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.

Franqui rushed about the globe recruiting friends for the new Cuba. In France, he was wildly successful. Sartre and de Beauvoir were only the most distinguished political tourists who accepted his invitation; they flung themselves into the Havana carnival and were rewarded by hearing the conga-dancing crowds chanting ‘Saltre, Simona!’ The frontiers between popular and high culture seemed to be withering away; Franqui’s own hope was that the revolution would return to the Cubans their ‘African’ heritage. The Revolucion people wanted to exalt blackness, to ‘break down the notion that the white, dominant culture was best, and to do so we exalted rumba, conga, carnival’. All this intoxicated foreign intellectuals, seeking socialism with a human face after the disasters of Budapest in 1956 and the exposure of Stalin’s crimes by Khrushchev. The Polish Road to Socialism, once so brilliant and promising, was looking muddy and dark after only three years. The Cubans, exploding under the nose of the United States in a revolution that seemed to promise all the liberties that the Soviet pattern denied, saved a dream.

But Franqui knew all too well that Castro was not a man for carnivals and culture. Fidel would chaff Franqui, sometimes affably, sometimes acidly, about his vision of a revolution of joy. Even in the Sierra Maestra, Fidel had grumbled at Franqui and Che Guevara for using the rebel radio to broadcast poetry to the masses, rather than military tales and exploits. In New York he distressed Franqui (and charmed Americans) by preferring to visit a zoo rather than an art gallery. Franqui wanted guests like Pablo Neruda in Cuba, but Fidel’s choice to sit at his table at the first New Year ball of the revolution was the old black boxer Joe Louis.

Fidel, so Franqui now accuses, wanted to impose on Cuba the punishments and deprivations he had undergone at his Jesuit school. ‘He hates culture, liberty and any kind of literary or scientific brilliance. All sensuality, of course, is anathema to him.’ He wanted power, which could not co-exist with the cultural liberation. ‘There are in art, literature and philosophy at least two things Fidel Castro cannot accept: all of them oblige the individual to think for himself, and all of them take the individual out of the present moment and insert him in a living and permanent tradition.’ This, of course, is saddened hindsight. At the time, Franqui could still lose all his doubts when Fidel shared a platform with great poets, speaking in ‘a liberating, truly American spirit. It was confirmed by the people in a flood of joy. It seemed ... as if the Americas, poetry and revolution all met in one theme: freedom.’

What part was played in Fidel’s attitude by whatever ‘machismo’ is? Franqui sees this as an occupational disease of both dictator and rebel. ‘Everything negative is feminine.’ Both rebel and dictator

despise homosexuality, as if every macho had his hidden gay side. The result was that the macho came to despise art, music and culture in general: these are perceived as feminine or (worse yet) homosexual. The macho idealises the country because the city, for him, is the scene of degeneration and homosexuality. ‘In the country, there are no homosexuals,’ Fidel would say to me.

Cabrera Infante has written here (LRB, 4 June 1981) about the persecution of gay writers in Cuba, about the camps for homosexuals that were not holiday camps. It’s worth noticing that both he and Franqui are city-dwellers and city-lovers, that their tolerance is very urban, and it was against just that sort of dangerous, it-takes-all-sorts liberalism that ‘Operation P’ was launched in 1961. An enormous police invasion descended on the ‘bohemian’ quarters of Havana, rounding up homosexuals, prostitutes, pimps, non-conformists, and anybody else the police wanted to hit for political reasons.

Franqui decided to fight. ‘It went too far. Cuban cruelty allows you to make fun of a homosexual, but not to imprison or harass him.’ He marched up to the palace, where he found Fidel, his brother Raul (a deadly enemy of Franqui’s), and a gang of security commanders including Ramiro Valdes and Isidoro Malmierca. Valdes was entertaining the Castro brothers with an account of the Czech homosexual-detection device which he had just imported. When Franqui protested, he was told that he was opposing ‘revolutionary morality’. Fidel explained, more deviously, that Operation P was an important ‘anticounter-revolutionary step’: prostitutes would be sent to camps and re-educated into new women, pimps would be prosecuted, homosexuals would merely be banned from all influence on art, culture and education.

