sábado, 4 de mayo de 2019


Travelers to Utopia:
The Cuban Revolution as a literary genre

Dear colleagues (or should I say, dear comrades), I have some good news to share from the beginning: “despite dramatically hard times, quality of life in Cuba continues to improve.”

What´s more, “in the United States, for the majority of the population quality of life declines.” So, “now, more than ever, we should be interested in why the Cuban Revolution prioritizes as it does, and how its priorities are put into practice” (6).

The speaker is the author of To Change the World, the chronicle of the years in Cuba of American academic and activist Margaret Randall, published much later, in 2009 [1]. In her Prologue, Randall, who once gave up her American citizenship only to request it back two decades afterwards (because “at any rate, it was a terrible mistake” [2]), recollects how Cuba became her life project, when “Fidel Castro came to New York in the summer of 1960,” and she literally “sang as I cooked,” “carefully, lovingly,” a “platter of Spanish paella” for the revolutionary leader (1).

Unfortunately for the young Randall, her first political paella never reached the Maximum Leader of the newborn Cuban Revolution, and she confesses that “my body still remembers its disappointment as I headed back downtown with the platter untouched, its metallic covering soiled and torn, its content beginning to sour” (2).

Certainly, a good ending scene, perhaps for an American romantic novel about nostalgia for the slave South: a kind of Come with the Revolution. Although this early anecdote was to be only the first chapter of quite a new literary genre in the case of Cuba post-January 1st 1959: the travel of the convinced or the converse or both, from decadent Western democracies to the ultimate Utopia on Earth.

Technically, Utopia on the Island, as originally conceived by Thomas More [3], whose island, much in the same fashion, “was no island at first, but a part of the continent,” until it was conquered, and then immediately cut off by decree from the mainland, by digging a “fifteen miles long” “channel” (not 90 miles, at that time it sufficed with 15), in order to bring “the rude and uncivilised inhabitants” of the Island “into such a good government, and to that measure of politeness, that they now far excel all the rest of mankind”. And, yes, although the “neighbours” abroad “at first laughed at the folly of the undertaking”, “no sooner” they “saw it brought to perfection than they were struck with admiration and terror” (62, 63).

A genre, if a genre, determined by its indetermination in the crossfire of theory and tyranny, passion and pamphlet, rhetoric and recruitment, idyll and ideology. Most of the time with no little touch of biblical inspiration and belligerent instinct.

Margaret Randall´s narrative about infatuation and frustration with Fidel―an intellectual trend later reminiscent from the fashion phenomenon discussed by Susan Sontag in Fascinating Fascism [4]―can be read now as the founding metaphor for the avalanche of travelers to a little big Island called Cuba, qué linda es Cuba: the home of the Brave New Man―according to Ernesto Ché Guevara´s 1965 emblematic essay, later known as Socialism and Man in Cuba [5]―and the land of the First Free Territory in the Americas―as the official propaganda established.

A Revolution often self-referred as dictatorship of the proletariat in the Cold War context, and, more recently, as single-party democracy, which, despite that “billions have been spent trying to destroy it,” according to Margaret Randall, “yet it remains, if not as we once knew it, still independent and vibrant” (2).

In one of his four conferences included in the 1993 book The Conscience of Worms and the Cowardice of Lions [6], the political scientist Irving Louis Horowitz considers that the Cuban Revolution elicited in American intellectuality an “initial phase”, “from 1959 to 1962”, “characterized by euphoria, a fatuous set of assumptions that Cuba would be the long-lost opportunity for socialism to show its invincible superiority to capitalism” (17).

In a “second phase, from 1963 to 1968”, for Horowitz “it became apparent that, for American intellectuals, every ailment Castro inflicted on his people was to be view through United States intransigence”, so that “chastising the United States” was “carried to a high art” with “the themes of ´historic guilt´ and the attendant policy recommendations based on reparations and self-destruction” (18, 19).

