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Cuba OverheardProfessor Dore, top left, and scenes from Cuba. (Photos courtesy of Voces Cubanas)

Cuba Overheard

Elizabeth Dore's two-year project aims to let Cubans speak for themselves. She shared her findings at UCLA on Jan. 12.

By Angilee Shah
Staff Writer

Cubans don't want capitalism and private property. At most they're looking for job security.

America's got it all wrong on Cuba, says University of Southampton professor of Latin American Studies Elizabeth Dore.

After two years and 100 interviews -- some lasting as long as 30 hours -- with Cubans of diverse backgrounds, mostly in Havana, Dore has concluded that popular American notions about Cuba and a foreign policy partly based on them are misguided.

"Most Americans think that Cuba is a gulag," she said, after speaking at UCLA on Jan. 12, 2007. But, according to the oral histories she has collected, Cuba's political system operates with "probably more consent than coercion." Dore talked about some of the surprising results of her research, as well as some of the constraints she faced while under contract with the Cuban government.

Her research, called Voces Cubanas, is an oral history project conducted by two UK-based and eight Cuban researchers. Dore talked about the project at the first event of the UCLA Cuba and the Caribbean Working Group, which is funded by the UCLA Latin America Center. Other sponsors were the UCLA Center for Oral History Research and the UC-Cuba Academic Initiative, a multi-campus group in its first year of existence.

It's been close to 50 years since Cuban President Fidel Castro led the movement to overthrow the military regime of Fulgenico Bautista and create what is now called the Communist Party of Cuba. News reports this week about Castro, now 80 years old, indicate that his health is declining, and speculations that he will not return to power are bringing Cuba, and particularly U.S. policy toward Cuba, into focus.

The current U.S. policy on Cuba, according the website of the U.S. Department of State, is to undermine Castro's regime and support the advancement of democracy, particularly in the event of Castro's death. It is a policy that seeks to isolate Cuba both financially and from international bodies. But Dore says that this policy is misguided.

"Cubans don't want capitalism and private property," she explains. "At most they're looking for security of tenure" at their state-provided jobs. While her interview subjects expressed frustrations with censorship and government surveillance, Dore says these critiques "do not translate into Cubans wanting U.S.-style elections."

The goal of Voces Cubanas, which is sanctioned by the Cuban government, is to trace the ways men and women in Cuba remember political life in the revolution. Official histories are generated in Havana and counter-histories are put forth by Cubans in exile in Miami -- but Cubans on the island have not been given sufficient space to tell their own stories, Dore contends.

The UCLA audience raised questions about the methodology and results of the interviews. Because the project is backed by the government, many were concerned that interview subjects were vetted or too intimidated to speak freely. Dore did not deny that this might be the case. She said that she is in ongoing negotiations with the Cuban government on selection criteria for interviewees and other matters, but stressed that she has been encouraged by the wide "spectrum of views" that researchers have been able to collect. Interviewees did not always retell the official history of Cuba's revolution. Rather, they told more complex stories with what Dore calls "contrapuntals."

Oral histories have their strengths and some inevitable limitations. "In oral history, it's definitely not truth-telling," Dore explains. Rather, it's examining the way people remember their lives and bring the critical thinking of social science to those memories.

Dore's most recent book is Myths of Modernity: Peonage and Patriarchy in Nicaragua. She is on the editorial boards of Report on the Americas, the bimonthly magazine of the North American Congress on Latin America, and the scholarly journal Latin American Perspectives. Dore is working her way through the audio recordings Voces Cubanas has amassed and expects to publish a book about the people interviewed and her findings in the next three to four years.

Latin American Institute