Haroldo Dilla Alfonso
HAVANA TIMES — When I read the news about the trophy Antonio Castro had won at an international golf tournament, I could not help but bring Pierre Bourdieu to mind.
A requisite read, Bourdieu was a social scientist who wrote about a broad range of topics and had something interesting to say about all of them. One of the concepts he coined was that of the “distinction”. For Bourdieu, this was a kind of condensation of consumption habits and behaviors which underpinned the lifestyle of a specific social class.
All elites cultivate their own distinction on the basis of their history and power. When Cuba’s Sierra Maestra rebels took power, they began to construct theirs.
At first, it drew from an austere, popular and anti-urban discourse which found its supreme embodiment in the figure of Ernesto Che Guevara, a man of undeniable stoicism and a known aversion to bathing. Afterwards, following the demise of the epic-heroic age, the new political class began to develop a taste for the abundance afforded by power.
Appearances, however, had to be kept, and such indulgences were carried out at the expense of the State (no one had any private means of accumulation), under the threat of a supreme authority that would decapitate those who indulged in excess, drew too much attention to themselves or proved disloyal.
In any event, these individuals had their own, inherit limitations in this regard, a view of the world that often confounded prosperity with what Marc Bloch called “obscene abundance.”
They were people prone to lavish feasts and heavy drinking, who traveled around the world with their own, personal gymnasiums, who filled up planes with all sorts of worthless souvenirs from Madrid, who were insatiable procurers of sex, of the cheap and expensive kind alike. They were, however, incapable of grasping the elegance of an adagio or the difference between the wines of the new and old continents.
I don’t know whether this is an excessively cruel remark, but, whenever I think about these people, I invariably bring to mind the image of Cuba’s last foreign minister [Felipe Perez Roque] to be defenestrated, beer in hand and trousers rolled up, wiggling his blubbery physique to a popular tune at that rural festivity, whose video is still being played on the Internet.
The economic reforms Cuba undertook in the 1990s, and particularly those implemented as of 2008, have been very shy, in more than one sense of the word. We’ve seen no shortage of shyness, however, in the opening of consumption spaces and the tolerance shown to material accumulation by what appears to be the new social base of Cuba’s coming capitalism: black market lynchpins, the heirs of political fortunes, competitive managers, salaried consultants and show business and art-world flaneurs.
This new, emerging elite sets itself apart from its predecessor through its lifestyle. The previous elite were a class of blood-suckers that fed on the body of producers like a mass of leeches.
Though dependent on State protection and assets (without which no one can survive in Cuba), the economic prowess of this emerging economic elite is derived, to a considerable degree, from the market itself.
They, and they alone, are the ones who benefit from the recent liberalization which granted Cubans the right to stay at hotels, purchase houses and cars, travel abroad (with visas that attest to hefty bank accounts), and enjoy other services which can be secured in the black market at exorbitant prices, Internet included.
Only they – and this is perhaps what is most important – can continuously move between the private and public spheres, from the regular Cuban peso economy to the Cuban Convertible Peso market, from the realm of business to the world of politics – and to secure the differential benefits derived from crossing the many borders that characterize Cuba’s current, fragmented reality.
Consequently, Cuba’s new elite bears an incipient touch of bourgeois distinction, visible in the glitter of galas held at select locations around Havana, or the lush private banquets which were, formerly, the luxury of consecrated officials and ambassadors.
Several chroniclers of our time, such as Lois Parsley and Sandra Weiss, have written about the members of this new elite and their luxury-filled nights. In a recent article, curiously entitled “Glamour is Back in Havana”, Weiss describes the sight of an orange Hummer, rolling noisily down the city’s pot-holed streets.
This is the world that Antonio Castro [son of Fidel Castro] belongs in. The indignation over the likely costs of his golf hobby that many readers have felt is understandable.
Cuba is a country where people quarrel over a dollar with the same passion with which Robinson Crusoe guarded his corral of evasive goats. The issue of money, however, is secondary, for any company could well have paid for his training and even directed Antonio’s golf balls, via remote control, towards all of the 18 available holes.
A tournament winner as well-known as Antonio Castro is well worth the trouble, hence the fact that his victory at a second-rate event has been given so much coverage you would think he was Tiger Woods and the tournament a major championship.
In contrast to his brothers – unremarkable in different ways – he plays a visible, public role. And, unlike his cousins, Antonio Castro is an apolitical creature. You don’t see him launching anti-imperialist books or leading conga-lines in favor of the LGTB movement. You see him, rather, smoking fine cigars next to an international, nicotine-loving jet set.
He holds no high-sounding government positions. He is a mere vice-chairman in Cuba’s Baseball Federation. Though seemingly insignificant, this places him in a good position to manage the opening of the country to professional sports and, ultimately, become the owner of a team, as many multi-millionaires around the world have done, including Silvio Berlusconi and Sebastian Piñera.
Though undeniably a poster-boy for the regime, Antonio Castro is not an insignificant man. He is a peculiar but key component of what we have termed the Castro Dynasty. As such, between puts, Antonio Castro is slowly becoming part of a de-facto elite that will have considerable influence over Cuban politics for many years to come.