A Nation Unveiled: Best Books to Understand Cuba

Women in Havana, Cuba/Photo © Shutterstock

Following the Cuban Revolution, which began in July 1953 and ended in January 1959 with the fall of defeat of President Fulgencio Batista by rebel forces led by Fidel Castro, U.S.-Cuban relations essentially came to a screeching halt under a torrent of sanctions by the U.S. on the fledgling communist regime. The rising tensions notably came to an infamous and terrifying head with the Cuban Missile Crisis – an event that only further cemented the animosity between the two nations that had risen from both Castro’s pro-communist rhetoric and America’s oft-disastrous attempts to unseat him, most notably during the failed Bay of Pigs Invasion.

Following decades of U.S. sanctions and simmering tensions, President Barack Obama moved to ease hostilities, lift the fifty-four-year-old trade embargo, and restore diplomatic relations with Cuba in 2014. In late May, it was announced that the Trump Administration is considering reversing course on Cuba and reinstating many of the restrictions that President Obama removed, thereby moving U.S.-Cuban relations once again back into the spotlight.

The U.S. has long been a haven for Cubans fleeing the Castro regime in search of a better life. The influence of Cuban-Americans can be seen throughout American culture, particularly in states like Florida, which has long been host to a thriving Cuban-American community. With thawing U.S.-Cuban relations poised to possibly turn frigid once again, we turn to literature to gain a better understanding of Cuba, its people and culture, and the country’s rich literary tradition.

  • The cover of the book Tastes Like Cuba

    Tastes Like Cuba

    An Exile's Hunger for Home

    Eduardo Machado was born to a wealthy Cuban family in 1953 and as a result had a front row seat to the tumultuous rise of the Castro Regime. He and his brother were flown to the United States in 1960 as part of Operation Peter Pan and arrived in America unsure if they would ever see their families again. In Tastes Like Cuba, Machado insightfully explores the immigrant experience and what it means to create a home in a country that is not your own.

  • The cover of the book The Mambo Kings

    The Mambo Kings

    Born to Cuban immigrant parents, the late Oscar Hijuelos became the first Hispanic writer to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, for his 1989 book, The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love. The novel follows Cuban brothers who make their way to the United States in search of love and fame. The novel, like much of Hijuelos’s work, touches on the Cuban immigrant experience – particularly the tumult that resulted from the rise of Fidel Castro in the late 1950s.

  • The cover of the book Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba

    Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba

    The Biography of a Cause

    In this fascinating book, NPR correspondent Tom Gjelten examines the last 150 tumultuous years of Cuban history through the lens of the Bacardi family and the famous rum that bears their name. Facundo Bacardi Masso arrived in Cuba in the early nineteenth century, and the rise of the Bacardi company and its relationship with Cuba is an intriguing microcosm of the economic and revolutionary history of the country.

  • The cover of the book Fidel Castro: My Life

    Fidel Castro: My Life

    Fidel Castro was one of the most infamous figures of the latter half of the twentieth century. Following his rise to power in Cuba – a nation he ruled with an iron, if charismatic, fist – Castro loomed large in international affairs, particularly in the western hemisphere, despite lording over a small island nation of approximately eleven million people. Any discussion of U.S.-Cuban relations begins with Fidel Castro and this autobiography essentially transcribed from discussions with Castro, while obviously a one-sided account, is nonetheless surprisingly candid and unvarnished.

  • The cover of the book A Taste of Cuba

    A Taste of Cuba

    Recipes From the Cuban-American Community

    Like many cultures, Cuban culture is inextricably tied to its food. According to Linette Creen’s A Taste of Cuba, Cuban food reflects the spirit of the Cuban people – an appetite for the richness of life and a respect for tradition marked by a sense of adventure. While not Cuban herself, Creen has a deep appreciation for Cuban food, its importance to Cuban culture, and its impact on American cuisine.

  • The cover of the book Explosion in a Cathedral

    Explosion in a Cathedral

    Alejo Carpentier is one of Latin America’s most influential writers. As an early practitioner of magical realism, the influence of his novels and short stories can be seen throughout Latin American literature. With Explosion in a Cathedral, Carpentier crafted a sweeping historical novel charting the tensions between Europe and Cuba during the eighteenth-century revolutionary period.

  • The cover of the book Cuba Confidential

    Cuba Confidential

    Love and Vengeance in Miami and Havana

    Ann Louise Bardach has long the been the go-to journalist in the U.S. for all things Cuba-related. Cuba Confidential is an authoritative deep dive into the tensions between the U.S., Cuban exile leadership, and Cuba. Through a series of interviews with Fidel Castro, the family of Elian Gonzales, the inner circle of Jeb Bush, and exile leaders like the late Jorge Mas Canosa, Bardach presents a definitive portrait of the simmering conflicts that define much of U.S.-Cuban relations.

  • The cover of the book Dirty Havana Trilogy

    Dirty Havana Trilogy

    Cuban-born novelist Pedro Juan Gutierrez is one of Cuba’s most celebrated authors. The Dirty Havana Trilogy may be his most famous and celebrated work. The stories in the novel offer views into everyday life in contemporary Cuba that refuse to shy away from the nation’s seamier elements while maintaining a clear affection and celebration of Cuban culture.

  • The cover of the book One Minute to Midnight

    One Minute to Midnight

    Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Castro on the Brink of Nuclear War

    The Cuban Missile Crisis was not only the defining foreign policy test of the young Kennedy administration; it is also one of the most infamous standoffs of the latter twentieth century as well as the watershed moment in U.S.-Cuban relations. In One Minute to Midnight, Michael Dobbs provides an exhaustively researched but imminently readable account of the extraordinary standoff that cemented the hostility between the United States and Cuba and saw the U.S. and the Soviet Union come perilously close to all-out nuclear war. It is possibly the definitive account of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

  • The cover of the book The Old Man and the Sea

    The Old Man and the Sea

    While obviously not a Cuban author, any conversation about Cuban literature would be incomplete without some mention of Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway spent a substantial amount of time in the country, maintaining a residence there, and it’s no surprise the country and culture had a strong influence on his writing. The Old Man and The Sea – the novel that won Hemingway the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction – centers on an aged Cuban fisherman and his struggle to catch a giant marlin. It is a powerful piece of allegorical prose and perhaps the best example of Hemingway’s stark yet evocative style.

  • The cover of the book The Mortifications

    The Mortifications

    A Novel

    Derek Palacio’s 2016 debut novel, The Mortifications, brings us to 1980’s Cuba as Soledad Encarnación flees the country and sets out to America with her children, against her husband’s wishes. She ultimately lands in Connecticut, where she and her two children begin building a new life for themselves. It is only a matter of time, though, before Cuba begins calling them back.

  • The cover of the book Waiting for Snow in Havana

    Waiting for Snow in Havana

    Between 1960 and 1962, following Fidel Castro’s successful coup, more than 14,000 unaccompanied Cuban children were flown from the island nation to the United States in a program known as Operation Peter Pan. Carlos Eire, at eleven years old, was one of those children. In this memoir, Eire recounts his memories of pre-revolution Havana, his sense of loss at the changes that swept his homeland, and his struggles to adapt to life in the United States.

  • The cover of the book Trading with the Enemy

    Trading with the Enemy

    Journalist Tom Miller’s account of his experiences in modern Cuba is a must-read for anyone considering a trip to the country. Given unprecedented access to travel freely throughout the country for eight months, Miller roamed the island nation interacting with every level of Cuban society and gaining a rare glimpse into one of the world’s only remaining communist countries.