Travels by Taxi: Reflections on Cuba | The Nation


Travels by Taxi: Reflections on Cuba

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Hadn't the United States done a great favor to Cuba, rescuing it from Spain's imperial clutches? Didn't the island owe its independence to the United States? (Or, all right then, its charade of independence, but at the end of the day Cuba was independent, wasn't it?) How could anyone conceive of such thanklessness, such black ingratitude? Haven't I given you everything? Aren't you who you are because of me?

About the Author

José Manuel Prieto
José Manuel Prieto is the author of the novels Enciclopedia de una vida en Rusia, Nocturnal Butterflies of the Russian...

How could you do this to me?

And the tone for all these years has always been that of bitter domestic complaint, the voice of a betrayed spouse, the kicking and screaming of an abandoned lover. And then, insult to injury, there's the money that was amassed during the years of marriage, the goods acquired, my money.

Assassination plans, accusation after accusation. The ugly and denigrating spectacle of a divorce. And the children, the bourgeoisie, the middle class, abandoned in the revolutionary storm. I leave them to you, you take them! And the United States took them, like a mother (or seeing itself as a mother, terrible and vengeful), to live beneath its roof.

There's no page written about those early days of the revolution on which the word paredón--"the wall," meaning the firing squad--doesn't flash with fearsome glint. Chanted by groups of neighbors, chanted in workplaces, chanted--terrible thing--by schoolchildren. A word, a "saying of the people," that had the same chilling effect as the threat of the guillotine in the days of the Terror.

I don't think the exact number of people shot will ever be known. Let's admit, however, that it wasn't particularly high, that it never (this is easily conceded) reached the level of this or that other (most unfortunate) country.

Nevertheless, many were shot. And it was done, how shall I put it? Joyously.

All the killing carried out in those early years of revolutionary justice, without regret or the slightest change of expression. Indeed, that is precisely Dr. Guevara's expression in the famous photo: the expression of a man who advances undaunted; nothing can hold him back, and it doesn't matter whom he tramples along the way. If you happen to believe in the inevitability of revolutionary violence and its cauterizing and salubrious effects, then it's a nice picture. But if you've ever thought of or seen it as I see it here--as an error into which a country must never fall, all those deaths--then the harshness of that gaze is terrifying.

But let's not linger over the actual number of victims, giving a physical reality priority over the symbolic reality whose impact continues today. An impact of such magnitude that it still now, years later, decades later, reverberates across the country at all levels. The ever-presence of fear in Cuba is easily ascertained, and many kinds of behavior that are otherwise inexplicable can be ascribed to it.

The way the inhabitants of Cuba lower their voices when they speak in public or make any mention of the government. The fear that rips the whole country apart, the mistrust and betrayal that make any attempt at forming a group, any spark of opposition virtually impossible. Not armed opposition, even just peaceful opposition!

A fear some declare to be in remission: "our heroic nation" will overcome, etc. They are mistaken. Its profound and lasting effect will stay with us through vast zones of our future life. Several generations are irremediably marked, harmed, by fear. There's much sadness in what I'm saying now, a sadness no political campaign in all its optimism will ever want to accept. But I'm not engaged in politics, and I can say it: this damage is probably irreversible.

Ten thousand signatures are collected in a country with a population of 11 million, and this is deemed a victory--which it most assuredly is: a great victory! But isn't it also, and shouldn't that be said as well, clear evidence of a population harried by fear? A widespread, deep-rooted fear. And the whole country is permeated with it, this fear that fatally manifests itself in lack of initiative, dark uncertainty, all that so palpably differentiates our generation from the previous one, from people born in freedom and without fear.

Some will argue with me on this, some will say, No, there is no fear. And I can present no counterargument, no "data." I will only add, in bewilderment: but if I myself, if I myself, still now, as I write this, am full of fear?

It's the most polished fiction of them all, the most captivating saga. On the same scale as other myths of the American continent: the Conquest, the wealth of El Dorado.

It's something like a heroic epic, with very bad bad guys and very good good guys, its narrative technique quite primitive but magisterially in tune with its time, a poem of rebellion against the grown-ups in which a few young men (not particularly important that this side happens to be Caribbean) rebel against their elders (very important indeed that this side is the United States). Deeply resonating through the capitals of Europe, with all the symbolic charge of leaving home and going out into the open air of the hippie encampment, well in advance of the upheavals of 1968 and perhaps one of the secret reasons for them.

And for those who are confused by the unswerving loyalty of so many Latin American intellectuals, so many writers of genius, to Fidel Castro, let me explain. They see him for what he is: the greatest fabulist of his time, an outstanding performance artist whose famous speeches are the most considerable part of the performance. The writers know he is as great as they are for this one achievement: his discovery of how to cease being a provincial in the arena of world politics, his strategy of effectively embedding himself in world literature (or in the world's fictions).

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