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Tim Cole

Former British Ambassador to Cuba

Part of UK in Cuba

31st July 2015 Havana, Cuba

Cuban summer reading

A lot of people ask me which are the best books written about Cuba. This year, more than ever it seems, people are interested. The rapprochement between Cuba and the United States, the two countries re-opening embassies after 54 years, the Cuban government’s steady economic reforms; all of this, and the thought that it will soon change Cuba irrevocably, has stirred up even more interest than usual. Tourist numbers are rising, including from the UK. People are flocking to Cuba’s beaches and to the bars of Havana. Many more are at home planning to come next year on holiday. And those who want to understand the country and get below its skin are wondering what they should read. Here are my recommendations for the best books written in English about Cuba.

  1. Let’s start with the relationship between the US and Cuba. ‘Back Channel to Cuba – the Hidden History of Negotiations between Washington and Havana’ tells the story of years of negotiations between the two countries. Written by William M LeoGrande and Peter Kornbluh, it’s meticulously researched and was published before the 17th December breakthrough. Starting with Eisenhower it traverses eleven US Presidencies, ending with Obama under the prescient chapter heading, ‘A New Beginning?’ I wonder whether the question mark will be removed for the next print run.
  2. Julia Sweig’s ‘Cuba: What Everyone Needs to Know’, is an easily accessible history. Answering a series of questions – e.g. How has debate evolved under Raul Castro? Will there be any political reform? – Sweig helps you get to grips with all things Cuban fairly rapidly. One to browse whilst sipping a mojito.
  3. ‘Cuban Revelations – Behind the Scenes in Havana’ by Marc Frank spans the last twenty years of Cuba’s history and is especially good on the recent economic reforms. Marc is correspondent for Reuters and the Financial Times in Cuba and has been following events here for more than a decade. He knows his stuff.
  4. Going a bit further back in time, ‘Finding Mañana’ by Mirta Ojito, is the story of Mirta growing up in Havana and then fleeing the country in the Mariel boatlift in 1980 when up to 125,000 Cubans left to go to the US. Mirta is a Pulitzer prize winner and blends the personal with the political in this very moving memoir.
  5. Two of my favourite books cover pre-Revolution Cuba. John Paul Rathbone’s ‘The Sugar King of Havana’ is the story of Julio Lobo, ‘Cuba’s last tycoon’, who dominated the global sugar trade in the 1950s. Come the Revolution, Lobo declined Che Guevara’s personal offer to become Minister of Sugar. This is an excellent portrait of the past but hints at the possibility of a sweeter future. The author is the Latin America Editor on the Financial Times.
  6. A second pre-1959 history is the unforgettable ‘The Havana Mob’ by TJ English – ‘a story of Gangsters, Gamblers, Showgirls and Revolutionaries in 1950s Cuba’. Lucky Luciano? Meyer Lansky? Frank Sinatra? John F Kennedy? They all feature. Fascinating tales of corruption, gambling, killings and pretty much anything else you can think of. Gripping stuff.
  7. Also worth reading is Fidel Castro’s: My Life. It’s basically a very (very!) long interview with French journalist, Ignacio Ramonet, that’s been transcribed into a book. Possibly the best book you can read to understand the motives, ideology and principles that drove Fidel.
  8. And how could I write this blog without mentioning Graham Greene? ‘Our Man in Havana’ is a wonderful novel – very funny and easy to read. I’m not going to spoil the story for you. It won’t tell you much about today’s Cuba but it will make you laugh. Take my word for it and take it on holiday.
  9. Finally, my favourite, and I’m going to cheat here by including books originally written in Spanish and much better in the original version. The Mario Conde novels by Leonardo Padura are brilliant – entertaining, fast-moving, colourful, gritty. Conde is a Cuban cop fighting crime in the capital. The books give you a real feel for life in Havana in the past few decades. Highly recommended.

Did I forget any? Your favourite not here? Read anything you want to recommend? Did I get any of these wrong? Please post comments below. I look forward to reading them too.

9 comments on “Cuban summer reading

  1. The Other Side of Paradise by Julia Cooke is a brilliant explanation of the authors time spent in Havana in recent history. I lived in Havana for a year in 2013/14 and she captured in her book what I could never have articulated. It was so precise.

    1. Narrated with the urgency of a confession, “Waiting for Snow in Havana” is a eulogy for a native land and a loving testament to the collective spirit of Cubans everywhere.

  2. Read: The Fourth Floor, by Earl E. T. Smith. Also
    Fué Cuba, by Juan Bautista Yofre

  3. Another suggested reading from the great British historian of Cuba, Hugh Thomas and his masterpiece, Cuba: The pursuit of freedom. Political reform has always been the shortcoming of current Cuban government.

  4. Nice list. Not read them all. But, IMHO, the Padura novels are absolute classics !

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About Tim Cole

Hi! I’m Tim Cole, the British Ambassador to Cuba. I arrived in Havana in August 2012 and presented my credentials as British Ambassador the following month. I’ve been a diplomat…

Hi! I’m Tim Cole, the British Ambassador to Cuba. I arrived in Havana in August 2012 and presented my credentials as British Ambassador the following month. I’ve been a diplomat since 2001; before Cuba, I spent 5 years in London where I worked on Pan-African policy and global economic issues and 6 years in southern Africa as Deputy Head of Mission in Mozambique and Zimbabwe. Most of my career has been in Africa as before joining the FCO I ran humanitarian aid programmes in Central Africa for the British NGOs Christian Aid and Save the Children. I’m married to Clare and we have 2 children – Jonathan and Zea.

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