HAVANA TIMES — It’s not every day one comes across a book which combines a captivating narrative style, academic rigor and an invitation to rethink the very basics of the history and political culture of the Cuban revolution.
Lillian Guerra’s most recent work*, fusing these three elements into a unique and masterful piece of historical and sociological prose, is one such book. It is the kind of book that captures you and does not let go, taking you on a journey where critical circumstances, ideological turning points and lost opportunities unfold kaleidoscopically before you.
Gathering a wealth of photographs, information and testimonies collected in the course of long hours of research conducted in Havana, Miami and other cities in the hemisphere, Lillian’s 400-page volume offers us a historical reconstruction of the Cuban revolution.
This history is recounted from a perspective which rescues the points of views of subaltern groups, hidden micro-histories and dissenting voices silenced by the hegemonic narratives of the Cuban regime and émigré community.
Through these narratives, Lilian portrays Cuba’s revolution of 1959 as a challenge to the kind of relations that had traditionally existed between the island and the United States, characterized by the former’s dependence and the latter’s interventionism, a challenge sustained by the involvement of the masses in the construction of a nationalist government and its corresponding discourse.
In a few years’ time, in the midst of a radical confrontation within Cuban society, this government would clearly trace the limits of this process of collective liberation and of individual rights, establishing complete State control over the population, dismantling civil society and imposing different forms of media and cultural censorship.
The author surveys the subterranean foundations of this “new” totalitarian edifice and traces some of these back to Cuba’s republican period.
Among these, we find a widespread nationalistic and anti-imperialist culture – a center-Left tendency, ideologically speaking – set against a tradition of administrative corruption and anti-democratic trends which had, historically, assumed the form of Right-wing dictatorships (such as those of Macahdo and Batista) supported by the United States.
This nationalism laid the groundwork for a government strategy based on repeated calls to sacrifice, war and intransigence, and on the curtailment of any form of dissent within the ranks of the revolution, which was (both in fact and in myth) under the constant threat of invasion by powerful forces (exiled Cubans, the United States) located only a handful of kilometers from the island.
Despite or precisely because of the honest and progressive nature of Guerra’s perspective, the book is not entirely accommodating with the Cuban leadership and government.
To shed light on the “other potential revolutions” which the victory of 1959 could have resulted in and the authoritarian leadership that evolved, the author devotes some particularly clear lines to the State measures which, from an early date, were aimed at limiting the economic independence and political autonomy of citizens, even those – it is important to stress, as Lilian does – who supported the revolution.
Here, the book reveals how the thirst for power and fear of change set the basic course of Cuba’s leadership, from the charismatic head of State Fidel Castro to the regime’s dullest officials.
Relying on ethnographic data and historical documents, Lillian also acknowledges that the overwhelming popular support secured by Cuba’s revolutionary process and its leaders wasn’t based exclusively on blind or forced loyalty.
This process also entailed diverse forms of resistance and negotiation in such areas as gender, sexuality, culture, race and politics. Such practices and ideas sustained veritable micro-narratives which ran counter to the revolution and which, today, are reservoirs of experiences that could provide the foundations of a much-needed renewal of Cuba’s Left.
It would be impossible to summarize such a rich work, possibly one of the most significant of recent contributions to the historiography of the Cuban revolution.
In the book, those of us who call for a post-totalitarian and post-neoliberal Cuba find an invitation to recover our historical memory and renew our hopes for a democratic future, for, ultimately, we want what the author envisages when she predicts: “One day, Cubans will find this truth just as they will overcome both the injustice of a hipocritical goverment and the intolerably recalcitrant policies of an ever-imperialist, ever short-sighted United States”.
(*) Lillian Guerra “Visions of Power in Cuba. Revolution, Redemption and Resistence 1959-1971”, The University of North Carolina Press, 2012.