Travels by Taxi: Reflections on Cuba | The Nation


Travels by Taxi: Reflections on Cuba

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Maybe I'm wrong. I can hear more than one voice pounding in my ears (in a friend's living room in Paris, in a Stockholm kitchen), shutting me up--in keeping with our lovely island tradition--by shouting me down.

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...

They can shout all they want.

I'll wait them out, then immediately continue to expand on what I've just been saying: it's easy to see Fidel Castro (the hateful and terrible Fidel Castro) as a great artist who was able to stage a massive production (with the participation of the United States in the role of big bully) of the myth of a confrontation between a tiny country and the Empire, the insubordination that has awoken so much sympathy.

And perhaps therein lies the cause of his popularity within the United States itself, which I vaguely intuit to be in the fine, supremely American, very citizenly tradition of facing down the government: pre-1959 Cuba viewed as a place in America where the US government had gone too far.

His admirers forgive him--and with them, the whole world forgives him--for having taken an entire country prisoner, for the terrible impoverishment of its life, all in the service of a confrontation they saw as far too costly for their own countries, a confrontation that a public not silenced by the pretext of an eternal state of emergency, not automatically accused of giving in to the Enemy, wouldn't hesitate to condemn.

The Cuban Revolution awoke a tremendous enthusiasm in Latin America, fed by the hatred and visceral anti-Americanism that the United States' stunning and incomprehensible success arouses in the somewhat magical mind of Latin Americans, who understand only plunder and looting and can explain the American miracle of prosperity to themselves only in those terms.

And isn't there also, across Europe, a certain discomfort with America--and might that be why they were delighted to see America "having trouble" with a very clever young fellow whose manners were appalling, true, but who was superb in his role of denouncer, thorn in the side? (But a terrible, tendentious and obviously limited politician, a fast talker, a demagogue, an arrogant street hawker.)

The Cuban Revolution does not want any adult ever to emerge on its territory, does not want there to be a moment when the enchantment of childhood is broken, the authority of an incompetent government doubted, in the understanding that we are adults and couldn't do any worse at leading the country, trying to lift it out of impoverishment and misery, to project it into the future. Or, and this amounts to the same thing: a moment when we embrace the heresy of having our own ideas. Corrupted by the years, infuriatingly thinking for ourselves. Such a cute little fellow in the photo, with all the shining enthusiasm of the beginning of life! How old and ugly today: those big ears, simply unpresentable!

If Fidel Castro has betrayed the Cuban Revolution, it happened at the moment when the children--children of the revolution--reached adulthood. When by dint of the passage of time there appeared, at the end of the 1980s, a reformist current, a generation of young people born and bred within the force field of the revolution, inclined to continue with its "independentist" agenda (or should we say its anti-US agenda) but from within a reformed socialism, eliminating the totalitarian variable while retaining the "Achievements" and the "Conquests."

Given the uncomfortable alternative of real change, by people who could in no way be accused of being pro-US (as he had always rushed to accuse the Cuban bourgeoisie or "Miami" of being), Fidel Castro chose to betray us. Utterly.

He fell back on the old strategy of ejecting us from the game. A wave of exile was organized that again bled the country, depriving it of a very important group of writers, musicians and professionals who chose to leave or were told explicitly that their best option was to leave, that they were not trusted. And we were, I repeat, free of the taint of antipatriotic feelings (or, what amounts to the same thing in the perverse logic of the Cuban Revolution, pro-US feelings). In our writings, following the spirit of the times, we had argued only for a reform of socialism.

There are two possible readings of this.

The first invalidates what I've been saying about Fidel Castro's independentist agenda, the principally anti-US nature of his aims, which allows us to speak of his "resounding political triumph." This new evidence leaves us or forces us to opt for power alone as the motive and final explanation of his existence. This perspective explains, it must be said, many aspects of a procedure that is otherwise inexplicable. For when a whole generation, the generation to which I belong, appeared to tell him, "Yes, completely understood, we're no less anti-US than you, no less committed to the left and its vision of social justice, but also to a government, a socialism (not capitalism!) that would be more participatory," he chuckled into his beard and arranged for us to be taught a very public lesson, with folkloric paredón included.

Was this because he knew and understood--this would be the second reading--that true socialism can't be reformed, that any attempt at improvement would end, quickly and inevitably, in a dismantlement?

I think so. I'm sure of it.

Who knew that better than he, the man who had subjugated the entire country, brought it to its knees with his "revolutionary violence"? Because where others--and I myself at the time--naïvely saw a voluntary acceptance, an "election," he saw with absolute clarity that all of it had been adamantly opposed, that it would never survive the test of a real election or stand up to any airing out, any public discussion of his practices and methods. That's what happened with Mikhail Gorbachev's reforms, to which, with perfect clairvoyance, el doctor Fidel Castro was fiercely opposed from the beginning.

For Castro and Gorbachev were historical epochs apart from each other. Gorbachev had inherited his power, didn't know how it had been gained, saw himself as a "good leader," someone who hadn't needed to have people killed, who'd never gotten his hands dirty or built socialism by force and against the popular will. Standing atop a pyramid of infinite power, Gorbachev behaved like an heir who knows nothing of his grandparents' effort and sacrifice to amass the fortune that he, wanting to be a good person and not an "exploiter," is eager to squander, distribute among the poor.

Fidel Castro's situation was very different: he was the one who'd brought socialism to Cuba. The superhuman effort it had taken to put the entire country onto that footing was fresh in his memory (though, let's concede once more, he did it for reasons of the Confrontation and not in pursuit of the mere chimera of a better life for all). He harbored no doubt that given a choice, the public, the entire nation, would choose to get rid of him, and fast.

Fidel Castro made no mistake about that, and in some way it excuses him from the charge that power is, pathologically, his only objective, his guiding passion.

He is convinced (and perhaps he's absolutely right) that he alone is the best commander of this power, this type of power.

Which doesn't mean that either he or his power is desirable.

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