And, finally, “the third phase in the parade of academic support for Castro and his regime was characterized more by a wave of pseudo-toughness than criticism,” where the very existence of the Revolution was reason enough to praise, with “near-religious fervor,” Cuba´s resistance not only as social experiment, but also as “an act of moral purification and rectitude” (20).

In this respect, Horowitz´s conclusion is that “it never seems to dawn on these intellectuals and journalists that, were they not residing in free countries”, “their dialogues with dictators” “never would have commenced or would have ended tragically in their imprisonment, exile, or worse” (23). For him, “a totalitarian ideology driven by myopia can endure long after all evidence is collected and evaluated” (30), given the tendency of intellectuals to “get drunk on their own rhetoric and make ludicrous remarks” (21), plus “the sin of pride,” “the hubris of self-righteousness,” and that “instinct for self-delusion, or perhaps simple reputational preservation” (31) of their “eternal search for paradise” (32).

“Political pilgrims,” described those travelers to Utopia the sociologist Paul Hollander, [7] who considered that to study their testimonies “tended to reveal more about their observers than about the countries observed” (vii).

For this author, “a significant portion of Western intellectuals, and especially the more famous and influential among them, displayed at one time or another, signs of political estrangement from their society, in combination with hopeful, affirming attitudes toward certain putatively or genuinely revolutionary societies:” they constitute “an important and vocal minority which, in large measure, set the tones of the times and shaped the established forms of social criticism” (ix), with “a puzzling juxtaposition of insight and blindness, sensitivity and indifference” (3) through “metaphors of romantic lover and religious pilgrim,” “propelled by faith and hope” on their “visits to the holy places,” from “Lenin´s or Mao´s tomb” to “the walls of the Kremlin,” and, in the case of our hemisphere, from “the setting of a sugar-cane harvest in Cuba” or “a model prison” and “a new factory” to “a folk dance festival” or “a school for reformed prostitutes” (38).

According to Hollander, “the Cuban Revolution was ´a fresh new cause´ which appeared quite different from the state socialist bureaucracies of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union” (225). On the Island, “there seemed to be a greater continuity with the heroic revolutionary days symbolized by the presence of Castro” (230), reason enough for the “suspension of critical sentiment” as well as for the “uncritical endorsement” of a social system sold as an angelic alternative to corrupt capitalism (232).

Beyond common complicity with the caudillo, other travelers may have written in good faith, because, for Hollander, on the Island it was “perceived a radiant sense of community which characterized the relationship of leaders and the led, as well as that of ordinary citizens with one another”, so that the Revolution “in the early 60s was the counterpoint to alienation, social isolation, depersonalization, and other ills of mass society” (244).

There was also “the belief that the Cuban regime was congenial to intellectuals”, and, as such, the young revolutionary leaders were in practice taken for “fellow intellectuals” (262) who, consequently, were to give “ample official recognition” to “the position of intellectuals in Cuban society” (263), so that “at last the painful dichotomy between thought and action was dissolved” (264). Fidel Castro thus became an interlocutor totem for intellectuals worldwide. To criticize his Revolution could mean stigmatization as reactionary in the cultural field. To comply with it, particularly with him, could open sooner than later the doors of the Nobel Prize.

More than dissolved, this dichotomy of thought versus action was being solved, thanks to the materialist miracle of love. In fact, the American writer and critic Waldo Frank wrote in his book Cuba: Prophetic Island [8] from 1961, that the only “positive good” that can transcend hate and “overcome evil” (159) was no other than love, since “love has been the strength of Castro and his company” (160). In a way, Frank was anticipating the sentence of Ernesto Ché Guevara in his already mentioned 1965 essay: “at the risk of seeming ridiculous, let me say that the true revolutionary is guided by great feelings of love.”

But Waldo Frank goes further in his Cuban prophecies and he dares to make a number of suggestions to the Cuban authorities, about how not to lose such a treasure in the daily contingencies of the “war against Cuba” declared, doubtless, by the U.S. Department of State.

