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  • The Special Period’s New Hombre Nuevo and the Collapse of Anti-Capitalist Space: Achy Obejas’s Ruins
  • Gabriel Ignacio Barreneche

Achy Obejas’s 2009 novel Ruins was published in the same year as the 50th anniversary of the triumph of the Cuban Revolution and at a time when, either by necessity or by choice, Cuba seemed to teeter ever closer to embarking on significant economic reform. With the election of Barack Obama as president of the United States in 2008 and the transfer of power from Fidel Castro to his brother Raúl in 2006, Cuba appeared poised for a transition to a free market system that had begun as a consequence of the entrepreneurial spirit unchained during the “Special Period,” heightened by both the slight loosening of state control of the economy and the influence of remittances and family visits by the Cuban diaspora. Much as Guillermo Cabrera Infante’s 1965 novel Tres tristes tigres describes a world that is about to end, namely pre-revolutionary late 1950s Havana nightlife, Obejas’s Ruins captures the spirit and malaise of Havana in the early ‘90s at a moment when the social achievements of the Revolution are called into question by the everyday economic hardships faced by the Cuban people. Written years after the Special Period, Ruins documents this time of transition when larger changes could be on the horizon.

Set in Havana during the grim times of the Special Period, Ruins captures the desperation and creativity of the protagonist ideologue, Usnavy, named by his Cuban mother after the U.S. Navy warships coming and going from the nearby base. Usnavy tries desperately to keep his family and home in La Habana Vieja from literally and figuratively falling to pieces under the strain of economic hardship and urban decay. With the discovery of a priceless pre-revolutionary Tiffany chandelier in his home and numerous, valuable lamps in the ruins of crumbling buildings in his neighborhood, Usnavy finds a way to put food on the table by participating in Havana’s black market and improvised, [End Page 15] informal economy. By going outside of the Revolutionary system for which he had toiled for decades, Usnavy compromises his ideals and adopts capitalist behaviors in order to survive.

The ideological shift experienced by the novel’s protagonist reflects the sporadic and uneven reintegration of Cuba into the world capitalistic system in the final years of the Castro regimes. Unlike Fidel Castro’s decades of strict adherence to an anti-capitalistic economic model, his successor and brother, Raúl, has accelerated the pace of market reform and the opening of the Cuban economic system to both foreign investment and local entrepreneurship. Cuba’s nascent capitalist spirit has caught the attention of the rest of the neoliberal world, as seen by the publication of a special issue of the magazine The Economist in 2012, analyzing the recent economic, social, and political changes on the island. When looking at the totality of Cuba’s economic history, however, one can consider Cuba’s recent reintegration into the global economic system to be both a return to previous models of economic dependency, as well as a first step in following the lead of the rest of Latin America in the embracing of neoliberal economic policy.

Through a close reading of Obejas’s Ruins, this paper will examine the conflict within Usnavy that pits his socialist ideals against a capitalist pragmatism that engages the neoliberal economic model. Through the protagonist, Obejas illustrates both the contradictions of everyday Cubans struggling in a period of transition and change, and the ideological compromises that supporters of the Revolution must make in order to survive. The resulting friction that Usnavy experiences within himself and with family and friends demonstrates a reluctant transformation from an “hombre nuevo” of the Revolution to a capitalist scavenger searching for a way to transcend material hardship among the rubble of a lost era.

With its focus on the economic struggles of everyday habaneros, Obejas’s Ruins represents a departure from the themes more widely examined in her previous works. For example, her most notable work to date, the novel Memory Mambo (1996), and her collection of stories...


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pp. 15-22
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