Oral History and Cuba

Oral History and Cuba

One-day international workshop with invited guest speakers and Professor Paul Thompson

Date:  Thursday, 23 April 2015

Time:  9.30 am to 5.15 pm

Followed by a wine reception

Cost:    Academics and the general public - £25  

            PG Students - £15

            Free for participants, Aston staff and students

Location: Room MB234, Main Building, Aston University
                Birmingham B4 7ET

As Paul Thompson states in the Preface of his landmark work Voices of the Past, 'the richest possibilities of Oral History lie within the development of a more socially conscious and democratic history'  (2000, vi). In the Cuban context, oral history is a vital tool in understanding popular experience, and producing narratives of social change from below. Yet in this context, oral history has sometimes been a challenging experience for researchers, due to the ideological orientation of the Cuban Revolutionary government and the weight of 'official history', serving to narrow access for researchers, and the scope of the sayable for citizens.

This one day international workshop therefore seeks to break new ground, by bringing together academics who have conducted oral history research in Cuba or with Cubans living outside Cuba. It will also count with the presence of Professor Paul Thompson, founder of the Oral History society and founding editor of the journal Oral History, who will offer final remarks to close the day.


  • Paul Thompson (University of Essex)
  • Maria Estorino Dooling (Cuban Heritage Collection, University of Miami)
  • Ana Vera Estrada (Instituto Cubano de Investigación Cultural Juan Marinello, Havana)
  • Elizabeth Dore (Institute of the Americas, UCL / Southampton University)
  • Antoni Kapcia (University of Nottingham)
  • Par Kumaraswami (University of Reading)
  • Olga Saavedra Montes de Oca (University of Sussex)
  • Stephanie Panichelli-Batalla (Aston University)
  • Daliany Kersh (Roehampton University)

Discussions will focus on:

  • The ways oral historians approach sensitive political topics in Cuba, how sensitivities have changed in the past decade, how interviewees employ codes, how interviewers interpret narratives and silences.
  • The willingness of narrators to tell their life stories, and whether this has changed significantly.
  • The advantages and disadvantages of oral historians’ outsider or insider-ness.
  • The ways the interviewer’s politics and positionality influences the oral history process.

To read detailed abstracts and biographical notes on all speakers, please click the 'Abstracts' heading below. To read the full programme, please click the 'Programme' heading below.

Maria Estorino Dooling (Cuban Heritage Collection, University of Miami)
Email:  mestorino@miami.edu
Introduction: The Services of Oral History
This introduction proposes the various ways in which oral history creates impact as a methodology and as a movement.

Title: Exile: Testimonies of Cubans in South Florida

Abstract: The Cuban Heritage Collection at the University of Miami Libraries established the Luis J. Botifoll Oral History Project in 2008 to record the life histories of Cubans who left the island in the first twenty years after the revolution. This presentation reviews the history of the project and examines its successes and challenges.

Biographical note: Maria R. Estorino Dooling is the de Varona Chair of the Cuban Heritage Collection (CHC) of the University of Miami Libraries, providing leadership for the development of the Collection as a center for scholarly inquiry and its continued growth as the premier collection in the United States on Cuba and its diaspora. A native of Miami, Florida, Prof. Estorino joined the faculty of the University of Miami Libraries in 2001 after stints at Northeastern University Libraries, Massachusetts Historical Society, and Blackside, Inc.
In her 13 years with the University of Miami Libraries, Prof. Estorino has played a central role in the development of library-led oral history initiatives. She helped launch and manages two interview projects, the Luis J. Botifoll Oral History Project and the Human Rights Oral History Project.

