Ever since 1956, when Fidel Castro left Veracruz for Santiago de Cuba like a conquistador in reverse, Mexican-Cuban relations have been a sensitive area. Cynical Mexicans might take the view that their government’s attitude is, or rather was, a matter of ‘I’ll support your revolution – and appear to take a stand against the US – if you don’t export it over here.’ At one stage in the early Nineties, therefore, there were dozens of Cuban artists in Mexico, enjoying the Velvet Exile. They could come and go from Cuba, eat their fill, lose money and innocence at capitalist roulette; but they still had to watch what they said. This began to seem like the worst of both worlds, and before long they all leapt off the Mexican trampoline into the great beyond. Until August this year, when Castro threw the frontiers open, it was a painfully irrevocable choice.
Cubans coming to Mexico for the first time were strange beings, highly educated Rip van Winkles who could wield a mean analytical proposition but were stumped by a corkscrew or a CD. Indifferent to the new culture in which they’d landed, they doused the threshold with rum for the santo and talked compulsively about home. Ah, the recipe for floorcloth steaks ... the breast-like cupolas of the Art Institute, in whose grounds the sculptors were chopping down the last trees ... the fine-tuning of the map of power cuts, so that only minutes of a soap opera need be missed in frantic pedalling through an impossibly black urban night! Most of these artists had fallen foul of the regime by turning its very gifts against it: sophistication, arrogant expectation. Fidel had not been amused. Shows were censored, and heads rolled at the Ministry of Culture. The restive Eighties had collapsed along with the Soviet Union. How did they see their father-figure now? In the words of one artist who still can’t bear to leave: ‘He did well by us, but now he’s like an old lady in the attic. He’s failed but he won’t give up. For us it’s over; the Revolution’s a piece of kitsch.’
Guillermo Cabrera Infante uses the term as well, but for him it’s the ‘kitsch of death’, and his obsession with Cuba’s Castro is a lot less ambiguous. Mea Cuba is a compilation of articles written since 1968, three years after Cabrera Infante deserted the island where he had come up against the same contradictions as today’s young artists. Now the master punster, author of the splendid Three Trapped Tigers, reappears as the scourge of the mendacious or gullible Castro-lovers who, in his view, dominate the free world.
It is of course necessary to dispel the crasser myths and the wishful thinking surrounding the Cuban project, and to denounce the closure of minds, the growth of centralised and capricious authoritarianism, and the paranoid process whereby former heroes and comrades first become suspect, then get demoted, eventually jailed and in some cases eliminated. The best account of this process is still Victor Serge’s novel, The Tulayev Affair, about the Moscow trials. More recently Carlos Franqui, Cabrera’s former boss at Lunes de Revolución, told his own story in Family Portrait with Fidel. But for all its essential rectifications, Mea Cuba is so overstated, so patently inflamed by spite and thwarted ambition, that it forfeits its place in the rational, non-polarised debate about Cuba that is needed at this time.
Cabrera Infante proposes a rather different Fidel from the stubborn old tyrant and rotten economist that many exasperated islanders describe. This is ‘a man of infinite cunning and deceit, a beastly power-hungry egomaniac who is the bearded white double of Amin’. Such comic-strip language is a debasement of the noble tradition of Cuban hyperbole, and its thrust is aborted by Cabrera’s belief that all humanity resembles Fidel: ‘Man is avaricious, vain, and lusting for power, always, everywhere,’ he cries, adding proudly: ‘This is of course heresy for both Communists and Christians.’ But since for the writer geography is more important than the ‘fiction’ of history – an argument repeated elsewhere to justify the Monroe Doctrine – Castro is no ordinary human or even Communist menace; for islands, Cabrera believes, have an ‘almost irresistible’ tendency to dominate the nearest continent (and he is not referring to the miami-cubano influence over US foreign policy). Fidel’s crimes are not those of any ordinary Christian: ‘Castro moved Christmas to 26 July and instead of the New Year, he changed 1 January into the celebration of his accession to power. After such injury, what forgiveness?’
Cabrera refuses to criticise any aspect of a West in crisis, and he dismisses brutal rightwing dictatorships as merely ‘inept’ – his word for Videla’s Argentina. Batista’s Cuba, of course, enjoyed a flourishing economy in which racism was non-existent. (Is Cabrera unaware that the mulatto President himself was debarred from the Country Club?) But the last thing one wishes at this point is to be drawn into the futile game of motes and beams. It must be possible, especially since the end of the Cold War, to acknowledge the vices of one system without fawning on the other. Otherwise Cuba’s predicament will continue to be simultaneously under and over-estimated, on ideological grounds that are simply not useful. Overlooking the accumulation of minor untruths, such as that there is no more son music in Cuba, I shall restrict myself to one example of the omissions that threaten to disqualify Cabrera’s valid points about pseudo-revolutionary repression.
