An Endless Enigma: The Future of Change in Cuba

Overlook

Atop the Escambray Mountains in Topes de Collantes Cuba, watching the Caribbean Sea to the south

When people ask me, knowing that I’ve been there twice in the past year, what I think about the prospect for change in Cuba, I’m always struck with the sense that there’s a premade answer they want me to respond with.

Yes! They’re expecting me to say. The pressures for democratic reform are pushing to a tipping point! That as clandestine groups plot revolution in dimly lit alleyways and garages, flag-waving masses of disgruntled citizens will soon pour into the streets demanding change, and that as corrupt government bullets ring out in retaliation, Cuba will become the next bloody iteration of Venezuela or Libya or Syria; that heavily romanticized rebels (perhaps even with the aid of a glorious NATO bombing campaign spearheaded by the United States) will fight on with gathering strength in the mountains, in the plains, and in the streets, finally deposing those communist dicks in Havana in a fiery show of cinematic, democratic glory.

Putting aside the sheer ridiculousness of thinking the next Arab Spring will happen in Cuba, the people who ask me this are generally deflated, or at least perplexed, when I tell them that the case of Cuba is far more complex than that.

“Ok,” they naturally respond to my first, often disappointing answer. “So what does that mean, that it’s some sort of paradise down there?”

I have to disappoint them again- “No,” I say. “It’s not that either.”

By this point, I can tell that my questioner, ever more perplexed and confused, is flipping through their mental lexicon of platitudinous narratives that they previously used with such confidence to understand the nature of different countries in the world- that there are rich capitalist countries in the Global North, anarchic purge-zones in the impoverished Global South, some medieval Islamic theocracies in the Middle East and a few stubborn communist holdouts scattered around-, only to find that Cuba, both as a nation and as an idea, refuses to comport itself to any of these simple formulas.

Admittedly, I used to be one of these types of people I’m so flagrantly making fun of now.

Having grown up, until rather recently, as a half-politically conscious, Obama-esque liberal centrist, and having not put too much significant thought into the nature of the island besides the fact that it was pretty, had great fishing, and was a stone throws away from my home state, my impression of Cuba for the first seventeen years of my life- excluding the early period during which I was too young to care anyways- was similar to that of at least a couple million other people in the U.S.

This narrative generally involves endless variations upon the following formula: that Castro was an incorrigible dictator whose Stalinesque lust for power condemned his country to an unending hamster-wheel of misery, which was just about the only thing you would see on the island if you mustered the courage and did the bureaucratic gymnastics to go there- misery, misery, and more misery. That the secret police stalked the empty night streets in ominous black convoys and the only thing to escape the island- besides the exiles on pitifully constructed, car-tire rafts- were endless tales of woe. (I remember how as a middle schooler I imagined myself going there to find a scene reminiscent of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, with the only thing differentiating Cuba from the totalitarian darkness of the Soviet Union being the added tropical backdrop). As this impression, this deeply engrained narrative, has it, the death of the Soviet Union cut the only life-support to the already weakening regime, and with it diluted- though not completely eliminated- the communists’ more authoritarian tendencies. Culminating at the end of this widely held narrative, like a cherry atop the sundae, is the expectation of an inexorable revolution that will depose the communists in a Hollywood-style episode of explosion and gunfire (not an unsurprising belief to be held by Americans, after all, knowing our national tendency to quiver in giddy delight at the possibility of a war out our backdoor we could intervene in).

Some aspects of this narrative- the mass suffering of thousands upon thousands of Cubans, especially those cast astray in the exile community- touch on extremely sensitive and widespread truths, while the insinuations of a Soviet-style totalitarianism and of a coming civil war are ridiculous enough to seem like they were lazy parodies of Chuck Norris’ 1985 anti-Soviet/Cuban action movie, Invasion: USA![1]

But what’s problematic about this impression, the one I unwittingly held for so many years, the one many other Americans still cling to, is its lack of depth or complexity. Trying to understand Cuba within the black-and-white dictatorship binary is akin to describing a beautiful painting by only describing one color.