Among other recommendations, many of which would sound parodical today, Frank mentions that “Castro should be humble enough to plan elections for the future when the state of self-defensive war is lifted.” There is also his request that “Cuba should subvene a dissenting press” to “advertise its sense of the difference between sedition (the enemy it must put down) and dissenting discourse (which might aid it in self-knowledge)” (160). And even the proposal that Castro´s government should publish a “prospective Bill of Rights making clear Cuba´s intention to guarantee, as soon as feasible, minority opinion, a free press and free elections” (161).

Waldo Frank was not being parodical at all―maybe a little pathetical, granted―and much less behaving like a provocative Trojan horse from abroad. He was friendly lecturing the Revolution that the real “Cuba´s adversary is the Communists´ and businessmen´s shallow sense of man,” and that, consequently, “Cuba´s ally is the religious tradition of the American people―even if they sin against Cuba” (161).

In any case, in his Prelude, Frank defines that “Cuba as a nation was being born:” that is, “what was happening in Cuba since the July 26 Movement of 1953 was not rebirth, not political and economic revolution, but birth” (13). And then he compares Fidel Castro speaking in the Assembly General of the United Nations with George Washington during “the freezing and starving at Valley Forge” in one side, and in the other with Simón Bolívar “flinging his armies across the ice peaks of the Andes” (14). A family portrait of Castro with a bucolic beard that, “he must know, harks back to the romantic early nineteenth century of Spain”, since it is a beard that “would not fit the pin-striped American businessman, or the equally compulsive Communist engineer of revolution, or the expert technician who is so sure of a new world built exclusively by science.” In fact, in his Revolution Gospel “the beard reveals in Castro and in his movement something of the epoch of romantic revolutions: a utopian spirit, but with painstaking, precise methods, that the utopians never dreamed of” (15).

So precise methods, if I may add here, that even today Cubans endure a Constitution designed to limit citizen´s rights, instead of limiting government´s rule. So painstaking a methodology that Cuba is still in 2018 a socialist country where even socialist and socialist-like political organizations are out of law, like the rest of the political spectrum of the Cuban people, both on the Island and in Exile.

A few months before Waldo Frank´s book, the American sociologist Charles Wright Mills had published Listen, Yankee [9], a book that he declares “reflects the moods as well as the contents of discussion and interviews with rebel soldiers and intellectuals, officials, journalists and professors in Cuba during August, 1960” (7).

Again, most sectors of the population except the victims of the ongoing violent social process. For this author, like for many foreigners, the real battle taking place was not the civil conflict who was destroying the Cuban social tissue, but the international struggle against imperialism and neocolonialism, where America was to blame first and to the very end: from the U.S. embargo who in principle pushed Castro into the influence of the Soviet Union, to the sonic attacks recently carried out in Havana against U.S. diplomats (which some international press has painted as mass hysteria―quoting experts―while others somehow justify the aggression because the diplomats were involved in spying).

Wright Mills, acknowledging that he writes to explain “the Cuban revolutionary, as clearly and as emphatically as I can”, not aspiring to “The Whole Truth About Cuba, nor ´an objective appraisal of the Cuban revolution´” (8), he concludes that Cubans´ “reasons are not only theirs: they are the reasons of all the hungry world” (9). And he claims that his mission as foreign correspondent is much needed, given that the Cuban people, “due what they rightly consider sad experiences, have come to feel that North American journalists will not recognize, or will distort, the truth, even when they see it before them” (10), thus perhaps repositioning the Cuban Revolution in the fake news debate nowadays.

In his book Listen, Yankee, Wright Mills in each chapter uses a narrator in first person, both singular and plural. This is a writing conceived to be understood by Yankees, by means of impersonating―more than translating―the Cuban “I” and “We”. The author recreates what decades later the Venezuelan writer Carlos Rangel [10] would describe as “Latin-America society´s psychological need to compensate” for “the traumatic experience” of the past (64). That is, “the ambition that secretly or openly thrives in the heart of every Latin American: to find revenge for the multiple, tangible humiliations his people have met with, individually or collectively, from the Yankees, and for the great, all-embracing humiliation inherent in comparing North American success with Latin-American failure” (54, 55).

