Josu Imaz with two members of ETA (Basque National Liberation Movement) with refugee status in Cuba.
1. THE CUBAN STRANGEVOLUTION
Mother died today. Or, maybe, yesterday; I can’t be sure. The telegram from the Home says: YOUR MOTHER PASSED AWAY. FUNERAL TOMORROW. DEEP SYMPATHY. Which leaves the matter doubtful.
As in the beginning of Albert Camus’s novel The Stranger, Mother Revolution may have died today. Or yesterday. The tweets from the Homeland —the last disconnected spot in the hemisphere— are misleading. No funerals for Fidel, despite the successive unsuccessful farewells on-line. Abroad, deep sympathy for socialism all over the US academy and surprisingly also from its supposed archenemy, the State Department. Within, reforms emerge as the new style of repression: the Realpolitik of Raúlpolitik. Soldiers turned into salesmen. Spies into diplomats. Which leaves doubtful the matter of Marxism after the handshake of markets, with the US Chamber of Commerce approaching our Central Committee, for the sake of avoiding chaos in Cuba and converting another Communism into Consumerism.
A hyper-nationalist environment is opening up 25 years too late to the global economy. This process implies an overdose of estrangement. Strangers are reaching out before Cuba changes to commonplace capitalism. Cubans themselves are learning fast profitable practices, copy-and-paste from abroad, driven by the numismatist osmosis from exile to insile. The figure of the foreigner is no longer —as in the 20th-century Cuba— a taboo imposed by the totalitarian State, much less the dramaturgic dilemma repeated from poetry to playwrights and from short-stories to cinema screen —with Strawberry and Chocolate as the transgender example par excellence. After dealing with more than 3 million tourists in 2014 alone, the open code of our closed society is now obvious: wealth and welfare are imported effects in Cuba and do not depend on any endemic effort.
The Sugar Curtain, with its ideological filter of loyalty to the Leader, its secret alliances with dictatorships both from left and right, and the export of violence to every continent as a way to divert subversion out of the Island, is crumbling in Cuba; yet the Castro elite in power keeps total control of a self-transition not to democracy but to dictocracy. A second generation of Castros is knocking at the foreign door of the Oval Office. And their olive green guerrilla uniforms, in an act of transvestism, fit into luxury guayaberas and civil suits cut by the tailors of our post-totalitarian State capitalism.
We, the others, are now approaching you, the other others, in a close encounter of the Cuban kind. The alternative model that used to play the victim —first during the Cold War and then in this unipolar world— is about to join the classic canon of capitals and cops, without quitting the revolutionary —technically, retrovolutionary— rhetorics. Decades of autocratic Asian experience, and billions in geopolitical loans, legitimizes our Caribbean experiment.
In consequence, in our popular vocabulary the feared term “foreigner” has mutated into the much more noble “amici” —the plural which welcomes singular citizens from the First Europe—, the colloquial “pepe” —who generously share even our mother tongue, preferably from Spain and Argentine—, the efficient “fula” —a reduction of the visitor to the color of his hard currency—, the astounding “faste” —which in Cuba is the flying metaphor of “fasten your seat belts” before takeoff, and the unique “yuma” —to avoid any derogative reminiscence of the Yankee imperialists.
All these etymological delicacies of our vocubalary are just the first step of a neighboring procedure that doesn’t take foreigners for granted. On the contrary, Cuba is expected to cubanize them right on the spot. And such a hyper-politeness is the secret shortcut to foreignizing ourselves. We are really committed to this conversion from claustrophobic comrades to cosmopolitan colleagues. The New Man of Ernesto Guevara is the New Manager: “Ché” is overpronounced in Cuba today as “check”.
The relief from the scarcities of Castroism points now to JetBlue, MasterCard, Netflix, Airbnb, Amazon, AT&T, US agricultural corporations, Google apps and other external et ceteras. True life is elsewhere, as poet Arthur Rimbaud put it. Given the current circumstances, the POW Rambo —himself a byproduct of the Cold War as well— is reference enough to start our journey back to the future. And, more prone to McDonalds than what Americans are ever willing to accept —as we recognize each other, we will realize how unknown we have been— at least we do agree that fundamental freedoms are to be excluded from this formula of fidelity. The rationale is that, if we Cubans have already waited for over half a century to fully exercise our rights, now we must wait a little longer. Until history freezes over. Till democracy do us part.
