The NPR reporter offers an “engaging and enlightening” window into late-90s Cuba, “from the cafes in Havana to the mysterious lairs of Santiago de Cuba” (Kirkus Reviews).
For NPR commentator Andrei Codrescu, reporting from Cuba on the eve of Pope John Paul II’s 1998 visit was an opportunity to understand the realities of life in a country that has long been the subject of stereotypes and misconceptions. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba was the last place to witness a “laboratory of pre-post-communism,” as it toed the line between its socialist past and its uncertain future.
On the streets of Havana and the beaches of Santiago de Cuba, Codrescu met people from all walks of life—from prostitutes and fortunetellers to bureaucrats and writers—eager to share their stories. Uncensored and compassionate, his interviews reveal a world where destruction and beauty, poverty and pride exist side by side. Traveling with photographer David Graham, whose powerful images illustrate the energy pulsing through everyday life in Cuba, Codrescu captures the humanity of a nation that is lost when it’s reduced to a political symbol. With the United States resuming relations with Cuba for the first time in decades, Ay, Cuba! is more relevant now than ever before.
National Public Radio commentator and house cynic Codrescu escaped communist Romania at age 19 and has had few kind words for the Soviet system since. Who better, then, to suss out the condition of the great bearded Red and his country? "I wanted to go to Cuba," writes Codrescu, "because I wanted to see for myself a decomposing ideology." The book takes the form of an ironic travelogue-cum-report from the front. Cuba--still embargoed by the United States but bereft of its former benefactor, the Soviet Union--has been forced to transform its entire economy into a black-market haven for Western tourists. Fidel Castro turns a blind eye to all the Yanquis in his midst, maintaining his revolutionary fervor while his people starve, flee or hustle a buck. Codrescu and his gang--a photographer, an NPR producer and a former Nicaraguan revolutionary--encounter street hustlers, prostitutes, visionary bureaucrats, Santeria practitioners, good and bad food, plenty of cigars and lots of rum as they peel away the Travel & Leisure veneer to discover the real Cuba. Each chapter is prefaced with an "exquisite corpse," a surreal group poem, composed by the members of the party; these, along with the photographs, and the stories of the many Cuban women he encounters, particularly a doctor whom he romances for a day (hence the subtitle), add considerable immediacy to the story (which was originally reported on NPR). Codrescu turns out to be more sympathetic, although no less cutting, than one might expect. He admits that "I still have an irrational nostalgia for Stalinism," which he describes as "a puppy-warm lie spread over everything like a perfumed shroud over a maggoty corpse." B&w and color photos.