Book Review: Sexual Revolutions in Cuba: Passion, Politics, and Memory, written by Carrie Hamilton

in New West Indian Guide / Nieuwe West-Indische Gids

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Carrie Hamilton, Sexual Revolutions in Cuba: Passion, Politics, and Memory. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012. xv + 298 pp. (Cloth US$39.95)

Carrie Hamilton begins by outlining the overarching questions driving her study of sexuality during five decades since the Cuban Revolution of 1959: how political revolution was experienced and perceived in relation to sexual values and practices and to what extent these changed; how they intersected with race, class, and gender, as well as generation; and how revolution is so often expressed in the language of love, romance, and passion. While grounded in primary and secondary written sources, the richness of her approach lies in oral history. In-depth interviews conducted in the early years of this century with Cubans on the island are what enabled her to go beyond the realm of policies on sexuality to the ways in which policy changes affected (or not) the personal lives of ordinary citizens and the extent to which those citizens in turn contributed to wider social and political change.

Hamilton charts the history of change from the perspective of those who lived it and outlines hitherto unexplored areas and themes. She interrogates the relationship between history and memory through the theme of sexuality and the way its markers dovetail (or not) with those of accepted chronologies and periodizations of the Cuban Revolution. She argues that changes in sexuality came about less as a result of deliberate policy than of broader processes of change; that they were intimately linked to social power relations of gender, race, class, and generation; and that prerevolutionary and early revolutionary sexual ideology and power relations continued to shape attitudes and experiences well after they had officially been “overcome.”

Life-story testimonies form the core original contribution. The testimonies are part of a broader “Cuban Voices” project, initiated in 2003, that brings together British-based and Cuban-based researchers—the first of its kind since that of Oscar Lewis and his team in 1968–1970. Taken as a whole, the project interviews are laced with hidden histories of how the Cubans who were interviewed embraced, accepted, or resisted the normative view of a “good Cuban” citizen. Hamilton then took a subset of those interviews to explore such themes as language and popular expressions of sex, sexuality, and desire, in conjunction with the conditions of everyday life, memory, and the all-important interaction between narrator and researcher when it comes to interpreting other people’s stories. From the life-story narratives there emerges an emotive history—of how emotions structure the relationship between sexuality and politics—which enables the analysis to go beyond revolution as a “politics of passion” to examine how stories of sexuality tell a more nuanced, and often poignant, history of revolution.

A background chapter provides an overview of pre- and post-1959 secondary literature on sexuality in Cuba and is followed by a chapter on the relationship between passion and politics through the language of love, romance, and disenchantment. Then comes a chapter whose springboard is Cuban revolutionary hero (albeit Argentinian) Ernesto Che Guevara’s now-classic 1960s treatise Socialism and Man to interrogate the extent to which the revolution had (or had not) constructed new women and new men though changed heterosexual relationships. The focus in the next three chapters switches to the revolution’s controversial history of homosexuality and homophobia—first through memory and discourse, then through the story of one self-identified homosexual man, and finally through what has been largely overlooked, which is female same-sex desire. There follows an exploration of taboos and silences, prelude to chapters on the sex tourism of Cuba’s so-called “Special period” of the post-1989 crisis years and on sexuality and housing. The latter in particular homes in on the economics of sexual politics in contemporary Cuba in the context of comparative studies of sexuality in the global south.

There are themes that emerge which are in themselves worthy of further study. One relates to heroes and sacrifice: excessive commitment, romance, and heartbreak. Others are collective euphoria and domestic life; masculinized memory and leadership; love’s pleasures and dangers; motherhood and absentee men; old masculinities and new female heterosexualities; memory, homosexuality, and repressive homophobia; and the unspoken lesbian love. Of special interest is the way three particular taboos play out in interviews: HIV-AIDS, domestic and sexual violence, and interracial relationships. This is not so much because they stood out for their absence or because interviewees remained silent, but rather because they were “perceived by narrators as hidden, forbidden, or difficult to express because they challenged accepted versions of revolutionary history” (p. 192). The context to each of the three is one of differing timelines, and while it’s more acceptable to refer to them in the present century, it is no less problematic how to articulate them over the twists and turns of the past fifty-year period. The same might be said for the way perceptions of those engaging in sex tourism changed over the 1990s, embedded as those years were in the growing inequalities of the newly emerging post-1989 Cuba.

Readers familiar with the field of Cuban Studies may be forgiven for thinking that many of the topics have been analyzed before. What is important is that it is through the voices of Cubans themselves that we are drawn into the ambiguities, inconsistencies, contradictions, hopes and frustrations, dreams and disillusions, of those who have lived the revolutionary process. Carrie Hamilton rose to a formidable challenge, and successfully so, for what can be more intimate than seeing that process—warts and all—through the lens of sexuality, passion, politics, and memory?

If the inline PDF is not rendering correctly, you can download the PDF file here.

Book Review: Sexual Revolutions in Cuba: Passion, Politics, and Memory, written by Carrie Hamilton

in New West Indian Guide / Nieuwe West-Indische Gids

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