So Close to the Monster

Gilberto Perez

  • On Becoming Cuban: Identity, Nationality and Culture by Louis Pérez Jr.
    North Carolina, 579 pp, £31.95, October 1999, ISBN 0 8078 2487 9

When I was a child in my native Havana, I thought that every capital city had a Capitolio that looked like the Capitol in Washington. Cubans were proud of their Capitolio: an aerial view of Havana with the building at the centre appeared on the cover of the civics book my mother wrote. Eventually I found out that our Capitolio was a copy of the one in Washington and I started to feel ashamed of the look-alike. Couldn’t we Cubans do any better?

Of course, there is a long tradition of architectural imitation. The US Capitol was itself an imitation of European models and was in turn imitated – especially after the Civil War, when its remodelled big dome emerged as a symbol of the Union – by more than a few state capitols from California to Wisconsin, Utah to Mississippi. The very name ‘Capitol’, together with the Capitol Hill on which the building stands is an invocation of ancient Rome, the Capitolium and the Capitoline, the highest of the seven hills and the centre of the city that was once the centre of the world. Why shouldn’t Havana invoke Washington as Washington invokes Rome?

As in France after the Revolution, the identification of the US with ancient Rome was avowedly republican, but it also had to do with empire. France’s empire soon came and went, but America’s has only grown over the years, and Washington’s allusions to Rome look positively imperial today. As it happened, the Havana Capitolio was built during the Government of Gerardo Machado (1925-33), the first Cuban dictator, who after a term as elected President of the republic kept himself in office by force, with the support of the United States. Like Mussolini, whom he admired, Machado went in for public works, the grander the better, and the Capitol look-alike was part of that. It was an invocation of American democracy and at the same time a blunt assertion of power – just as its American model is both republican and imperial. That the Cuban Capitolio followed this model was not just a matter of show for Machado: he was hardly a democrat, but his power was truly an expression of American power. Cuba’s Capitol look-alike, then, is not an expression of a republic empowered by the memory of another but of a nation stooping under the power of its looming next-door neighbour. It may be appropriate for the state capitols of California or Mississippi to defer to the shape of the US Capitol, but Cuba is not a state of the Union. On the cover of my mother’s civics book, the Cuban Capitolio represented an ideal of democracy modelled on the American version. But that ideal came up against the fact of Cuban subservience, which the Capitolio may also be seen to represent. That is the source of my shame.

Politics always has a symbolic dimension. The case of the shipwrecked boy Elián González has been turned from a family matter into a political issue. For those who want to keep him in the US and those who want him returned to Cuba, Elián is a political symbol. For some Cubans on both sides, the boy is invested with supernatural significance, a figure of miracle and magic in a familiar mix of Catholicism and African religions, which amounts to the same thing. Even those of us who deplore that Elián has been turned into a symbol must recognise that anything we say or do will be seen in those terms.

The Capitolio is a more appropriate political symbol than a little boy. Fidel Castro wants Elián back, but he has had the Capitolio there in Havana with him all along. It is no longer the chamber of the Cuban Congress because there is no Cuban Congress. It just sits there as a symbol. It is no use to Castro, either as a symbol of democracy or as a symbol of deference to the US. But it remains a symbol of power. Like its model in Washington, symbolically invoking the power of ancient Rome, it, too, has the ability to invoke power. Maybe that is why, after all these years and all the changes that have come to pass, Castro has kept his hold on Cuba.

The Capitol look-alike should have been on the cover of On Becoming Cuban by the historian Louis Pérez Jr. It is the thesis of this book that Cuban identity rests on identification with the United States. For Pérez, becoming Cuban means becoming like an American (he prefers to say ‘North American’, though in Cuban usage an American from the US is less often a norteamericano than a plain americano, as in the revolutionary song that goes: ‘Fidel, Fidel, ¿qué tiene Fidel?/Que los americanos no pueden conél’ – ‘Fidel, Fidel, what has Fidel got?/That the Americans have no power over him’). Pérez traces this process back to the 19th century, when Cuba was still a Spanish colony. Cuba had become the leading sugar producer and the richest colony in the world, richer and more advanced than the metropole itself and in many ways more oriented towards the US. There were Cubans who sought to join the Union (‘It is scarcely possible to resist the conviction that the annexation of Cuba to our federal Republic will be indispensable to the continuance and integrity of the Union itself,’ John Quincy Adams wrote when he was Secretary of State, at the time of the Monroe Doctrine, and even those who didn’t want to be part of the US but wanted independence from Spain looked to American democracy for a better system of government and often went into exile in the North. Cuban exiles in North America aren’t a recent phenomenon: in the late 19th century Cubans were as prominent in cities such as Tampa and Key West as they are in Miami now.

Among the exiles of that time was the most renowned Cuban patriot, a figure revered by Cubans of all persuasions, the writer and revolutionary José Martí (1853-95). In some ways Martí bears out the thesis of Pérez’s book. In others, he belies it. During his years in the US, agitating for the cause of Cuban independence, Martí made his living as a journalist, ‘covering every great event, electoral, cultural, economic; South American readers learnt for the first time through him the reality of North American life,’ according to Hugh Thomas in his history of Cuba. ‘Martí despised the cult of wealth in the US; he distrusted the alliances between politicians and bankers ... he found the Presidential elections nauseating ... but always he regarded the US as an astonishing experiment and adventure in democracy.’ On the day of his death in battle, at the very start of the Cuban War of Independence he had done so much to bring about, Martí wrote to a friend:

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