Álvaro Ínsua

Photograph of a man in a suit
Image description: A dark-haired man in a black suit poses, leaning on his forearm with his other hand propped up under his chin.
Caption: Álvaro Ínsua

1935–2019

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”.

(Roland Armando Alum)

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

Comments

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.

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.

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