Given recent events in Cuba it seems appropriate to post this piece I wrote about a trip to Cuba four years ago. It was published originally in Radical Society.
COMING FROM THE AIRPORT THE CITY creeps up slowly and then it’s street after street, twilight, a kind of beige everywhere, not quite enough light, figures in the streets, shades, building after building, beautiful, post-beautiful, falling away into themselves, into the street that is drifting from itself back into them, constrained slow dissolution, a chaos in which no one is afraid, a sky going quietly black and all the old cars are lonely souls, a yellowish light that might be sad but is there and then not there and then almost there. You wouldn’t say that the streets are alive but they aren’t dead, perhaps they are waiting for something. Everyone is drifting; everyone is drifting in the middle of the streets. The great sea is just behind a tiny wall at the end of these roads and it is flowing and lapping and the city is drifting and the moon is the same color as the crumbling earthy road.
Some time ago communists wanted to end history by beginning it. The idea of progress was exploded. This path that we are on is a time bomb, they said, and when it blows itself up we pick up the shards and begin to construct a real history, human history. The previous history of class struggle, they said, bears the seeds of its utter transformation, in which it cannot but leap outside into a new framework for history. It was a balancing act between past, present, and future in which the past prepares the future and the present crashes through them like an ax, freeing them both in the obliteration.
But history moves on somehow anyway, or not history, but worlds organizing and disorganizing, people cutting through times and places to make their lives, the old sea washing past it all, constant forgetting and reremembering and making up other things that are the same and different. These things happen, they’ve happened.
Some time ago, more recently, history started to end for some, but not with the cataclysm of a leap into some Utopia outside of previous history. It has started to end more as the running into a cul-de-sac from which there seem to be no other options. The future has died. This is felt either in terms of exhaustion, fear, or disgust,…or complacency. Our world will no longer envision itself as something else, cannot bear to envision itself as something else and by correlate will no longer risk the loss of its advantage. That is a burden for others to bear now.
Cuba is still waiting for something, still preserves itself in an anticipation that makes the whole world here paused and swaying like long strands of seaweed on a cold calm sea, swaying a little and drifting in some kind of pause. This sky is grey and these buildings are blue, yellow, pink, imagine that, but they’re dying too. How can a building die, a neighborhood die? It does it like this in stages that take a lifetime and then die. It jumps forward all of a sudden and then everything is different.
At the museum of the revolution in Havana there is a diorama, life-sized, of Che and Camilo emerging from the jungle in full guerilla regalia and they have smiles that only revolutionaries have when they emerge from jungles. The display is a testament to those smiles, a desperate attempt to do justice to those smiles of the revolution that are surprised smiles and vindicated smiles and terribly otherworldly smiles and the diorama is nothing but a mechanism of death. Nothing could kill those smiles more than this testament to those smiles. They die over and over again on the second floor of the museum of the revolution and yet are never allowed to die partly and simply because they cannot pass. The smile of the revolution is the kind of smile that no one sees, or no one is sure they ever saw, it happens in that one moment of emergence from the jungle when everything is different and such things are never witnessed, they are the kinds of things that cannot be witnessed. These kinds of smiles fly across faces somehow but also they don’t exist at all, they get reconstructed in memory, maybe they never really happened. There is so much memory in Cuba, memory and waiting. The youthful smiles of Castro, Camilo, Che seem to signify something in the old pictures that hang on the old walls. It is clear that they do, but the big sun is shining another hazy day and everyone is out being alive and disappearing into mysterious doorways and courtyards where the passage between inner living and outer living is just a threshold, but you can’t cross it. All things are open and closed.
People in Cuba are starting to be driven crazy. They are starting to double. You cannot have two worlds in one place, or perhaps you can but it starts to have effects. One can imagine a situation in which every Cuban has two personalities, they borrow from one another, they both draw from a font of social cohesiveness that is still a wellspring but they are distinct and separate. This schizophrenia will not be the result of some specific trauma for which the splitting is a result, it will be the slow workings of necessity. Thereby, it will be a schizophrenia, a splitting that precedes trauma, that leads up to crisis instead of the more usual reverse.
The moon leads you to Camaguey because it just sits right on the earth down toward the end of the road and is a red orange that fell out of the sky. That is how you get to Camaguey, if you should want to get to Camaguey. There is a man in Santa Clara who is the angel of death, he prepares the way to Camaguey when he says “I am death” and the clouds open up with a rainless storm. he is what got left over when they brought the bits of Che to Santa Clara in a few black boxes and buried them in a concrete mound outside of town that no one ever goes to, no one ever could go to because it was built not for people so much as for the ability to say that it exists. They saved bits of his clothing and letters and personal effects. It is the morbid cataloguing of herodom, it is the bits of a human being assembled and displayed in order to replace humanity with deity. It could make one want to cry. Across the hall is a simple tomb for Che and other martyrs of the revolution. It is eerie and mysterious and wonderful. There is something great in it that could make one want to cry. There is no point in staying, you have to leave it all, those two rooms, two rooms that have everything in them. It wasn’t built for the present and it certainly wasn’t built for the past; nothing, ever, has been built for the past, but is was built for a parallel present that is the constant ghost here and if the sky and moon make magical displays they don’t touch the day with their raving, they stay out beyond the fields in autonomous fury.