Prof. Tony Kapcia (University of Nottingham)
Title: Using interviews as a reliable source in and on Cuba

Abstract: Although, over the years (and especially in my last and current collaborative project), I have used interviews extensively in Cuba to tease out, from people's own versions of their experiences, some sort of multi-angulated version of 'the truth', I have more frequently used them to get solid information from experts 'in the know' or from people whose personal proximity to historical events and periods gave them a particular perspective. In other words, this approach is not what 'oral history' is usually about. However, given the perennial difficulty in Cuba of getting easy access to usable sources, interviews have usually enabled me to fill gaps, check accuracy or balance up perspectives, i.e. risking falling into all the familiar traps of anyone engaging in 'oral history', e.g. the sensitivity of certain topics/periods (being aware of a 'standard' discourse on some things, at least initially), partial memory (in both senses of the term), the pluses/minuses but always possible distorting effect of being an 'outsider', however well versed or recommended - and the inevitable contradictions between two individuals' accounts, leading to decisions about whom to believe. Nonetheless, these experiences are what they are, as an excellent (and sometimes the only rich) source of information and detail, without which some research could not easily proceed, although one always has to be aware of the extent to which one's own reading of things determines whom you interrogate, what is asked and what you believe. But 'twas ever thus, especially in Cuba. 

Biographical note: Tony Kapcia is currently Professor of Latin American History and Director of the Centre for Research on Cuba at the University of Nottingham, where he has been since 2003; before that he taught at the Polytechnic/University of Wolverhampton. He has been researching, writing and speaking on Cuba, mostly on modern and contemporary Cuban history, since 1971, and since 2000 has written four monographs and one jointly-authored book (with Par Kumaraswami). He is currently working with Par on a new three-year (2014-17) Leverhulme Trust-funded project on culture and identity in Granma province, largely following the methodology and theoretical approaches of their previous 2004-9 project on literary culture in Cuba since 1959.

Prof. Emeritus Elizabeth Dore (Southampton University / Associate Fellow, Institute of the Americas, UCL)
Title: Cuban Variations

Abstract: Cuban society has changed dramatically in the past ten years in some ways, in others less. The state no longer is the sole employer. Class, racial and gendered inequalities have increased. The numbers leaving have grown, as has poverty. Some Cubans living on the island seem to voice their views more freely, others do not. The oral history research I have conducted on the island over the  last ten years, with Cuban and British colleagues, records changes and continuities. My paper at this workshop will draw on interviews with four  Cubans in their thirties, I analyse not the changes in their lives per se, but how their attitudes have changed: their thinking about their lives, the state, politics, shifts in society. I analyse what they are willing to say, and how they say it, and how narrator- interviewer relationships have and have not changed. The material for this paper draws on a book I am completing, Cubans’ Lives (Verso). In March, 2015 I will conduct the final interviews for the final chapter. I will present some of that research in preliminary form at the workshop, and will ask participants  to  help me interpret what it means. 
Biographical note:  Elizabeth Dore’sforthcoming book,Cubans’ Lives (Verso), is based on the oral history project she directed in Cuba beginning 2004. The book tells the stories of Cubans born in 1970s & 80s, the millennial generation. Her articles related to the Cuban project have been published in Historia oral: Debates y Análisis (CENESEX), Nueva Sociedad, the Hispanic American Historical Review (forthcoming), Oral History; Historia, Voces y Memoria (Universidad de Buenos Aires).
Dr. Par Kumaraswami (University of Reading)
Title: What’s wrong with testimonio? The testimonial mode in Cuba and its relationship to oral history

Abstract: This paper will synthesise my reflections and observations on the contribution of Cuban testimonio – testimonial writing – to the collective project of history-making after 1959, and, briefly, the place of testimonial expression in my own research on literature and Revolution in Cuba.
Whilst it is true that the testimonial genre was, in the period of the 1970s, institutionalised and conceptualised according to simplistic and prescriptive notions of revolutionary subjectivity and representation, throughout the revolutionary period, the testimonial mode in Cuba (Fornet) has served as a vital mechanism of identity construction, not only through the writing and reading of literary texts but also through its presence in a range of other hybrid cultural forms: journalism, cinema, music, and others. However, the development of this important mode has received little scholarly attention both within and outside Cuba, with work on testimonio in Latin America being ‘hijacked’ in the 1990s towards an increasingly circular and self-contained debate on authenticity and veracity centred on the Rigoberta Menchú controversy.
In both this highly closed debate, and in the increasingly territorialism of disciplines, the Cuban version of testimonio has become increasingly invisible and irrelevant. However, I argue that Cuban testimonio, as the urge to read and tell self- and life-narratives, belongs to a much broader and adaptable social model of self and self-representation which persists to this day in a range of social and cultural spaces.

