It is a great danger for everyone when what is shocking changes.
Our Man in Havana
Like all modern revolutions, the Cuban Revolution has attracted intellectuals—and buffaloed them. The most bewildered have often been liberal social scientists in Europe and the United States. The latest to go wrong, posthumously, is Oscar Lewis.
From 1959 Cuba fascinated Lewis. Having taught at the University of Havana’s School of Social Work in 1945-1946, he knew the island’s misery ran deep. Quicker than many other academics, he recognized the revolution’s radical egalitarian urge. And he keenly approved of it. In 1960 he asked the Ford Foundation to finance his research on the island’s social and psychological transformation.
He had impressive credentials for the job. A history undergraduate at City College (BSS, 1936), drawn into anthropology at Columbia by Ruth Benedict, who “completely enchanted” him, Lewis was only twenty-five when he received his PhD in 1940. He published his dissertation in 1942 (on the Black-foot Indians), and then several scholarly articles and four books: On the Edge of the Black Waxy (Washington University, 1948), Life in a Mexican Village: Tepoztlán Restudied (University of Illinois, 1951), Village Life in Northern India (Illinois, 1958), and Five Families: Mexican Case Studies in the Culture of Poverty (Basic Books, 1959). Given tenure in 1948 at the University of Illinois, he had achieved extraordinary professional eminence and support—a Guggenheim in 1956, Wenner-Gren and Social Science Research Council grants in 1958, and a National Science Foundation grant in 1959.
Moreover, he had recently announced a new purpose for anthropology that especially suited a project on the new Cuba. “Traditionally, anthropologists have been students and spokesmen of primitive and preliterate peoples who…have little influence upon our civilization.” But now they should “serve as students and reporters of the great mass of peasants and urban dwellers of the underdeveloped countries who constitute almost eighty percent of the world’s population. What happens to the people of these countries will affect, directly or indirectly, our own lives.”
Most impressive was Lewis’s recent notion of “the culture of poverty.” In preliterate societies, he suggested, poverty was “a natural and integral part of the whole way of life….” Modern poverty, however, “becomes a dynamic factor which affects participation in the larger national culture” (Five Families, p. 2). In every country, he would soon declare, “it has a structure, a rationale, and defense mechanisms” of its own,
passed down from generation to generation along family lines…unemployment and underemployment, low wages,…unskilled occupations, child labor,…a chronic shortage of cash,…borrowing from local money lenders at usurious rates of interest, spontaneous informal credit devices…, the use of second-hand clothing and furniture…gregariousness,…alcoholism, frequent resort to violence in the settlement of quarrels… [and] in the training of children,…early initiation into sex, free unions or consensual marriages,…the abandonment of mothers and children,…mothercentered families…, a strong predisposition to authoritarianism,… a strong present time orientation…, a sense of resignation and fatalism…, a belief in male superiority…, a corresponding martyr complex among women, and finally, a high tolerance for psychopathology of all sorts. [Children of Sánchez, pp. xxiv, xxvi-xxvii]
By the lights of the time this read like a brave new concept.
What Lewis proposed to Ford then was to discover whether the revolution in Cuba was eliminating not only material inequalities but wretchedness itself. If “our civilization” in 1960 needed such a study, probably no American social scientist had as good a claim as he to do it.
The problem was his innocence, an intellectual handicap common in that anti-ideological period. Precisely because the Cuban revolutionaries really were battling poverty, he could not isolate the results. With or without scholarly advice, the United States government would war against Cuban expropriation, nationalization, and popular redistribution of wealth, and the revolutionaries would have to mobilize the island as thoroughly as possible just to defend it. Wiser than Lewis to the ways of the world and the logic of research, Ford denied his request. A few months later the United States sponsored the invasion at the Bay of Pigs.
But Lewis persisted. And in August 1961, as a journalist, he spent five days in Cuba. Aiming to produce an article for Harper’s, he visited a place he had known in 1946, Havana’s worst slum, Las Yaguas. It “amazed” him. He found the same “alleyways of open sewage and filth,…kids with swollen bellies, and all the rest you see in any slum anywhere.” Yet
the families…spoke with great hope about the future, with great love for Fidel Castro, telling me about the plans for new housing for them and saying that now they had no unemployment. For the first time in my twenty years of research among the poor, I heard no gripes against the government leaders. I have never experienced that in a slum before.