2. THE CUBAN DECALOGUE OF THE PERFECT FOREIGNER
The Cuban XXth century ended on Wednesday July 13th, 1989, with the bullets that killed a National Hero —general Arnaldo Ochoa— and a hitman —Tony de la Guardia. Both knew more about the crimes of the Revolution than Fidel himself, and thus they were sentenced to death by him in person. However, the Cuban XXIst century did not start until 25 years of Wednesdays later, on December 17th, 2014, with the simultaneous speeches of president Barack Obama and dictator Raul Castro, each announcing that all the revolutionary riffraff had been just a daydream.
Sovereignty in Castro’s Cuba has always been dependent on the notion of a foreign foe, in a sort of inverted annexationism that legitimates all governmental impunity: “in a besieged plaza, dissent is treason”, it’s the Jesuit quote that —Jesuit-educated himself— Fidel ordered to be painted on the front of dissidents’ houses, like Oswaldo Payá’s, the founding leader of the Christian Liberation Movement, until he was extrajudicially killed in July 2012 and the banner was immediately erased after 15 years in place.
Sovereignty on the Island is also sequestered by the legal imposition of a foreign friend. The first Cuban Constitution after 1959 consecrated in its Article 12 that the Republic was based on “its relations with the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and other socialist countries in the socialist internationalism”. A redundant line from 1976 that in 1992 had to be similarly erased, after the end of the Soviet empire and the Eastern European satellites behind the Iron Curtain.
How do Cubans love thee, foreigner? Let me count the ways:
1. The foreigner as a goldmine. All transactions lead to abroad. Besides being considered “idoneous” by the authorities, any investment on the Island implies the condition of otherness. This applies to bureaucrats with relatives residing elsewhere, as well as to social activists of the Cuban alternative civil society. Despite their complaints and accusations of “mercenaries” against critical citizens who lead independent projects, the State ministers are not only the main beneficiaries of the solidarity of NGOs worldwide, but they also grab as secretly as possible the donations from other governments, private magnates, and terrorist regimes.
2. The foreigner as a boarding gate, a springboard to leave Cuba behind. Every visitor is in risk of being used and then discarded as a human raft —a last boat for salvation— as a migratory catalyst or a catapult out of the catacombs of communism to consumerism. We favor freedom of movement, but our people-to-people exchange tends to be one-way. Cubans seem to be making room for over 3 million tourists a year, plus waves of artists, athletes and academics from “that absurd First World” —as Fidel used to describe it— who arrive in a rapture of fascination to document the esthetics and to edulcorate the ethics of our architectonical and anthropological ruins. Cuban hospitality wouldn’t let our guests suffer being crammed in a bus or a barbacoa, so we hitch to their passports, even if later this means breaking a contract or a heart. We dare not sign an on-line petition, but we have web access enough almost to graduate as MFAs in virtual love, typing typos that are taken for tenderness in this genital stampede: a DNA diplomacy that is diminishing the Cuban population within our shores, but it’s both inspiring and inseminating from Sarah Montiel to Madonna, from Camilo Sesto to Luis Miguel.
3. The foreigner as the fast and furious heroes of Fidel. The Cuban people prefer to ignore the details of this horror collection, since knowledge is the ultimate evidence of culpability for our ubiquitous secret police. Yet, the Island has been a safe haven for the spiritual appeasement of a gallery of international ex-convicts and fugitives charged with embezzlement, money laundering, bank robbery, drug trafficking, airplane hijacking, bombing, cop-killing, with violence and justice for all the liberation movements from the Basque Country to Puerto Rico, from the Tupamaros to the Black Liberation Army. Several of these now peaceful warriors and their otherwise innocent families ended up denouncing their treatment by a disenchanted Castro as hostages of the proletarian paradise —that is to say, as common Cubans. Some died of a timely terminal disease —like the American fraudster Robert Vesco. Others committed suicide —including the strange cases of one daughter and the sister of Salvador Allende. Others —as the official propaganda claims— are still the “anonymous heroes and friends” of our underground uncivil archives: in a Revolution rescued by foreigners to foreigners and for the foreigners.
