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:

It is my duty ... to prevent, through the independence of Cuba, the USA from spreading over the West Indies and falling with added weight upon other lands of Our America. All I have done up to now and shall do hereafter is to that end ... I know the Monster, because I have lived in its lair – and my weapon is only the slingshot of David.

Martí was the founder of the Cuban nation, the framer of Cuban identity if anyone was, and this doesn’t sound like identification with the United States.

Goliath stepped in before David could level the sling. Americans may think that Cubans should be grateful, but Cubans believe they were close to winning the war against Spain when the US intervened, making them marginal in their own War of Independence, which turned into the Spanish-American War of 1898. Spain capitulated and the US occupied Cuba. Why didn’t they simply annex the island, as John Quincy Adams and many others had wished? The expansionism of Adams’s day had, by the time of Teddy Roosevelt, mutated into an imperialism that would rather not stoop to conquer if it could dominate by other means. Neo-colonialism is the word for it. In 1902 Cuba was allowed to become an independent republic. Well, not quite independent: the Cuban Constitution was forced to carry an amendment, known as the Platt Amendment after the American senator who introduced it, granting the US the right to intervention in Cuba whenever it saw fit. Within the decade, the US exercised that right and again occupied the island. Cubans loathed the Platt Amendment, but they learned to play politics with it, the politics of inviting US intervention or the threat of intervention when they were not happy with the way things were going in Cuba. The Cubans in Miami have for many years been playing Platt Amendment politics.

From the inception of the republic until Castro seized power in 1959 no one in Cuba had more sway than the American ambassador. What Pérez considers more important than political sway, however, more important even than the economic hold of American capital over the island, is the cultural influence of the US, with its promise of the progress and prosperity – the modernity – to which Cubans aspired. But isn’t that the usual offer neo-colonialism makes? Isn’t that, for example, what the Shah offered Iran when the CIA put him on the throne? And isn’t the image of modernity an illusion, a deception, a guise of exploitation? When Pérez maintains that Cuban identity was formed by the aspiration to progress and prosperity, by the identification with the modernity of the North, isn’t he just saying that the little island so close to the Monster was among the first to fall prey to the neo-colonial order increasingly gaining global ascendancy?

No one can dispute the fact that the impact of the US on the culture of Cuba has been very great. Pérez provides much useful documentation. Take baseball. Unlike nearby Mexico, Cuba gave up bullfighting and took up baseball as a national pastime: bullfighting was regarded as a sign of Spanish backwardness, even barbarism, and baseball as the cleaner, more civilised, more modern sport from the North. Or take the movies. In Cuba we got to see all the American movies, as Pérez says – though he fails to mention that we also got to see all the Mexican movies when that industry was flourishing, as well as plenty from France, Italy and many other countries. It wasn’t just Hollywood I was brought up on as a moviegoing child growing up in Havana; both American and European movies were subtitled, and neither seemed more foreign to me than the other. I don’t know how unusual I was in my international range, but movies from all over the world were there to be seen, and when Cuban cinema came to flourish after the revolution, the influences shaping it were more European than American. Pérez seems to be projecting back from the situation today, when, throughout the world, Hollywood movies have become more dominant than ever – as neo-colonialism has – to a time when movies from other countries gave them a run for their money.

What about the impact of Cuba on US culture? Pérez doesn’t care for Desi Arnaz and I Love Lucy; he is hard on Ricky Ricardo as a deprecatory stereotype of the Cuban. But he recognises that Afro-Cuban music, from the 1920s through the 1950s, the son, the rumba, the conga, the mambo, the cha-cha-chá, one rhythm after another, had a tremendous effect on American popular music and a remarkable hold on the American dance floor. Still, he complains that Cuban music in the US was an adulterated version: ‘Success in the north ... required Cuban complicity in North American constructions, to become what North Americans believed “Cuban” to be.’ What else did he expect? Transactions between one culture and another always entail a degree of give and take. There is a double standard at work here. Cuban culture in the US is seen as subservient; American culture in Cuba is seen as dominant In the relations between Cuba and the US, Cuba was indeed the subservient and the US the dominant party, but it wasn’t culture that did that. Culture is not the cause of dominance and subservience; if it were, Afro-Cuban music and Ricky Ricardo would have secured a chunk of the US mainland for Cuba. If culture by itself could establish dominance, Italy would be the dominant nation in the world, on grounds of pizza alone.

