Travels by Taxi: Reflections on Cuba

Travels by Taxi: Reflections on Cuba

A Cuban novelist reflects on the consequences of his country’s revolution.



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.

Consider this. If it’s true that Cuba is a protectorate, a semi-colony of America and its most important and precious acquisition, a country on which America was imposed to the detriment or complete loss of its identity, then why not agree on the following inference as well: Fidel Castro, Public Enemy No. 1 of America, its principal accuser and public scourge, is (paradoxical as it may seem) an American politician.

El doctor Fidel Castro: American politician.

His entire significance is due to this one fact. The confrontation with an enemy that is part of himself, the knowledge of all its weaknesses, the precise calculation of its conduct, the deep understanding of its internal dynamics. That was what allowed him to imagine total flight from America as the only way forward, using the same Newtonian analysis as John Quincy Adams, according to whom Cuba would gravitate like a ripe fruit (an apple?) toward the United States.

The impossibility of Adams’s prediction is now clear, Ahmed (my taxi driver), in the very simile: apples don’t grow in Cuba.

Why not like a ripe orange?

Fidel Castro’s reasoning was the same; he calculated–like an engineer placing a satellite in orbit around the earth–that the only possible way of breaking the gravitational pull of the United States was by taking advantage of that very force to increase the momentum.

Of the orange.

Presenting it all, very astutely, as a rejection: appealing to international opinion, staging the rupture before a very large live audience and with widespread media coverage.

That way he ensured, while still in pre-production, that he’d have good press in the New York Times, the coverage that may have guaranteed his triumph, like a play that opens to sparse houses until the enthusiastic review of an influential critic appears and its luck changes dramatically. In that, too, Fidel Castro is an American politician: in the awareness that everything is accomplished in the newspapers, the media, a truth he never underestimates.

The facts of the uprising reach every home in the same easy, didactic way as a television commercial or series, with the Cuban people in the starring role. And what a cast! The handsome and appealing Che Guevara, Fidel Castro himself and, in the role of villain, John F. Kennedy, also good-looking and simpático.

It was a duel such as Cuba had never before seen in its 450 years of existence. The confrontation in crescendo, the inconceivable spectacle of the bourgeoisie in flight, the frenzied nationalization, beginning with hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of American property. The anger and infinite surprise of the United States at such ugly ingratitude from its own offspring, from an American politician, who must have known, who was surely aware, that much of what was good in Cuba–all the island had gained in terms of modernity, technological advancement and well-being–came from the influence and example of the United States.

Many who opposed the revolution and want to convince us that Cuba was in good shape will trot out the fact that by the 1950s the peso traded at the same rate as the dollar. We enjoyed, that is, a splendid monetary union. So much do we owe to the United States!

Why then, I repeat, such ugly ingratitude for such beneficence?

The unusual spectacle of the greatest and most powerful country on earth, the United States, caught up in open war with so diminutive an adversary, like a wild animal in captivity, the astounded villagers crowding around to poke at it through the bars of its cage: that alone has captured the imagination of our contemporaries.

It has enabled Fidel Castro to present his triumph as the greatest, the most unlikely, the most consummate. It’s been an enormous contribution to his cause, a wellspring of strength he’s never stopped drawing on for all these years, a subsidy no less rich and generous than the Russians’ very real millions. And the Russians contributed voluntarily, in full awareness; the United States involuntarily, pathetically, ineptly.

Fidel Castro has never made any mistake about the nature of his revolution, his Great Work. How insignificant it would be without the enthusiastic participation of the United States playing the Dangerous Predator in Captivity, for without that, without America’s starring role, the spectators would long since have ceased flocking to the show.

In essence, no progress has occurred since the beginning of the Cuban Revolution, no alternative strategy, no change of scenery. When, out of simple common sense or some momentary relief from internal pressure, the United States has attempted to make a shift, to soften its stance or even–horrors!–to abandon the game entirely, it has been coldly and calculatingly provoked.

One of Fidel Castro’s first executive visits, in April 1959, four months after the triumph of the revolution, was to the United States. But Castro was crafty, as memoirists have depicted him, keeping under wraps his refusal to accept any favor from the United States, no credit or economic aid, however minimal, nothing that might endanger (by making him look like an ungrateful debtor) the formidable attack he was preparing, the betrayal he was nursing in his bosom.

Which was the only possible way forward from the perspective of our clever Fidel: only a rupture, a complete and vigorous change of course, could be assured of success. Any sort of agreement, any extension of the hand, would have fatally compromised his project, and therefore he scrupulously refrained.

I have to say–without passing judgment, without characterizing the procedure as betrayal or deep cunning–that the United States fell victim to an astute provocation. And it fell loudly and heavily, with all the added weight and inertia of its absolute conviction that Cuba, in its insolence, had to be punished. But it fell with the added force of its sincere desire to be a benefactor.

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?

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).

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.

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.

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.

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).

Obvious to all is the slipping away of the initial project to diversify the economy, raise the standard of living, transform Cuba into all the things it has pretended to be without ever being: a “medical power” (ridiculous–what on earth is a “medical power”?) or an “agricultural power.” It’s worth asking what the initial plan was, what the revolution counted on achieving. Perhaps this would be easily traceable through Castro’s many exhausting (and frank) speeches. Was he calculating that by, say, 1975 or 1980 he’d be able to lift the country out of underdevelopment, or at least out of the crisis into which the much-heralded confrontation with the United States inevitably submerged him?

If he was counting on that, it hasn’t happened.

