Rumba, Conga, Communism

Neal Ascherson

‘Culture brings Freedom,’ José Marti once vaguely proclaimed. The attempt to make sense of this slogan during the Cuban revolution cost both these outstanding men – Franqui and Infante – their country. One of Fidel Castro’s closest comrades in the war against Batista, Carlos Franqui, came down with him from the Sierra as the bearded men took power; for the first five years after 1959 he was, more than any other single person, associated with the explosion of ‘revolutionary culture’ which amazed and moved Europe and the rebellious young of the Americas. He was the editor of the independent daily paper Revolucion, while Cabrera Infante, already famous as a journalist and novelist, ran the paper’s Monday cultural supplement, Lunes.

They were together in their beginnings, for Cabrera Infante’s parents, old Communists, had given a home to Franqui as a young man. They were together in their politics: a libertarian, sensual socialism remote from the austerities of Lenin, in which ‘the people’ would steer the course of the revolution and defend it as the source of their own freedom. And both, after glorious years, were cut down and driven into exile by the hard men of the revolution: the ‘palace guard’ of rigid Communists, policemen, power freaks and toadies which gathered around Castro. They came, with awful bitterness, to understand that Fidel, whom they had both loved, was not the prisoner of that guard but its leader and protector; the clowning, unpredictable original who seemed in his apparent spontaneity to embody all that the Cuban revolution was and that the Soviet state was not, turned out to have been on the side of the oppressors all along. Today Franqui lives in Italy and his friend Cabrera Infante in Britain, and Cuba – on the evidence of these books – is the poorer for their absence.

When Franqui returned to the city from the mountains, he shaved off his beard. Fidel was appalled. ‘You can’t do it ... It’s the symbol of the revolution. It doesn’t belong to you. It belongs to the revolution.’

‘Look, Fidel, the whiskers were mine, weren’t they?’

‘No. No. Nobody’s allowed to shave around here.’

Perhaps Fidel saw more clearly than Franqui what such independence would lead to. Outside, the males of Havana were frantically rubbing fertiliser into their chins; a ‘barbudo’ was a hero who travelled free on buses. The clean-shaven man who refused to pay his fare filled the bus with laughter when he told the conductor: ‘Secret Service.’

Revolucion was soon in conflict with the ‘pro-Soviet comandantes’, with the disciplinarian elements in the revolution’s leadership, with the police power which arose – as it had in Russia – out of the mass executions of the old regime’s torturers and agents. Franqui agreed to these executions, to his lasting remorse: ‘when you execute somebody in cold blood, you are learning how to kill ... out of our decision to save blood by killing only criminals, there arose a new repressive power that would be implacable.’ The more generous and radical wing of the revolution, whose voice was Franqui’s paper, drew its strength from roots soon to be dug up or severed: the 26 July Movement, the million-strong militia, the trade unions. At their congress in late 1959, in ‘the first and last free elections held under Fidel Castro’, the unions overwhelmingly rejected the Communist Party of Cuba and voted 15 to one for the 26 July Movement. Their independence did not survive long, but the group of intellectuals around Franqui fought on for years after it was clear that their cause was lost, and that the Cuban revolution was to take the form of a Sovietic party-state rather than a ‘leftist’ popular democracy. In part, they could carry on because of Fidel’s instinct for preserving his own independent image: if most of those around him howled for the closure of Revolucion and Lunes and the punishment of their ‘counter-revolutionary’ editors, then it was astute to deny them their prey. More important, the intellectuals were useful internationally. In proclaiming a new tropical culture of the masses, a revolution by rumba and street festival, they had seized the imagination of the world. Cuba, already under economic and political threat from the United States, needed friends.

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