4. The foreigner as the defenestrated. There is the insistent investor who, generation after generation during the Castrozoic Era, trusts and thrusts his money in the black hole of a Revolution in bankruptcy or in bankcorrupt. They seem to search for no benefits at all, according to their own statements on national TV. They seek the development of our people, with the surplus value of a handshake with the Commander in Chief (before it’s too late). Their incomes are almost about humanitarian numismatics, although they are not allowed to pay their own workers directly: the money can go only to the monopolistic State. Until one day their illusion insurance expires. Then some manage to escape —like Chilean Marxist mafia entrepreneur Max Marambio, although his partner Roberto Baudrand died of a heart attack after hours of tortured interrogation by the State Security. Then some accept that it’s never too late to pay a ransom to be kicked out of business without indemnification —like Canadian transportation tycoon Cy Tokmakjian. Yet some are accused of espionage after years of revamping the Cuban economy —like British architect Stephen Purvis. Many externalize their pain by writing a best-seller out of their adverse Castro adventure —like Michel Villand, the expelled owner of the fine pastry chain Pain de Paris. One —Sebastián Martínez Ferraté— was invited to invest in Cuba only to then be captured at Havana airport, and thus punished for a documentary he directed a few years before on prostitution and corruption by students, teachers and the police. Still others still remain there on the Lost Island, foreignly forgotten behind the bars of La Condesa special prison for foreigners. David Pathe, CEO of Sherritt International from Toronto, the biggest foreign investor in Cuba, which has been mining nickel for two decades, summarizes it better than any Cubanologist: “It’s not about commercial outcomes; it’s about who can they trust”.
5. The foreigner as the fool. Poet Allen Ginsberg in the 60s shrieking for sex with Ché Guevara, scandalizing the good revolutionary macho savages, who would get rid of him in the next airplane. Anthropologist Oscar Lewis in the 70s with his raw research confiscated as a CIA plan to impoverish the Cuban way of life under Fidel, plus the bonus track of a sudden death once released to the US. Commander William Morgan —the Americano— condemned by treason to die in front of a friendly firing squad. It’s a long list of foreigners that crosses centuries until reaching the risible of the Spaniard actor Willy Toledo pretending to survive in Cuba with his savings in euros. An ephemeral performance exploited in the media by Patrick Symmes from Harper’s Magazine, when he chronicled his ethno-tourism of being a fake Cuban for a month with just the 15 dollars of our minimum wage. This ridicule could only be surpassed by the USAID contractor Alan Gross, incarcerated 5 years as an internet martyr on the Island, only to be swapped for The Five Castro’s professional spies in the US —and a federal sample in advance of one spy’s faithful sperm.
6. The foreigner as a clown. Specifically, as Clownan O’Brian. Last March 4th he launched his Cuban comedy by TBS. He landed in Havana loaded with make-up, ready for incomprehensible gags in the face of his spontaneous Cuban partners. Laughter has the advantage of being always half way between criticism and complicity. He is the funny US ambassador who will precede the real ones. Behind cameras, his crew paid here and there to obtain filming permits and interviews. He doesn’t learn a thing about Cuba, but at least he exposes himself as the nerd that never asks where is or who was Fidel, since his TBS contract depends on that eloquent silence. Memories of undermemories. As an archeologist in a tropical theme park, his show is a time machine, from an out-of-date despotic iconography in a flash-forward to the Havana downtown that would be, where no Americans will rush to travel as they do now. He proudly shows off the prodigy of a tablet, like a forbidden fruit Made in Apple. He could easily buy the long island of Habananhattan in exchange for a couple of miracle mirrors like this. As fossil aborigines of the last Siouxcialist tribe, we adore his performance in our clowntry with a dose of distrust. It had to be a black kid in the background who reveals a truth that escapes the hermeneutics of subtitles: “Give me that, mister, so we can watch you later at home.” While Big Conan Chief brags, Little Barbarian Indian is begging, but both smile for the selfie. Simultaneously. Like Young President and Old Dictator in the parallel windows of all computers —except in Cuba— last December 17th. No further questions, your Horror.