The first thing that needs to be noted about Cuba, for Americans to get a more lucid impression of the place, is that there is a clear difference between the desires and interests of the regime and the population. [2]

The rift between the Cuban government and the Cuban people became especially resonant to us one baking hot, clear morning as we walked the narrow, cobblestoned corridors of Habanavieja (right after we had failed to get into the former house of Che, ironically). There, nestled deep in those colonial backstreets, crowded in on the lobby floor of an up-and-coming tattoo shop, we listened to a skinny tattoo artist with ripped jeans, sleeves of ink that crept up his chest, and a scraggly beard reminiscent of Jack Sparrow speak with astonishing eloquence and humility about the different maneras de ser– “ways of being”- in a country where younger generations were carving out their own cultures in contrast to the macho disciplinarianism of the regime.

Tattooguy

An up-and-coming tattoo artist, redolent of the quiet rebellion thousands of young Cubans make against the macho disciplinarians of the regime

“Back in the 90’s,” he related matter-of-factly, gesticulating loosely with his intricately painted arms “we began to discover new maneras de ser as the government eased up its grip and became less authoritarian. We began going to rock concerts. Many of us discovered that it was ok to be gay or bisexual. Because of these rock concerts, we began to experiment with tattoos, which was an altogether new phenomena to us.”

The mosaic of Cuban society was far more complex than the clichéd depictions of it in the U.S.- young people were trying to live in ways different than those promulgated by their government- and places like this tattoo shop were perfect examples of it.

Those still unable to distinguish between the aging Cuban government and the effervescence of its people should have walked with us one overcast afternoon in Nuevo Vedado, a neighborhood west of Havana, where, overlooking a cracked concrete jungle of corrugated iron roofs, royal palms, and clotheslines withering in the wind, one of the country’s leading anti-government online magazines– El Toque– was run almost clandestinely out of a plainspoken three-room apartment. A dedicated team of impeccably well-dressed, good looking, and unilaterally young writers and photographers showed us their base of operations, where they struggled day and night to, in their leaders words, create “an alternative platform for national discussion in Cuba- a place where new voices could be heard that hadn’t been heard before.”

 

El Toque

Two young writers for El Toque, Cuba’s main anti-government online magazine, at its ramshackle, off-the-path headquarters in Nuevo Vedado

The leader of the magazine, a tall, bespectacled lawyer-turned-activist, leaning with his arms crossed against the doorframe, spoke to us with measured deliberateness about the whole drift of obstacles they worked against to expand their publication, from the chronic lack of Internet access in Cuba to the technical illegality of running a newspaper like theirs. But he said they were wholly invested in the importance of their paper, which could provide a much-needed counterweight to the old, state-run newspaper, Granma.

When asked about the government paper, which reflected communist ideology, the workers chuckled with a slight smirk. “It’s just,” he said, searching for the right words “the same stuff, over and over again. ‘Construction project’ this. ‘Government initiative’ that. It’s boring.”

Perhaps the best way to understand that the Cuban population is a living, breathing entity, distinctly separate from the specific aspirations of the communist government, is through the lens of an individual persons life.

Isabel Maria Márquez, who traveled with our group on my last trip was born and raised in Cuba. As a girl growing up in the 1960’s and 70’s, she was sent off by her parents to a government-run boarding school in another province on the island, where students helped harvest sugar on the communal farms in the morning and did their studies in the afternoon. She has seen the heart of Cuba, has lived for years under the watchful revolutionary posters whose colors fade ever so slightly under continual decades of the beating tropical sun. Even now, as she lives in the Ohio, she still speaks with a dreamy wisp in her eyes about the food, the beauty, and the people of the island she left those many years ago but still loves so endearingly.

In no way does this mean she’s a communist or a supporter of the government. When the girls in our group sent pictures of their Che T-shirts in a group chat after we all parted ways following the trip, with the iconic portrait of the Guerrillero Heroico emblazoned on the front, Isabel’s response was humorous but revealing. Hahahaha she texted back amusedly. But she was quick to clarify her feelings with a follow-up message afterwards: You’d have to kill me to put that shirt on me.

There is something else of note that we as Americans should note, so that our collective impression of that island more accurately reflects the reality: that there are many things that people like about the government and many people who like them.

Since it’s conception after the failed 1953 Moncada Barracks attack, when Castro had as a young lawyer vowed to liberate the island’s millions of impoverished campesinos through radical reform, the Revolution carried with it a moral force that had hardly before been seen in Latin America and that very much invoked the humanism conveyed so eloquently by the writings of Jose Martí sixty years beforehand (Castro himself in his famous “History will Absolve Me” declaimed that the moralist Marti was the intellectual author of the Revolution).