The trip so moved him that he felt he should not publish anything about the new Cuba without spending more time there. He could not manage the time then and did not write the article. But he looked forward to the day when he would.
Through the 1960s Lewis went on to gain a remarkable reputation for understanding poor people. The Children of Sánchez, which Random House brought out in 1961, launched him into publishing’s major leagues and made “the culture of poverty” a standard phrase among the highly cultured around the globe. In Mexico the translation went speedily through two printings at the Fondo de Cultura Económica, caused a rightist furor that cost the foundation’s editor-in-chief his post, and won Lewis broad leftist compliments there. Though Pedro Martínez (Random House, 1964) featured a traditional Mexican peasant, not mired in “the culture of poverty,” it seemed to display Lewis’s increasing versatility in speaking for the poor. La Vida—A Puerto Rican Family in the Culture of Poverty (Random House, 1966) won a National Book Award for nonfiction in 1967.
Actually for several years Lewis’s career had not been so much in social science as in letters. What he was writing was the “nonfiction novel” of the subtropics, “ethnographic realism,” he called it, or “a new kind of literature of social realism.” And in his genre he proved himself a master. He had a genius for finding fabulous down-and-outers. More wonderful still, he won their confidence and their families’, enough to produce thousands of hours of interviews from husbands, wives, relatives, and children. And these he rewove into stories with a skill reminiscent, if not of the Henry James he respectfully quoted, at least of Stephen Crane, who also told of beauty in the depths. The tales in Five Families, The Children of Sánchez, Pedro Martínez, and La Vida were vivid evocations of energetic and canny characters, desperate with loneliness but revealing even in their cynicism and self-pity how terribly they craved an honorable calling. Because Lewis obligingly hid his science to do art in the vernacular, he enjoyed a public not only extensive but also grateful.
He also had his critics. For besides “social realism,” in the introductions to his books he had taken to “humanist” social punditry. And here he proved himself a disaster. In professional and political journals, and at the American Anthropological Association meeting in 1966, scholars like Eleanor Leacock, Hylan Lewis, William Ryan, and Charles Valentine showed his contradictions ruthlessly. He propounded theories that his own stories belied. He presented culture as family writ large. He proclaimed that poverty bred pathology and that pathology bred poverty. And he kept repeating himself. Under criticism, it became obvious that far from a brave new concept, “the culture of poverty” was Part I of a sorry old myth—that the lumpenproletariat had itself most to blame, and was incorrigible.*
Confronted with such criticism, Lewis would deny it and insist that he stood with his critics—social justice would solve social misery. Explicitly referring to Cuba, he declared, “I am inclined to believe that the culture of poverty does not exist in socialist countries.” But when he tried again to formulate what he meant, he would contradict himself again. He argued in circles, for instance, that “by redistributing wealth, by organizing the poor and giving them a sense of belonging, of power and leadership, revolutions frequently succeed in abolishing some of the basic characteristics of the culture of poverty, even when they do not succeed in abolishing poverty itself.” That is, if you end poverty, you may end the worst of the culture of poverty, even if you do not end poverty. And then he asserted that “the culture of poverty” tended to perpetuate itself anyway. Whatever Lewis’s intentions, as Charles Valentine angrily observed, his least cryptic message could serve as a political warrant for neglect of deprivation, agitation over depravity instead, and eventual disgust with the poor who did not behave.
But this may have constituted a main reason for Lewis’s popularity. His artfully “humanist” statements on poverty were blessings to a public obsessed with the poor but determined to misunderstand them. Lewis himself did not intend to blame the victim. He protested inferences that the poor deserved their fate. But he left his notion of their “culture” so open that it could satisfy almost any prejudice toward them, justifying almost any policy toward them. Reading Lewis, a bourgeois public could feel right however its politicians acted on poverty.
In 1967, in the dying blazes of the War on Poverty, Current Anthropology featured a review of Lewis’s major books. Sixteen colleagues had their say on “the culture of poverty,” pro and con. Nothing substantially new emerged, except a note of fierce exasperation in Lewis’s reply to his critics. It may have come from a frustration with himself as much as with them, in view of all the inconsistencies he was trying to manage intellectually and politically. Maybe it came too from a darker worry, for he now suffered seriously from heart disease and angina pectoris.
