Article begins


Álvaro Ínsua, born February 15, 1935, died in Miami, Florida, nearing his 84th birthday on January 13, 2019.

Ínsua’s historical connection to anthropology was his association with famed anthropologist Oscar Lewis and wife Ruth in the ill-fated “Project Cuba.” With the approval of the United States and Cuban governments, Lewis went to socialist Cuba in 1969–1970 to test a “corollary” of his controversial “culture of poverty” theory. Lewis had developed the culture of poverty idea through ethnographic research among Mexicans and Puerto Ricans, and hypothesized further that it could not exist in communist societies because the conditions engendering it would be absent in socialist economies.

Lewis met Ínsua at the Cuban Academy of Science, where Ínsua was a statistician, a subject he taught at the University of Havana. Considering themselves anthropology aficionados, Ínsua and wife Greta developed a close social relationship with Lewis, becoming de facto informants; Lewis also incorporated Greta into his research staff. Unfortunately, as well-documented later, the Castro brothers’ regime continuously spied on the Lewises through electronics, household staff, and the Communist Youth’s field assistants assigned to the project. When it appeared that the data gathered through Lewis’s typical collection of oral life histories was revealing the existence of a culture of poverty, not as a survivor of the pre-Castro era, but a post-1959 development, the regime abruptly cancelled the project. Much of the research material and imported equipment were confiscated, and the Lewises were expelled. Even Raúl Castro publicly accused Lewis later of being “a US spy.” Worse, Ínsua suffered six long years of imprisonment for his involvement; Greta, albeit harassed, was spared jail, as she reminded me recently. Lewis (1914–1970) died soon after returning to the United States.

In 1978 Ínsua, already out of prison, contacted me through third parties while I was completing my field research (for the University of Pittsburgh) in rural Dominican Republic. After obtaining exit visas, the Ínsua family was allowed to go into exile, coinciding in Miami with the arrival of the Mariel “Freedom Flotilla” refugees, among whom Ínsua still collected some life histories. Soon thereafter, the Ínsuas took an arduous bus ride to New Jersey, where I welcomed them; here, Ínsua worked for a bank. In 1985 he became the lead reporter in Miami for the federal government-sponsored Radio Martí Spanish-language broadcasting, retiring three decades later.

Of relatively humble origins, Ínsua had taken odd jobs earlier in life, especially while residing in New York during the authoritarian dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista in the 1950s. Upon returning to Cuba, he tried his luck at acting, while studying statistics.

Ínsua is survived by his wife of 63 years, and their son, grandson, great-granddaughter, and great-great-grandson. There are several writings about the Lewises’ Cuban mishap, but few dwell on Ínsua; those interested in his case may begin with the latest articles, for example: Waldo Acebo Meireles’s (2020) six-part “Historia del Proyecto Cuba”; Lillian Guerra’s (2015) “Former Slum Dwellers, Communist Youth and the Lewis Project in Cuba”; and my own (2015) “The Cuban Culture of Poverty Conundrum”.

Photograph of a man in a suit
Álvaro Ínsua

(Roland Armando Alum)

Cite as: Alum, Roland Armando. 2020. “Álvaro Ínsua.” Anthropology News website, August 7, 2020. DOI: 10.14506/AN.1469


Octavio Lopez – Posted 2020/08/12 at 4:03 pm
History worth to be known.

Manuel Insua – Posted 2020/08/17 at 7:06 am
In addition, Alvaro D Insua also wrote a letter to the US embassy of Cuba alerting the authorities of the USA the planning of the Castro regime in smuggling people from jail and prostitute to the Mariel flotilla.

Susan M. Rigdon – Posted 2020/08/28 at 9:18 am
The Anthropology News website has a piece in the In Memoriam section on the death of Alvaro Ínsua, who participated in Oscar Lewis’s Cuba project in 1970. The author has no connection to the project other than having befriended Mr. Ínsua after he arrived in the U.S. and his memorial consists almost in its entirety of alternative facts.