How familiar all this is! Franqui, Cabrera Infante, the Revolucion group, were the Girondistes of the Cuban revolution – those who were to be posthumously dismissed by their triumphant rivals as ‘weak moderates’, bourgeois idealists, but whose conception of revolution in fact spread far more deeply and widely than that of the ‘radical’ Jacobins who succeeded them. The men and women of the Gironde understood not only the brotherhood and fraternité of Man but – since they included the first feminists to reach the levers of power – the sisterhood of the species as well. They wanted to destroy the whole social and political culture, and release (rather than construct) a new one, like the Russian artistic generation of the 1920s, or like the enlightened leaders who made the Algerian revolution with Ben Bella, or like the intellectuals who fought with Robert Mugabe and Joshua Nkomo for Zimbabwe. They make good company for the Revolucion people and the survivors of Cuba’s 26 July Movement. All were pushed aside or destroyed by the coming of the revolutionary police state, a restoration of the old coercive order with all its anal obsessions about surveillance, sexual conformity and obedience, but a restoration which has the effrontery to see itself as more radical, more ‘left’, than the leadership it replaces, imprisons and frequently murders. Stalin came, Boumédienne came, and in Zimbabwe last year the leadership disgraced itself with its own ‘Operation P’, as the police ran wild through Harare arresting as ‘prostitutes’ all the free-looking young women on the streets, many of whom had fought and become junior guerrilla leaders in the bush.

And Fidel, inevitably, was fascinated by the figure of Robespierre. He wrote from prison, back in 1954, that ‘with the revolution in danger, the frontiers surrounded by enemies, traitors with daggers poised to stab him in the back, vacillators gumming up the works, it was necessary to be hard, inflexible and severe. He had to sin on the side of excess ... A few months of terror were necessary to end a terror that had lasted centuries. Cuba needs many Robespierres.’

It got them. But Fidel himself was not a Robespierre, only a ruler whose curious, clowning style required a troupe of performing Robespierrots to support it. Nobody seems ever to have known what Fidel was really thinking, perhaps not even Fidel himself. It looks as if he was as unprepared as anyone else for the speed with which he acquired what Franqui calls caudillismo, the habit of autocracy; with liberated Cuba in a genuinely revolutionary mood, only the use of the security police and the tight, obedient cadres of the Cuban Communist Party could preserve his authority as unchallenged maximo lider. He kept up the appearance of the open, spontaneous, accessible liberator, the unpredictable night-owl wandering about among his people: but it was the industrious apparatus of the new police state that made this act possible. He was falling back on the ancient dictatorial trick, well tested on every continent, of tempting the discontented to believe that if Fidel (or Stalin, or Adolf, or Comrade Robert) knew what his lieutenants were doing, he would put a stop to it.

And occasionally he did so. Franqui’s portrait of Fidel Castro is less venomous than that offered by Cabrera Infante in his political writings; he appears here as a lost leader, who in spite of everything could usually warm the ashes of Franqui’s old loyalty if he tried. Such a moment of renewed hope came in 1962, when Franqui found Castro a ‘new man ... no longer surrounded by Communists’. But Fidel, it turned out, had not really changed: he had merely carried out a spectacular purge of his most odious henchmen – Malmierca, Escalante – in order to preserve his own absolute power. ‘Fidel created the monster so it would eat up other people, but when he saw it might eat him, he eliminated it.’

