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Fantasy Island

CONVERSATIONS WITH CUBA; By C. Peter Ripley; University of Georgia Press: 248 pp., $24.95

AY, CUBA!; A Socio-erotic Journey; By Andrei Codrescu with photographs by David Graham; St. Martin's Press: 206 pp., $25

ON BECOMING CUBAN; Identity, Nationality, and Culture; By Louis A. Perez Jr. University of North Carolina Press: 608 pp., $39.95

THE HOUSES OF OLD CUBA; By Llihan Llanes with photographs by Jean-Luc de Laguarigue; Thames & Hudson: 199 pp., $45

CUBA; Photographs by David Alan Harvey; Essays by Elizabeth Newhouse; National Geographic Society: 215 pp., $50

CUBA: Going Back; By Tony Mendoza; University of Texas Press: 153 pp., $35

March 12, 2000|WENDY GIMBEL | Wendy Gimbel is the author of "Havana Dreams."

It began with Columbus, the insistence that Cuba is whatever one wishes it to be. He must have found it very difficult--this ambitious explorer, his head swirling with thoughts of Marco Polo's treasure island and the fabulous court at Cathay--to find himself on an island of the tobacco-smoking Taino living in miserable thatched huts. So difficult that after his first Caribbean adventure, he declared that Cuba wasn't an island at all, that he had reached the more desirable Indies instead, and he insisted that his men sign an oath--on pain of having their tongues excised--swearing that the island we now call Cuba was part of the mainland of China.

It seems--now, more than 500 years later--that nothing has changed. Another stubborn, half-mad leader insists that everyone in his power accept the truth of his own vision, even though as early as the 1970s things were going terribly wrong in Cuba, things that challenged Fidel Castro's invented reality: the country's terrible human rights record, the painful, self-chosen exile of former supporters, and the sense that the power-driven Castro was more caudillo than populist hero.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989 and the subsequent loss of huge sugar subsidies, Cuba's economic infrastructure has been in ruins. Without the American dollar, to which few Cubans have access, economic survival gets harder and harder. But the solution to Cuba's woes rests not in communist rhetoric but in capitalist markets. Socialismo o Muerte--one of Castro's favorite slogans--won't do much for people who haven't enough to eat.

A new engagement between Cubans and North Americans seems inevitable. Estrangement between countries so geographically close to each other has little to do with the will of ordinary people. What the leaders of both Cuba and the United States have in common--what gives them both a dysfunctional character--is the insistence on recruiting everyone to their own version of what's real. Castro wants Cubans to believe they're in a socialist paradise while Americans are in consumer hell; President Clinton and the U.S. government insist that they can't remove the embargo on Cuba because Castro constitutes a threat to democracy.

In his superbly researched scholarly book, "On Becoming Cuban," Louis A. Perez Jr. writes about the obsessive connection between Cuba and the United States--two countries held together in a cultural, perhaps even spiritual, force field created by their geographic proximity. In singular imaginative collusion, Perez argues, each country has imposed a cultural vision on the other. And for Cubans, the internalization of culture from the United States has influenced not only the formation of a national identity but also, ironically, the seduction of the country by the violently anti-American Castro.

In the colonial era, the rule of Spain determined the shapes and the contours of Cuba's reality. But after the Spanish-American War, when Cuba secured its "independence," it voluntarily immersed itself in the culture of baseball, turning its back on that of Spain and the bullfight. This enthusiasm for everything from the United States, this head-over-heels delight in everything North American, Perez argues, implicates the Cubans in their own cultural domination.

Contrary to the popular notion that North Americans--their sense of Manifest Destiny intact--imposed a foreign reality upon a poor unsuspecting island, Cuba sought out the United States, Perez contends, and embraced its so-called culture of progress because the North American culture held out the promise of a better life. In other words, this culture saturated the island because of the enthusiastic collusion of the Cubans, who sought deliverance--and who thought they'd found it--in the bright new modern world across the straits of Florida.

Saturation is not the only subject of Perez's argument, but it's the form his comprehensive narrative takes. He inundates the reader with long lists of the cultural debris that, after the Spanish-American War, made its way south to Cuba. Cubans, eager to embrace this up-to-date northern way of life, collaborated in turning the island into a great American sideshow. Sugar mills--many of them owned by Americans--became the sites of model communities where the bungalows were spic and span, the lawns manicured and the painted porches screened from buzzing Cuban flies.

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