In 1964 the Cuban government began inviting friendly but independent American journalists to visit the country and write books about it—among them Lee Lockwood, Elizabeth Sutherland, José Yglesias. In 1967 the Cuban Book Institute decided to publish translations of Tepoztlán and Pedro Martínez. And the Cuban Academy of Sciences, despite American criticism of his notions about the poor, invited Lewis to do community and family studies on the island. The full history of this Cuban-American enterprise will not come to the surface for many more years. But preliminary soundings are now in order. Lewis’s wife has published her first-hand account as the foreword to Four Men. The following is a reconstruction combining her version with accounts from other reliable sources who differ from her on secondary but still significant questions.
Duly authorized by the United States and Cuban governments, Lewis traveled to Havana in February 1968. As prudence then suggested, he had already decided that unless Fidel himself invited him, he would not undertake the proposed project. After days with professors, the minister of education, and the National Ideological director, he finally got to Fidel. During a morning and an afternoon Fidel drove him around the countryside, talking of agriculture, ranching, “underdevelopment.” That evening they discussed Lewis’s books. Fidel seemed to know about them and “the culture of poverty.” The Children of Sánchez he said he had read and found “revolutionary”—“worth more than 50,000 political pamphlets.” He asked Lewis, “Why don’t you come and do research like that here in our country?”
Lewis replied that many Mexicans and Puerto Ricans had bristled at his reports on their societies. Would the Cubans accept a report on theirs? “Oh yes, you should come,” Fidel said. “Cuba is different. We won’t give you the hard time the Mexicans did. This is a socialist country and all we are concerned with is that you do an honest job.”
They discussed the various kinds of families Lewis might study, the techniques he would use, and the data he would gather. Fidel asked if he would train Cuban students in his methods. Lewis agreed.
Lewis then posed his conditions: freedom to decide whom he would study, to conduct research in private, and to take papers out of Cuba without inspection; a promise that officials not punish anyone for cooperating with him; and permission to import equipment, supplies, and a non-Cuban staff. The project would pay its own room and board. Fidel agreed. He did not seem to care where Lewis raised the funds. Neither put anything in writing. The next day Lewis left to begin organizing the operation.
Evidently Fidel and he never met or spoke to each other again. If they communicated, it would be mainly through Fidel’s personal physician, Dr. René Vallejo. To cut communications, the main man would be the Cuban State Security director, who from the first was inclined to smell CIA in the deal.
Back in the United States, Lewis elaborated the project. For three years he and his staff would study the revolution’s impact on the daily lives of families from different classes in urban and rural areas. With taped interviews, they would produce “an oral history of contemporary Cuba.” In particular they would focus on slum families, to see how the revolution had affected “the culture of poverty.” It was the 1960 project again, but seasoned and sophisticated. This time when Lewis applied to Ford, he received the grant.
In February 1969, he returned to Havana with his wife and non-Cuban staff. Immediately they ran into flack. The Cuban government had just announced it would not cooperate with Ford-financed research organizations, because of Ford’s connections with the CIA. But it soon accepted Lewis’s argument that he was “an independent scholar.” And it set him up in the grand manner of a foreign project director: a big suburban house for him and his wife, complete with cook, two aides, a cleaning woman, and buying privileges at diplomatic stores; two other houses nearby for offices and non-Cuban staff; two imported cars and permits to buy all the gas they needed; and a small bus, a chauffeur, typists, telephones, and office equipment and supplies. Project Cuba, as the Cubans began calling it, was underway.
The first weeks went mostly to training the staff. Here Lewis made enemies. On pedagogical grounds, he tried to keep the non-Cubans (young Americans, Mexicans, and a Puerto Rican) separate not only from the natives in general but even from the Cuban trainees. And surprised by the kind of young Cubans coming to him, he treated them impatiently. He had expected two or three graduate students in social sciences. When ten young militants appeared instead, pure amateurs in research, volunteering as if for another Literacy Campaign, he made them pay in pride for the extra time he had to take to teach them “detached” surveying and interviewing. But by April he had the staff learning on the job.
