Jersey Journalist Lifts Veil on a Changing Cuba

In his new book, Anthony DePalma reveals the extraordinary in ordinary lives.

In November 2016, Anthony DePalma realized that after almost 40 years of visiting Cuba, he needed to write a book about it. Fidel Castro had just died, the Obama administration had eased restrictions on travel to the island, and entrepreneurs were setting up shop.

DePalma, who lives in Montclair, had arranged to lead eight tours in 2017 through the travel arm of the New York Times, where he had worked as a reporter for 22 years. He would have ample time to continue his research. 

But something else happened that November, and when Donald Trump entered the White House two months later, his administration restricted U.S. travel and imposed sanctions and embargoes on Cuba, freezing the Havana spring before it reached full bloom. 

DePalma, author of three other books (and a longtime contributor to New Jersey Monthly), persevered nonetheless through almost three years of intensive research. His book, The Cubans: Ordinary Lives in Extraordinary Times, came out May 26 from Penguin Random House.

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This elegantly written chronicle of the intertwined lives of five average Cubans and their families gives an unofficial, and thus potentially truer, account of the challenges for people who, DePalma writes, have an “excess of prohibitions and a minimum of inhibitions.” (DePalma has a personal connection to Cuba: His wife, Miriam Zebina Rodríguez, was born there, but left as a child.)

DePalma was surprised that what he views as the greatest strength of the Cuban people—their adaptability—is also their gravest weakness. It explains how the government has lasted for 60 years. Cubans are not in the streets demanding change, DePalma concludes, because they are so busy adapting to the restrictions imposed on them. 

For those who argue that our current stance against Cuba can push it toward democracy, DePalma notes that donated supplies to fight coronavirus have been held up because of the embargo. “Do we really want to be known as the people who didn’t allow that shipment to come in?” he asks.

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