Biographical note: Par Kumaraswami is Associate Professor of Latin American Cultural Studies at the University of Reading, England. She has worked extensively on testimonial writing, reader reception and literary culture in the Cuban Revolution, and is currently beginning a 3-year research project with Tony Kapcia (Nottingham) on literary culture and identity construction in Granma province, Cuba, entitled ‘Beyond Havana and the nation? Peripheral identities and literary culture in Cuba’.

Olga Saavedra Montes de Oca (University of Sussex)
Title: Sensitive Topics

Abstract: “Marta no está autorizada por el Cenesex, dice que si pides permiso ella estaría dispuesta a participar en tu proyecto… No desea arriesgarse, pues en una semana… le dan su nueva identidad, después de dos años de espera (Gatekeeper, Havana Cuba 2014) 

Today the Cuban National Assembly is considered to be the most progressive legislature in Latin America for its laws on gay and transsexual rights. Gay pride events now occur annually while the state sponsors anti-homophobia campaigns and the government operates sex change surgery for Cubans without charge. These positive changes around the gender and sexuality policy are also in keeping with the global economy and without doubt, the Sexual Revolution has had a positive effect for many people in Cuba. Those who continue to be prejudiced will be forced to channel their homophobia in other ways since fortunately this no longer fits with the concept of a revolutionary in this new stage of the Cuban revolution. In this workshop I will analyze in which ways social changes - associated with the sexual revolution and the opening of the economy in Cuba - create new spaces of expression and action for some of my participants within a socialist yet globalized context.    
The present paper draws on prior work (2002), and considers change over the last decade through new visual photographic work. For this purpose I will use case studies of 3 families age range 30 to 65 years old.
My life-world was not that different from that of the participants still my positions as insider/outsider have varied.

Biographical note: Olga Lidia Saavedra Montes de Oca is a PhD Research student, in Creative and Critical Practice in the Media and Film Department at Sussex University of Brighton where she holds a full award PhD studentship. Olga completed her MA in Photography and Urban Culture at London Goldsmiths University and her undergraduate studies at Southampton Solent University and at University of Havana. She has worked on topics ranging from perspectives on everyday life in socialist societies; sexuality, youth and oral history in Cuba, and gender roles and social change in transgender people and their families. More specifically her work addresses intimate life-worlds, in relation to wider social, political, national and global changes.    

Dr. Ana Vera Estrada (Instituto Cubano de Investigación Cultural Juan Marinello, Havana)
Title: Interviewing in context:  a generational perspective ten years after the changes in Cuban sugar industry

Abstract: The transformations in the Cuban sugar industry that resulted from the structural crisis of the 1990s has had significant repercussions in the lives of the populations directly affected by the changes.  In these communities there are since today, number of people willing to recount with pride their experiences as workers of what had been the country’s main industry.
A short time after the closure of sugar mills, in 2004, I began a research project at a sugar mill in Matanzas province. The oral histories gathered at the time expressed a sense of loss because of the significant cutbacks in the sugar economy and insecurity for the personal lives of workers, their family, and neighbours, as they faced an uncertain future.
Ten years later, when new employment options have opened up in response to the needs of development, I am carrying out a similar project in the territory of the new province of Artemisa, where, also applying oral history methodology, I have found subjects who still express the same sense of loss toward the cuts in the industry, as well as a growing worry about the future of Cuba. One of those subjects exclaimed:  “It pains me to talk about this, because even at my age, I have sugar running through my veins.” This 2014 interview presents interesting material for comparing his testimony with that of a narrator of the 2004 research project, which belongs to a very different context, and the interviewers resources with which to tackle a “sensitive” topic like the changes in the sugar industry in both contexts.