Lately Afro-Cuban music has made an extraordinary comeback. Everybody loves the Buena Vista Social Club. It is a neo-colonial production, launched by American enterprise (in the person of Ry Cooder) and globally a big success. That this old Cuban music played by old Cuban musicians is so good surely helps, but many good things do not achieve success. Why this one? ‘We feel heart-stopping nostalgia for something we did not realise we had been missing,’ wrote Alma Guillermoprieto. ‘It seems to be part of Cuba’s destiny to exist in the imagination of the world, to be, always, a dream and a desire.’ Listening to this music evokes a dream of Cuba for me and makes me nostalgic for the old country, but why should people everywhere feel nostalgia for the old Cuba? I think it is a longing for the old days when a place like Cuba had a special quality and flavour of its own – a longing for the local marketed globally. And even though Castro has nothing to do with this music – it is the music of Cuba before the revolution, and it did not prosper under it until Ry Cooder got there – I believe this nostalgia for the old and the local is bound up with the fact that Castro and the Cuban revolution have themselves grown old, are themselves survivors from the past and represent to the world, after the demise of the Soviet Union and of the Cuban alliance with the Communist bloc, an autonomous little country with a quality of its own that has withstood the pressures of the American empire. Goliath markets nostalgia for the days of David. The Buena Vista Social Club scores a cultural victory for David from which Goliath profits.

The sense of Cuba as a country with a quality of its own is missing from On Becoming Cuban. Pérez is an able and knowledgable historian, and he doesn’t need me to tell him that, strong as the American influence on Cuban identity has been, the African influence also has been strong. So, of course, has the Spanish. (Nor should the native Cuban Indians, though they had nothing like the civilisation of the Mayas or the Incas, be discounted.) There is also the question of place: the air one breathes, the terrain and the trees, the sea and the sun and the clouds, the way in which place informs the identity of a people. Maybe I am sentimental about the local, but it seems to me that Pérez’s conception of culture is too much of our global era: the culture of telecommunications and the multinationals, the culture that would as soon be there as here and belongs nowhere – which may be how things work these days, but not how anything specifically Cuban could have come into being.

The old history turned on politics, and the old Marxist model of history was founded on economics. But much current thinking puts the emphasis on culture. Often that emphasis means that primacy is given to culture over matters of politics and economics. Culture imposed from above – American culture in Cuba, for instance – is allied with political and economic power and must be considered in that nexus. Culture emerging from below, such as African culture in Cuba, may be a vital force but cannot by itself rise to political or economic power. In either case some confusion results when culture is given primacy. It is a commendable undertaking for the scholar to enter the cultural thick of things, the ideological mess of everyday life, rather than standing aloof and taking a larger view of ruling forces and underlying conditions. But the risk is that, rather than elucidating that ideological mess, the scholar will get sucked into it. At times in On Becoming Cuban Pérez writes like an analyst of neo-colonial culture, an observer looking into the potent ideological sway the US has had over Cuba, and at other times like one who has fallen under that sway, an exponent of that culture.

Who am I to talk? Haven’t I fallen under that sway myself? I went to Ruston Academy, a private school in Havana whose principal and many of whose teachers and students were American. My classmates called me ‘Gil’, pronounced the English way with a hard G. I was in the last class that graduated from Ruston. It didn’t surprise me that a school with such an American orientation (‘The Ruston Academy yearbook, Columns,’ Pérez writes, ‘depicted scenes that could have easily been from a high school in Muncie, Indiana’) failed to survive the revolution. But I didn’t know until I read On Becoming Cuban that Ruston and a few other schools received ‘generous if discreet funding’ from the US Government. ‘Ruston is forming in malleable, non-American minds,’ Pérez quotes a US official writing to the State Department in the early 1950s, ‘thought patterns that make for attitudes favourable to the United States.’

