Fortunately, ‘We’re Getting Old’

Haroldo Dilla Alfonso 

Pablo Milanes

HAVANA TIMES, September 5 — I have to admit that I enjoyed the open letter from Pablo Milanes to Edmundo Garcia.  Although I should emphasize that I don’t agree with many of Pablo’s statements.  In some I even find an ingenuousness that’s only allowed in El Parnaso, like when he invites everyone to “incinerate” themselves along with him, without realizing that when one is rich and famous such incinerations are more bearable then, let’s say, testimonials.

But with no money, walking on foot and with the whole structure hanging over one’s head, incinerations do indeed have weight.  They’re felt in one’s bones, and if you don’t believe me, just ask the two women who recently tried to trigger a cacerolazo (a protest in which saucepans are banged) at the Cuatro Caminos market.  In short, it may be that all of us are going to be able to incinerate ourselves — like Pablo says — but some are going to incinerate more than others.

But I didn’t find Pablo’s letter to be a piece with literary or political aspirations, and that’s why it shouldn’t be analyzed as such.  It was like a spontaneous release, justified, in the face of the foolishness of one of the representatives of that species of at-a-distance party hacks who compete among themselves maneuvering into “brief spaces” in which they can make money and build their careers in the United States while maintaining ties with the Cuban government, simply to see what happens.

Really, many people could write letters like this one and with a great frequency, but they wouldn’t be important.  But the fact that Pablo Milanes has written one is.  Moreover, it was especially important that he wrote it in the way he did, with hard-hitting colloquial language that will hit home with many people who continue to believe — honestly — in everything concerning the march of history with El Comandante out in front.

That’s why it’s necessary to congratulate Pablo Milanes.  I believe that the cause of a democratic future for Cuba with social justice has won a point, despite Edmundo Garcia and his ilk.

But let me return to Pablo’s intended task regarding intellectuals and the need to adopt more critical positions.

In fact, if there’s any sector for which the post-revolutionary elite designed an intelligent policy it was the one created for the intellectuals, particularly with regard to writers and artists.

The Padilla case and other successive incidents of lesser resonance taught Fidel Castro and his most intimate collaborators — people with deep anti-intellectual feelings — that it was preferable to yield to the intellectuals by granting them some material and spiritual privileges in exchange for their basic loyalties.

The design of this approach was realized and applied beginning in the 1980s, when they agreed on making Armando Hart the minister of Culture and Abel Prieto the president of the National Union of Cuban Writers and Artists (UNEAC).

Edmundo Garcia. Photo:

The pact is very explicit: UNEAC members — as long as there is no veto from above — possess special rights with regard to foreign travel and participate in some spaces where criticism functions merely as occasional safety values with the blowholes left slightly open.

Some (the most renowned and daring) are allowed some sharper and more public criticism, as long as they don’t cross the line, like questioning the single-party system or showing anything less than respect for what is officially known as the “historic leadership.”

In return for this, greater creative opportunities are permitted for allied intellectuals, much more than what the boys of the Ideological Department of the PCC (Cuban Communist Party) would have tolerated had this pact not existed.  This is the positive side of the matter.

But in all cases — and this is the gist of the pact — intellectuals know that they cannot try to extend their meager privileges to the rest of the society.  This pact presumes their consensual castration.

It’s not necessarily assumed as such.  A fringe element of these intellectuals who are guided by opportunist motivations obviously exists:  the “suck ups,” a few millionaires and others who don’t have the slightest sense of decency.

But there also exists a fringe of honest people for whom that castration is understood and explained as a compromise beyond the historic and patriotic conjunctures.  They affirm to want to do what in fact they’re compelled to do.

I want to emphasize that I’m not speaking here of the intellectual hordes of regime-hugging “Communists,” a type of well-paid vulgarity in the little worlds of the ultra-right of which we’re so tired and that leads nowhere.

Although in Cuba there’s nothing that can be called communist, though there do indeed exist unpresentable pro-government hordes that throw stones and posts; but I’m not talking about them.  I’m speaking about — and I repeat — those honest intellectuals of daily life in Cuba; those who accept the status quo but try to change things from the inside, believing that to be a better approach.

UNEAC. Photo: Caridad

I recognize that it’s a contradictory situation, one that from my point of view implies complicities of high ethical costs, but one that legitimately exists.

Back to Pablo

Bringing the discussion back to the point where it started, I believe that Pablo’s letter — contradictory and from a certain angle, also accomplice — is situated in this realm.  Let’s not forget that Pablo Milanes is not supporting the Ladies in White because of their struggles for the exercise of human rights, instead he’s condemning the terrible repression they suffer.  We can’t forget that though he doesn’t consider Cuba’s leaders gods, he affirms that he respects them and is not in disagreement with them.

The visit of Pablo Milanes to Miami has demonstrated that the world changes, even there.  I saw it as positive that along the path to the stage, the presence of certain Cuban-Americans politicians, individuals who up until quite recently would have been bulldozing [Pablo’s] CDs on Calle 8 but who are today extending a hand to this singer-songwriter, stealing a few minutes of fame.

But in what the visit of Pablo Milanes to Miami concerns Cuba (which is in fact what interests me most), his previous statements and now his letter are parts of the process of change that Cuban society is experiencing.

The protector state is disappearing and along with it the leaders who sparked the imagination of an entire society and who retained the loyalty of a good part of that nation even after their own imaginations petered out

That’s why so many reasons for fear are appearing on the part of the Cuban leaders, be it a particularly hot blog, a music festival on the beach, youths organizing a forum in a park without requesting permission, the Ladies in White parading with their invincible fragilities or the women of Cuartro Caminos furiously beating their empty pans – or now Pablo Milanes, with this letter that should be congratulated.

I hope that all of us, along with “querido Pablo,” continue listening to him sing, and fortunately continue “poniendonos viejos” (getting older).  

A Havana Times translation of the original posted in Spanish by Cubaencuentro.