Biographical note: Dr. Ana Vera Estrada is a Cuban researcher and expert in oral history on the island. She obtained her Master¹s Degree from the University of Havana (1975) and her PhD from Carolina University in Prague (1982). She is a member of the renowned UNEAC (Union de Escritores y Artistas Cubanos) and was part of the editorial board of the Journal Temas (Primera Época) from 1984 to 1992. She works at the Cuban Institute for Cultural Research Juan Marinello and has taught in various MA and PhD programmes in Cuba and at foreign institutions in the United Kingdom, the United States, Spain and in various Latin American countries such as Chili, Argentina and Mexico, among others. Dr. Vera Estrada is a philologist and historian who has published on topics such as the family institution in her country, comparing it to that of other Latin American countries. She is the author of several books and numerous academic articles and her latest monograph Guajiros del Siglo XXI (ICIC Juan Marinello, 2012) presents an oral history project about countrymen who worked in the sugar canes fields from 1925 up to now, analysing in which way the latest changes in Cuban politics have had effects on their lives.

Dr. Stephanie Panichelli-Batalla (Aston University)
Title: Cuban Doctors in the Sandinista Nicaragua. Sharing Memories

Abstract: Oral history is a methodology that tends to be used to give voice to the voiceless, to those who don’t normally appear in the history books of their country of origins. It is therefore often used in research that focuses on marginal or ordinary people. This project intends to offer a deeper insight on the life stories of a very different group of Cuban society: health professionals who have been on international solidarity missions and were at some point the ‘ambassadors’ of the Cuban Revolution. The openness to speak about their experiences and to address sensitive topics still varies very much from one participant to another. In this paper I will analyse the life stories of two Cuban doctors who now live in exile and who worked in the same mission in Nicaragua at approximately the same time. I will question how they address these topics and how their position regarding these matters affect the whole oral history process and archive creation. I will also analyse how they express their perception of the interviewer as an insider and/or outsider and how this has an influence on their discourse.
This paper is based on the material collected while working at the Cuban Heritage Collection (University of Miami) in May-July 2014 where 12 interviews were conducted.

Biographical note: Stéphanie Panichelli-Batalla is the author of the book Gabo y Fidel. El paisaje de una amistad (Espasa, 2004) about the friendship between the Nobel Prize winner Gabriel García Márquez and the former Cuban President, Fidel Castro. The book has been translated into six languages including English, Portuguese and Japanese. She is currently finishing a book about el testimonio in Reinaldo Arenas’ Pentagony. Her most recent research focuses on the use of Oral History to explore the construction of alternative, subaltern narratives of Cuban identity ‘from below’, with a particular interest in the exile community of Cuban healthcare professionals who participated in the Cuban International Solidarity Programme. She was recently awarded a British Council Researcher Links Grant to spend seven weeks working at the Cuban Heritage Collection of the University of Miami.

Daliany Kersh (Roehampton University)
Title: “The Epicentre of the Crisis”: Gender Roles and the Division of Labour in the Private Sphere during the Cuban Special Period 1990-2005

