By Dmitri Prieto
This summer, two anniversaries were commemorated: one was the first landing on the Moon by a human (astronaut Neil Armstrong), and the other was the momentous Woodstock rock festival. Both events well recalled on specially-dedicated Cuban television programs.
As a Russian – and the bearer of a soul that some describe as “romantic” – I feel that stepping around on the Moon is possibly sacrilegious. That’s why I’m happy it wasn’t the Soviets (who did everything possible at that time to get there, with their N-2 rocket), nor the Chinese (who perhaps will be the next lunar visitors). Instead, it was the pragmatic Americans who were the first ones to make it to the Moon’s surface.
The programs on Cuban TV included segments of US documentaries with interviews of several astronauts about the Apollo mission. I was greatly impressed with how those astronauts spoke; they did so with a tremendous sense of reverence, humility, respect, and poetry… Most of the Americans I know are usually not so romantic; they drink a lot of beer, eat steak and popcorn, and they like to watch American football on TV, even when they’re in England.
However, the astronauts that went to the Moon spoke like poets, like spiritual souls. I was moved. One said that after having been there, he could never complain about the weather or the traffic, he no longer cared; it was nothing in comparison with the condition of the most solitary person in the universe.
He was happy to return and see a lot of people in the street, that that was a great blessing for him. He noted there were no people on the Moon, that they were alone there. In fact, they were utterly alone in that place, and they saw our planet as utterly tiny.
I had read that in Russia there was no broadcast on television showing the Americans landing on the Moon in 1969. But the members of the Politburo of the Communist Party (CPSU), as well as other important people, did indeed see it in a room with a special TV monitor. When Neil Armstrong stepped down onto the Moon’s surface, for a second they didn’t know what to do. It was the enemy country that had made it there, they had landed first.
The USSR had lost the space race. However Soviet cosmonauts were also in the room, and when Armstrong first stepped on the Moon they began to applaud. Then the entire Politburo of the CPSU also applauded, exuberantly, celebrating those human beings who were there, who had made it there, so far away and so close to death.
In the documentary, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin spoke in the sense that they were humanity’s emissaries, not from a single country, and in their subsequent tours around the world they were always received in that capacity.
I learned a great deal from them, although Armstrong’s first statement on the Moon (“a small step for a man, a giant leap for mankind,” which in the documentary he admits to having said after peeing in his porta-bag), I found pathetic in comparison with “Payehali!” (Here we go!), said by cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin on April 12, 1961.
It’s interesting that as time has gone by we have slowly lost the vision of the US lunar program as being the most expensive political propaganda campaign in history. Increasingly, the version is promoted that they went there to fulfill the mission ordered by JFK, as if the other side of the world map of power had not existed…
This month Cuban TV also paid homage to the musicians at the historic Woodstock festival. We saw Jimi Hendrix playing his version of the US National Anthem, as we delighted in his guitar chords, and viewed Santana, Bob Dylan and many more.
A few years ago I coordinated a screening of a documentary on Woodstock in a community video room in East Havana. I remember how the participants debated about the musical event and also about the thinking that had emerged almost from nothing, that is to say, from the harmony of so many individual wills that came to an agreement and summoned people – and people came, as did the musicians. They made music, poetry, politics, love, and new political music poetry, with a lot of long hair and other 60s-style hippyisms.
It was a self-managed organizational initiative, as it might be called today, a Temporary Autonomous Zone (TAZ), almost a Social Forum. That was what we talked about way back then in the video room; Cuban television in these last few weeks spoke only about the music, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan and Santana.
We are missing a lot in the recollection of those times, in our collective historical memory. When Woodstock and Apollo 11 occurred, men could not wear their hair long in Cuba, all the private shops had been closed in the “revolutionary offensive” of the preceding year, the country was living through the “Year of Decisive Effort,” prior to the “Ten Million Harvest of 1970” – our Great Leap Forward that would lift the country out of underdevelopment forever.
But the harvest was a failure, the goal of harvesting 10 million tons of sugar fell short, the economy collapsed, and the period of COMECON came, as did the philosophy manuals by Konstantinov.
Cuban TV didn’t mention those other anniversaries. Nor did it mention the 20 years since the massacre in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, or the fall of the Berlin Wall.
We romantics only have to turn off the television and look up at the Man in the Moon, remembering Neil Armstrong standing alongside the flag of stars and stripes – which must still be there today, next to the base of the Eagle module – and hum the Yankee hymn imitating Jimi Hendrix’ chords.