Book Review – Waiting for Fidel

By | September 22, 2007

Waiting for Fidel by Christoper Hunt

My wife bought this book for me a few years ago when we were doing a lot of international traveling. It never made it to the top of my reading stack, but this summer I was looking for a relatively small paperback book to read while taking BART and MUNI to California Victory matches in San Francisco. I’m really glad I decided to choose Waiting for Fidel.

Christopher Hunt spends a lot of time blending in with locals and comes away with a perspective that would be extremely difficult to obtain by most visitors to Cuba. While he is clearly enamored with Cuba, he doesn’t hesitate to point out the flaws in their economic system and the suffering that is ever present. While some of the suffering is due to the American embargo, Cuba definitely lost out big by betting big on a losing horse (the Soviet Union) and Castro appears (even back in the late 90’s when the book was written) to be far out of touch with the realities of day-to-day life and the high levels of corruption throughout much of Cuba. Still, it sounds like the majority of Cubans are incredibly kind and warm-hearted and they make for wonderful hosts.

After a couple of failed attempts to meet Castro in Havana, Hunt decides to follow Fidel Castro and his fellow rebels’ 30+ day march across most of the length of Cuba (I don’t know why I thought Cuba wasn’t that long of an island, but it is) en route to overthrowing Fulgencio Bautista in Havana. His adventures while following in the rebels’ footsteps make for fascinating reading. Although most of the Cubans he meets are relatively poor, they offer to share whatever they have with him.

Along the way, Hunt learns many terms that help to Cubanize him. A regular part of Cuban life is queuing up in lines, so the phrase everyone says as they approach a queue is “¿El último?”, in order to find out who is currently at the end of the queue. This is, of course, not to be confused with “El Máximo”, which is a nickname for Castro. When commenting on the regular challenges Cubans face each day, they often sigh and simply say “La Lucha”, or “The Struggle”. Other useful slang terms include wanikiki – money, fula – dollars, jinetero – grifter, jinitera – prostitute, and el fuego – the act of grifting.

One interesting bit of trivia is that the Communist daily political newspaper Granma is named after the boat the rebels used to land at the Eastern tip of Cuba, or as Che Guevara described their arrival, “This wasn’t a landing, it was a shipwreck”. But why was the boat called “Granma”? Well, they had purchased it from an American who had given it the affectionate name for his grandmother. Imagine if they had bought the “Luna Sea”, “Obsession”, “Wet Dream”, or “Miss Behavin'”.

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