Academic journal article Cuban Studies

Former Slum Dwellers, the Communist Youth, and the Lewis Project in Cuba, 1969-1971

Academic journal article Cuban Studies

Former Slum Dwellers, the Communist Youth, and the Lewis Project in Cuba, 1969-1971

Article excerpt

On February 20, 1969, University of Illinois anthropologist Oscar Lewis, his wife Ruth Lewis, and a team of seven foreign research assistants arrived in Havana at the invitation of Fidel Castro. Armed with 750 pounds of equipment and office supplies, the Lewis team embarked on an unprecedented three-year collaborative investigation into the effects of the Cuban Revolution on the lives and outlooks of Cuba's poorest citizens. They focused on former residents of Las Yaguas, a notorious, mostly black Havana slum demolished in 1963 upon completion of [Buena Ventura], a modern state housing project in the working-class barrio of Lawton. Visits to Las Yaguas in 1946 and the early 1960s inspired Lewis to ask Fidel for permission to carry out six simultaneous long-term studies.1 The most ambitious of these would test whether the combination of socialism and the revolutionary government's demand for political participation had eliminated or reduced an array of socially deviant behaviors and values among former slum dwellers, what Lewis defined as "the culture of poverty" and the Cuban government called lacras sociales at the time. While Fidel granted Lewis total freedom to conduct his study and guarantees of anonymity to his informants, Fidel also assigned ten members of the Unión de Jóvenes Comunistas (UJC) to Lewis's team, insisting that Lewis train them and integrate their findings.

On June 25, 1970, a year and a half into the project, however, the Cuban government unexpectedly shut it down, personally charging Oscar and Ruth Lewis with subverting national security.2 Dumbfounded, Oscar suffered an angina attack in the office of Minister of Foreign Relations Raúl Roa as Roa read the accusations against him. State security agents and Communist Party leaders then raided the Lewis home and project offices, confiscating tens of thousands of pages of interview transcripts, completed questionnaires, manuscripts, tapes, photographs and personal papers whose destiny remains unknown. State security agents subsequently arrested a large number of Oscar's informants, only one whom, "Mr. X," Ruth and Oscar knew about.3 After finding Mr. X guilty of "giving unfavorable information on Cuba to a North American," the government sentenced him to several years of forced labor, subsequent house arrest and the political ostracism suffered by anyone officially labeled an enemy of the people in the 1970s, a deeply repressive era now dubbed "El Trinquenio Amargo" by many of its victims.4

Plagued by concern for his informants and obsessed with the idea that if he could only speak to Fidel, he could make things right again and return to Cuba, Oscar Lewis died shortly before Christmas six months later.5 In 1972, Raúl Castro publicly condemned Lewis as just another intellectual who "conducted political, economic, social, cultural and military espionage, making use of their progressive façade" to "criticize the Revolution subtly" and subvert the loyalty of "comrades incapable of seeing beyond the outward appearances."6

Importantly, Ruth believed that she, her husband, and their team were "being observed" through traditional means including wire taps and that the "ubiquitous presence of the state" undoubtedly affected "every single important aspect of the field work"; however, she also believed it was not until April 1970 that they were subjected to "intense surveillance."7 In fact, Cuba's secret police had monitored every move the Lewises and their assistants made from the first day of operations to the last.

Every one of the ten militants of the Communist Youth assigned to the Lewis equipo rendered extensive, daily reports to Cuban state intelligence agents.8 Not only were the Lewises themselves and their foreign counterparts surveilled; more importantly, so were the former slum dwellers and all other informants selected by Lewis, regardless of their degree of "political integration." These young Cubans whom Lewis trusted as his students and aides were also required to recruit potential informers for Cuban intelligence from among the informants selected to participate in the study. …

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