Instead, there’s been year after year of unbearable scarcity, the eternal backdrop for a population struggling to live in utmost deprivation. For whatever reason it may be, whatever reason you or anyone else wants to put forth–beginning, naturally, with the US embargo–the Cuban Revolution is a resounding failure.

Honestly, I don’t understand how it can be viewed any other way.

I imagine we may differ once again as to the causes. Blindness, inhuman ambition, crippling Bolshevism and, yes, ineptitude on the part of the United States, from my point of view; from Castro’s, undoubtedly, conspiracies, ambushes, bad luck and, yes, ineptitude on the part of the United States.

And since this is a war (let’s acknowledge that fact), then consider the inhumanity of the general who would rather immolate his soldiers than allow them to surrender with dignity. The commander who sees his armies decimated day after day and his heart shudders, prepared as he is to sacrifice all of them, down to the last man. The whole country bankrupt, the thousands who throw themselves into the sea, all economic and material existence collapsing, the daily failure and defeat–is that not the work of a maniac, evidence of a heart of stone?

That would be the point of view of the commander’s rational mind, if we concede, without question, that he has one.

Shouldn’t he give an honorable discharge to the country that has served him for so long? Thank it for the effort, take pity on the women and children? Or even on the last men standing? Until the end of what? The embargo?

The Americans should lift it, let’s concede that point: the infinite stupidity of the embargo. But they haven’t done so. Worse, the Cuban Revolution is in no position to pressure them to do so. No less important, the embargo causes them little or no pain or damage. It makes no difference to the Americans: the Cuban people, their fate. But to Fidel Castro, to the Cuban Revolution, those things are supposed to matter. I’ve repeated this question until I’m blue in the face. Shouldn’t he, however much it would pain him and even though it would be an acknowledgment of failure, let his people go, renounce the “struggle,” not force them to go with him to the very end?

This part of the story is told from the perspective of the remote future, the distant assessment of someone making a dispassionate study of his ancestors.

What can we do with the Cuban Revolution? Where can we put the Cuban Revolution? Can we act as if it had never existed?

The questions take us back to the old polemic: had Cuba already achieved its independence (as I’m inclined to think it had)? Or was it still (as Castro’s doctrine depicts it) a protectorate, poorly administered by corrupt politicians primarily interested in enjoying Cuban beauties and exploiting the beautiful island of Cuba?

What matters here, however, is that whichever of these answers is correct, the Cuban Revolution happened, like it or not. The island of Cuba is now a very different country from what it was.

Fully independent?

Yes. In fact, more independent than is prudent.

This is the foundation on which the country’s future must be built. To ignore the revolution or denigrate it would be a mistake, the knee-jerk revolutionary quest for a tabula rasa. Far better to incorporate the revolution thoughtfully, without ascribing guilt. As a problem, an asset and a singularity.

And to approach it as capable administrators serene in their inheritance, their assets managed pragmatically, without the sentimental burden of all those black-and-white photographs. A brief time for analysis of very recent history but no grand gestures or epic poems, just a quiet moment spent contemplating the childish expressions of those adults in the photos. Understandingly. To create space, strip away all the obsolete grandiloquence. And if there’s a good piece of furniture, still solid and stable, then into the living room with it, next to the piano, as a period detail.

That’s the attitude.

No tribunals (established here in the back seat of this taxi). That’s not my intention. Not the tribunal of history, the better to understand what happened. I’ve understood this today in particular, Oman (my cab driver from Cameroon): not to judge from the height of a tribunal with a flaming sword. To observe all of it, rather, sub specie aeternitatis.

That being said, there’s nothing left but to acknowledge that the Cuban Revolution won.

Not a drop of irony in those words. They are the winners. They’ll be the ones in charge of taking the country forward in the years to come, be Fidel Castro alive or dead.

Frankly, I don’t see how it could be any other way.

Not the dissidents, who are currently more of a civic option than a real political one: not the representatives of the Cuban exile community, whose possibilities are even more limited, compromised as they are (politically? in the public mind?) by their long stay in America.

There’s no one but them, the heirs to the violent and exceedingly self-absorbed Cuban Revolution. That is: the ones who are free of the idea of the glory and significance of the Cuban Revolution and definitely do not see it as something that “objectively” had to occur (never anything like that), and who are free as well of the idea that some other “revolution” might be necessary, some new abrupt or cataclysmic change to repair the harm wrought by that other abrupt and cataclysmic change. They are freeing themselves from the Cuban Revolution and loathing it mightily, but not–God save us!–revolutionarily.

Knowing how to make a break with its heritage of violence rather than acting as if nothing had happened. A clear and public expression of regret, an unequivocal condemnation of its excesses along with a vindication of its best aspects (the broad social and educational programs and all the rest), as a way of founding the country anew. Otherwise, all forward momentum might be lost in overt cynicism, the shiftiness of someone who acknowledges no guilt and believes and calculates that it’s possible to live, to lie, as if nothing had happened.

No settling of accounts, no rush to judgment, no Second Cuban Revolution to rectify and cleanse away the evils, violence and social harm of the first one.

But yes, a rejection of its deeply anti-democratic character–more the structure of a military command than of a government–an acknowledgment of other actors in the political spectrum, a making of space for inclusion, a voluntary gathering in.

No longer proudly calculating that they’ll be able to monopolize power at no risk to themselves and at enormous cost to the country. Their specificity (Fidelismo? his heirs?) identified as one point of view among others, constituting themselves as a political party, a true political party.

A party that ceases to be the State Leviathan that exists today, renouncing its monstrous privilege, which is a thousand times more aberrant than the endemic corruption of pre-1959 Cuba that the Cuban Revolution confronted and tried to correct.

Taxi. Taxi!

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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