As one of the most senior figures of the revolution, Franqui is now a priceless historical witness of the two international crises which involved Cuba in the early Sixties: the invasion at Playa Giron (Bay of Pigs), and the missile crisis of October 1962. Here is Fidel sitting down to debate with the captured invaders on television and then, magnificently, ordering their release ... while off-camera his brother Raul and his police were arresting and in some cases shooting nearly a hundred thousand Cubans suspected of political deviance. Here, again, is Fidel visiting the Soviet base at the height of the missile crisis and suddenly – to the horror of his Russian hosts – punching the button of the rocket which brought down an American U-2 overhead. It is no thanks to Castro that only the pilot, and not half the population of the globe, paid for his action with a life. But it was at least an authentic show of fury at Cuba’s impotence, at a moment when Khrushchev and Kennedy were using the island as a mere counter. Castro only discovered that the Russians were pulling their missiles out because Franqui saw an American agency dispatch and telephoned him. ‘Son of a bitch! Bastard! Asshole!’ Fidel screamed. He had known nothing about it. Typically, he told Franqui to launch an anti-Russian campaign in Revolucion and then left him to face the fury of the Cuban Communist establishment on his own, without support. Franqui was never forgiven. He finally burned his boats in January 1964 at a palace reception when the simmering hatred between him and Raul Castro boiled over. He told Raul that he was no less a killer than Batista had been; Raul threatened to shoot him on the spot; Franqui tore open his shirt and invited him to start shooting. ‘Don’t think I didn’t see the comic side of all this histrionic bullshit,’ he observes. ‘But I was having fun.’ Afterwards he walked alone about the Havana streets as the dawn came up, and faced the truth of his own disillusion. ‘Everything was different, but nothing had changed. Only the power had changed hands. The people still had to work and obey.’

Cabrera Infante also sees the comic side of Cuban histrionic bullshit, and the fun he has is enormous. It is not so much his shirt as his trousers, however, that he tears open in this autobiographical novel, which is the story of a sexual growing-up in Havana before the revolution. From speculator to spectator to masturbator to copulator, Infante wildly and noisily fights his way up a sort of staircase overcrowded with knicker-dropping moppets, bulging lady neighbours, telephone wankers, bottom-pinchers, whores with clicking heels, movie-mad nymphettes with skinny arms, frayed old pederasts; over ankles and wrists, up black and brown calves and shoulders and breasts he struggles to reach at last the Great Sensorium of the Universe with the most beautiful girl at high school. Tropical sensuality? The uninhibited sexual initiations of a Latin slum? Nothing of the sort. The poor quarters of Havana where Cabrera Infante grew up put every kind of difficulty in the way of juvenile sex. There was nowhere to be alone; virginity was precious; whores probably had the pox; physical ignorance was remarkable. When the hero finally made it, he was a young man rather than a boy and found things unexpected and messy. ‘Dear, love is wet and doesn’t smell good,’ explained the most beautiful girl in high school.

Cabrera Infante is a fanatical punner. He puns in his political writing, at a tolerable level, but in this novel the passion for ‘scintillating wordplay’ soars aloft and spatters everything. It starts as fun, but is soon unfunny. It is illuminating at first, but to read every other word in 3-D soon produces a blinding headache. The punning gets much more intense, too, in the second part of the novel as Cabrera Infante treats us to three serious and tenderly recorded sexual affairs. The wordplay has a purpose – to heighten and simultaneously distance the reader’s response, through a grand shimmering of associations – but the author’s thumb gets jammed on the spraycan button and everything ends up clogged with glitter. And the punning, which as a mere feat is fiendishly acute and inventive, raises the question of exactly whose thumb this is, for the novel is a translation (in Spanish entitled La Habana para un Infante Defunto – ‘Havana for a Defunct Infant’) and the puns – naturally – and the constant alliteration are in English. The title page says ‘translated from the Spanish by Suzanne Jill Levine with the author’. In a world which never had as many writers in political exile as it does today, this sort of collaboration, which raises translation to a new level of creativity, is essential; several Czech novelists, for instance, now write only rough drafts in their own language and produce the final version in another language with the help of an intimate translator. Cuban literature owes Ms Levine some kind of prize, but she is unlikely to receive it in Havana.