Castro referred to what followed as a “special period.” In her masterful introduction to the book, M.J. Porter, who translated Havana Real, offers a less euphemistic description: “[A] time of terrible scarcity — when a word, alumbrón, was coined for the unusual situation of electricity being on; when fried grapefruit rinds took the place of meat in the national diet; when, it was rumored, melted condoms sometimes stood in for the cheese on a concoction that was anything but ‘pizza’ ”
Cuba is in somewhat better economic shape today, mainly because the Castros have firmly attached it to the teat of Venezuela, where narcisso-Marxist Hugo Chávez has opened the spigots to aid estimated as high as $5 billion a year, comprising about 15 percent of Cuba’s entire economy. Even so, economic desolation colors nearly every page of Havana Real. Sometimes ironically, sometimes wearily, and sometimes with simmering rage, Sánchez describes daily life in a country where a shopper lucky enough to find a pineapple in the market and wealthy enough to buy it must also be prudent enough to conceal it in a bag on the way home, “to hide this queen of the fruits, this obscene symbol of status, from the jealous glances of others.”
Havana Real is, in its own way, a more damning indictment of communist society than were the horrifying accounts of Soviet labor camps in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, or Against All Hope, Armando Valladares’ Cuban prison diaries. The stories in those books were dismissible by the Ostrich Left as regrettable but understandable security excesses, like the American prison camps in Guantánamo Bay: After all, they must have done something to be locked up, right?
But the only prison in Havana Real is Cuba itself. This is how people live — ordinary people whose only crime is having had the bad luck to be born into a totalitarian suzerainty so suffocatingly potent that children, asked what they want to do when they grow up, reply simply: “Leave.”
Sánchez, who describes her first blog post as “halfway between a scream and a question,” often reminds me of a sort of inverted Winston Smith, the doomed little bureaucrat of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Smith rebelled against the totalitarian state of Oceania in the only way he could, by keeping a secret diary in which he scrawled, over and over, “I hate Big Brother!” Sánchez’s resistance to the Castro brothers, too, mostly takes the form of acts that are heartbreakingly futile: her refusal, for instance, to walk the threadbare aisles of Havana’s markets with her shopping bag open.
“I keep it folded in my pocket, so I don’t look like I’ve been devoured by the machinery of the waiting line, the search for food, the gossip about whether the chicken has arrived at the market,” she writes. “ In the end, I have the same obsession with getting food, but I try not to show it too much.”
Sometimes the parallels to Smith are stunningly literal. Sánchez recounts in wonder Raúl Castro’s first big speech after taking over for his brother. It was delivered on July 26, 2007, a date that for the Cuban Revolution is the equivalent of the Fourth of July in the United States: the anniversary of the 1954 attack on a military barracks that marked the beginning of Castro’s five-year armed struggle to depose the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista.