It’s been a while since Cuba, that caiman-shaped Caribbean isle, ceased to be a place on the map. At some point, it came unhinged and floated away, transformed into a gilded reflecting pool, a repository of dreams. Those with hope or memory (true or false) called out: Here lies utopia, whether the socialist fantasy or the golden recollections of its exiles. Cuba is, or was, or could be, an exemplary nation, a veritable beacon, egalitarian and progressive.
For a small country–about 68,000 square miles and a population of just over 11 million, the navel of the Americas–this is an awesome, crushing burden. Because if Cuba inspires, it also provokes despair.
Alma Guillermoprieto’s bittersweet memoir Dancing with Cuba is about falling in love with this mythic place or, more precisely, trying to. It is also about the tense relationship between realism and idealism, a sympathetic yet ultimately unsparing account of a personal odyssey that ends not triumphantly but nonetheless extraordinarily.
Guillermoprieto is no stranger to Cuba or Latin America. A longtime contributor to The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books, she has covered the carnage between the drug cartels and Colombia’s successively impotent governments, civil wars all over Central America, the assault on Grenada by US troops, urban life and poverty in Brazil, political corruption in her native Mexico and revolutionary victory in Nicaragua.
Her report from Cuba during the Pope’s 1998 historic visit unfolded as a wrenching portrait of an ever more isolated Comandante, his military fatigues put away for the week in exchange for a designer suit, trying desperately to keep his dignity as he compromised and compromised in order to survive–and, ultimately, to hold on to power. Through her two essay collections in the last decade, Looking for History and The Heart That Bleeds, she has argued that Latin America’s politics–and indeed its political destiny–are eternally cloaked in illusion, its own identity unequivocally tied to its complex, paradoxical relationship to the United States. (Cuba’s version of this, of course, is total resistance to the United States in spite of enduring cultural and emotional ties.) While Guillermoprieto has never attempted to disguise her affinity for the leftist ambitions of Latin America’s revolutionaries, it is also true that she has never gone out of her way to massage or rationalize their prejudices and failures (and not even those that can be traced back to US actions or policies).
Dancing with Cuba is exquisitely detailed about the physicality of the place, the sensations, the conversations. Yet in the prologue Guillermoprieto is up front about the story’s sources: “I’ve retained only fragmented memories and a few concrete souvenirs that help me prove to myself, when I have my doubts, that I really did go on that journey that so thoroughly unravelled my life.” The book depends instead on documents, news reports and Guillermoprieto’s re-created moments and conversations. Many of the characters are composites, though a number of historic figures flit in and out–most notably the late Manuel Piñeiro, the Cuban spymaster, whom she portrays with a measured sympathy. Still, the book never feels impressionistic; it’s grounded in solid reporting, though the tone throughout is wistful.