Mr. Ínsua did not serve 6 years in prison for participating in the Cuba project. That he served any time at all is an outrage but he served about 2 years and nine months in prison and labor camps before being released on probation. What is my source? Mr. Ínsua’s own account given to Ruth Lewis and myself in Miami in 1980; to Ruth Lewis in New Jersey in 1981, and in several later written communications. The prosecutor’s request for a six-year sentence was reduced to three years at the time of the “trial.” The author does not mention that the Ínsua family gained an entrance visa to the U.S. with help from Ruth Lewis (I have the papers).

The original meeting was where stated but the work began when Mrs. Ínsua sought out the Lewises at their home, and it went on to include her husband and members of the extended family. The Ínsuas were not “de facto” but actual informants and neither was ever a member of the project staff. This was a work, not a social, relationship except in the sense the Lewises often invited informants to gatherings at their home. What are my sources? Accounts taped by Lewis a few months after leaving Cuba in which he described his work with the Ínsua family, Ruth Lewis’ accounts of the same, Mr. Ínsua’s descriptions in his correspondence with Ruth Lewis, and the project appointment records.

The author also claims that the purpose of the Cuba project was to test the culture of poverty thesis; it was one of a number of project objectives. If culture of poverty had been the only objective why would Lewis have been doing a study of the family of a middle class professional. And how could Ruth Lewis and I have prepared three volumes (Living the Revolution) from the field data that have nothing to do with the culture of poverty thesis. The project proposal is in the University of Illinois Archives filed with the Oscar and Ruth Maslow Lewis papers, all time restrictions for which ended in 2013.

Author states as a fact that the project was closed because Lewis discovered evidence of a culture of poverty emerging only after 1959. This is absolute fabrication, as is his claim that it was why the government terminated Lewis’ research permission.

Readers, I know we live in the time of alternative facts but I have had enough of the people who spread them as well as the journals and books that print them.

Antonio Cardona – Posted 2020/12/14 at 6:20 pm
Thanks to Professor Alum for honoring Alvaro’s memory and contributions to the field.

Manuel Insua – Posted 2021/04/19 at 3:58 pm

• My name is Manuel Insua. I am the son of Alvaro Insua who died in 2019. As Professor Roland Alum writes above, my father contacted him from Cuba after his jail sentence. The two had a mutual friend who worked at the American embassy in Havana who connected them in the late 1970s. Alum can provide her name if he wishes, for clarification purposes.

• Alum was aware of when we were arriving in Miami from Costa Rica in 1980 and sent my family welcome flowers.

• Alum has also published several writings in English and Spanish about my father. My mother and others in the family are very thankful to him for his time and efforts to honor the memory of my father. We resent that Dr. Susan Rigdon is questioning it. My father and we in the family felt absolutely helpless. We do not understand why Alum’s In Memoriam tribute is being attacked by Rigdon who was not in Cuba with Oscar and Ruth Lewis, and has no first-hand information on the matter from what we can tell.

• My parents liked Oscar and helped him a lot in Cuba; I also remember him myself.

• Alum helped us also when we moved to New Jersey and he visits us in Miami at times and takes notes and photos about the case of my father. He has been a loyal friend. He continues to help us and calls us often and I also exchange emails with him.

• He is correct in showing that my father spent a total of six years as a prisoner. We have shown Alum papers that my mother keeps.

• My father received US visas primarily because he was a political prisoner who was abandoned in jail in Cuba, as Alum has written above.

• My father was a friend of Alum for the rest of his life as my mother and I are. We still converse a lot with him about the history of my father.

• When my father went to jail as a result of the Lewis study, it ruined my life forever.

• I am surprised that Rigdon quotes Trump and I don’t see the connection. Maybe she can explain it.

• As I stated before, my father wrote to the US embassy in Cuba alerting US authorities about the Castro regime’s plans to smuggle common criminals from jail and prostitutes to the Mariel flotilla even before it happened in 1980 while my family was fleeing that hell island. My aunt who was a judge in the poderes judiciales courts of Cuba informed my father about the government’s plan.

