Andrei Codrescu on Ay, Cuba!

Dr. Jessie Voigts's picture

In 1997, writer Andrei Codrescu visited Cuba - and his book, Ay, Cuba!, is a fascinating tale of the journey. While I'd of course read Codrescu's work, and listened to him on NPR, I hadn't heard of this book. How can this be? For although it is almost two decades old, it is still fresh, extremely interesting, and full of cultural insights. And with the recent opening of travel to Cuba, even more important for us to read. 

Andrei Codrescu on Ay, Cuba!

Cuba is a complex, intriguing country. As Codrescu notes, tourism has definitely influenced the culture - to a point where it divides the country greatly: have and have nots, different currencies, ways of earning money, and a caste system based on skin color. While I'd long wanted to travel to Cuba, it seemed like a dream, a faraway culture that was more foreign than not, just by being out of reach. How could we ever glimpse the substance of this place?

But Codrescu has a magic touch - his writing truly conveys the essence and reality of living in Cuba as he experienced it. His understanding of the Cuban people ("Cubans have always been and remain passionate, musical, and mystical" (p. 22),) is drawn from a lifetime of observation. Perhaps my favorite part of the book - the part that showed me the deep intercultural knowledge that Codrescu has, is about the observer's worldview: 

"The best quality of an observer is empathy, which has to come with your worldview. No ammount of immersion or adventure can take the place of empathy. If you look with love, you get back love. Ditto anger, indignation, or indifference. The Cubans are full of warmth, a vast reservoir of affection. To look at them with any other perspective is to miss them" (p. 201).

He also draws clear correlations between his own upbringing in Communist Romania and communism in Cuba, which fascinate me to no end:

"It is my firm belief that all the countries where the culture of Soviet-style socialism "flourished" are exactly the same. They have more in common with each other than with their nonsocialist neighbors, even if the neighbors speak the same language" (p. 41).

"Say what you might about socioeconomic-political-religious conditions, the fact remains that all places in all times can be known and connected by smell. There is a commie smell as sure as there is a fascist smell. The commie smell was here, transporting me right back in time. I was suddenly nineteen years old, defiant, irreverent, filled with an insatiable appetite for the unknown" (p. 68).

The book is full of gems of wisdom (my ebook is quite the sea of highlights) and each day's unfolding experiences. But Codrescu also bewitches us with poetry, both with his words and ideas, and each chapter's opening with an exquisite corpse. These are poems that are created as a group game, with words and folded paper and clever friends. Somehow, each exquisite corpse, collated from different phrases, the whole unknown to the writers until the end, contributes to the meaning and truth about Cuba. It's genius, and extraordinarily interesting. 

Ay, Cuba! delves into Hemingway and El Duque, cigars and sex, tourism and the hard realities of living in poverty, friends and hustlers, what Cubans are giving up - and what they gain. I've never seen a more complete picture of a country and culture, or a less jaded view of the hard realities of living in paradise. He notes, "This was Cuba now: poised precariously between the lost utopia and the unpolished hustle" (p. 102).

The book is filled with photos by the talented David Graham, whose photos also appear in this article. They enhance Codrescu's words, and simply convey what he has been detailing throughout - that voodoo or sex or skin color or ancient cars are an integral part of Cuba. And we see them, thanks to both of these artists. 

Andrei Codrescu on Ay, Cuba!

I love this book, for many more reasons than I can elucidate here, but mainly for the intercultural awareness  and clarity that Codrescu brings to explain such an extraordinary country.

Highly recommended.

We were lucky enough to catch up with Codrescu, and ask about his visit, Communism, tourism, and more. Here's what he had to say...

Andrei Codrescu on Ay, Cuba!


How did your visit to Cuba reinforce/change your views about living under Communism?

I just returned from Romania (June 2015) and found prosperous cities in Transylvania, cafes full of young people, restored buildings, more elegant bookstores than in any other American city except New York. This, in contrast to the grey, impoverished Romania of my youth and Cuba in 1996. That said, much of this prosperity is in danger from corrupt officials who are either old Communists with Secret Police connections or their children, raised cynically under the new capitalist relaxation. At the same time, a serious anti-corruption campaign is ongoing, beginning at the highest levels government. There is a strong ecological movement that stopped the rape of a beautiful mountain in Rosia Montana, where a Canadian mining company was going to mine for gold. There were effective street demonstrations that showed a keen interest in politics and a level of activism that is stronger in post-communism than in our complacent democracies. This is a roundabout way to say that: 1. living under communism is living in an economically wrong system, that 2. the countries that experienced poverty and censorship under Communism will never return to it; and that vigilence and attention against the corrupt old apparachiks keeps political life at the forefront. 1996 Cuba reinforced my opinion of the misery of the Communist political system, and Romania's post-communism confirms that it can change the psychology of prisoners to that of citizens. 


Have you been back to Cuba since you wrote this book? If so, what was different - and what stayed the same?

No. I'm blacklisted: my book was serialized in the Spanish-language edition of The Miami Herald.


When you read what you wrote back then, how do you see things now? What do you think has changed for Cuba, communism, and the Cuban people?

Things are about to change: the wrong-headed embargo holds both U.S. and Cuba hostage to a few still-raving Cuban exiles in Florida. This will change with Obama's new policies of rapprochement, and Raul Castro's new model: Chinese capitalism under Communist party control. Pope Francis is also an opener of doors -- there will be fresh air circulating in the Caribbean.


One of the things that struck me upon reading your book was the interactions between young women and foreign men - and the relative scarcity of young men in the story. Where were they? How do you think Cubans can function, as a society, with this division of using sex/tourism to earn a living? How did the males you spoke with feel about this? Do you think it is still the same, years later?

The only commodity in a failed economy is the human body. Cubans have produced little except tons of propaganda since Castro's revolution. The women's bodies are a greater commodity than men's, though young Cuban men sell themselves as well. There is constant tension and violence in young couples' lives because nobody wants their "other" to make money from sex. This is a young peoples' problem, of course. Older people work hard and die in middle-age. The diet of rice, beans and pork fat puts the sexual commodity out of reach around 25 years of age. There is no scarcity of angry young men who'd be a hugely destructive force in case of any hint of civil War in Cuba. They would likely join an anti-American cause from resentment, or a criminal gang that would provide them with what they know money can buy: their girlfriends and wives.


How do you think tourism and the ending of the embargo of travel to Cuba has changed life in Cuba this year - and how might travelers help Cuba instead of trample it?

I hope that culture lovers and eco-tourists will find the music, dance, colonial centres of cities, and coastal beauty of the island, and help rebuild, restore and maintain them. A certain Cuban joie-de-vivre will always walk the line between sensuality and prostitution, but a finer apprecation of it might be possible, too. The Americans of 2015 are more sophisticated and sensitive (one hopes) than the pre-Castro gangsters and gamblers in Bugsy Siegel's bordello-casinos.

Andrei Codrescu on Ay, Cuba!


Is there anything else you'd like to share?

For whom? Why? It's all in the book.

Andrei Codrescu
June 16, 2015



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All Cuba photos courtesy and copyright David Graham; author and book cover photo courtesy Andrei Codrescu
Note: We received a review ecopy of Ay, Cuba from the publisher - thank you!