He makes much, quite rightly, of the hundreds who may have died trying to float to Miami on inner tubes. He takes for granted, however, the exclusive jump-the-queue asylum granted to Cuban escapees by the US in 1966. Until this shadowy law was dropped on 19 August, and Cubans abruptly found themselves treated like Haitians, they were exhorted daily by US radio stations to paddle over to an automatic hero’s welcome – one they could only get by risking their lives, since the embargo prevented most normal visits or business transactions, and the US was only meeting 8 per cent of its legal visa commitments. This cynical policy is no less to blame for the deaths than economic hardship and political constraints at home. Cabrera also ignores the thousands of Mexicans and Central Americans who every year face the threat of box-car suffocation, drowning, or shooting by the Cuban-friendly US Border Patrol. Theirs is a similar Third World exodus – from want, and often persecution, to the advertised land of freedom and plenty – but Cabrera has no qualms about the economic or political victims of structural adjustment.
The title Mea Cuba is only the first and most complex of a feast, or indigestion, of puns: Mea culpa (the only sign of this is in the prologue: guilt at having got out so easily), ‘My Cuba’ (the exile’s prerogative) and from the Spanish mear: to piss, ‘Piss Cuba’ (echoes of Carlos Fuentes’s literary nickname for his own city, Make-Sick-O). Exercising his freedom of speech through indiscriminate word-play, Cabrera follows the glitter of sound-alikes: ‘using a subterfuge as refuge’, ‘from ecstasy to the Stasi’. He’ll indulge a pun just because it’s there. ‘Ginsberg was ... sent packing to Prague, where he could find himself a Czech mate.’ No nuanced use is made of the terminal implications of this phrase; it was simply too sonorous, it seems, to ignore. Pity the poor translator who strove, apparently with the author’s help, to find equivalents for the jocularities on every line. The result is less than fluid, with surprising mistranslations, and I kept having to turn to the Spanish to make sense of it. The articles originally in English stand up best. There are some good jokes (‘Castroenteritis’, ‘Birth of a Notion’), feeble and repetitious jokes (Karl = Groucho), and jokes that resist exegesis to the last. I looked up this bit in the Mexican edition, only to find that it had been specially added for the British reader: ‘After many a moon José Hernández ... killed himself by bullfighting with a bus on Línea Street. The bullbus was actually a mad cow.’ Here is a clearer sample of Cabrera’s clever convolutions, an exuberant tropicultural miscegenation that’s like a literary version of the Christs, Che Guevaras and Mickey Mouses that cohabit in Cuban interiors:
Camus was an essayist who wanted to be taken for a philosopher, a novelist who passed as a grave thinker (Dostoevsky who sinks in his Seine), and a playwright for whom all his dialogues were turned into an exchange of French phrases, a league of notions that are no more than bons mots, as felicitous or as facile as the epigrams of Oscar Wilde – a playwright who was always blamed for his coups de théâtre, Camus offers instead fatalist coups de philosophe that will never abolish Wilde.
Thanks to shifting official attitudes in Mexico, and to its sponsorship by Octavio Paz’s Vuelta group, the book went down mildly here (though the launch was enlivened by a bomb threat). A couple of ad hom reviews from Castroist functionaries and faithfuls were offset by faint praise from leftists such as Carlos Monsiváis. As for the British media, Cabrera regards them as Castro agents (except for the Telegraph, one of whose employees so gratified him with his telephone manner: ‘Hallo, Shakespeare here’.) It’s a pity that, among other changes, the English edition omits the Sunday Telegraph piece about the British Left being ‘with few exceptions’ heirs to the sinister and smelly-breathed Sydney Webb, and urges the future Second Cuban Republic to take the BBC to court. There is something undeniably fascinating about Manichaean ranting; Mea Cuba also offers some vicious gossip about Alejo Carpentier in his last years, and a readable piece on that fine but little-known writer Calvert Casey.
Cabrera does praise Reinaldo Arenas, ‘the chronicler of a country ruled not by the already impotent Fidel Castro, but by sex’. He has to, because Arenas was also a rabid anti-Castrist, with an unhappy life on one margin after another, which neatly illustrates a pet theory of Cabrera’s that the only good Cubans are, and always have been, in some form of exile, and the only Cuban ideology is that of suicide. He relays a very good story about Arenas receiving a rubber boat through the diplomatic bag, which then bursts in sharkinfested seas. ‘I could never find out how a peasant boy from the sticks became such an excellent swimmer in high water.’
