Haroldo Dilla Alfonso
HAVANA TIMES, Dec. 31 — Havana Times recently published an article from the online magazine Cubaencuentro that was written by one of its regular columnists who I always read with delight: Diego Cobian.
Perhaps what I like most about the articles by Diego Cobian — who I don’t know personally — is that they don’t aspire to achieve the rigor of theory or the sublimation of literature. They merely tell things as he chronicles of day-to-day life.
With those things that go back in time, we tend to hang so much nostalgic tinsel on them that they become unrecognizable to anyone except us. They become not simply things that happened, but our recollection of things that more or less happened.
In that recent article, Cobian speaks to us about a reuniting with his grandmother after a decade long separation. And it is exactly about that grandmother — not exactly Diego’s physically existing grandmother, but the grandmother that he described to us — that I want to speak about in this article.
Of course what I will generically refer to here as “Diego’s grandmother” is now a social being in the process of extinction – biologically and politically. Her way of thinking and explaining the world is characteristic of a specific form of socialization and political commitment.
I once knew someone like this: old Franco, a kind, austere and helpful man with whom one could converse for hours on anything except politics. He could never get used to the idea of living in a world without the Soviet Union, and he finally suffered a heart attack while contemplating the fall of the Berlin Wall.
One afternoon they found him dead with the newspaper Granma gripped in his hands. I want to believe that he died looking for the truth in those articles in the worst newspaper in the world, something that he never found in a regime that demanded too much loyalty and would not forgive questioning.
For decades, Franco and the grandmother saw themselves — accurately or not — as the actors in a play that gave the best finale possible to all the historical frustrations of the liberal republic. People like them were and continue to be the flawless pillars of the post-revolutionary political order.
A complex and heterogeneous society
But beyond the grandmother and Franco, there is a different, complex and heterogeneous society on the island. There is an intertwining of generations and social groups as well as their respective mentalities wrought from their own experiences regarding power, society and their own existence.
They are generations that benefitted from the Cuban educational system, that challenge the informational blockade which the regime established, that look for thousands of spaces for survival amid a rigid and inefficient economy, and that are interested in traveling abroad to try their luck in other lands, just like the Puerto Ricans, the Dominicans, Mexicans and others.
It is only that they can do it without suffering the unjust Cuban immigration system and without aspiring to the benefits of the US Cuban Adjustment Act. They are able to think that though success is difficult, it’s possible to return successful. Our people are spared some of difficulties for achieving success, but they know what exile inevitably implies.
The crucial difference between poverty and misery
Cuba is a society that has become materially poor, where daily life is becoming more difficult, and where it would be much worse without support from relatives who emigrated and without a sort of soft, defiant, daily and generalized corruption. It is a society lacking basic civil and political freedoms. But it is a living society, with an impressive mass of university and technical graduates, with an educational system that continues to be well recognized internationally.
There is also an intense cultural life evidenced by first-rate events and festivals, critical discussions on larger social problems, urban tribes that occupy the main avenues of the city coloring them with diversity, as well as keen analysts that leave their reflections in the online press free of State controls (as is the case with Havana Times), among other features that mark the crucial difference between poverty and misery.
A brilliant Cuban sociologist who lives in Mexico — Marlene Goshawk — told me on one occasion that the “new man” formed by the revolution is there on the island, only that this person is not the ascetic and sublimated “Che” prototype.
Instead it is a being that is hedonistic, unprejudiced, secular, self-contained, well-educated and someone who adores the present – even when they were cynically obligated to participate in the millennial liturgies of the “maximum leader.” This participation, she said, is done with the same indifference and distance of an atheist married by the church to have the woman he decidedly loves.
Thinking that current Cuban society is a wasteland — like some hardened exiles want to imagine — or that Cubans have been turned into mindless zombies or sheep by all the propaganda and are terrified by the police, is a bunch of nonsense. Likewise, that the people are awaiting a new messiah — from the island or from exile — someone full of virtues that can teach them the meaning of life.
They understand the meaning of life according to their own experiences. And if until now they haven’t opted to change the political regime, it’s because until now such a change has appeared unwise in terms of the costs and benefits. They have preferred circumventing it to changing it. This is due to diverse reasons, and a good part of these are tied to the capacity of the Cuban political class to keep Cuban society fragmented so as to manipulate the way in which the political menu is presented to that society.
The Diaspora and their place
An example is the way the Diaspora is presented to insular society. Apart from accepting the pro-government émigrés as docile interlocutors (who are useless at even moving an agenda of their own needs) and viewing those who do not express themselves politically as being “the good guys” (who sustain many families with their remittances), the Cuban government has identified another faction for presentation: it chooses as its boogieman of anti-history the most right-wing and uncompromising fringe groups.
They are continually presented to Cuba’s manacled public opinion as the prototype of the future if someday the mal-formed system labeled “revolutionary” and “socialist” were to ever disappear.
By demonizing extreme right-wing exiles, the Cuban government consecrates them and establishes a mutually reinforcing synergy from which both the extremists and the government benefit. It is a true romance between political extremes.
The Cuban government knows that these fringe groups do not represent the diaspora, exiles, émigrés or however they wish to call them. They are only a part of this population, and a minority part whose resonance is amplified by their political ties and their being highlighted by the Cuban government itself. But there are many other groups, tendencies and lines that battle with the same energy for a democratic, economically viable and socially just society.
They come from many corners — social liberalism, social-Christians, trade unionism, democratic socialism — and they lend support above all by arguing for dialogue with society. But to make these currents visible would be to open a very costly breach in a system based on the Manichaean manipulation of reality.
We [on the outside] require new paths and forms of acting, speaking and communicating with Cuban society on the island. There’s probably nothing that can be done for Diego’s grandmother, as there was nothing possible for the always well-remembered Franco or those exiles that were never again able to return to the island where they were born. They gave up everything, even the right to cast blame, for a process that captured wills in some cases and totally alienated others. They deserve our respect.
But let’s think now of the millions of others who did things differently than us, some good and others bad – just as we too did. They are part of a society, just as we are, that needs to move towards reconciliation, without contempt or revenge. Let’s think about that, especially because the system of political domination that has reigned for decades is moving along under a slackened leash of economic restructuring and generational change. Although I believe that the leadership role in the change will be played by those who are on the inside — in all its ideological and political manifestations — I also believe the diaspora has an important role to play.
I don’t know what paths or forms that change will take, but I agree with Diego’s grandmother that it should be accompanied by a dignity that must not be lost. I don’t want it to be lost. Because when societies possess dignity and self-esteem, they are able to soar high, higher than all our frustrations and resentments.