Abstract: The traditional division of labour in revolutionary Cuba has always been a complicated theme. Prior to 1959, women were expected to stay at home but the revolution urged women to enter the workforce en masse from the late 1960s onwards. Revolutionary policies passed during the 1970s to ease women’s “double day”, changed little in the private sphere during the first three decades of the revolution as traditional machista attitudes prevailed.
However, the onset of the Post-Soviet Special Period economic crisis in 1990 dramatically transformed Cuban society. This paper uses thirty oral history testimonies to identify changes and continuities during this period, in order to determine how the crisis affected both the perception and practice of traditional gender roles and domestic labour in the private sphere. There has been a general consensus that there has been a feminisation of this crisis as extreme shortages and cuts to public services exacerbated women’s domestic duties.
This article makes an original contribution by closely analysing these testimonies, rather than relying on ethnography, to explain how and why women voluntarily assumed these additional duties in the home. However, it also acknowledges the fact that memory can be distorted and the researcher’s bias can influence the interpretation of the evidence and for this precise reason will complement the interviews with sixteen years of Cuban press archives.  The article concludes that long held traditional beliefs about gender roles have influenced current perceptions even though in practice, there appears to have been some changes to traditional gender roles in Post-Soviet Cuba.
HOLGADO FERNANDEZ, 2002, !No es Fácil!, p.68

Biographical note:  Daliany Kersh is a final year History PhD student at Roehampton University where she was awarded a Chancellor’s Scholarship. Her thesis focuses on the changes to women’s domestic and productive work during the Special Period crisis. She recently organised a “No es Facil” Special Period workshop at UCL and has presented her research on Cuba at 5 other academic conferences. She has spent extensive time in Cuba over the last four years, both living with ordinary Cubans and conducting press archives and 30 oral history interviews. She completed her Masters in Latin American Studies at the Institute for the Study of the Americas. 

Professor Paul Thompson (University of Essex)


Biographical note:  Born in 1935, Paul Thompson was educated at the University of Oxford, graduating in 1958 with First Class Honours in Modern History. He obtained a D.Phil (also at the University of Oxford) in 1964. This was entitled London working class politics and the formation of the London Labour Party, 1885-1914. In 1964, having spent three years as a Junior Research Fellow at Queen's College, Oxford, Thompson was appointed Lecturer in Sociology (Social History), at the newly established University of Essex. He was to continue his research and teaching in sociology and social history at Essex, being appointed Research Professor in Sociology in 1988. Thompson is regarded as one of the pioneers of oral history as a research methodology. He is founding editor of the journal Oral History and founder of the National Life Story Collection at the British Library National Sound Archive, London. Between 1994 and 2001, as Director of Qualidata, University of Essex, Thompson actively pursued his interest in the preservation of qualitative research materials for secondary use, depositing his own datasets and overseeing the development of this archival service.

His experiences with the Edwardians were important in pioneering the methodology of oral history, and the research contributed to his later publication on method, The voice of the past: oral history (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 3rd edition, 2000).

9.30:   Coffee and registration

9.45:   Welcome

10.00:  Introduction by Maria Estorino Dooling:
           “Populating the archive: personal narratives and the production of historical knowledge”

10.30:  First Panel:

  • Elizabeth Dore: "Cuban Variations"
  • Stephanie Panichelli-Batalla: "Cuban Doctors in the Sandinista Nicaragua. Sharing Memories"
  • Maria Estorino: Exile: Testimonies of Cubans in South Florida
  • Daliany Kersh: “The Epicentre of the Crisis”: Gender Roles and the Division of Labour in the Private Sphere during the Cuban Special Period 1990-2005

12.30:  Lunch

13.30:  Second Panel:

  • Ana Vera Estrada: “Interviewing in context:  a generational perspective ten years after the changes in Cuban sugar industry”
  • Tony Kapcia: "Using interviews as a reliable source in and on Cuba"
  • Olga Saavedra: "Sensitive Topics"
  • Par Kumaraswami: "What’s wrong with testimonio? The testimonial mode in Cuba and its relationship to oral history"

15.30:  Coffee

16.00:   Roundtable

17.00:   Closure by Professor Paul Thompson

17.15:    Wine Reception

To guarantee a place, please CLICK HERE to register and then proceed to online payment using the links below:

If you have any questions, please contact Dr. Stéphanie Panichelli-Batalla (s.panichelli@aston.ac.uk).

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Event sponsored by the Cervantes Institute