He focused on Havana. In particular, recalling his trips of 1945-1946 and 1961, he located the people from the Las Yaguas slum. Several years before, the government had razed its shanties and resettled the people in seven new housing developments they built themselves. By 1969 each development had its own reputation for “integration,” i.e., revolutionary spirit and solidarity. Lewis directed his researchers to study one development reputedly high in “integration,” which he coded as “Bolívar,” and another reputedly low, coded as “Buena Ventura.” Within six months he had concentrated the study on ten persons in these places. Meanwhile he had also started a study of five families in the once exclusive suburb of Miramar. Not only was he accumulating much material, he was also often able to remove much from the island, taking it himself or sending it with his wife on trips back to the United States.
As Lewis gained confidence in Project Cuba, he lost his main contact with Fidel—Dr. Vallejo died in August 1969. Without advice he trusted, Lewis pushed his luck. In October, and two or three times afterward, he used the Israeli diplomatic pouch for correspondence from the United States. And in March 1970, he began interviewing a mysterious Havana professional, who had been arrested during the Bay of Pigs attack and remained a staunch gusano since. Mr. X, as Mrs. Lewis calls him, had come to Lewis to tell his story, and turned out to be a relative of a prominent Cuban official, himself a friend of the State Security director. In his interviews Mr. X praised the United States, President Nixon, and the fight against communism in Vietnam, and complained about his own country. As if he thought it mattered to the project, he also gave Lewis some low-down on the love lives of his country’s leaders. As if he thought it mattered too, Lewis let him talk.
It was a singularly rotten time for an American social scientist in Cuba to play wild cards. In the spring of 1970, despite four years of vast economic efforts, the country had reached a crisis, and the political and intellectual climate had become grim. Most ominously, the great ten-million-ton sugar harvest was failing. Besides, much less embarrassing but still galling to the country’s leaders, two prestigious and supposedly friendly Europeans had just berated them for failings in democracy and for not having a revolution à la chinoise: René Dumont in Cuba Est-il socialiste? and K.S. Karol in Guérrilleros au pouvoir. Unknown to Lewis, in mid-April the government put him under close surveillance. The bugs of the X interviews would instantly suggest spooky questions: Why did Lewis listen to Mr. X unless he wanted to know who on the Central Committee slept with whom? Why did he want to know that? To report it to the CIA?
In June Lewis suspended Project Cuba for the summer. His health was bad, and by then he figured he had enough on Havana. It was not what he had initially expected or agreed to do. He had not come near finishing Bolívar, where even in 1969-1970 former slum dwellers retained their reputation for revolutionary steadiness. Whatever he had thought he would feel, the success stories bored him. He did not have all he wanted either on Miramar or from Mr. X. The only study he had practically completed was that of Buena Ventura, where despite many improvements, the people confessed their frequent backsliding into the old habits of dog-eat-dog. But he had compiled some 30,000 pages of material, copies of much of which he had sent back to the United States. Now he planned a vacation at home in Urbana. In the fall he would resume the project for the rural cases. After the uproar of the recent harvest, they would provide a fine turmoil.
On June 25, the day before the Lewises were to leave, the foreign minister summoned Lewis to his office and told him the government had stopped Project Cuba. Lewis, he said, had accepted Ford funds, hired non-“integrated” typists, studied middle-class and counterrevolutionary families as well as members of the Communist Party and the army, used the Israeli pouch, and been “a difficult, demanding person.” That day, against Lewis’s protests, State Security agents confiscated all the project’s files. That evening the Security director himself visited the Lewises, repeated the charges, mentioned Fidel’s irritation at the Dumont and Karol books, and expressed concern about the “conflictive” quality of the X interviews and the “negative data” on Buena Ventura. Lewis protested that the director was making “a serious error.” After the director left, Lewis sent a letter to the minister of the presidency asking to see Fidel. Immediately the Security director telephoned to say no.
A few days later the director visited the Lewises again. He said he had read much of the X interviews, which convinced him Lewis was not a CIA agent. He reassured Lewis that the project’s interviewees would come to no harm, and implied that he would return some of the confiscated files. That evening a few papers did arrive. Though invited to remain in Cuba as tourists, two days later the Lewises left. An American assistant stayed to pick up a few more papers. The Lewises never did recover some 20,000 pages of documents, including all the questionnaires from Buena Ventura, copies of which they had not sent to the US.