Some of the lines of Listen, Yankee are premonitory to the point of parody, a similar effect to the Prophetic Island of Waldo Frank:

“We Cubans know that you believe we are all led by a bunch of Communists, that the Russians are soon going to set up a rocket base, or something like that, here in Cuba, aimed at you; that we have killed thousands of people―out of hand―and are still doing it; that we have no democracy or freedom; and that we have no respect for private property” (13).

“But the fact is, there are only a few counterrevolutionaries in Cuba, and they certainly are impotent to gather any elements around them,” since “one basis for the counterrevolution today” is not the previous “corrupt government” but the “capitalist world of rackets” (59) that by then was being massively nationalized. Besides, “anticommunism, as we´ve said, is the theme song of counterrevolutionaries,” willing to “spread confusion and worry in Cuba” (61), where, by the way, “it doesn´t mean anything to be anticlerical. Their children are neither Catholic nor anti-Catholic. It just doesn´t matter to them. It´s irrelevant. They are for Cuba, and so they are for the revolution. They did not come to that by becoming radical, much less anti-Catholic. They just grew up in that state of revolutionary grace”.

And, last but not least, since “that´s something Yankees are making up,” “as far as our religion is concerned, we Cubans know it´s of no importance in the counterrevolution” (62, 63). In fact, “we Cuban revolutionary don´t worry much about counterrevolution inside Cuba”. For, “as we see it: the only possibly effective counterrevolutionary force is the United States of America. We´re not afraid of this, we´re not afraid of anything, but we do know that we have to prepare well to meet it. When we shout ´My country or my death!´ we mean just that―and we are shouting it to your Yankee government and corporations because that´s the real counterrevolutionary force against us” (64).

Listen, Yankee, one the first pamphlets to inaugurate this sort of Revolution for dummies series―saturated with Twitter-like sentences like “the Revolution in Cuba is a moment of political truth” (115), just when the Cuban political class and public sphere were being dismantled―could be now interpreted as an intellectual gesture that proves the opposite of its intention to inaugurate a new independence for Cuba. The book of Wright Milles does interfere with a pervasive type of intervention: by Americanizing or at least re-Americanizing each single variable of the Cuban equation.

The rational of blame-it-on-America-first, also made American intellectuals part of the sequestering of Cuban People´s sovereignty by the Cuban State, which in turn had to defend it for the ages―paternalistically, despotically―in the face of the United States. The Cuban Revolution was no longer a historic accident but a legitimate counterpart in a David-versus-Goliath narrative exploited to its last consequences. There was to be Cuban Revolution as long as its deadliest enemy existed: the U.S. Department of State, which, curiously enough, the 1957-1959 U.S. ambassador in Cuba Earl T. Smith, in his book The Fourth Floor [11], hadn´t done much to prevent the communist takeover in Cuba, because once Fulgencio Batista´s dictatorship relied on criminal violence to stay in power, the military takeover vanished and was sanctified by the populist aura of a Revolution.

No wonder that Wright Smith, to prove that “our Fidel Castro´s no Communist, and never has been,” quotes that “even the Deputy Director of your Central Intelligence Agency―General C. P. Cabell―knows that; he said it on 5 November 1959 to your Senate Internal Security Subcommittee. He said that the Communists in Cuba don´t consider Fidel a Communist ´or even a pro-Communist´. And that they ´were unable to gain public recognition of commitments from him during the course of the revolution´” (103, 104).

As Listen, Yankee approaches its end―just like this preliminary notes―Wright Mills becomes more and more emphatic: “Hands off Cuba! That, in three words, is what we want above all else from you. Is that too much to ask?” “What you must do, we think, is to act politically inside your own country to insure that your Government will not use violence, directly or indirectly, in any form, against the Cuban Revolution.” “So: get your Government to leave us alone” (163).

And alone indeed, decade after decade, Cubans were left under the impunity so intrinsically characteristic of every Utopia on Earth. As time went by, the testimonies of intellectuals repressed on the Island, recorded for a documentary film produced by exiled Cubans, couldn´t have chosen a better title: Nobody Listened.

