This new book documents many of Cuba’s impressive achievements, such as in the fields of biotechnology and food production, despite the brutal blockade it has been forced to endure.
Narrative histories and opinion pieces about post-revolutionary Cuba are plentiful and readily available. What could another book on the subject possibly add to what we already know? One of the author’s Cuban interviewees provides the answer: ‘Little is written and even less published about the real country’. The real Cuba, with its trials, tribulations, successes and occasional failures is the subject of Helen Yaffe’s We are Cuba.
For thirty years following the revolution in 1959, the USSR was Cuba’s most important ally and trading partner. An unequal partnership, it left the island’s economy dependent on the Soviet Bloc for imports of fuel, food and capital goods, paid for by exports of sugar, nickel and citrus.
While crucial to the survival of the revolution, Cuba’s economic relationship with the USSR hampered its ability to build a creative, modern economy. That weakness was brutally exposed at the beginning of the 1990s when the USSR folded, leaving Cuba without its major trading partner. The following decade – known locally as the ‘Special Period’ – was one of acute shortages, social deprivation and a degree of public disaffection, manifested most notably in the many well-publicised attempts by hundreds if not thousands of citizens to escape by boat to the United States.
Yaffe’s book gives a fascinating account of how the revolutionary government and the Cuban people reacted to the crisis. The challenge facing them was formidable because the entire economy, as well as Cuba’s international trading and political relationships, had to be reshaped. How this was achieved – with all the concomitant stresses, complexities, mistakes and reappraisals – lies at the heart of this book. For those in need of facts and figures, Yaffe provides them in abundance, but also offers plenty of human and local colour, personal anecdotes and quotations from interviewees; insights into how Cuba’s socialist version of democratic accountability works in practice.
Some of Cuba’s achievements during and since the Special Period are astounding. For example, between 1994 and 2005, domestic production of vegetables increased from four thousand tonnes to over four million tonnes. By 2006, the World Wildlife Fund recognised Cuba as the only nation in the world achieving sustainable development – with most of its agricultural crops grown organically and in harmony with the environment.
Perhaps the country’s most remarkable achievements have been in the fields of biotechnology and international emergency relief. Cuban advances in medical science have not only been a technological success, but have become a major export earner as well as an important arm of the country’s international diplomacy. Cuban assistance to countries suffering natural disasters, epidemics and shortages of health workers and clinics has been no less impressive. That assistance has included the training, free of charge, of tens of thousands of doctors from the developing world.
If there is a dispiriting element in Cuba’s post-revolutionary story, it lies in the vindictiveness of the US blockade and the immense damage it has inflicted on the Cuban people. After a brief pause under President Obama, the US under Trump is now redoubling its effort to overthrow Cuba’s government and to subjugate her people. Yaffe’s analysis of US policy towards Cuba makes unpleasant but essential reading for anyone concerned to understand both the ravages caused by US policy and the wellsprings of Cuban resilience.
We Are Cuba! How a Revolutionary People have Survived in a Post-Soviet World
Helen Yaffe (Yale Books, 2020)