7. The foreigner as the estranged reporter of Cuban reality. Cuban narratives always fed on such an imported impulse, especially today when the Maximum Narrator is already on mute. We listen and read those foreigners as discoverers of our self. Cuba is better thought from abroad. The Cuban race issue was to be raised only in The New York Times, as later the US embargo was to be first lifted in its pages. The best interviews and documentaries of Fidel Castro have a copyright Made in USA, including two exclusive interviews forPlayboy, a magazine that no Cuban can read in Cuba without being accused of being a pornographer. Friendship with any foreigner always had to wait for Fidel to delimit the good guys from the bad ones beyond our waterfront. In a paternalistic State, citizens learn to behave like children never mature enough to interact with a foreigner and resist such a close encounter of the corruptive kind. As pleasure is displaced by duty, responsibility is disciplined into hypocrisy.
8. The foreigner as the ex-self. The circling Cubans who go away but at the end return. Cuban-Americans and Cuban-Europeans are foreigners by default, despite their mandatory passports and entry permits, but the new successful Cuban Cubans from the Island are also perceived as such. Migratory nationals are treated especially like endangered species: they become predators of privileges. And even the local language used to talk to these first-class Cubans is caricatured, as if the round-trip had made them unable to fully understand their own tongue. In the streets of Havana my Canon digital camera was sufficient cause to provoke the transubstantiation of terms, the syntax metamorphosis. They call me “amici”, “yuma”, “pepe”, “fula”, “faste” and overall, “white”. Even if we shared the same skin pigmentation, by calling me “blanco” they explicitly recognized themselves as non-whites. If I dared to let them know that I was as Cuban as they were, they immediately insisted: “yes, man, but you’re Cuban where from?” This xenophillia protects them from their own failure of movement and it’s very risky to contradict. Only once I confessed that I had never traveled beyond the Malecón. My interlocutor felt humiliated by my difference and replied with his most virulent Cuban argot and gesticulation. In Cuba, to look like a source of sustainability without being one is a crime against Cubanity. We Cubans from Cuba must resemble Cubans from Cuba. Revolution is essentially about revolving around the same.
9. The foreigner as Fidel. Unaware of what’s been going on during 18 months of secret diplomacy, he now incarnates not the unknown but the unknowable. No last-minute biography by Jon Lee Anderson will be able to redeem Fidel. No obituary note already requested from Anthony de Palma byThe New York Times or El Nuevo Granma will bring Fidel closer to the Cubans to come. As Fidel will not leave a decent corpse for his mausoleum, his ashes will be spread throughout Cuban geography —including Miami— maybe as a malefice to abort any deviation of his legacy of loss. Fidel has forced more Cubans into a state of foreignness forever than all the rest of Cuban statesmen combined. In part, because a country of foreigners is much more governable than a country with its sovereignty restored to individuals. In part, to fulfill the prediction of the Independence Apostle José Martí that “Cuba reunites us on foreign soil”.
10. As in Camus’s Strangervolution, Mother Homeland might not deserve anymore the look that used to link us to her.
“We put the lid on, but I was told to unscrew it when you came, so that you could see her.”
While he was going up to the coffin I told him not to trouble.
“Eh? What’s that?” he exclaimed. “You don’t want me to …?”
“No,” I said.
He put back the screwdriver in his pocket and stared at me. I realized then that I shouldn’t have said, “No,” and it made me rather embarrassed. After eying me for some moments he asked:
“Why not?” But he didn’t sound reproachful; he simply wanted to know.
“Well, really I couldn’t say,” I answered.
He began twiddling his white mustache; then, without looking at me, said gently:
Note: Original in English
27 May 2015