A formidable professor challenges academia’s Cuba myths

As swarms of termites gradually devour structures, leftist academics batty with false dreams of a communist utopia, have over the decades, one published paper at a time, devoured Cuba’s history and created an Orwellian Castro propagandist version of Cuba before Castro. This academic corpus, though permeated with falsehoods, has provided the Castro dictatorship cover for their demolition of Cuba’s true history, the good and the bad. Few outside academia’s inner circle read these papers, but their false narratives about Cuba are pervasive in U.S. educational institutions, and find their way to the media. Ask an average American on the street about Cuba, and most will repeat some version as fact the usual sound bites about the dismal life of Cubans before so-called triumph of the revolution.

My long-time friend from New Jersey, Anthropology Professor Roland Alum, brilliantly counters these biased writings, one paper at a time. He has just recently published this excellent essay, The Cuban Culture of Poverty Conundrum, in the University of Pittsburgh’s Panoramas journal. I have posted prior writings of his in the past. Here, he revisits the old scandal involving U.S. anthropologists Oscar Lewis and Douglas Butterworth who were spied upon while researching in Cuba on the question of the culture of poverty.
Once again, as Roland notes, the Castro brothers’ not only did not solve traditional social problems, but also actually exacerbated old ones and worse, created new ones; and all this was already evident toward the end of their very first decade.
The Lewis-Butterworth project was suddenly terminated, by State Security, the academics were expelled, and their Cuban statistician was imprisoned for 6 years; yet, apparently, no one lifted a finger for the victim.

From Panoramos:

“Dictators…always look good…from the outside”

Tomáš Masaryk, Czech sociologist/philosopher


I propose here to re-examine certain aspects of life in “Socialist Cuba,” principally the so-called culture of poverty, as gauged relatively early in the Castro brothers regime by two U.S. socio-cultural anthropologists, the legendary Oscar Lewis and his protégée/associate Douglas Butterworth, whose research project 4.5 decades ago was surrounded by controversy and enigmas.

Unquestionably, the Fidel and Raúl Castro “Revolutionary Government” enjoyed an extraordinary initial popularity in 1959. Yet, the enthusiasm vanished as the duo hijacked the liberal-inspired anti-Batista rebellion that had been largely advanced by the then expanding middle-classes. Instead of delivering the promised “pan con libertad” (bread with liberty), the Castro siblings converted Cuba into a socio-spiritually and fiscally bankrupt, Marxist-Stalinist dystopia in which both, bread and liberty are scarce (Botín, 2010; Horowitz, 2008; Moore, 2008).

Cuba was the last Ibero-American colony to attain independence (1902); yet, by the 1950s, the island-nation was a leader in the Americas in numerous quality-of-life indicators. This record was reached notwithstanding instability and governmental corruption during the republican era (1902-58), including the 1952-58 bloody authoritarian dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. However, under the (now anachronistic octogenarian) Castros, Cuba became an impoverished, Orwellian closed society beleaguered by unproductivity, rampant corruption, humiliating rationing, human rights abuses, and –understandably– unprecedented mass emigration (Díaz-Briquets & Pérez-López, 2006; Horowitz, 2008).

Cuba’s Culture of Poverty Conundrum

The Lewis and Butterworth project in 1969-70 is still, oddly, among the little known accounts of the early effects of the Castro family’s regimentation. Supported by a Ford Foundation’s nearly $300,000 grant, the professors intended to test Lewis’s theory of the “culture of poverty” (or rather, sub-culture of poverty). They had innocently hypothesized that a culture of poverty (hereafter CoP) would not exist in a Marxist-oriented society, as they presupposed that the socially alienating conditions that engender it could develop among the poor solely in capitalist economies. Influenced by Marxism, Lewis in particular had cleverly problematized the commonalities of the poor’s elusive quandary in well-known prior studies across different societies, notably among Mexicans and Puerto Ricans.

While poverty is defined in relative terms, the CoP was conceptualized as an amorphous corpus of socially transmitted self-defeating beliefs and interrelated values, such as: abandonment, alcoholism, authoritarianism, deficient work ethic, domestic abuse, fatalism, homophobia/machismo, hopelessness, illegitimacy, instant, gratification/present-time orientation, low social-civic consciousness, mother-centered families, sexism/misogyny, suspicion of authorities while holding expectations on government dependency, and so forth.

This “psychology of the…oppressed…poor” is considered a key obstacle to achieving vertical socio-economic mobility even in fluid social-class, more open societies, such as the U.S. Not all poor individuals develop a CoP, but being poor is a sine qua non condition.

Ever since its early stages as a separate discipline in the mid-1800s, anthropology’s cornerstone has been the concept of “culture.” A century later, the notion drifted to everyday language; to wit, statements such as “a culture of corruption” became common in the media in reference to mindsets in government and corporations. I prefer the interpretation of culture by my own Pitt co-mentor, “Jack” Roberts (1964): “a system for storing and retrieving information,” which fits with the Lewis-Butterworth approach.

