The Great Experiment

Is Cuba a revolutionary triumph or a communist tragedy? Has the great social experiment passed its prime or can it continue on in the post-Cold War era? María López Vigil effectively examines the intricacies of the Cuban revolution in her collection of socio-political essays titled Cuba: Neither Heaven Nor Hell.

López Vigil, a progressive Cuban expatriate, has spent years writing for the Nicaraguan publication Envio. The essays in her book were published in Envio between 1993 and 1998 and show her progression from leftist idealism to a mature, constructively critical view of Cuban politics and social change since 1959. At the beginning of each chapter, López Vigil has added introductory paragraphs as self-reflection on what she had previously published in Envio. The last chapter is a glossary of terms used in civil society, showing how politics plays out in everyday life.

López Vigil looks toward the island with starry eyes in her first chapter, written in 1993. She is impressed with Cuban turnout on election day, barely questioning the secrecy of the vote. She seems to shrug off the fact that for each political office, only one candidate’s name was listed on the ballot. Still, she appreciates the strong sense of nationalism and collectivism that Cubans share. Her subsequent reflections reveal that she recognizes her naiveté in praising the 1993 elections as democratic and free.

López Vigil’s later chapters focus on many aspects of Cuba’s social and political life. Her critique of the Cuban media offers the revolution gentle wisdom from a progressive political journalist. She commends Cuba’s high level of education and praises the nation’s professional achievements in biotechnology and "human capital." At the same time, she says Cuba "blockades itself" by not allowing for an authentic culture of debate. Cuban officials suggest that too many viewpoints cause confusion and division. The public has no room for input, though the Cuban cinema is an exception to this social control. Cubans are proud of the subtle and clever commentary produced in their movies, which are full of symbolism. Cuban cinematographers subtly critique public concerns about the revolution.

Compared to other Latin American women, Cuban women enjoy the freedom for love-based marriages, the right to divorce, and the right to plan families. And despite Latin American machismo, Cuban women are considerably more liberated than neighboring counterparts. Thanks to the revolution, they make up more than half of the professional work force, making huge contributions to the technological and scientific world. Still, their representation in politics is limited. López Vigil echoes the complaints of many who say that women in government do not speak with a feminine voice.

Despite the increased freedom of religion and the pope’s 1998 visit, López Vigil also is concerned about the relationship between church and state. As Latin American nations focused their attention on a social gospel spread through the notion of liberation theology, Cuba was already being indoctrinated with atheistic Soviet literature. Throughout Latin America, liberation theology has quieted and pentecostal movements have spread like wildfire. Castro has publicized his church support over the last few years, but many Cuban congregations are still leery of mixing religious and political ideologies. The Cuban revolution came too early for liberation theology, but López Vigil says that the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua did open some Cubans’ eyes to faith in the revolution.

In contrast to López Vigil’s in-depth analysis, Rev. Theodore Braun offers an overview of Cuba and its historic relationship to the United States that is suitable for first-time readers on the subject. Perspectives on Cuba and its People reflects the same social and political concerns as Vigil—he respects the island’s sovereignty and praises its advances in basic human rights such as education and health care, for example, while criticizing civil society’s muted voice.

Within each chapter, Braun presents highlighted boxes discussing historic players on both sides of the Cuban conflict, including 19th-century Cuban poet-revolutionary, Jose Marti and 1959 revolutionary comrade Che Guevara. On the other side, he tells the stories of anti-Castro Cuban exile Jorge Mas Canosa and others. These highlighted boxes and the book’s short length make it easy to digest, and discussion questions at the end of each chapter allow readers to examine the feelings of Cubans on both sides of the conflict. Braun praises the revolution’s social triumphs from a Christian perspective but offers a rare sensitivity to the varied experiences of Cuban emigrés, a hopeful sign of the church’s potential role in reconciling the 90-mile U.S.-Cuba divide.

JULIENNE GAGE is a former Sojourners intern living in Spain. She conducted anthropological graduate research in Cuba from 1998 to 1999.

Cuba: Neither Heaven Nor Hell. Maria Lopez Vigil. EPICA, 01/01/99.

Perspective on Cuba and its People. Braun, Theodore. Friendship Press, 01/01/99.

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