The consequence of an attractive narrative, based on the exceptionality of the Cuban Revolution as an alternative to the American way of life, not only made even more invisible those sectors already made invisible, but it also repudiated the prestige of their political pain. As it seemed impossible to detect a single Cuban desaparecido―victims were more like aparecidos, apparitions―the Cuban dictatorship was itself the one that disappeared in turn, under the conspicuous costumes of the Revolution.

From a political paella in Manhattan to the shooting squads´ paredón as State policy applauded by mobs in Havana, there is certainly a long way, but the shortcuts are also worth of being subject to scrutiny. Even after the collapse of international Communism in 1989; even after the policy of the Naïve Neighbor of Barack Obama´s presidency, when the rhetoric of Yankee, Go Home for a second sounded in the Revolution Square like Yankee, Come Home―meaning, Yankee Cash, Home; it is important to problematize and challenge these cycles of reverse annexationism, with its rational that the United States have to change its Cuba policy in Washington D.C., in order for Cuba´s policy not to change on the Island.   

Nearly six decades later, in his homonymous volume Listen, Yankee! [12]―now adding a triumphant exclamation mark to the title―American activist and author Tom Hayden hurried to celebrate the end of Wright Mill´s thesis that Hayden summarizes like this: “the US leaders´ historic failure to listen to the voices of the original Cuban revolutionaries was at the heart of a tragic misunderstanding.” For Haydn, after the reestablishment of diplomatic relationships between the United States and Cuba in December 2014, “it may be that Barack Obama is the first Yankee president to listen” (xxiii).

Yet, after the almost simultaneous election of President Donald Trump in November 2016 and the hopefully unrelated death of Fidel Castro―which Trump announced in his Twitter account with another exclamation mark―the case of over two dozens of U.S. citizens irreversibly hurt by the sonic attacks in Havana, is a sad-but-true signal that, in the criminal choreography of good David against bad Goliath, Cuba, according to their own conveniences for the survival of the system, can tackle the capacity of Yankees not only to listen, but to hear as such.

[1] Randall, Margaret. To Change the World. My Years in Cuba. New Brunswick, New Jersey, London: Rutgers University Press, 2009.
[2] Quinn, Sally. Margaret Randall in Exile, Trapped by Her Ideology. In: The Washington Post. 23 March 1977. https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/lifestyle/1977/03/23/margaret-randall-in-exile-trapped-by-her-ideology/cda8df5c-107e-4b1a-9f5f-20b2209aa7b0/
[3] More, Thomas. Utopia. Planet PDF. http://history-world.org/Utopia_T.pdf
[4] Sontag, Susan. Fascinating Fascism. In: Under the Sign of Saturn. Nueva York: Vintage Books, 1981. 73-105.
[5] Guevara, Ernesto. El socialismo y el hombre en Cuba. En: Revista Marcha. Montevideo, Uruguay. 12 Marzo 1965.
[6] Horowitz, Irving Louis. The Conscience of Worms and the Cowardice of Lions. New Brunswick, London: Transaction Publishers, 1993.
[7] Hollander, Paul. Political Pilgrims. Travels of Western Intellectuals to the Soviet Union, China, and Cuba, 1928-1978. New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981.
[8] Frank, Waldo. Cuba: Prophetic Island. New York: Marzani and Munzell, 1961.
[9] Right Mills, C. Listen, Yankee. The Revolution in Cuba. New York, Toronto, London: 1960.
[10] Rangel, Carlos. The Latin Americans. Their Love-Hate Relationship with the United States. New Brunswick, London: Transaction Publishers, 1987.
[11] Smith, Earl E. T. El cuatro piso. (Traducción de Eduardo Escalona.) Miami: La Moderna Poesía, 1983. https://www.scribd.com/document/354559973/El-Cuarto-Piso-Earl-E-T-Smith
[12] Hayden, Tom. Listen, Yankee! Why Cuba Matters. New York: Seven Stories Press, 2015.

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