A latecomer to Ruston, I was less proficient in English than most of my classmates – I had to read the subtitles on American movies – and less acculturated to the manners of Muncie, Indiana. Once, in English class, we were assigned to write a composition on any subject we wished. In those days of early adolescence I was an avid reader of military history, and for my composition I wrote a military fantasy about Cuba invading Florida and gaining control of the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean. This was a naval and land war: my military history was way out of date. When the teacher handed back the papers he looked at me sternly and called me aside. I was taken into the principal’s office and asked if I meant this seriously or if it was a joke. Having evidently discussed the matter, the teacher and the principal were bringing me in for questioning. They were afraid I might seriously be proposing a Cuban invasion of the US. Knowing what was good for me, I answered that it was just a joke; I didn’t think I would try to explain that it was neither a serious plan nor exactly a joke but a fantasy. At a school subsidised by the American Government, as I now know, for inculcating ‘attitudes favourable to the United States’, I was planning an invasion. I was a teenage political suspect.

Although the teacher and the principal weren’t wrong in sensing hostility towards the US – it was the hostility of Cuban nationalism, which Castro has so effectively tapped into – my adolescent military fantasy shouldn’t be taken too seriously. After finishing at Ruston I went on to college in the US, which, as Pérez says, many Cubans have done since the 19th century, except that I left at the time of the revolution and I have not returned. When I left, I thought I was just going to college and would be back for the Christmas vacation; I was 17 and on the whole sympathetic to the revolution. But before I had finished college my parents, both liberals, were in the US. First my mother came, and then my father, and it really surprised me that my father came. He was an old leftist and he never much liked the US. I remember him saying that it is a country without a name, that ‘United States’ is not the name of a place but of a political arrangement, and ‘America’ is the name of the whole continent. My father must have felt disenchanted with the revolution he had supported, but I was in the North-East pursuing my studies and he was in the deep South having taken up a residency that would have enabled him to practise medicine in the US. Before I could have a long talk with him about Cuba, he died of a heart attack, at a younger age than I am now.

‘Todos están muy metalizados’ (‘They are all very money-oriented’) was my father’s sad-faced comment on his fellow Cuban doctors adapting to life in exile. More than most other immigrants, Cubans in the US have tended to prosper. Riches have been showered on little Elián as proof positive that the boy should stay. The American success of Cuban exiles, often explained by their class origin (Cuba had a large middle class, and a large part of it went into exile after the revolution), is attributed by Pérez to the American orientation of Cubans, the American cast of Cuban identity. There is no conflict between the two explanations – it was under American influence that a sizable middle class developed in Cuba – but that sizable American-influenced middle class was far from a majority of all Cubans, and Pérez’s characterisation of Cuban identity would seem to apply mainly to Cubans of the middle and upper classes, to apply better to Cuban exiles than to Cubans on the island. However that may be, Cubans in the US came from Cuba already versed in the values of capitalism and the consumer society.

Those values must have entered into my formation, but I did not see them as my values. The American that most influenced me as a teenager in Cuba, when my most serious activity was drawing caricatures for national publications like Zig Zag and Cartels, was a Romanian immigrant, Saul Steinberg, whose drawings I saw in the New Yorker and whose books I managed to obtain. Most of my father’s friends were artists and writers; my imagination gravitated toward that bohemian class as I think his did. That didn’t put me outside the middle class, but it gave me a certain distance from it that I brought to the life I was beginning to live in the United States. In the 1960s I never became exactly a hippie, but I was somewhere in that neighbourhood, and I felt identified with an intellectual class perhaps more European than American, yet American enough for my alienation as an exile to mesh in with the alienation of intellectuals in my adopted country.

You will have noticed that Pérez’s last name is the same as mine – it’s a very common name in Cuba. In Spanish the name has an accent on the first e, and you may also have noticed that I don’t keep that accent and he does, even though his ‘Pérez’ is flanked by ‘Louis’, not the Spanish ‘Luis’, and ‘Jr’, not Spanish at all. For a good many years in the US I used my full name, Gilberto Pérez Guillermo – the paired last names, my father’s followed by my mother’s, being the custom in Hispanic countries – but this meant that everybody called me by the last one unless I hyphenated the two. (It didn’t occur to me to join them, like Alma Guillermoprieto.) After a while this seemed unwieldy. I stopped using ‘Guillermo’ and dropped the accent on ‘Pérez’, giving licence to English speakers to put the accent on the second syllable, as they tend to. When in Rome, make it easy for Romans to say your name.