After the Revolution succeeded, this moral force became manifest on several fronts:

Thousands of fresh graduates following the success of the Revolution would eagerly exchange whatever they were doing with their lives at that moment to travel to the countryside and teach campesinos the art of reading and writing, rich with the sense they were fulfilling a sacred duty by helping to educate their fellow citizens.

Angolan War 4

Cuban troops in Angola in the late 1970’s, where they voluntarily fought and deflected repeated invasion attempts by South African forces and Jonas Savimbi’s guerrillas

From 1975 to 1991, thousands of young Cubans fought voluntarily in distant Angola, where the military thwarted repeated invasion attempts by the forces of apartheid South Africa and Jonas Savimbi’s murderous UNITA guerrillas to defend the democratically elected MPLA government, which was socialist. [3] (For more in-depth explanation on the Cuban intervention in Angola, read here: The Cuban Intervention in Angola)

Medicalinternationalism

Cuban medical experts, the nations top export, have often been on the front lines treating diseases in Africa

Even today, when the revolutionary fervor seems to have faded in Cuba and military interventions are far off memories of a Cold War past, Cuba remains the leading international exporter of doctors, dispatching medical experts every year to impoverished corners of the globe.

What I mean to communicate in pointing out this moral aspect is not that the Revolution itself is an entirely moral act, or that the Revolution has not borne negative consequences with it (it has), but that without the moral buttress to the Castro regime, the already authoritarian regime would have completely lost its legitimacy and crumbled long ago, just as Trujillo and Somoza and countless other Latin American dictators already had; what differentiated Castro from his authoritarian counterparts was that, despite his lust for power, he enacted a measureable amount of good for his people.

That being said: People often want me to use a specific narrative to describe what I imagine the future of Cuba holds in store. They want me to say that there will be an oncoming Revolution, a show of fireworks and airstrikes and gunfire and glory. They want me to tell them that awaiting the impoverished Cuban people lay decades of imprisonment under a corrupt regime, a long twilight of unending totalitarianism. If not that, they want me to tell them that model of Cuban socialism has created a communist paradise.

I refuse to give them any of these answers; I refuse to subscribe to any preordained narratives that masquerade as holding the secret to Cuba’s future.

If there is one thing I can say about Cuba that I know with certainty, it is that the young people of Cuba are remarkably resilient. Besieged on two fronts by both a stagnated bureaucracy and a decades-long blockade that has prevented them from receiving virtually anything outside their island, the young Cuban people have drawn from an astounding reservoir of innovation, creativity, and sheer joy to create their own iterations of the national culture, create their own art, their own fashion, their own businesses, their own lives.

It is the young people, literally and symbolically, in which the future of Cuba lies.

Without being a charlatan who knows what will happen in a country where history has repeatedly stumped people, that, and only that, is all I can say.

 

 

 

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MEJMnLZKuVU

[2] Many Americans are still locked in Cold War narratives that are just as true and useful as they were during the Cold War (when we tried- and failed- to assassinate Castro 438 times, staged a disastrous invasion attempt, and attempted to starve the people into submission); which is to say, not that much. Many of these people tend towards envisioning Cuba as an amorphously incongruous mass of dedicated communists working in close cohorts with their government. Granted, this kind of Cold War extremism is generally limited to older, FOX News watching generations in the U.S., though its logic still ineluctably trickles down into the thinking of younger generations, even the more open-minded ones

[3] Driven by the same messianic vision of liberating Africa’s victims of imperialism, which was said to have inflamed Castro, Cuba’s fighting aged youth- many of whom were black descendants of slaves and thus felt an ancestral bond with Africans- were set aflame with the desire to help other oppressed people’s shake their chains, in the same way they had done with their own country in 1959. Thousands of Cubans would die in the far-off conflict, and the Cubans took nothing when they finally withdrew, though their repeated battlefield humiliations of the supposedly superior South African Army- the bulwark of white imperialism on the predominantly black continent- was such a potent inspiration for poor Africans that one of Nelson Mandela’s first orders of business when he left prison on Robbin Island was to fly to Havana and thank the Cuban people.

 

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