Margot Eve Pepper’s memoir, Through the Wall: A Year in Havana, captures Cuba during its ”special period ” in 1992, when the most austere economic measures of the island’s history were ushered in. Her well-researched, witty, and thought-provoking work takes a hard look at Cuba through the eyes of someone who has lived there, not as a liberal tourist passing through on a two-week visit but as a working member of the community. Pepper takes the reader straight to Cuba … no frills, no rose-colored glasses.
Pepper, who was granted a yearlong visa to work as a journalist for Cuba’s most prestigious newspaper, Granma International, begins her book as one begins a journey: hopeful, excited, and nervous. This is the time that tough economic measures, spurred by the collapse of the Soviet trading bloc, are being put in place and that tougher sanctions are being imposed by the United States.
Born in Mexico as the daughter of a blacklisted Hollywood producer, Pepper writes that she was drawn to Cuba to explore a society founded on the ideals that led to her parents’ exile from the US to Mexico. They left to escape persecution for their political beliefs during Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s red-baiting. Because she is also a poet, her writing is graceful and lyrical even as she delves into complex economic theory and politically sophisticated analysis. She weaves in the music of the island, the oppressive heat and the balmy winds, the tenderness and beauty of Cuba’s people. Pepper takes us into her inner world too, and her conflict and longing for home as the harshness of her situation wears on her: nagging hunger, a cockroach epidemic, perpetually broken elevators, eternal waits for buses that may or may not arrive, electricity- and water-rationing.
Throughout the book a parallel story emerges of love and the painful fallout of alcoholism, as she falls into a marriage with a troubled and sometimes violent but brilliant Mexican poet. She takes us to the moment that Fidel Castro announces the decriminalization of possessing hard currency, ”conceding victory to the mighty dollar, as she puts it, and of the reaction to this unwelcome news. ”No words come. Not from anyone. Just an occasional whimper and sniffing piercing the silence of resignation. What is there to say about the death of Cuba’s purest attempt at socialism that Fidel himself hasn’t said today?
Through the Wall is ultimately about acceptance and enlightenment. ”Whether the ideals of the Cuban revolution, whether my father’s dreams were made manifest in his lifetime or mine are irrelevant, ” she writes. ”What matters is that such ideals have survived, so they may continue evolving. ”