‘Waking in Havana’: Good works on the AIDS front in Cuba
Employees of the Cuban Ministry of Health paint a mural to promote awareness of AIDS and the HIV virus in Havana, Nov. 30, 1998. | Jose Goitia / CP photo via AP

Elena Schwolsky’s new book Waking in Havana: A Memoir of AIDS and Healing in Cuba is a well-written, moving account of her work as a nurse in Cuba’s HIV/AIDS prevention program. In describing her work, she shares a valuable, heartfelt, ground’s eye perspective of life, love and laboratories in modern Cuba.

Schwolsky’s recollections are not so much a linear blow by blow account as a living, breathing, re-creation of the pulse of the island’s efforts to martial its resources to fight the plague of AIDS. The author weaves a rich tapestry of everyday events and lively characters caught up in the larger struggles that defined their time.

A panel of the Cuban AIDS Quilt

Our portrait of the author as a young activist nurse includes brief sketches of her involvement in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)’s Northern Student Movement in Hartford, Conn., Northern California hippie communing, Berkeley’s People’s Park demonstrations while pregnant, union organizing, and an early marriage to the leader of the Puerto Rican Socialist Party. Along the way relationships come and go, and two kids, Jonah and Angelica, are born.

At a New Jersey postal workers’ wildcat strike, Elena meets Vietnam veteran Clarence Fitch, a recovering and relapsing heroin addict. Kindred spirits, they bonded. But the slow to manifest AIDS took over Clarence and Elena’s world. The author lets us into the deep recesses of their lives, as they fight back, trying to cope, Clarence ultimately succumbing. Schwolsky’s brutal honesty at her knowing denial of her partner’s illness and her careless risk is an open wound into which both victim and supporter fall.

Six months after Clarence’s funeral, filled with doubts and regrets, Elena took resolve in Global Exchange’s “Reality Tour to Cuba.” Having visited before to help cut sugar cane and build housing, she knew much of what to expect. But having since waded through the nightmares of the AIDS plague, she questioned what she had heard of Cuban treatment practices. Why had patients been quarantined? Was the isolation policy due to fear or desperation? How did the patients and the community feel about the care they received?

Schwolsky, RN, MPH, finds the answers to her questions. Her daily engagement with the patients, their families and the larger community helps her understand that even in the face of dire health care challenges the determination and invention of the Cuban people provide a ray of hope. Just as the tiny island faced decades of economic blockade and political attacks by its world power northern neighbor, the spirit of its inhabitants would not be broken.

Waking in Havana, then, is the story of courage and persistence in the face of tremendous odds. It is the story of the patients who create their AIDS Memorial Quilt, people who struggled both to get into and out of the sanatorium, perseverant widows like Caridad, who lost her war hero husband before she herself was felled, and patients like Alejandro who lives on despite being told years before that he “would probably die soon.”

Certainly, the tale could have been enriched a bit with more political analysis. This reviewer could also have used name tags to identify so many of the actors. But the book is an enormous success in conveying the humanity and bravery of people caught up in struggle. Indeed, the spirit wakes in Havana!

Waking in Havana: A Memoir of AIDS and Healing in Cuba
By Elena Schwolsky
Paperback edition, $16.95
ISBN: 978-1631526541
Ebook edition, $9.95
She Writes Press, 2019, 256 pp.


Michael Berkowitz
Michael Berkowitz

Michael Berkowitz, a veteran of the civil rights and anti-war movements, has been Land Use Planning Consultant to the government of China for many years. He taught Chinese and American History at the college level, worked with Eastern Kentucky Welfare Rights Org. with miners, and was an officer of SEIU.