The islandness of this island should never be forgotten and should be thought about again and again and again. This is an island surrounded by the sea that is a great water among us. Islands are for trying things. Plato went to Syracuse for many reasons that intersect the contingency of the event but he would not have gone there had it not been on an island, he would not have even thought of going. A long time ago Atlantis sank to the bottom of the sea maybe and became the perfect island because it managed to make its boundaries permanent and forever separate from the real. An island is but a brief interruption of the sea. Atlantis had the good sense to make that interruption permanent. This sense of boundaries and their fragility may be why Cuba does not manifest the kind of eschatological visions of other socialisms. It is a kind of true revolution insofar as we take revolution to be the turning around of things. The motto of this revolution could be “We put the poor on top.” It wouldn’t be entirely true of course, privilege seeps into cracks and crannies, but it would be a version of truth. Cuba puts the poor on top precisely as that, as the poor. One can imagine the surprise confronting a more European vision of socialism where the implicit promise lies in the opening up of bourgeois privilege to everyone else. Cuba’s vision is both more honest and more terrifying and one wonders that the projections of human meaning have tolerated it so long, though barely. The Cuban vision is essentially a compact among beasts of burden, a recognition that there is still toil at the heart of the division of labor. Cuban socialism sees limits everywhere, just as all its borders meet the sea. These limits have made it sober, sober and sad, and waiting infinitely for a shifting of limits that only gods hand down.
Fidel said that history would absolve him, would redeem him, long before any prophet had dreamed a vision of his celebrating a seventy-fifth birthday as president of Cuba. But history has layers and overlappings. There are so many histories. The genius of Fidel has not been to foretell but to project. The genius of Fidel has been a constant working on past and future. It was a great service to Fidel for Che to have committed revolutionary suicide, it got rid of the temporal constraints and now he is eternally future. At the entrance to a terrifying nickel-smelting factory outside of Moa there is a picture of Che. The hills are stripped and blanched red for miles around. It is a brand new world there somehow. Next to Che are the words “imagine the future.” Perhaps it is meant to say that this can only be endured insofar as we already imagine that it doesn’t exist because it really isn’t part of the present. The future can be used as a negating force and it can be negated. All things are at play here and they amount, of course, to the reproducing of what is already at hand. These are techniques of survival until the new man comes, who never comes.
To move east across Cuba is to move further and further into a social vision and dreamscape in which everything is just as real as it is. It is a social dreamscape in which the symbol of fantasy is simply itself. The inwardly coiled vision is wrapped around itself multiply to the point where one can encounter a billboard proclaiming simply “Cuba si.” In a town like Holguin one finds not so much a cult of the revolution as its dominating everydayness. If it is a cult it is a cult without magic, that is, a cult with no real sense of alchemy or transcendence. Perhaps the genius of this revolution has been to toggle back and forth almost seamlessly between a concept of the present as packed with some transformative power and a future that always just looks like what is already here. Thus both things are preserved in an oscillation that is inoculated from space and time. It is a rounded thing, a capsule, but a capsule that needs constant maintenance and is losing its circularity now at a rapid rate. The spiral is unraveling again into a strip with past, present, and future aligned in their traditional order instead of wrapped round each other in the great blur of the revolution. Cuba is beginning to exchange its history at the global rate again, and this rate is set by a world that Cuba has placed all its bets against.
The great waters curl again onto the shores grabbing and replacing, slowly refashioning according to the blueprint of an infinite mind that, because infinite, would not be a mind at all. The young peaks stumble upward directly from these shores and groan, holding their particular storms. The way the streets just go through the day in these small towns can make all things feel connected, in some kind of secret correspondence with the run of green up those cliffs beyond and the blueness that has settled on the sea for now–green and brown and then back out to blue again. The sun has the horrible properties of an eye but one day is laconic and so is the next. It is not clear where came the movements that swept all to change when all got changed. And then again it seems again that all things are working on some form of communication. Such communication always harbors explosions because while meaning builds up it only ever happens all at once, when it ever happens. Are there great stores of energy here and again or is everything seeping slowly away, being stolen infinitely by a sea that slips out under the sun’s eye and guidance? On these streets are found repetition and repetition but something of a restlessness too. It is not clear who is communicating with whom.
In a brief glimpse through a break in the green on a broken road that crosses and re-crosses the same dead rail tracks that shuttle no trains a gaggle of young boys in a brown stream splashing in a circle of joy. Just circling and splashing, circling and splashing, enacting some ritual whose rules are a concoction only of their immediate need. These are the ones who are in some correspondence with their world. They are the best of Cuba and the last to know. You only see them for an instant and then the fields cover it all up again and the road opens up some other vista.