With initial high-level governmental welcome, one of the Lewis-Butterworth investigations entailed comprehensive interviews of former Havana slum-dwellers resettled in new buildings. In the research project’s fourth book, The People of Buena Ventura, Butterworth (1980) admitted with disenchantment that his research project found sufficient social symptoms that met the CoP criteria, thus disproving the initial hypothesis expecting an absence of the CoP under socialism.

The Project’s Significance

The Lewis-Butterworth ethnographic (descriptive, qualitative) work has various additional implications. It shed light for an evaluation of the Guevarist “New Socialist Man” archetype. Similarly, it informed an understanding of the dynamics that led to the spectacular 1980 Mariel boat exodus, when over 120,000 Cubans (some 1.2% of Cuba’s population) “voted with their feet.” Ironically, the regime and its insensitive fans abroad still refer to the raggedy refugees with disdainful discourse as “escoria” (scum) and with the Marxist slur “lumpen proletariat.” Significantly, most Marielistas were born and/or enculturated under socialism, i.e., they personified the presumed “New Man.” Many of them, moreover, had been military conscripts, and/or had served time in the infamous gulag-type “U.M.A.P.” forced-labor camps created for political dissidents (particularly intellectuals and artists), Beatles’ fans, gays, the unemployed, long-haired bohemians/hippies, Trotskyites, would-be emigrants (considered “traitors”), and religious people (including Jehovah’s Witnesses and Afro-Cuban folk-cults’ practitioners), etc. (Núñez-Cedeño, et al., 1985). In fact, the Marielistas encompassed also an over-representation of Afro-Cubans, the demographic sector traditionally viewed as most vulnerable, and thus, among the expected prime beneficiaries of socialist redistribution.

Certainly, there were always poor Cubans -of all phenotypes- and conceivably, some version of the CoP existed pre-1959; but in my exchanges with Butterworth, he reconfirmed another remarkable finding. While acknowledging the social shortcomings of pre-revolutionary times, he could not document (for ex., through the collection of oral life-histories), a case for a pervasive, pre-revolutionary Lewisian CoP.

This in situ scrutiny of daily life fairly early in the Castros era corroborates previous and subsequent accounts by many Cubanologists and the much vilified and ever-expanding exile community. There exists a widespread CoP in Socialist Cuba, though not necessarily as a survivor of the ancien régime, but -as Butterworth deduced- a consequence of the nouveau régime. The authorities must have suspected, or ascertained through surveillance, about the prospective conclusions, given that the anthropologists were suddenly expelled from the country. They were accused of being U.S. spies, most of their research material was confiscated, and some “informants” (interviewees) were arrested and/or harassed. Additionally, their Cuban statistician, álvaro ínsua, was imprisoned.

Comfortably from abroad, academic and media enthusiasts of the Castros’ “dynasty” customarily replicate party-line clichés in their penchant to “launder” the dictatorship’s excesses and the centralized economy’s dysfunctions by blaming external factors. Topping the excuses is the ending of the defunct COMECON’s subsidies circa 1990. Some apologists -notably a few anthropology colleagues- even absurdly refer to the 1959-90 epoch as a “utopia,” while the government labeled the current calamitous post-1990 years the “Special Period.”

Yet, the undertaking by Lewis & Butterworth, who were initially eagerly simpatico to the Castros, provided remarkable revelations that regime’s defenders conveniently still continue to overlook. It showed that life for average Cubans toward the end of the regime’s first decade -long before the Special Period- was already beset with corruption, consumer scarcities, and time-wasting food-lines. All this is characteristic of what is branded “economies of shortage,” standard for Soviet-modeled societies (Eberstadt, 1988; Ghodsee, 2011; Halperin, 1981; Verdery 1996).

Likewise, Butterworth portrayed how ordinary Cubans -“los de a pie” (those on foot)- were by then engaging in what nowadays we call “everyday forms of resistance,” a social weapon of subjugated people anywhere. As also depicted by other observers and Cuban former participant-resisters (now exiled, my own informants or “cultural consultants”), Butterworth reported how Cubans were already undermining the hegemonic police-state through taboo actions, such as absenteeism, black-marketeering, briberies, pilfering, and even vandalism. Apparently, this project remains the only conventional testing of the CoP in a totalitarian socialist country, although numerous researchers have chronicled the pitiable quality of life under such socio-political systems (Eberstadt, 1988; Halperin, 1981).

Indeed, the Cuban reality of widespread misery -except for the privileged top one-percent (now an elitist gerontocracy)- as well as of indignities and hushed quotidian defiance, evokes narratives about similar, though faraway communist “experiments” that collapsed a quarter-century ago. Among these comparable accounts are ethnologist Verdery’s (1996) descriptions of despot Ceau?escu’s Romania and Ghodsee’s (2011) Bulgarian ethnographic vignettes.


