BUFFALO, N.Y. -- A new book based on 15 years of on-the-ground
research in Cuba describes two Cubas -- one for Cubans, one for
outsiders -- that co-exist but do not mix, and explains how the
Cuban culture we do not see was critical in sustaining the Castro
regime while other socialist countries collapsed.
"Inside El Barrio: A Bottom-Up View of Neighborhood Life in
Castro's Cuba" (Kumarian Press, 2009) is by Henry Louis Taylor,
Ph.D., professor of urban and regional planning in the University
at Buffalo School of Architecture and Planning.
It charts the legacy of the last 15 years of Fidel Castro's Cuba
through the lens of Cuban household life and offers new insights
into the bottom-up, neighborhood-based participatory democracy that
helped support Castro's regime.
Because he knew many Cubans well and could pass for Cuban
himself, Taylor was able to conduct extensive research in Havana
neighborhoods during the final and most complex era in Fidel
Castro's dictatorship: Periodo Especial (the special
period), during which Castro called upon the masses to prepare for
a sustained period of hard times.
In his research Taylor found two Cubas: one, the simplified,
one-dimensional Cuba that many people "discover" through the
tourism or from the writings of political propagandists of an
"The other," Taylor says "is a more complex and
multi-dimensional Cuba, where people live in a highly stable and
deeply organized society and exercise considerable control over the
development of neighborhoods (el barrios) and communities
that are imbued with participatory democracy, reciprocity,
collaboration and cosmopolitanism."
It is this Cuba that continues to sustain the government,
despite severe economic hardship, Taylor says. "No iron wall exists
between these two Cubas," he explains, "but people rarely get
insight into the world inside el barrio." It is that aspect
of Cuban life that the book explores.
Taylor spent a great deal of time visiting Havana's
neighborhoods between 1989 and 2006, a period marked by the abrupt
collapse of the Soviet Bloc that plunged Cuba into economic
catastrophe marked by unprecedented financial hardship, a marked
increase in social tension and the emigration of thousands.
"One of the most important things I learned is that it takes
time before most Cubans will befriend you, speak to you in frank
terms and carry you into their world. Without this frankness, it is
easy for a foreigner to be misled, misinterpret conversations
and/or form false impressions," Taylor says.
"I learned the importance of neighborhoods in shaping everyday
life and culture and found that the social networks and
neighborhoods, so important to the way the socialist system
operates on the ground in Cuba, were critical in sustaining the
Castro regime while other socialist countries were collapsing in
the late '80s."
In 1989, when the Soviet Union and the East European Community
Bloc collapsed, Cuba was plunged into a catastrophic economic
crisis that spawned unprecedented hardship and generated great
Taylor points out that, despite this, Cuban society did not
collapse and there were no demands for regime change and a
resurrection of capitalism. "Not only did the Castro regime
survive," he says, "but the bearded one remained as defiant as
ever. I wanted to understand why and sought the answer by examining
everyday life and culture in the poorest neighborhoods."
"What I discovered is that the Cubans developed a strong system
of community development, which was informed by a strategy of
building communities that were highly developed social units that
must function in an efficient and effective manner in order to
produce desirable social outcomes," Taylor says.
To make this happen, Taylor says the government encouraged the
development of participatory democracy inside the neighborhoods to
unleash the creative powers of residents and to make them partners
in the quest to recovery from the economic crisis.
"The result," he says, "is that Cuban neighborhoods are
hyper-stable and hyper-organized communities, where ordinary
residents exercise considerable control over neighborhood life and
culture, albeit in an environment of scarcity."
Taylor's entrée into Cuba was a Summer Study Abroad
Program operated by UB for many years and a master's degree program
run by UB and the University of Havana.
"Because of our academic status, the government gave us the
freedom to visit any institution or organization we desired,"
Taylor says. "These things in addition to traditional research,
gave me a unique view into the society and how it operates.
Moreover, to gain deeper insight into the ways that ordinary Cubans
see their society, my research team conducted 398 household
Taylor is the director of the Center for Urban Studies at UB, a
research, neighborhood- planning and community-development
institute that focuses on distressed urban communities. He also is
the coordinator of the community development and urban management
specialization in the UB Department of Urban and Regional Planning.
Taylor is the editor of three books and a monograph and has written
more than 80 articles, book reviews, commentaries and technical
reports on urban and regional planning.
The University at Buffalo is a premier research-intensive public
university, a flagship institution in the State University of New
York system and its largest and most comprehensive campus. UB's
more than 28,000 students pursue their academic interests through
more than 300 undergraduate, graduate and professional degree
programs. Founded in 1846, the University at Buffalo is a member of
the Association of American Universities.