Like all island nations, Cuba is a hybrid of so many things that have drifted upon its shores, crashed upon its reefs, or found shady refuge among its fertile, verdant land. Despite the greed and Godly paranoia that rationalized Spanish genocide against its original inhabitants, the country seems steeped in an indigenous shroud of patience and stoicism, with dialects as old as the Mogotes. Cultures never completely disappear no matter how total the conquest or long and layered the history.
My verse is light green
And it is flaming red
My verse is a wounded stag
Who seeks refuge on the mountain
But everything from the coffee and rum to tobacco and livestock—even the horses—are mixed breeds combining the Spanish and French and British and American influences with the DNA of indigenous souls and native soil. In the countryside—which dominates the island—time still follows the flow of nature like the underground streams carrying fish and human flotsam under the always changing yet never changing stalactites. If one can breathe slowly enough and not blink—you miss nothing and everything. Such is the inherent contradiction of Cuba’s history, present, and future.
Of course, the western gaze is set on Havana where the modernity of commerce and trade, moneyed desperation and retail communication dominates the landscape and the imagination. The combustible color and mechanical optimism of Bel Airs and Buicks, Ford Fairlanes, Pontiacs and Olds crowd the streets and line the beaches. Everyone seems to be selling something if only a taxi ride to somewhere else where everyone is selling something. From wifi cards to coconut milk, from Fidel caps to the sounds of street bands’ unrequited calls to the girls of Marti (Guantanamo) and Jobim (Ipanema), business wafts through the air only to be weighed down by poverty and diesel, then lifted again by an inarticulate breath of beauty, a breezy, dogged whisper of revolution, a passing glance at darkened glory.
Tall and tan and young and lovely, the girl from Ipanema goes walking….
The obsession with commerce may seem at first anathema to a place where “la revolucion!” is more than a faded slogan on a crumbling façade (although it is that, too). But my friend, former SNCC organizer and life-long “movement” activist, Bob Zellner, once told me that the best revolutionaries are part radical activists and part hucksters. If this is true, then the hustle and bustle of business activity and creative markets may not simply be the “selling out” of Communism’s sometimes dreamy, sometimes dreary promises. The lived reality of exploitation and resistance, of colonialism and revolution, of an island nation’s fierce pride and inevitable need for global emergence and embrace, suggests nothing is simple, pure or an utter anything.
The crash of cultures can be seen on each street corner and kiosk, each cathedral plaza and cobblestone path. One glimpse Spanish, the next French. The wrought-iron balconies of New Orleans’ French Quarter and the clay shingles and ornate ceilings of Moorish Grenada, all anchor the urban landscape. Hybrids upon hybrids upon hybrids of world cultures that followed the trade routes of African slaves, of European sailors, settlers, and profiteers, and all the blood and torture these travels entailed. The upscale tourism and grand, antique architecture of Plaza Rieja and the still lingering stench of colonialism and servitude at the Hotel Nacional could be anywhere in the world where Europeans found ways to exploit and export the best raw materials while leaving behind beautiful, destination getaways. The revolutionary spirit still germinating in the spider-cracked stucco walls and potholes along the wave-drenched Malecon may seem like the crumpled pages of hastily written odes to freedom. But just as the conquests of the powerful are never complete, neither does the afterbirth of liberation promise everlasting life.
I grow a white rose
In July just as in January
For the honest friend
Who gives me his open hand
Surprisingly the food is not hot and spicy as the cuisine of so many island cultures tend to be. But the heaviness of the yucca and the rice, the tostones and maduros speak both of the richness of the earth and the poverty of its people. The food is thick, textured and saucy, yet mild and lasts forever. Ironically, some of the farmers around the island who grow delicious, organic legumes complain that Cubans “don’t eat vegetables,” and sell most of their goods to upscale hotels and restaurants. This is, of course, not totally true as all Cubans buy some vegetables and fruits, especially on market days. But complaints have always provided a bulwark for the fatalistic dignity and democratic displeasures of any people. The daily grind of freedom requires almost equal parts curmudgeonly hyperbole and quiet joy.
And when she passes, each one she passes goes aaaahhhhh…
Despite years of post-revolution Cuban Émigré and Cold War criticisms, democratic dialogue is alive and well in the daily discontents vented by taxi drivers and bartenders, beer drinkers and trinket sellers. Nobody speaks cryptically of leaders in fear of being disappeared. Like most Americans, the biggest complaint seems to be about taxes—they are too high. But in a country where government provides free, quality health care and education, basic housing and food rations, etc. Cubans do NOT harbor toxic, knee-jerk hatred for the idea of taxes and the government that collects and distributes—they just want to build on the basic infrastructure their socialist society gives them to provide better food, better shelter, better “things” for themselves and their families. These commodities are not abstract to them, but neither are they couched in some absurd, individualistic myth about rugged, burly guys held back from “winning” by social responsibility and public constraints. They resent corruption and inequality, but they don’t envy American wealth and power. Ironically, while the embargo hoped to punish revolutionaries by hindering their ability to provide for their people, the people continued to recognize that most of their hardships came from the arrogance and oppression of the embargo’s architects—not their own leaders.
In the words of local intellectuals and officials, activists and scholars, the space between theory and practice appears razor thin by necessity if not by instinct. Like the narrow alleyways that separate perfectly renovated, colonial era mansions from the crumbling, detritus of the former mansion next door, current national economic and social policies glimmer with magnificent, if momentary, success followed by prolonged, stubborn flops. Economists and legislators try to navigate the post-Soviet and post-Venezuelan period that now promises a Trumpian ignorance and nastiness. Cuban leaders’ compromises with commerce and trade, innovation and markets, suggest that, just like everything else in Cuba, hybridity and fortitude will be the nature of all things Cuban
For an American left, and maybe socialists of all stripes, Cuba will remain a living testament to both political will and unrealized possibilities, revolutionary triumph and post-revolutionary realities. But never a place of failure. The people born of an island that has seen so much and persisted in spite of colonialism and capitalism, slavery and genocide, conquerors and corporations, has too much to offer. They defeated dictatorship and tyranny. They advanced literacy and education, health care and housing, all in the face of hostile embargos and military threat.
With the poor people of the earth
I want to cast my lot
The brook of the mountains
Gives me more pleasure than the sea
But for the casual visitor seeking radical secrets, it’s better to just watch and embrace the richness of Cuban’s everyday dignity, pride, survival, warmth and beauty among myriad hardships. From there the more complicated images and visions of everyday struggle and radical imagination provide a place where policies and systems might still recognize those persistent realities and encourage their transcendence all at the same time. In a land of infinite cultural compotes and contradictions, if one can breathe slowly enough and not blink, everything is possible, and we can do anything but fail.
Ooh, but he sees her so sadly. How can he tell her he loves her. Yes, he would give his heart gladly. But each day, when she walks to the sea. She looks straight ahead, not at him.