A number of experts have been reporting about certain kinds of behavioral traits among Cubans, both islanders and recent émigrés, which may reflect CoP patterns (Botín, 2010; Horowitz, 2008). This is not surprising, as the CoP worsened with time as impoverishment augmented (Hirschfeld, 2008).
One can surmise that, despite its human and material toll, the Castros regime not only failed to solve traditional social problems, but exacerbated at least some of them, and moreover created new ones (Díaz-Briquets & Pérez-López, 2006; Eberstadt, 1988). Much of this was already manifested in the 1960s (Edwards, 1973; Halperin, 1981), as reflected in the Lewis-Butterworth venture.
Lewis died, heart-broken, at age 56 in December 1970 upon his repatriation. Butterworth also took ill -especially emotionally- dying in 1986 (at 56 too). The Ínsuas were abandoned in Cuba to their own lot. Álvaro languished in jail for six years; in 1980 he was “allowed” to leave for Costa Rica with wife Greta (who had also worked for the project), and son Manolo. They reached the U.S. soon thereafter, coinciding with the arrival of the Mariel expatriates and Butterworth’s book publication. After a brief staying in northern New Jersey, where I assisted them, they settled in Miami.
In assessing the legacy of the Lewis-Butterworth project on Cuba’s culture of poverty, there remain several intriguing puzzles pending exploration. Hopefully, someday Álvaro and Greta will write their own elucidating memoirs.

Continue reading The Cuban Culture of Poverty Conundrum.

Professor Alum, who was recently appointed a Research Associate of the Center for International Studies at his graduate alma mater, the University of Pittsburgh, also holds a Post-Doctoral Certificate from the University of Virginia. Professor Alum welcomes feedback, his email address is ralum@pitt.edu

Before Castro:

After Castro:

4 thoughts on “A formidable professor challenges academia’s Cuba myths”

  1. Fidel’s revolution was a classic case of a bait-and-switch. Before 1959, his (public) focus was always on removing Batista to restore fully democratic normalcy and constitutional legitimacy, but NOT on any kind of socioeconomic upheaval. Democracy, of course, never came after Batista left, and the constitution was ignored and ultimately replaced by a bogus Soviet-inspired concoction. One reason the legitimate constitution was “shelved” was that it forbade the death penalty except for spying in time of war, meaning that every execution carried out by the Castro people (starting in their rebel phase pre-1959) was against the laws of the Republic of Cuba. Bottom line: the “revolution” was based on a pack of lies, both of commission and omission, all of which were deliberate.

    Fidel wanted dictatorial power and never intended to relinquish it, which is why he never allowed real elections even at first, when he may well have won them. Even Batista was legitimately elected president for his first term (1940-44), and at least technically elected in 1954 (when his political opposition largely bungled the opportunity). As late as 1958, presidential elections were held again (vehemently opposed by Fidel, who actually declared he would not accept their results even if they were honest), and although Batista’s people rigged the outcome, Batista was NOT a candidate and would never have occupied the office of president again, even if Fidel and his people had stopped being a factor. Batista may have remained a power player, as Bill Clinton would be in a Hillary presidency, but sooner or later his influence would have waned and he would have retired to enjoy his financial spoils. In other words, he was a self-limiting disease, not a rampaging and progressive cancer like Fidel.

  2. In 1991, Professor Rolando Armando Alum y Linera was a member of the Instituto de Estudios Cubanos (IEC) headed by Castro agent Maria Cristina Herrera. Their names appear in this document
    Note that other members of the IEC included convicted Castro spies Carlos M. Alvarez and Yolanda Prieto, DGI officer Francisco G. Aruca, accused Castro spies Marifeli Perez-Stable, Lisandro O. Perez, Albor Ruiz, Nelson Valdes and Vicente Dopico, and dozens of other pro-Castro activists, including Wayne Smith, Carmelo Mesa Lago, Marcelino Miyares, Alicia Torres Vigil, and many others.
    Prof. Alum has never denounced the IEC or any of his fellow members he cavorted with. Until he does so, he should not be trusted.

  3. When I heard of this new article on the culture of poverty debacle in communist Cuba, I thought it would be a rehash of Prof. Alum’s old WALL ST. JOURNAL op-ed in the 1980’s, three decades ago, on a similar topic, which he cites in a footnote. But am gladly surprised that he brings in new updated evidence, presents a wider discussion, carefully documents, footnotes, and adds recently published citations. I don’t think that there is anything here that, say, Granma or the Castros’s many fans abroad could legitimately refute. I also agree with Ziva’s proposal that courageous established scholars like this author ought to be given a respectful venue in their quest to straighten the historical record in countering cheap Havana propaganda. What the dictatorship did to Lewis and the Ínsuas, relatively early in the regime, presaged what was to come. I still can’t imagine how come there are foreign journalists and academicians, especially anthropologists and sociologists, who consider that the years prior to the Special Period constituted utopia. Hooray for both, Alum and Ziva. I only hope that Alum will continue writing on the culture of poverty disastrous issue to counter the apologists never ending and repetitious discourse in media and academic circles. If anything, Alum, a rare anthropologist, challenges them right in the lions den.

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