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Travels by Taxi: Reflections on Cuba | The Nation

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Travels by Taxi: Reflections on Cuba

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AUTHOR'S PRIVATE COLLECTION/ELIO PRIETO GARAYJosé Manuel Prieto in Havana, circa 1972

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...

This essay is an adaptation of the book-length manuscript La Revolucion Cubana explicada a los taxistas and was translated by Esther Allen. A video of Prieto discussing his essay with Nation contributor Daniel Wilkinson, the deputy director of the Americas division at Human Rights Watch, is available here.

On a day more than ten years ago I arrived in New York City--my second or third trip to America--and studied a line of taxis in the freezing cold: this new landscape, the United States, a country that my country had been at war with my whole life. Or that my country had endlessly claimed to be at war with, at least. My taxi driver was an Indian or Pakistani with the look of one who had few friends. I spent a long minute arguing with him, trying, at some length, to give him the address of my destination. Finally he turned his whole body toward me and sharply corrected me, but then, looking me over a second longer and ascertaining that there was no great malice in me but only a newcomer's ineptitude, he pondered my accent and asked, to sweeten my mood, "What country you come from?"

When I told him, he exclaimed "Cuba?" and then "Fidel Castro!"

He said it in the most annoying way, snapping his fingers, smacking his lips in sheer gusto, squaring his shoulders as he scrutinized me once more in the rearview mirror. He had the stance, the vehemence, the sudden energy of someone talking about a much-admired local strongman. His English was no better than mine, but he wanted badly to express what he felt, so he struck the palm of his right hand loudly against his left fist: "He gave to the Americans up the ass."

I'm sure I must have leaned toward the divider to read his name through the plexiglass; this was at the very beginning of my visits to New York, and it was the first time I'd encountered that reaction. But if I did read the name I don't remember it.

It was fall. I remember that and the city's distant silhouette, the gray mass of skyscrapers. I also remember how greatly his reaction surprised me: to think that there was so much sympathy--in America!--for the Cuban Revolution.

In July 1999 a taxi driver took me from Barajas to Sol, in Madrid. As we traveled across the city, we listened to news of a terrible plane crash reported in blood-curdling detail. The taxi driver turned the dial and found a melody much in vogue that summer, then began watching me covertly in the mirror. When I noticed, I gave him an automatic polite nod and immediately he inquired, "From your country?"

"No, she's from Mexico," I answered, meaning the singer. "I'm from Cuba."

As if by magic, he said, "Ah, Cuba! Fidel Castro!"--with pure delight and no thought of giving offense.

I debated whether to smile or take umbrage, eternally amazed by the tremendous popularity of the Cuban Revolution among the taxi drivers of the world.

Once, in Rome, I kept my mouth shut, as in fact I've mostly kept it shut, lost in a monologue I know I'll never impose on any poor cabbie's good nature. A monologue about this enormous mistake: the astonishing popularity of Fidel Castro and the Cuban Revolution. About everything I'd like to add, to nuance, amazed as I am to see it all reduced to a single name. And about the distress it always gives me--or rather, the perplexity.

For, after all, shouldn't it make me happy? My country, so easily identified among all others? Its status and relevance obvious to all, its popularity immense across the globe? It's just that there's a somewhat more complex vision that I would very much like to express, to expand upon, if only my knowledge of Italian or Turkish permitted.

The Cuban Revolution explained to taxi drivers.

Any detailed explanation of it is a lost cause: that I know. The many times I've failed, promising myself never again, and then eternally, ineptly falling back into long tirades that do nothing but complicate all of it even more in the minds of my interlocutors, while leaving them nevertheless imperturbable in their faith, convinced of their truth. Which is why, on further reflection, I've understood the advantage of a brief explanation, with all the strength and argumentative simplicity of cliché. Three or four points, duly set forth and clarified, an idea that takes shape quickly and easily, as during a dinner table conversation or the forty-five minutes of a trip from an airport to the city center.

But then there's the need, in speaking of the negative impact the Cuban Revolution has had on so many things, to speak also of all its achievements, how good it has been for so many other things. It's so inadequate to paint it as the blackest, the most terrible, the most murderous--for it isn't any of those things, not at all, though for far too many years it has always ended up doing harm. It's impossible to strip the Cuban Revolution of the reasons for its great popularity, its hard-won fame.

There are touches of genius present throughout the work of the Cuban Revolution and in its very conception. The brilliant idea--to begin with--of defying the United States. That detail alone. For those first several years, the energy that unfailingly impressed all those who watched Cuba pursuing the ambitions of a great country, in full consciousness of its achieved maturity, trying in only a few years to make up for the backwardness of centuries. That impulse.

And it's not been mere thievery. That is one of the first things that must be said about the Cuban Revolution. Neither Fidel Castro nor the Cuban Revolution is a vulgar plunderer whose only goal is self-enrichment. On the contrary, I see an entirely different trait: a deep and terrible idealism.

Who hasn't seen this? Which of its opponents hasn't wished for the Cuban Revolution to be worse than it truly is, for the greater weight and forcefulness of his argument against it, to avoid confusion and keep from having, in the midst of his diatribe, to acknowledge its better intentions?

And then this, the most frustrating and discouraging part: the untranslatability of the experience, the extreme difficulty of talking about it. The most attentive and understanding of your listeners, the one with the best heart, always fails to understand your reasons. The most minute descriptions, the most fatiguing enumerations can't answer all the questions or construct an intelligible overview--it's always inconclusive. All that's most painful and disturbing is somehow left out, a nightmare of minuscule perceptions. The despair I fall prey to in so many taxis: I'll never explain it; he'll never understand.

Mine is not an academic analysis replete with dates and statistics but rather one based on my firsthand knowledge of the Cuban Revolution, which I've never stopped inhabiting for all these years, whose fiery light has not ceased to illuminate me, vividly, for all these years. It's an argument pulled together on the fly, whatever's easiest and simplest, set forth to the taxi drivers of the world and the public they incarnate.

For that very reason, it's a weak argument, easy to criticize. But aren't our daily reactions largely, almost exclusively, based on perceptions, intuitions, preconceived certainties? This is an inventory of all those that operate in my head when I think of the Cuban Revolution. And I offer it knowing full well what a thankless task this is, foreseeing the series of misunderstandings, false accusations, insults it could inspire across the whole battlefront of a dispute that has gone on for decades, one that has had time to ripen and even pass its expiration date, one for which there has been time for all the misinterpretations any human undertaking could possibly inspire to grow and flourish.

Embarking on the task, nevertheless, like a citizen with his coffee and Sunday paper who reads about the advent of war with all its attendant horror and understands in a sudden flash, it was only thus, only in this way. And hurries to don the ridiculous combat uniform, goes out to fight alongside younger men, the absurdity of his situation seen clearly in a moment of respite from battle, the round lenses of his glasses raised to the sky. Marveling, telling himself: here I am, me, sworn enemy of all political discussion, in the trenches! Nothing good will come of this!

Yes, this is it, right here. How much do I owe you? Keep the change.

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