Arenas’s extraordinary deathbed memoirs begin with an introduction called ‘The End’. On a reprieve from Aids, Arenas decides to become the subject of his destiny at last by killing himself. ‘I really cannot say that I want to die; yet I believe that when the alternative is suffering and pain without hope, death is a thousand times better. Besides, some months ago when I entered a public rest room I became painfully aware that my presence failed to arouse the old expectant feeling of complicity.’ This is the man who claimed to go through a batallion of recruits before breakfast, in a polysexual Cuba that made a mockery of the chastely virile image of the New Man. By the Nineties, of course, every one of the revolution’s prescriptions had been inverted: Cubans complacently admit that the post-utopia is one of selfishness, materialism and dishonesty, and religion has returned under the auspices of tippling saints who reward guile before virtue. Long before this, however, they were having a great deal of gay sex, that anathema of macho societies which is built into most of them. Arenas is enlightening on this point. It is not sex with another man that makes you gay; it’s a matter of who does what. As a loca, or desirer of manly men, Arenas had a good time in Cuba despite brushes with those who, still tumescent, wanted to kill him for being a faggot. Once in the US, he felt frustrated: ‘Everybody does everything. One sucks first, and then they reverse roles. How can that bring any satisfaction?’
A peasant, a ‘queer’ as he proudly insists, a writer first in a dictatorship that controls writers, then in a consumer society that undervalues them: Arenas had it all, and his independent spirit would have doomed him anywhere. He tries to kill himself at several points in the story, with something of the same passionate nonchalance with which he lunged at a body or at the joy of living. His career as pet of the regime was short, and when he started publishing abroad, he came under a suspicion that landed him not, like Cabrera Infante, a diplomatic post in Europe, but in jail. In all the protracted barbarity of this experience, he clung to sexual abstinence as a symbol of dignity. At last, though not under torture in the formal sense, he signed the usual recantation and emerged into half-life among a prankish, desperate underground of informers and fugitives, the anarchic underside of the police state. To distract a prostitute friend from the collapse of her breasts, he took a machete to her wall, only to discover a forgotten convent on the other side. The loot from ‘Blanca’s Hole’ kept people going for months, and enabled Arenas to ‘complete my small living-room with 18th-century furniture’.
But it was a limbo of the mind and the senses, an impossibly demeaning existence. After several dramatic attempts at escape came the 1980 Mariel boatlift. Since Castro was using it to ship out a maximum of ordinary gays and delinquents, Arenas denounced himself at a local police station where his name was unknown. He passed the Queer Walking Test, evaded the State Security net on the beach, nearly drowned – and was out.
‘Now I was in a plastic world, lacking all mystery, where loneliness was often much more invasive ... I knew I could not live in Miami.’ Such uncongeniality was not just the price of freedom, but the essence of a fresh homelessness. ‘After ten years, I have realised that an exile has no place anywhere, because the place where we started to dream ... is always the world of our dreams. In exile one is nothing but a ghost.’ On top of this, Arenas found himself dropped by those who should have supported him, and repudiated as an embarrassment by the liberal intelligentsia. The Left’s retreat to academia and cultural life, leaving the world of effective politics to the Right, spelt isolation for one who was both anti-Castrist and an artist, as unwilling to be manipulated in exile as he had been at home.
On the blindness of the Left, Arenas and Cabrera Infante speak with one voice, however different the inflection. Their message to Cuba’s supporters is wildly unqualified, but cannot be dismissed. In a recent art photograph by Arturo Cuenca, ‘Dreaming Left – Living New York’, Barbra Streisand lowers her lashes as Fidel smoothly removes her coat from behind. Many Cubans regard the popularity of the regime with a certain cultural milieu, not as an alliance for justice and Third World autonomy in defiance of the imperialist establishment, but as an obsequious copulation: international cachet for him, radical chic for her.
Arenas was intermittently happy in New York, where he arrived in the same year as Aids. He never wrote anything good in exile except his autobiography and never went back to the land where in his first memory, aged two, he bent down and licked the earth. He campaigned strongly against Castro until his death, yet I doubt he would have subscribed to the savage flippancy with which a Miami radio show is offering $400,000 for Castro’s head in good condition. Last year, Benetton reportedly offered Castro a job should he need one. Had the 30,000 people who left the island this year chosen fight not flight, either scenario could be a reality today (and Benetton might be out of pocket). Unlikely as it may seem from these two books, most islanders are not motivated to rebel. There are complex reasons for this, from the inertia of a stifling system to the enduring individualism of a nation of drugged capitalists; not forgetting that paternalism breeds infantilism, as Lenin knew. Their alternative father, the US, has now betrayed them also, by closing its ports and stopping the vital flow of remittances. It may take the lifting of the embargo, which unites Cubans with Fidel against the enemy without, to remove the dictator’s social base. We know from China that capitalism can be implanted without political reform. As a market economics course starts up in Havana University and business with other countries flourishes, the old devil is certainly not planning suicide.