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Book Review: Havana Real

Posted by gck Sunday, March 18, 2012

havanarealHavana Real by Yoani Sánchez

Genre: Non-fiction, memoir
Rating: ***1/2 (out of 5)
Recommended for: People who enjoy blog posts, people interested in Cuba

Book 3 of 52 in the “Around the World in 52 Books” challenge.

Back-cover summary:
She's been kidnapped and beaten, lives under surveillance, and can only get online—in disguise—at tourist hotspots. She's a blogger, she's a Cuban, and she's a worldwide sensation.

Yoani Sánchez is an unusual dissident: no street protests, no attacks on big politicos, no calls for revolution. Rather, she produces a simple diary about what it means to live under the Castro regime: the chronic hunger and the difficulty of shopping; the art of repairing ancient appliances; and the struggles of living under a propaganda machine that pushes deep into public and private life.

For these simple acts of truth-telling her life is one of constant threat. But she continues on, refusing to be silenced—a living response to all who have ceased to believe in a future for Cuba.

My review:
I spent February literally traveling around the world (to China) and as a result did not read any of the books I intended to read for the challenge that month. This one was actually left over from January, and it took me so long to get through it that I’m now way behind for March’s reading as well. Ah well.

I like reading blogs. I have a decent list of them on my RSS reader that I follow somewhat regularly. However, after reading this book, I think blogs are meant to be read as blogs, not compiled into books. The thing is, blogs are generally written to be current, so it’s a good narrative if you’re following the updates as they come. Or maybe an article comes up through an internet search, and it’s interesting as a single snapshot. But as a complete body of work, it’s not as satisfying of a reading experience as a normal book that was written to be consumed as a whole. Also, in Generation Y, Sanchez’s blog that supplied all the articles for the book, there are pictures and reader comments, which add a lot to the posts that the book doesn’t contain.

But the fact is this: I wouldn’t have known about this blog if I hadn’t found out about this book. And even if I’d discovered it, I certainly would not have read back very far. The book was the way I had to get this content. Even if the reading experience wasn’t wholly satisfactory, the content was.


Coincidentally, I had watched Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations” episode about Cuba not long before starting this book. Though Bourdain did touch on the poverty in Cuba, he made the country look like a pretty good place. Havana was shown as a city of fifty years ago, perfectly preserved and maintained, with its vintage cars and charming architecture. Communism had made things pretty great over there, providing free education that included college. Cubans were so educated, the episode stated, that the country was producing so many doctors that they were sending them out to other countries who were desperate for them. And of course, he showed all of the good Cuban food, dining in one of the paladars, small, private restaurants that the government had begun allowing.

I was scratching my head at the end of the episode. Sounds good, sure. But if it’s not really that bad there, why did so many Cubans leave? Why were people so desperate to get out that they were willing to risk their lives in a shoddy boat for the possibility of getting to America? I’m thinking it wasn’t because they wanted to work at a better hospital.

Yoani Sanchez tells it like it really is. In fact, she tweeted in response to his episode: “What is typical Cuban food for you, Anthony Bourdain? Do you really believe that it’s rice and beans, pork, and plantains? Typical Cuban food isn’t typical or Cuban, it’s what turns up with what we can afford. In short, not much.” (translated) In one of her blog posts, she goes into more detail. “When some confused tourist asks me what a typical Cuban dish is, I answer that I don’t remember, but I know the most common everyday recipes. And I list them: ‘Rice with a beef bouillon cube,’ ‘rice with a hot dog,’ ‘rice with a bacon bouillon cube,’ or the delicacy of ‘rice with a chicken-and-tomato bouillon cube.’” (Here’s another blogger’s response to Bourdain’s portrayal of Cuba)

She tells of the Special Period, a time after all the support from the Soviet Union vanished and Cubans struggled not to starve to death. There’s an anecdote that food shortages were so bad that vendors were selling pizza with melted condoms posing as cheese. She tells of how food items are unpredictably available and that most people cannot survive without the black market, but items there might cost a majority of a month’s wages. Furthermore, many things are available only for “convertible pesos,” the Cuban currency for foreigners. It seems like many Cubans can survive only because of money coming in from friends and relatives on the outside.

Bourdain probably enjoyed running water and electricity. But in Cuba, everything is broken, including the pipes. Sanchez writes that Cubans do not take showers. They wash themselves with buckets of water, and items like soap and shampoo are expensive and often not available. The education system? Sure, it’s free, but the university spots weren’t for everyone. And apparently the solution to the shortage of teachers was to make the worst students into teachers, who would proceed to miseducate the students and confess things like, “Study hard so you won’t end up like me. I had to become a teacher because of my bad grades.”

On the other hand, the Communist state of Cuba was more lenient than I expected, too. Perhaps because my mind is conditioned by the sensationalizing from media, but I was surprised that the government did so little to silence Sanchez, even though her blog openly displayed her name and photo. But maybe they don’t have to. Despite the growing number of Cuban bloggers, so many Americans still picture Cuba as Anthony Bourdain showed it. Baseball, pork, and vintage cars.

The content in this book is significant. There are so many more details that I couldn’t cover in a review, and I think it’s important that people read these words that people have struggled so hard to put up on the Internet.

1 Responses to Book Review: Havana Real

  1. This sounds like an important book but the blog sounds even more so. I will have to look it up and become a follower.


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