That was no doubt an assimilationist move on my part. The fashion nowadays is to frown on assimilationism and to insist that your name be pronounced correctly. I recall a public talk by an American leftist returning from Nicaragua who each and every time pronounced that country’s name in the Spanish manner with a punctiliously rolled r, which was her way of showing respect for the Nicaraguan people and solidarity with them – but what American returning from France would shift gears in mid-sentence to pronounce ‘France’ as the French do? The French can take care of themselves; we don’t need to show them respect and solidarity. The need to do that in the case of Nicaragua by pronouncing the name right bespeaks a certain condescension. Given the political and economic superiority that Americans enjoy over Nicaraguans, such condescension may be hard to avoid. My point is that pronunciation either way is no remedy for it, let alone for the sense of superiority that lurks behind it.

Although supposedly against assimilation, the current multiculturalism is merely proposing to alter the terms of assimilation so that I may keep my accent and my cultural identity and still be part of multicultural America. Keeping one’s accent is easy (all the more now that we have computers – in the old days of typewriters I had to pencil it in). But even the most accommodating terms will call for renegotiation of one’s cultural identity, as acculturation to multiculturalism becomes necessary. And what, in any case, is my cultural identity? If I believe Pérez, I was on the way to becoming American before I even thought of leaving for the US. But American how? American and European were two different things in my Cuban experience, but the two are lumped together in the current multiculturalism, which applies the term ‘Eurocentric’ to both and holds that Cuba is neither – and which regards me as suspect if I identify with either one. It is true that the US has in many ways made an identification with Europe and is in many ways the heir of European imperialism. But why should Cuba be denied the right to its identification with Europe, especially as this is a counter and a balance to its identification with the US? The identity I had put together for myself as an exile identified with other alienated intellectuals is shaken by the current identity politics, which makes me feel more alienated still by calling on me to identify myself with something else that feels like an abstraction. Identity politics is a kind of nostalgia for the local, but without the grounding in the local that the Buena Vista Social Club has.

Louis Pérez’s history contains an implicit polemic. He has it that Cubans in the 1950s opposed the dictatorship of Batista because it was an embarrassment to them, a step backward in their would-be progressive country, a disappointment of their identification with North American modernity and democracy. The revolution that overthrew Batista and brought Castro to power came about, according to Pérez, because of Cuban identification with the US. How this identification would have led to the cry Cuba sí, yanquis no! he does not explain. He has a slant, but he has a point, and the point is that Cubans supported Castro’s revolution for the same reason that they have fled from it to Miami. The implicit polemic of On Becoming Cuban is a plea for reconciliation – between Cubans on both sides of the Florida Straits and reconciliation between Cuba and the US. Cuba sí, yanquis no! isn’t a cry one often hears in Castro’s Cuba in these days of the período especial, the special period since the fall of the Soviet Union when Cuba has been on its own for the first time in its history. Rather, one hears the view that the Cuban revolution took the wrong course when it allied itself with Soviet Communism; that the Cubans never liked the Russians; that they like the Americans better. But the Cuban revolution went wrong when it took the course of tyranny. The responsibility for that lies with Castro himself, not with the Russians whose assistance he sought. Had the US lifted the embargo at the time of the Soviet collapse, it seems likely that Castro’s own collapse would have followed. But the embargo lingers on, and so does he.

Elián González has indeed worked wonders. He has got Castro and the US Government to agree. He has got American conservatives to deplore what they have always applauded, the use of force by the police. He has got American liberals to display what they have always deplored in conservatives, animosity toward immigrants, or what can only be called racist attitudes towards the Miami Cubans, telling them, in effect, to go back where they came from if they don’t like their Uncle Sam. If Elián has done all these things, maybe he can also bring about the reconciliation that Louis Pérez hopes for.