Despite the Security director’s judgment that Lewis was clean, Cubans claiming inside information swore at the time that Lewis must have been a CIA agent. And in 1972 Minister of the Armed Forces Raúl Castro sanctioned the gossip as the official version. To date the authoritative Cuban pronouncement on Project Cuba remains that it was a “progressivist façade” for “political, economic, social, cultural, and military espionage.”
“Revolutionary truth” aside, this seems concretely false. The available evidence suggests rather that the project was stopped mainly because of Mr. X’s tattling, which to the Cuban government could have sounded like a clue to another threat to national security; to Lewis it was probably only an item of passing curiosity. And once the government had searched the project’s files, even though Lewis checked out clean, it was impossible to begin again. A week after the Lewises left, Mr. X was arrested. Officials denied that the charges against him had to do with Project Cuba—though they did not say just what the charges were. According to Mrs. Lewis, no one else involved in the project suffered punishment or threats. Other foreign researchers continued their studies, even on delicate problems like the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, the neighborhood block organizations instituted for “collective vigilance” in 1960. These later evolved into the island’s basic local voluntary associations, and were dangerously in disarray in many areas in 1969-1970. In April 1971, Mr. X was reportedly cutting cane on a prison farm. In 1973 Lewis’s former trainees were reportedly all teaching or doing research; one was said to be taking a doctorate at the University of Havana.
Back in Illinois, Lewis faced nearly 25,000 pages of incomplete notes to cast into a book very different from the one he had foreseen. Physically and mentally he was in distressing shape. In December, not quite fifty-six, he died of a heart attack. But his wife Ruth, who had worked intimately with him on his projects for more than thirty years, soon assembled a staff and began preparing for publication. In September 1972, she took on the help of Susan Rigdon, a political scientist at Illinois’s Center for International Comparative Studies. They followed The Children of Sánchez’s time-tested editorial methods, reweaving entire series of interviews into consecutive “autobiographies,” while preserving “the individuality of expression of each informant.” Finally they produced three books. Ruth Lewis wrote Four Men, appearing now as a Literary Guild Alternate, and Four Women, scheduled for September. Rigdon wrote their introductions and Neighbors, due next January.
What strikes the reader at once in Four Men is Ruth Lewis’s style. The foreword, where she recalls the history of Project Cuba, might have been tremulous, mean spirited, and confusing. It is instead calm, generous, and enlightening. She finds no fault with her husband except his “naïveté,” and she does not consider the X connection as sharply as she probably should, much less put to rest all the rumors about the project. But she does give a sensitive memoir of liberal disappointment with the revolution. The stories display the same discipline and grace. Admirers of Oscar Lewis may now suspect that the art in the earlier books could have come in good part from his wife.
The theme here is intense personal struggle by men who had endured ruinous poverty. But unlike Lewis’s Mexican and Puerto Rican books, these stories describe not just doubtful, private efforts to survive or improve social or economic standing. They also portray deliberate and public attempts by men to change their souls, to join a socialist revolution by becoming more upright, critical, and responsible, to become in a word comrades.
Each story opens before the revolution, in a time of desolation. Lázaro Benedí: black, born in Havana in 1900, parents ex-slaves, a coachman and a washerwoman; one of nineteen children, ten surviving infancy; left school at twelve, worked as houseboy, apprenticed as ironsmith, carpenter at fifteen, furniture-worker, barber, handyman, faith-healer; built his shanty in Las Yaguas in 1933, stayed till the end; married five times, two sons, both juvenile delinquents. “Life is not what one wishes it to be and it brings grief and mental upsets….”
Alfredo Barrera: mulatto, born in Las Yaguas in 1932, father a janitor and mayor of the slum, mother a washerwoman; eldest of eight surviving children; left school at fourteen, worked as lunchboy, shined shoes, sold newspapers and old bottles, handyman, painter, truckloader, pimp, short-order cook, longest job as a plasterer for three years in 1950s; married once, two children. “Life is only a ball of shit and you must put up with it and live as best you can.”
