WW: Why a book on Cuba?
Julia Cooke: I studied at the University of Havana [in
2003], and came back to the States and felt betrayed by images of Havana
in the U.S. press. [The Cuba I had experienced] was not the Cuba I read
about. I thought this was because I was young, and the reporters were
old. Not a strong thesis. But it was a motivating thesis.
What was different between the Cuba you knew and the one in the press?
I don’t think people were writing about
the uncertainty of that time. No one was capturing the sophistication.
It was couched in nostalgia to the past. The Havana I participated in
had sophistication that was based in contemporary life and culture: the
jazz clubs, the gay culture. And so much was a very political reading of
Cuba. Politics pervades everything, but not everything that happens in
Cuba comes from politics. It felt like Cuba was reduced to clichés.
What did you find most interesting?
It’s the thing I miss the most: The sense of community and
allegiance is really strong. The sense of interconnectedness, everyone
all moving forward together. It’s what the [Communist] revolution was
trying to generate, but it came out of the ultimate failure of the
And yet so many are now waiting to leave the country?
In Cuba, paradise is whatever is not today. Either it’s
the past or the future, and for so many young Cubans, it’s anywhere but
here. It was amazing how fantastical their perception of the rest of the
world was. Young punks who believe that anywhere else, they wouldn’t be
hassled by the police.
How isolated are Cubans from the rest of the world?
Quite isolated. The default is “not
connected.” You can choose to make yourself connected if you have the
means, but many don’t. You go to a hotel, and they say, “The state
didn’t give us our Wi-Fi password yet.”
Are laws more relaxed under Raul Castro than under Fidel? The book talks about relaxed laws against homosexuality.
It’s a really vibrant scene in Havana.
The gay scene is much more fractured in New York. There are different
cliques. In Havana, because it’s smaller, and it’s faced awful
repression, it’s much more inclusive and ebullient, you know? It’s like
these new freedoms are—people are thrilled by them, and it’s infectious.
I was struck by a woman in the book who said that Cuba’s hardships after the fall of the Soviet Union—the so-called “special period”—had actually woken up Cuba’s creativity.
Because of the economic situation [with Soviet aid], there
were fewer economic privations. It was easier to cloak that sinister
side of the culture. The special period broke that complacency. It’s
hard to say whether this is positive or negative. It was a terrible
time, it was very jarring. Elderly women’s eyes would fill with tears
when they talked about it. They knew people who had lost children. It
was like a war without there being a war.
How has Cuba changed recently?
Increased privatization, increased stratification along economic lines. The wealthier will get wealthier. A whole lot won’t change until professionals are able to charge for their services. The more professional occupations like lawyer, accountant, engineer—those people can’t charge. They’re considered to be human capital created by the revolution.
GO: Julia Cooke reads at Powell’s Books on Hawthorne, 3723 SE Hawthorne Blvd., 228-4651. 7:30 pm Thursday, April 10. Free.