of the book is “An American Housewife in Havana,” and much of the book centers on finding dance and swimming lessons for the children or settling squabbles between the help, but where the book really shines is in its descriptions of the different places the Tattlins visited around the island, and descriptions of the many different people the family met during its stay on the island.

The stars of the book are the Cuban people themselves, who have become expert at the arts of conseguir and resolver , or finding items that are difficult to obtain and devising ingenious solutions for making do.  As I read Cuba Diaries, what stood out most for me was the spirit of the Cuban people, who retained their good humor in the face of so many challenges.  This was a place where the average salary was around $10 a month, and a  nanny for a foreign family could make 20 times more than her engineer boyfriend.  Where a pair of elderly, genteel sisters sold off the family antiques from within their dilapidated mansion, while their rumored fortune lay in an American bank, inaccessible.   A place where the maid  knew someone selling a Stradivarius, if you were interested.

Perhaps my biggest gripe with the book is that the author just seems to scratch the surface when describing the people she meets.  For example, this is what she has to say about Piñeiro, the former head of intelligence. 

“Some say Piñeiro is responsible for hundreds of deaths; others say thousands; still, Piñeiro remains the favorite of the international set in Havana, because if you have to have an old revolutionary over, Piñeiro is the most schmoozeworthy…   The true fascination of Piñeiro, of course, lies in the contemplation of the size and scope of the secrets contained in one unkempt head.  He knows how Camilo Cienfuegos died, he knows how on purpose it was that Che was not resupplied in the Bolivian jungle, he knows up to what level Cuba’s leadership was aware of drug trafficking out of Cuba in the eighties.”

Now I’m no expert on Cuba’s revolution, and Castro and Che Guevara are the only names I associated with it before reading this Cuba Diaries, but this passage piqued my interest in Piñeiro.  What was his job in the revolution?  What are some of the “spy” activities he is known for?  And how did a top revolutionary like that wind up with an American wife?  But Tattlin just goes on to describe his bad behavior at a dinner party, then it’s back to gossip about a tourist and his Cuban girlfriend and the difficulty of finding watercress in the markets.  Piñeiro appears a couple more times in the book, but in the end I had to go to Google for answers.

Also, the author comes across as a bit of a princess.  For instance, at one point in the book she had asked visiting Americans to bring her Ziploc snack bags for the kids’ school lunches and they showed up with Ziploc sandwich bags, but she had lots of those, she had specifically asked for snack bags, why, why didn’t they bring what she asked for? She finishes up this tirade by repeating to herself, “I am a privileged foreigner and I will be out of here someday.”  Meanwhile I’m wondering what’s wrong with putting the snacks in the sandwich bags, if there’s so many of them.  That’s what I do.  I mean there’s plenty in this book that would have sent me around the bend, but snack bags?

For the most part, the book is a captivating look at a country and society that many of us have never seen and may never get to experience first hand.  And when the author describes a dinner party she and her husband threw for Fidel Castro himself, I couldn’t put the book down.  Fascinating stuff. 

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