Nicolás Salazar: white, born in Las Yaguas in 1938, father a common laborer and beggar, mother a washerwoman; one of eleven children; left school at ten, begged, shined shoes, term in reformatory at thirteen, sold old bottles, washed cars, busboy, flower peddler, fruit peddler; married once, separated. “I’d sit all alone and think of the sad picture my father and the rest of us made.”
Gabriel Capote: mulatto, born in Oriente Province “around 1941,” father a soldier, mother a washerwoman, domestic, and prostitute; youngest of three children; brought to Havana at eleven, lived in various slums, never attended school, sold newspapers, old bottles, bones, candy, lottery tickets, worked at drugstore coffee shop 1955-1959; single. “If I had died, I would have lost nothing.”
Despite their grief and mental upsets, the two men old enough to know themselves had already struggled for more than themselves. Because he did many odd jobs for his neighbors, read books and newspapers, served as a santero, or priest, in two religious cults, and did not gamble or drink heavily, Benedí had been a leader in Las Yaguas since the 1930s. For twenty-five years he had fought in local and national campaigns against racial discrimination and political corruption. He cooperated mostly with the Communists, because they seemed the soberest.
At twenty-five Barrera liked talking with the old men at work, had read Marxist pamphlets, dreamed of “a society…where everybody shared what there was,” trusted the Communists for showing “what might be done to put things right,” and ran errands and hustled guns for the Havana underground.
After the revolutionaries took command, all four men came to understand the change as a chance “to put things right” not only in the country but in themselves. Benedí immediately volunteered for the new militia, guard duty, and special labor teams, and at sixty became the first president of Las Yaguas’s Committee for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR), and later the head of its school program. When the government razed the slum, he helped build the Bolívar development, resettled there, and carpentered every day. He no longer felt racial discrimination. At sixty-five, after a bad medical exam, he volunteered for a “maintenance brigade” of elderly workers doing light repairs in Havana’s woodworking shops. In 1967 he married his sixth wife. His sons straightened up, one after a stretch on a prison farm. His oldest grandchild was a teacher, five more were in school. With the youngest, a baby girl, he was “pleased as he could be.” In 1969 Lewis asked him for his story. Benedí agreed. He came punctually to the interviews in a starched shirt and natty straw hat, and solemnly told as much Cuban history as autobiography. “As for me, I’m completely in love with this Revolution.”
Barrera applauded the early political expropriations. Though he then grumbled about the nationalizations, hustled counterfeit checks, and pondered emigration, he stayed and worked—for his children, he said. In 1963, recently widowed, he moved to Buena Ventura, remarried, and had three more children. In 1967 he quit work in construction, which often took him out of town, and became a garbageman, which allowed him to see his family every evening. In 1969-1970 he would tell Lewis bitter jokes about Fidel and ruthlessly analyze the new system’s snafus and his neighbors’ faults. But he admitted, “The Revolution made me face a new panorama…. I’ve come to think it’s better to work for the collectivity.” He bragged most gravely about having bought two “almost new” bikes for his kids.
Salazar’s first concern on the day of the Triumph was that rebel soldiers had roped off the market where he bought the flowers he peddled. But he learned as he worked, with a sanitary team in the hills, on construction for the Ministry of Public Health, building the Buena Ventura development where he moved in 1963, and again selling bottles. In 1964 he went back to construction and became head of the Buena Ventura CDR’s public health program. In 1966 he cut cane in the sugar harvest and became a carpenter’s assistant. He worked in the next two harvests as well. When his CDR began dissolving in 1968, he tried to keep it organized. Meanwhile, he married three more times. With his fourth wife, after years of fearing sterility, he had a baby girl. “For me the Revolution is redemption… I can’t stay away from work one single day.”
The day Batista fled, Capote rode around Havana on his bike insulting Fidel. The youngest of the four men, he took longest to learn revolutionary lessons. He tended counter at the same coffee shop for another couple of years, then mopped hotel floors. It was “the October crisis” in 1962 that prompted his conversion. “I still didn’t know a thing about politics, but I could see how everything had changed…. I used to be a nobody and I could see the difference in myself as a person.” In the militia he spent a month in the hills guarding an arsenal. Demobilized, back mopping floors, smelling always of creosote, he went to literacy class every day. At twenty-two he learned to read and write, became a hotel waiter, stayed in school, and passed the sixth grade in three years.
