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