Roland Alum – Posted 2021/06/02 at 5:55 pm
I am posting here myself (if reluctantly)–as instructed by AAA Exec. Dir. Dr. Ed Liebow– the commentaries that both, the AN and I have received from other observers who are familiar with the topics surrounding Señor Álvaro Ínsua’s obituary. It should be further noted that these commentators attempted to post their comments directly themselves, although they are not AAA members (unlike me, a 50-year member). First, NY-based librarian Felix Pestana’s comments. Roland Alum/NJ. ===

From Felix Pestana: I have recently become aware of Ms. Susan Rigdon’s rebuttal to anthropology professor Rolando Alum’s facts-based obituary of Álvaro Ínsua. I am glad that Mr. Ínsua’s son, Manuel, posted a clarification confirming Alum’s narrative. As a seasoned librarian of Hispanic collections and a human rights advocate, let me add my own comments.

In her attempt to discredit the Cuban-born deceased, I believe Rigdon strikes a punitive pose, splitting hairs over irrelevant minutia. For instance: she takes issue with the stated length of Ínsua’s prison term. Based on his interviews of Ínsua and his family, as Alum explains in other Net-accessible writings in Spanish, he says it was 6 years, Rigdon claims 2.9, “plus…labor camps” internment. To quote Hillary Clinton, “what difference does it make?!” Page through Armando Valladares’s “Against All Hope” (1986) or Reinaldo Arenas’s “Before Night Fall” (1990), among others, showing Cuba’s jailing of innocent people. A couple of days in any of those horrible penal institutions is a nightmare. Rigdon argues about the duration of the incarceration as if she had been a witness; but she never even met Dr. Lewis (see Lewis, et al.’s “Living the Revolution,” 1977).

Likewise, what difference does it make whether the Ínsua couple was on the Lewis’s payroll or not. Did they not collaborate with the prolific scholar? Rigdon admits that they became visiting friends. Does being unpaid interviewees make Álvaro deserving of longer imprisonment?

Rigdon takes Alum to task for noting that a Lewis study goal was to examine the supposed non-existence of the “Culture of Poverty” in post-1959 Socialist Cuba. She admits that it was a purpose, but “not the only one.” Again, so what? Does she expect Alum to include A-Z details in a space-limited obituary? No one else would see hidden deceit in that otherwise harmless tribute to a humble Latinx.

The focus of any “In Memoriam” is on the intellectual contributions of the departed, in this case Ínsua, who after all was the Lewis project’s casualty. Wasn’t the former Cuban government statistician abandoned to his lot in that oppressive island? Instead, Rigdon makes an ad hominem attack on the academician who pays homage to the late real sufferer.

In sum, what an unfortunate commentary! In my view, Rigdon denies agency to the Ínsuas and to Alum, and further indulges in the proverbial blaming the victims. She writes as “alerting the world” of implied mendacities in the In Memoriam piece about of a victim of U.S. researchers. One wonders about the motives involved here.

Ileana Fuentes – Posted 2021/06/17 at 9:56 am
I knew Álvaro Ínsua after he left Cuba for Florida, yet I learned more about his life-history thanks to his obituary by Professor Alum. Álvaro, a former Cuban government statistician, was a key collaborator in the renowned anthropologist Oscar Lewis’ aborted project in Socialist Cuba (1969-70).

Susan Rigdon makes an unfortunate commentary about Álvaro, asserting that he played a negligible role in Lewis’ study. If it was such a minor role, why was Ínsua the only one of Lewis’s collaborators to go to jail?

Rigdon befriended Oscar Lewis’s widow, Ruth, years after his untimely death upon returning to the U.S., following his sudden expulsion by the Castro government, accused of spying “for imperialism.” Rigdon was not part of the field research, never met Professor Lewis, or ever set foot in Cuba. I believe her interactions with the Ínsuas in the U.S. were extremely limited. Nonetheless, her writing leaves the impression that she was the authoritative eyewitness.

Rigdon’s commentary discusses Ínsua’s wife, Greta, whom I also interviewed in Miami (with Professor Alum present, in November, 2019). Rigdon implies that Greta “sought out” the Lewises in 1969 to have social contact with foreigners, which assumes a personal motivation that would have been difficult for Rigdon to know.

Rigdon challenges the accuracy of Professor Alum’s report that Ínsua was incarcerated for 6 years, including time spent confined to forced-labor camps. Ínsua’s son confirms Professor Alum’s report that Álvaro Ínsua was imprisoned six years, and Rigdon misses the crucial point: Ínsua was jailed for aiding the Lewises, who in turn abandoned him to his fate.

