Travels by Taxi: Reflections on Cuba | The Nation


Travels by Taxi: Reflections on Cuba

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The Cuban people, the generation of the 1950s, were privileged pupils graduating cum laude with a major in American civilization. They had assimilated its teachings and been transformed into what they continue to be today, to the despair of their many allies, the many souls who seek to help them in their "unequal battle with the neighbor to the north": the most Americanized nation in Latin America.

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...

American habits, American ways of thinking, Americanness itself are integral to Cuba, the prism through which it sees the world.

An entire nation that, having completed its education at the School of American Civilization, began producing American businessmen, American artists and American politicians, like our simpático Fidel Castro. But then, in that same generation, one group saw the need and believed it possible to consolidate our independence, accede to a more full-fledged adulthood and achieve, in passing, well-being and development for all, while another group, the middle class, the upper class, the so-called national bourgeoisie, imagined for one moment that this was doable, backed the revolt and then began to oppose it vehemently.

And when they saw themselves forced to emigrate for the reasons already stated, they arrived in America not as a group of exiled foreigners, immigrants who had to begin everything anew (though they did have to do that), but with the incalculable advantage of already being an American middle class and an American upper class, who by chance happened to speak a different language but who adapted with stunning speed and ease.

A speed and ease that had to do with the fact that fundamentally they had not left their country. Their genes had been homogenized by all the television ads, the newest model cars every year and all the other points of Cuban material existence, which was an American material existence, in Cuba's capacity as an outlying territory.

The Miami Economic Miracle, the astonishing ascent that transformed a sleepy tourist town, refuge for retirees, into the new capital of Latin America, was accomplished by the same generation that brought about the Cuban Revolution--the generation of the 1950s.

Has anyone understood that?

This is a truth that may surprise supporters of the Cuban Revolution who, without understanding much about the reasons for the dispute, have taken the side of the smaller country, the abused country, when what's really going on is a desperate lovers' quarrel.

Cuba wants to be the United States.

In contrast to many perspectives around the world that are critical or even disdainful of the obvious crudeness of much of the American way of life, Cubans see such a life as desirable, imagine their future as independent--but American. Ugly suburbs, ticky-tacky houses and disposable plastic cups all figure in the mental tableau of their happiness.

Any schema that seeks to oppose "Cuban identity" to "American identity" is false; as early as the middle of the nineteenth century, Cuban identity was shaped, nourished and colored by American identity, which was a consubstantial part of Cuban identity, one of its fundamental elements. This peculiar amalgam is manifest in any sector or period of Cuban life you might choose to name, from the very beginning of our "national awakening," through the rather odd fact that our first president was a Cuban-American schoolteacher, a Quaker who had lived through more than twenty winters in America, and the no less surprising detail that José Martí, our "national poet," the "apostle" of our independence, was a fiery lover of America and a privileged vehicle of the nationalist religion in its distinctive American variety.

In other words, there's always been a good deal of truth to the term "Manifest Destiny." Not in the sinister sense of occupation and subjugation but in that of proximity and espousal. Inevitable transference, imitation, admiration, irritation, hatred.

And love.

Nevertheless, it's incredible how unaware the United States appears to be of its importance in everything to do with Cuba. It acts as if it were a normal country, one more country in the community of nations, and not the very center, we might say--I say it decisively--of the existence of the island of Cuba.

Like a parasol, the Cuban Revolution is more necessary and casts a broader shadow when the sun is highest in the sky. The size of that shadow is a generous gift of the fixity with which the star turns its interest upon us.

Searing us with its excessive interest! If only it would go behind a cloud, give us a respite, a chance to forget the parasol for a moment. In the cool of the evening, what would we need the parasol for? The Americans do not suspect how much they are loved, imitated, how we hang on their every word, from Fidel Castro himself (perhaps more than anyone else) down to the last little child on the island (who dreams of living in America). A country penetrated from top to bottom by America's influence, almost more than any other country on earth, we could say, and without any other point of reference or counterbalance.

Cuba has never stopped feeling this: it is a basic ingredient and not a foreign, intrusive and distorting element, as it has been depicted by the Cuban Revolution, as I have depicted it in other parts of this essay. Indeed, the United States is also mistaken in seeing Cuba as a foreign territory. It is one, undoubtedly, but to a lesser degree than perhaps any other country on earth. Hence the huge mistake of a vengeful and thunderous demeanor, when a tender and understanding tone would be much more appropriate, the tone of one who reproaches and admonishes his own kin.

Judging by other criteria such as the high cost of the "triumph," shifting our scrutiny to the catastrophe everywhere visible, judging by the calamitous state into which the country has been sunk, the chronic shortages, the near indigence; judging by the vast disintegration of the nation, the vast diaspora, we have to talk about the deep and shattering failure of el doctor Fidel Castro (and the Cuban Revolution).

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