In 1964 he cut cane in the harvest, married, and had his first child; three more followed. In 1967 he joined the Communist Youth. He quit in 1968, angry because he could not get a house for his growing family and because the army wanted him in the provinces for two years. But in early 1969 he received a good job as a waiter at a tourist hotel, where “they expect excellent service.” Still angry with his one-room apartment when he talked to Project Cuba, he understood that “it was the Revolution that pulled me out of the swamp…. It made a human being out of me….” He beamed with pride at his sons “wearing their clean long-sleeved shirts, owning two pairs of new shoes at a time….”
The tone is clear. Despite Oscar Lewis’s boredom with success, despite the Security director’s anxiety over “negative data,” Ruth Lewis’s stories have happy endings. Of course, being “nonfictional,” the characters never resolve all their problems. For his health’s sake, the seventy-year-old Benedí had to retire from the “maintenance brigade” and his CDR in 1970, which depressed him. The thirty-eight-year-old Barrera resented blacks for being too equal with him, had an affair going, and suffered severe headaches. The thirty-two-year-old Salazar knew his neighbors scorned him for his wife’s infidelities, wanted to serve in the great 1970 harvest, but dreaded leaving his wife at home alone. The twenty-nine-year-old Capote belittled women and feared blacks, had occasional affairs, and, soon after his interviews for Lewis, left his wife and children for another woman. But the moral of the stories is clear. Inspired by revolution, even at a dismal time, these remained lives of powerful, fairly rational hope. The eldest man remained the most hopeful of all. At home Benedí had a bust of Lenin and an altar to Yemayá, the goddess of rivers, springs, and fertility, the Prime Mother.
Four Men, however, is not just Ruth Lewis’s stories. It is also a commodity. And it comes in a package shrewdly designed for the intellectual market. Its subtitle, “Living the Revolution, An Oral History of Contemporary Cuba,” conveys a nice appeal to the current taste for studies from the bottom up.
Another part of the package, Rigdon’s introduction, appeals to the more theoretically minded. Sketches of the four characters suggest their socio-psychological significance in terms that Oscar Lewis might well have used: Benedí’s “basic values…were those of the dominant culture,” Barrera was “a deeply neurotic and confused man,” Salazar’s “deviations” were features of “the subculture” which the revolution would “eradicate in favor of a new, all-pervasive (not just dominant) culture and belief system,” and Capote, though he did not have “the erratic work habits of many slum residents,” was still “a deeply conflicted man.”
The package deceives. First, the book is not about “contemporary Cuba.” It is about four Cubans and their families in 1969-1970, probably the most painful years so far in the island’s revolutionary history. Since then, Cuba has changed considerably, and Benedí, Barrera, Salazar, and Capote must have new appreciations of their country and themselves in the summer of 1977. A “contemporary” book about a revolution has to be an aftervision. Only journalists can deal contemporarily with a revolution. Revolutionary changes happen so fast and so unpredictably that any sizable manuscript about them goes out of date before it comes into print. The Cuban revolutionaries in particular have defied prediction. Otherwise they never would have taken command or held it as long as they have.
Second, this book is not about four “average” or “typical” or “representative” or “randomly selected” Cubans. It could not be. It is rather about one old man who had spent fifty years serving others, living finally in a community high on socialism, and three young men terrified of trusting anyone, living among suspicious and restless neighbors. Such characters surely suggest social groups in revolutionary Cuba. Barrera, Salazar, and Capote, for example, must have ranked in the most troublesome category in the 1960s. And the pride and hope they already learned by 1970 testify to the revolution’s success with some “lumpen.” But there is no telling how many.
Third, most seriously, this book is heir to the mistakes in the notion of “the culture of poverty.” Lewis’s misconception came from a bundle of specious insights—e.g., that primitives like the Indians he studied for his dissertation could be “individualists,” as if he could compare a tribesman’s guardian spirit to bourgeois enterprise; or that he could use ethnographic methods like making inventories and recording “typical days” not only on primitives and peasants but on slum dwellers too, though the urban poor changed their “inventories” from week to week, and rarely had a “typical day.” The misconception culminated in the buncombe that the miserably poor, like the very rich, are different from you and me. Lewis’s critics in sociology and anthropology exposed his professional confusions a decade ago: principally, aggravating Ruth Benedict’s subjectivism, he presented strategies for coping with poverty as a genuine culture. But his worst legacy was the popular mystification of poverty.
