Why the Potential Thawing of US-Cuban Relations Might Not Change Cuban CultureQuite So Much
By Tom Astley*
HAVANA TIMES — Since the somewhat surprising steps towards a potential détente between the government of the US and the continuing revolutionary project in Cuba at the tail end of 2014, what has perhaps been a little less surprising is some of the journalistic rhetoric that has begun to seep back into discussions of the island.
There’s talk of an island about to wake up, a people who have managed to sleep through encroaching capitalist globalisation. Earnest, starry-eyed accounts of Eisenhower-era Buicks and Chevrolets barreling down pot-holed highways, fading grandiose billboards proclaiming socialist slogans that seem somehow nostalgic and quaint in their hand painted zeal and denuded of their political potency in the ‘real world’.
Most prominent of all have been portraits of the people. Ingenious, resourceful, amiable. But somehow stuck. Caught in a world reminiscent of one written by Gabriel Garcia Marquez; a dream world; a world that this thawing of the last iceberg of the Cold War threatens to disrupt. Cuba is about to wake up and join the rest of us again.
This trope of painting Cuba as some sort of cultural, political, technological, ‘lost world’ is so common because it is both so immediately apparent, and because it is so tempting to see. The hauntological spectres of socialism loom large in Cuba, undoubtedly, and in a strangely corporeal, yet still surreal form, creating something of a feeling that one is in a parallel world. This unreality – this dream-like quality – is precisely why Cuba is such a fascinating and frustrating place.
I confess readily that I have written such romanticised accounts of daydream Cuban adventures; of old men, guayabera shirts and cigars; of chipped paint work and sweltering, somnambulant heat; of arid air blowing around crumbling art-deco apartments; of reclining in antique rocking chairs, dark, heavy wood, creaking; of the deep wooden pulse of the clave; of horse-and-cart taxis clopping languidly over the railway tracks in my adoptive home town of Santa Clara; absurd stories of people perpetually stealing and tirelessly guarding John Lennon’s glasses; shimmering stories of guajiros in straw hats and white rubber boots cycling under blistering sun along the verge of a road to nowhere. All of it is so apparent. All of it is so different, so un-impinged upon by ‘the modern’, so beautifully self-contained. So much like a dream.
But it is only a surface of Cuba. And under this surface a real, more connected Cuba runs.
In comparison to the more overt (literal) signs of economic development in Cuba – the now-ubiquitous ‘Se Vende’ signs, the increasingly upmarket paladares, signs of a technological revolution are still scant and distinctly Cuban: flashing stereos on top of doily-covered glass tables, car stereos in rusting Moskovitches. But it’s not that the juxtaposition of the technological and the antiquated– a computer under a sloping wood-beam roof – is so jarringly uncommon in Cuba that catches one’s attention. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.
For a nation ostensibly labouring under a mutually enforced blockade/embargo/cultural and technological censorship, technologies like home computers are becoming increasingly common around Cuba. Like so many things in the everyday of Cuba, they exist only just under the radar – everyone seems to pretend that no one notices the little revolutionary transgressions, the little reaches out to foreign materials and cultural products. These items just seem to appear. And their appearance, their increasing presence, raises questions about the dream world narrative perpetuated about Cuba and Cubans. They might be on an island, but they are, more often than not, intimately connected to global cultural discourses. Embargo or not, Cubans have always been in touch with the US, indeed with the rest of the world.
One particular technology I have noticed growing in prominence, especially among younger Cubans, is the USB stick and external hard disk devices. They seem to be an near-ubiquitous accessory for many young Cubans; a sort of alternative identity card to be taken and displayed at all social gatherings. Music, films, e-books even, all downloaded from… somewhere, are circulated through these non-official means at house parties among friends. ‘Have you heard this album? Have you got such-and-such a film?’ are the questions that accompany these digital swap-meets.
Of course, such practices are perhaps so commonplace elsewhere as to be mundane, unnoticed and tacitly taken for granted. But in Cuba, where internet access is still highly limited, and where the myths of autochthonous cultural consumption and lack of foreign cultural knowledge are still pervasive, they throw some interesting light on contemporary Cuba.
Firstly, it is worth noting, that this cultural phenomenon has its roots in successive technological samizdat medias – from the static and hiss of foreign radio stations, to home-cut records, to mixtapes, to burnt CDs and DVDs – Cubans have taken their ingrained ingenuity into their cultural world to keep abreast of (particularly) US music and cultures. Although these “strangled and tangled routes of cultural dissemination” have made for some fragmented reinterpretations of these musical and cultural stories from outside, that they are stories that are well-known, well-heard, well-understood, and thoroughly a part of a multifarious Cuban soundscape is undeniable.
Secondly, these microsocial networks of collecting, disseminating and sharing foreign cultural materials have helped to strengthen and define a growing sense of subcultural identity, particularly among post-Special Period generations. The influx of foreign music as a result of that cultural/political trauma brought about something of a renaissance of Cuban popular music expression, tellingly in genres such as rock and hip hop.
Today, Cubans are more likely to distinguish between, and define themselves through, genres and group affiliations, and these off-line social networks of cultural communication are part of the specific collective narratives of musical and cultural appreciation that these groups tell themselves about themselves, to paraphrase the ethnographer Clifford Geertz.
All of which, paradoxically, both serves to connect Cuban youth to a wider, global cultural identity, lessening the differences in cultural understanding, knowledge and appreciation between Cuba and particularly the US, and yet simultaneously, these methods of cultural dissemination fragment this generation into smaller subdivisions, further questioning the lingering notion of a socialist collective, a singular Cuban identity.
So when accounts of this dreamy island, appearing once more from behind the lingering smoke of (very) late-socialism, manifest, let’s remember that Cubans have, and have always had, a canny connection to the globalized narrative, especially when it comes to culture. Though materially Cuba might have been stuck in a hauntological nightmare, left to repair the spectres of the Soviet Union and the US before it barred the door, culturally at least, Cubans are not, and never have been, living in a dream world of their own making. And so, if the final ice of the Cold War is to melt, culturally at least, Cubans might not be in for quite such a rude awakening.
(*) I am currently writing a longer piece on this history of non-official cultural dissemination in Cuba. I would love to hear from any Cubans with memories of any of these kinds of practice who wouldn’t mind talking to me further about mixtapes and CDs, USB stick or radio stations – or how they heard, consumed and disseminated foreign musics within Cuba. My email address is Thomas.Astley@newcastle.ac.uk>
 Tom Astley (2014) ‘Porno Para Ricardo: Rock music and the Obsession with Identity in Contemporary Cuba’ Popular Music 33/3, p.469
 See both Pacini Hernandez, Deborah and Reebee Garofalo (1999) ‘Hip hop in Havana: Rap, Race and National Identity in Contemporary Cuba’ in ‘Journal of Popular Music Studies’ 11/12 (1999/2000) pp. 18 -47 Oxford: Blackwell Publishing and Pacini Hernandez, Deborah and Reebee Garofalo (2004) ‘Between Rock and a Hard Place: Negotiating Rock in Revolutionary Cuba 1960 – 1980’ in ‘Rockin’ Las Américas: The Global Politics of Rock in Latin/o America’ Deborah Pacini Hernandez, Hector Fernández L’Hoeste and Eric Zolov (eds.) Pittsburg: University of Pittsburg Press
 Geertz, Clifford (1973) ‘The Interpretation of Cultures’ New York: Basic Books