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  • Cuban Currency: The Dollar and "Special Period" Fiction
  • Raúl Rosales Herrera
Cuban Currency: The Dollar and "Special Period" Fiction. By Esther Whitfield. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008. Pp. 217. Afterword. Acknowledgments. Notes. Works Cited. Index. $22.40 paper.

The 1990s is regarded as a pivotal decade in Cuban history. After losing the Soviet Union's economic support through trade and subsidies, Cuba entered what is widely referred to as "The Special Period in Times of Peace." It is a time marked by material deprivation, accentuated social angst and targeted government efforts to combat the crisis, including the legalization of the dollar and the implementation of measures aimed at increasing foreign investments through the expansion of tourism. The subsequent and sudden rush of capitalist elements operating within and alongside socialist frameworks would profoundly affect Cuba's socio-economic fabric and ultimately impact its cultural production. Centering on this dynamic and on the literary output of the special period, Whitfield's relevant and well-written book closely examines how certain Cuban writers incorporated the period's economic markers, especially the U.S. dollar and the links between writing and money, into their fiction. Moving beyond textual analysis, the author makes a compelling case for why works written by the likes of Zoé Valdés, Pedro Juan Gutiérrez, and Antonio José Ponte, among others, changed the course of Cuban literary history while also providing an appropriate route for wider-ranging cultural analysis.

At the core of Whitfield's case is her interpretation that special period literature entered into an inevitable cultural dialogue and symbiotic relationship with transnational market-driven [End Page 149] forces. The author showcases how the island's depenalization of the U.S. dollar and dramatic rise in tourism resulted in a boom in Cuban cultural exports, including literature financed by large European and Latin American publishing houses. Whitfield exposes the underpinnings of this phenomenon, assessing how special period literature responded to the demands of a global market of readers for whom all things Cuban had remained largely entrenched in exoticized and nostalgic parameters for several decades. The author proceeds to highlight the manifold ways in which writers yielded to these global expectations while simultaneously challenging them in the process and in light of the time's socio-economic realities. The book thus poses and ably answers the intriguing question of "what happens to a literature—thematically, formally, and commercially—when its place of origin becomes attractive to consumers for the very feature, its socialist revolution, that once spurned capitalist consumption" (p. 33).

Through an in-depth and nuanced critical analysis, Whitfield challenges, if not dismantles, some of the labels and criticisms directed at Cuba's special period literature, particularly those asserting that the decade's fiction sold out to the international market. The author weaves a convincing argument that demonstrates how Cuban writers made use of the island's sudden marketability in order to depict the paradoxes and contradictions inherent in the literary production of the time. Consequently, one of the book's more poignant conclusions establishes writers like Valdés and Gutiérrez as critical and questioning of the marketing of Cuban culture and of the premises on which international interest is based—namely, a local color element anchored in "hypersexuality, revolutionary slogans, and moral-cum-architectural decrepitude" (p. 20). Paradoxically, and making Whitfield's analysis all the more significant, is the fact that this global market was the same one driving the success of these writers' works. Thus, it is the inter- and extra-textual moneymaking exchanges prompted by the economic and political circumstances of the special period that prove to be most essential for understanding the dynamics of Cuban cultural production during the 1990s.

In sum, Cuban Currency is a thought-provoking intervention into one of the most complex and tumultuous periods in Cuban history. It lucidly presents the interconnected economic, political, social, and cross-cultural dimensions of Cuban fiction of the 1990s, while also offering innovative insights into the far-reaching local and global implications of this interplay. Across fields, Cuba will remain current as a topic of debate for years to come, and this book helps us see why. A...


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