Cuba, Varadero, Utopia and Kilometers

Haroldo Dilla Alfonso*

Mileage sign indicating a long road to Varadero. Photo: Erasmo Calzadilla

HAVANA TIMES, March 14 — Before leaving Havana’s outlying Alamar community on the Via Blanca Highway, there’s a roadway signpost indicating Matanzas as being 86 kilometers away and Varadero as being 186. I saw this in a photo that a friend sent me and I’m now using it to begin this article.

I looked at the picture for a good while trying to imagine why these figures were so out of whack. It was placing Varadero some 100 kilometers from Matanzas, when everyone knows that if you take the scenic route that links the two cities, the distance is only a little over 30 kilometers.

I was inclined to think that this was a mistake made by someone who had to do with designing the sign, followed by all of that person’s superiors. But to make things more complicated, I granted myself a discursive license and imagined that the information had been manipulated on purpose by someone who saw the relevance of another road – a longer and more arduous one.

There’s actually a possibility of turning that journey into more than 186 kilometers, though this would involve an out-of-the-way trip running from Peñas Altas and passing through Gelpi, Limonar and Coliseo, Jovellanos and a host of other little towns.

It’s a journey that’s not only boring — over red plains filled with old sugarcane plantations and sad little towns — but also long, curvy and dangerous.

If someone wanted that road sign to indicate this route to get to Varadero, they did something really stupid. But this isn’t something unusual in Cuba. Over the last 50 years, the longer, more severe and more tortuous routes have often been chosen as a way of test those who have to travel them.

Moreover, to engage in a kind of artificial selection of subjects, people are tempered (like steel) by the greatest adversity, though they remain capable of still imagining an unstoppable march toward utopia.

The route to utopia then, like its vestiges now, makes the long and winding road one of its emblems. To achieve something, one has to put in the work, because whatever is obtained easily — even when it’s indisputably easy — doesn’t deserve to be considered virtuous.

Related to this, I know a very telling anecdote. In the early 60’s — when one could still speak of a revolution in Cuba — there was an English sociologist who was giving technical advice about the development of a system of rural settlements with two laudable goals: to facilitate the provision of basic services and to reduce the dispersion of the campesino population.

When he presented his findings to the government commission headed by then president Osvaldo Dorticos, the latter asked the sociologist why the settlements were located so close to major road junctions and population centers.

The expert began explaining that this was a means of achieving the objectives at the lowest possible costs, since this approach would mean substantial savings on infrastructural investment.

Nevertheless the president wouldn’t let the sociologist finish his explanation. He simply reminded him that the validity of revolutionary ends was measured by the effort it took to achieve them.

“Everything here has to be done with the greatest effort,” Dorticos snapped. This obviously implied the scattering of communities over vast territories with no other justification than the ideological rapture of the new leaders who were offering plebeian austerity as the ethos of their new society.

This is the problem with utopias. People imagine themselves founding something new and believe that they are radically changing the world. What they fail to understand, however, is that the main changes in the world have resulted from metamorphic processes that their “utopias” have rarely used.

Humans have never been able to do without utopias, and I believe that we will continue concocting them in the future. But I agree with Karl Popper in that when their supporters are superimposed on each other, when they begin to take on real life or when they get stuck on the tracks of history, they produce insatiable monsters.

The goal of utopia in Cuba — and that brutal primitive accumulation of morale that it produced — served equally to carry out a literacy campaign and to shoot people without minimal due process. It promoted intense social mobility for the majority just as it threw into the UMAP dungeons as many people as were considered alien to its purposes.

In pursuit of that utopia, the doors of mass quality education were opened with the same effort that it took to produced frustrated students, who later ended up leaving the country or allowing themselves to sink into annihilating resignation.

It is the story that we all experienced in one way or another: incomprehensible military exercises, costly and unproductive volunteer work, single-colored clothes and inflexible shoes, rural schools that harmed everyone, mammoth concrete tunnels in a city that is falling to pieces, bland and assigned meals, and a complete routine of political gymnastics that came to a head in the 90’s, when Fidel Castro sensed he was only left with rhetoric and one enemy: imperialism.

Through this, fatigue and exhaustion were turned into mechanisms of political domination.

Today, few people talk about utopias. The Communist Party itself barely mentions the word socialism. The revolution has become a sort of Pandora’s Box that includes everything and because of this it means nothing.

Only a few doctrinaire leftists continue to talk about utopia, as a perfect excuse for staring into space while ignoring the real world in which they live…poorly. They do this to continue having confidence in revolutionary socialist regeneration of what was never socialism and what long ago ceased being a revolution.

But on this theme, dear reader, each individual must bear their own cross. And, just in case you travel toward that utopian coco plum peninsula of Varadero, don’t be confused by the sign – instead, follow the coastal route.

After all, the main instigators of those long and winding roads, as suggested by the Alamar road sign, learned long ago to use the shortcuts that they are pursuing for the enjoyment of all the discrete charms of the market from the vantage point of uncontested political power.

(*) A Havana Times translation of the original published in Spanish by