In capitalist countries, “developed” and “underdeveloped,” labor markets require unemployment. Particular industries of short or even seasonal cycles of production require “casual” laborers who work when they can and take the dole or credit when they may. Systematically, they have a time to eat beef and a time to eat beans, a time to splurge and a time to pawn, a time to make a family and a time to desert a family. Lewis recognized capitalism’s general compulsions. But though he studied the “casual” poor for almost thirty years, he never understood why they lived so notoriously not just from hand to mouth but in fits and starts. Instead he took their “average” poverty as a general condition, construed their unemployment not as its cause but as one of its traits, like “second-hand clothing” or “a strong present time orientation,” and concluded that misery begets misery. As a writer on the poor, he stands not with Henry Mayhew, Helen Campbell, and Ralph Ellison, but with James Greenwood, Charles Booth, and Daniel Patrick Moynihan.
Of all the countries Lewis studied, Cuba before its revolution had the most seasonally geared economy. Every year depended on sugar. In the winter and spring, during the cane harvest, the island’s business, employment, and income soared. In the summer and fall, the famous “tiempo muerto,” they slumped. The cycle that wrenched the whole island racked Havana. Because the city was the country’s exporting, importing, and transshipping center, the site of the largest markets, and, as political and social capital, the showplace of conspicuous consumption, the annual booms and crashes hit it like hurricanes. During the three or four harvest months, goods and money poured in. And as the demand for labor swelled, jobs would multiply for dock workers, drivers, porters, washerwomen, seamstresses, prostitutes, domestics, messengers, painters, touters, scavengers, barbers, waiters, bakers, and carpenters like Benedí, plasterers like Barrera, peddlers like Salazar, counterboys like Capote. But during “dead time,” as the casuals said, “the street was hard.” Sales declined, the demand for labor shrank, and the jobs dried up. The slum grocer would then reopen credit for the likes of Benedí, Barrera, Salazar, and Capote, or they would resort to stealing, or starve.
By the time Lewis mounted his project in Cuba, three classic studies had explained in detail the island’s old productive rhythm, Julián Alienes’s Características fundamentales de la economía cubana (1950), the IBRD’s Report on Cuba (1951), and James O’Connors’s several articles, collected in Origins of Socialism in Cuba (1970). None appears in the bibliography of Four Men. Barrera observes once, “October was always bad.” But this is the only hint of the old structure of fat months and lean. Presumably because the interviewers did not know enough to ask, no one tells how the structure changed.
The book therefore misses a simple but important point. Like unemployment, work is a force with effects. As the revolution in Cuba socialized the economy, it put the poor to work all year round. And as they worked month after month, year after year, the dead time came alive, and they felt creative, resolved, and helpful—feelings that Mrs. Lewis’s stories convey vividly. Already in 1961 the people of Las Yaguas told Lewis how the revolution affected them. The four men and their wives told him again in 1969-1970. Salazar spelled the process out: “The best teacher anybody can have is work…. It calms you down, it makes you understand many things—sharing, comradeship….” But the lesson was lost on Lewis. He knew generally that “by redistributing wealth, by organizing the poor and giving them a sense of belonging, of power and leadership,” the revolution had generally relieved the poor’s misery. But blind to how regular work specifically changed casual laborers into consequential persons, he did not grasp how the revolution especially gave them heart and conviction. It is a moot question whether he would have eventually seen the connection. Because he did not by 1970, Four Men lacks an important critical perspective. The issue here is not whether Benedí, Barrera, Salazar, and Capote calmed down and learned to share, but why they did.
In her foreword Ruth Lewis comments that more documents and interviews would have made the book better. No doubt the stories, already the best part, would be richer. But without more understanding of time, work, and change, the Cuban Revolution would be no clearer.
August 4, 1977
For the most thoughtful contemporary criticism, see Eleanor Burke Leacock, ed., The Culture of Poverty: A Critique (Simon & Schuster, 1971), and Charles A. Valentine, Culture and Poverty: Critique and Counter-Proposals (University of Chicago Press, 1968). ↩