Sunday, December 6, 2015

Reflections on a week in la Habana

I am on a rooftop balcony overlooking those massive steps of the Universdad de la Habana, those steps where Fidel walked, where the words of revolución found a home, where students organized to assassinate el president Fugencio Batista in 1957--some serious student activism that was. Those steps, as wide as they are tall, reaching up to a plateau of Greek columns and palm trees in the heart of the city, one of the few on earth, that exceeds all expectations with ease. We are talking Marx and global socialism while sucking down Bucanero beers far too fast (or not fast enough) for this humid Caribbean climate. The conversation waxes and wanes with the sounds coming from the street and soon, we are onto more pressing matters: the future of Cuba in the face of changing relations with the US--that great northern Caliban--for the first time in the 60 year history of this stubborn, juvenile blockade. It’s funny--this chip on the US shoulder, the one front of the Cold War where we lost so comprehensively, is also the closest to home. And Fidel has outlived them all: Kennedy, Nixon, Johnson, and Reagan--that mother fucker Reagan. We’ll see how all this plays out, but Castro might even beat Carter and Bush (if we’re lucky, both of the Bush's).
            We talk and drink even as a storm in the east harbor brews and begins moving towards us. No one is worried; rain in Cuba is warm and sweet. I remember the stories my grandfather used to tell about his childhood in Santa Clara. About those hot Cuban days and how he and his brothers would wait with all childhood impatience and longing for the afternoon rains. After the storms, they would lay on the concrete to cool their bodies as the sun made short work of the respite. I remember these stories sometimes as if they were my own. Those stories may be the greatest gift I have ever received.

            La Habana--just the name stokes imaginations and mystery (all well-deserved). It’s not the prettiest nor the most presentable city, but it is certainly the most Cuban and, in my humble opinion, who gives two shits about the rest. Parts of it remind me of other cities I know. Like Asuncion: it is ramshackle and crumbling under the weight of its own character, the colonial architecture (like colonialism itself) almost in need of public decay before yielding to something else, something different, and utterly unrecognizable to the West. Like Cape Town: preoccupied with the sea, oriented towards the ocean with possibility, the smell of salt mixing with petrol and life through narrow avenues and alleys. But really, Havana has no equal, not even good competition. Love it or hate it (though you’d be a fool), Cuba is Cuba and it is nothing else. There is no pretense. Murals and facades of revolutionary slogans with portraits of Che and Fidel and Martí take the place of the billboards that, in the rest of the world, remind us of how inadequate we are, of the things we lack, of how incomplete our lives must be. Propaganda, the imperialists would call the prior without seeing their disgusting contradiction--isn’t the latter as well?

            Internet has come to Cuba in a big way; this is perhaps the biggest change since my last visit to the island in 2012. Access is limited, however, and people crowd on street corners to catch the signals of intermittent hotspots. Like everything else in Cuba, getting online seems a communal activity.

After an afternoon on a beach east of Havana, bottle of rum in one hand, cigar in the other, and after some hours in the waves, trading notes with a hodgepodge group of socialists, Marxists, anarchists and intellectuals from literally all over the world, I find myself in the passenger seat of 1956 Chevy Bel Aire listening to Gangster’s Paradise with a smile on my face that feels like few I have ever known before. The ocean, at first shades of turquoise well-worn in the Caribbean, has now shifted--ever so subtly--into shades of pink that don’t grace any palate anywhere else in the world. It is a pink so soft and ripe that it exists only right here, in this place, and right now, in this exact moment. And the thought in my head: does Cuba have problems--ab-so-fucking-lutely. What society does not? But if you come here, if you educate yourself, if you are willing to set aside those preconceptions of what “the good life” is supposed to be (in the capitalist world), you cannot help but appreciate what Cuba has accomplished. If nothing else, it is an island that has sat here, just 90 miles from the territorial US, and given a big fucking middle finger to those goddamn imperialists that have tried, in vain, for 60 years to undo the Cuba that is Cuba.
            I do not laud any aspect of Cuba or its history from the position of an idealist. Far from it. As I have heard myself saying many times this week--we must apply the same critical lens to socialism that we apply to capitalism. Indeed, the question is not whether to critique or not, but whether we critique against socialism, or for socialism. And in that regard, I can say I critique for the sake of furthering the struggle of the oppressed. I also speak, not as a Cuban, but as someone who has studied and worked on this for many years, someone who has spoken to Cubans on both sides of the divide, and someone who has family on both sides as well. Opinions, even within my own family, are quite divided. And while I cannot speak to the experience of living in the Cuban state except through the stories I have gathered, I can offer perhaps a slightly different perspective:
            The first time I visited Cuba was 2012. My father and I had brought my grandfather back for his first visit in almost 60 years. This was in the middle of my Peace Corps service during which I was working as an agricultural extension agent in an incredibly poor and isolated community in Paraguay. My father and grandfather arrived in Cuba from the US. Each of us was astounded by Cuba in our own ways--my father and grandfather, seemingly more for the lack. The economic differences between the lifestyle of the American middle class was significant. But I was taken, not by the lack, but by the security of the socialist model. What I thought then is what I still think today: I would rather be a Cuban, even a poor Cuban, any day than a poor Paraguayan. Life may not be ideal in Cuba--a product of history, the embargo, and undoubtedly state failure--but it is far better across the board than for the majority of poor that suffer in almost any other country married to the model of neoliberal capitalism.
            Socialism is a project.
            Capitalism is the seeds of our own destruction, the worst externalities of which are conveniently exported to those already suffering under the yoke of capitalist progress.
           
I could be quite happy in this place, methinks.


-mario