The Ínsuas were additionally compromised by the publication of three volumes based on the “salvaged material” from the Cuban study, compiled years later by Ruth Lewis, with Rigdon as co-editor (Living the Revolution, 1977-1978). Publishing the trilogy placed Álvaro and his family, still in Cuba, at additional risk.

Still, Volume II (“Four Women”) has been my bedside reading for decades, as I’ve written—from a committed feminist perspective—about Latinas, as well as Cubans in general. I even mentioned Dr. Lewis’ ordeal in my poem (“Fantastic Voyage,” 1987).

Finally, I believe Dr. Rigdon’s uncollegial commentary attacks Professor Alum. Readers may agree that Dr. Rigdon owes an apology to the surviving Ínsuas, and also to Professor Alum, whose fact-based “In Memoriam” honors a risk-taking Hispanic/Latinx researcher who became a casualty of privileged Americans more than half-a-century ago.

Roland Armando Alum – Posted 2021/07/30
I became aware of Susan Rigdon’s comments on the Álvaro Ínsua obituary of my authorship only when a former student alerted me months later. It is customary for Anthropology News to inform authors when their writing is critiqued; still, this Hispanic half-century AAA member was the exception. 

Previously, I had cordial e-mail exchanges with Rigdon, providing her my writings that touched upon Oscar Lewis’s 1969-70 Cuban project (that’s how she learned of Ínsua’s “In Memoriam”); yet, she too missed alerting me of her remarks. 

Fortunately, others joined in defense: Félix Sánchez, Ileana Fuentes and Ínsua’s own son. We simultaneously chuckled while conjecturing if Rigdon was a Santa Claus kin, as if she “knew” when one “is sleeping…or awake,” given her claims to “know better” than us about Álvaro’s incarceration details and when he and I connected (all ultimately non sequiturs). 

Although the three commentators refuted several of Rigdon’s issues—some of which I had coincidentally addressed elsewhere—let me supplement specific clarifications.

The U.S.I.A. Havana-based diplomat who helped the Ínsuas with their visas and linked Álvaro with me was Barbara Hutchinson, who had previously welcomed me as a Fulbright-Hays Fellow in Santo Domingo. 

Regarding Lewis’s testing of his corollary about the impossibility of a “culture of poverty” [CoP] in a socialist economy: True, it is better revealed in the PEOPLE OF BUENA VENTURA (1980) more candid separate ethnography by Lewis’s mentoree Douglas Butterworth, with whom I interfaced too.

Throughout the decades, I also appealed to Mrs. Lewis and the Ford Foundation for information on Lewis’s original proposal and field reports; but I mostly encountered refusals and/or misleading clues. Nonetheless, Colorado-based historian Steven Dike (personal communications) did visit the Lewis archives at the University of Illinois and at the Ford Foundation and found there my name and useful information reconfirming that CoP attributes were “a major project objective.” Florida-based historian Lillian Guerra also researched in the archives; one gathers that she too came out disappointed.  Furthermore, as Rigdon herself informed me, she is maintaining “sealed” certain documents for many more years, adding to the atmosphere of mystery (unusual in academia). 

I respect Rigdon’s devotion to the legacy of Ruth Lewis, who hired her to complete the LIVING THE REVOLUTION trilogy (1977-78). Nevertheless, Rigdon is not an anthropologist, nor a Latinamericanist, nor fluent in Spanish; one wonders further if she comprehends our profession’s ethical commitment and deference to field-research partners, particularly the voiceless deceased ones.     

I would welcome any evidence to disprove my extant findings of over four decades following-up the topic; that’s what the Popperian scientific approach is about: falsification. However, keeping information secretive and launching derogatory expressions like “fabrication”—especially á propos a modest death notice—is not conducive to collegial social science-making. I am unaware of any other AN obituary having been so belittled. The record shows that I, for one, try to share my investigations while honoring the departed with my de rigueur best of intentions.

More Related Articles

Discussing Tourism Traps with Matilde Córdoba Azcárate

Matilde Córdoba Azcárate, Joseph Feldman