By Haroldo Dilla Alfonso
HAVANA TIMES – In the rocky ‘90s, Fidel Castro publicly humiliated Eusebio Leal in an awful way. I believe it was during a National Assembly session, when he told Don Eusebio off for some daring comment. Then, fixing his shrewd stare on him, he consoled him by publicly saying that he knew that “Leal era leal” (Leal was loyal).
A merciless cameraman recorded the event and focused in on Eusebio’s face for a couple of seconds: his face was shaking like I’ve never seen anyone shake in my life, his eyes coming out of their sockets and his mouth twisted into a grimace, while the right cheek flinched as if it had a life of its own.
Fidel was right: Leal was frighteningly loyal. Ever since this scare, he adulated the regime to shameful heights, like he did in 2003, when he supported the execution of three young Cubans who tried to hijack a passenger ferry. However, this doesn’t detract from his undeniable merits.
He knew the cogs of the system and used them well. In order to do this, he had to bite his tongue on some things, but lots of us did, and the people who rudely speak out against him today, not only bit their tongues, but they received the privileges for their involvement in elite performances.
Leal was one of the ones inside the system who tried to improve it – he worked very hard to do this – believing in bits and pieces and pretending the rest. This happens in every system, but it absolutely happens 100% in totalitarian systems like the Cuban one, where moral shirking is a means of survival and way up in the ranks.
Calling him a historian is a bit over the top in the creative sense of the term. His few written contributions have only been published because of his position, and there’s nothing new in them.
There were other historians – Porter Vila, Ramiro Guerra, Fernando Portuondo, Jose Luciano Franco, Moreno Fraginals, etc – but I personally met some and I can’t imagine them “walking through Havana”.
Leal was never a historian in the rigorous sense of the profession, but he did have the good sense to “walk through Havana”. But he was an academic public servant with a well-tuned instinct for opportunity, a minstrel of courtesan and sugarcoated rhetoric, using three adjectives in every sentence and lots of information. This falls well on the ear, of those below and those above.
Leal was awarded political merits. It’s argued that he was always a neutral observer of relationships between the emigre and island communities, and of US-Cuba relations, which is true. I would also say he had a different view of the pre-revolutionary republic, which has been stigmatized to the point of rejection by official discourse.
However, his greatest merit is having restored the historic center with some one-off interventions beyond the three squares. His restoration work doesn’t diverge in essence from other restoration work carried out on the continent – creating clean, safe and fun historic spaces -, but we have to recognize a social touch he gave to these projects, which are lacking from others.
While it’s true that he was able to do this because Fidel Castro allowed him to and supported him, it’s also true that the system works this way, and I know a lot of other figures who had a carte blanche from the “Comandante” and didn’t become more than costly bon vivant.
Even though I am stressing that this wasn’t a historiographic feat, he wasn’t just a stagehand of urban history either, but an enabler. However, he was an enabler of a certain kind of urban history: the white, masculine and elitist urban history, which he reincarnated in a post-revolutionary political class which came into power in 1959, promising the exact opposite.
Eusebio Leal was, as a result, a figure of the conservative, creole, Catholic and elitist cut. His courtesan verbal diarrhea was two different things: a soup of letters for an uncultured political class that would scorn him in the end; and a sleeping pill for the popular classes, who didn’t understand the details, but they enjoyed it just like the masses enjoyed Princess Diana’s wedding celebrations.
I believe it was on Mercaderes Street that I found a naive mural the last time I was in Havana, nearly 20 years ago. The mural depicted illustrious figures from the colonial city, as if they were socializing from the ground floor and a balcony above.
I remember counting 24 figures, 17 were white men, 5 were women, also white, and there were two Afro-descendents mixed in: Brindis de Salas and Placido. I might be wrong in the details, but it was basically this: an urban history of white men.
Black people were folklore, memories of local customs. Leal set up a peculiar system of independent workers to create a “colonial time” atmosphere, and I remember some black women dressed up in flower hats, wearing bright colors and with large cigars in their mouths, taking photos with tourists for 1 USD, the half of which made its way to the Office’s coffers.
There was a Casa de Africa, but it was were the main displays of Cuban popular religions were kept, such as santeria, abakua and palo monte. There were especially lots of counts and marquises, and “early Havana locals” who had imposed themselves on the symbology that Leal consecrated, from the ceiba tree to the city’s palaces.
There are many Havanas, like societies layered one on top of the other. Leal entered them, but he fixed his attention on the city that came before his own cosmovision that bowed down to authoritarian power. These other Havanas need a space that won’t come with a new less-loyal-than-Leal historian.
This diverse and multiple city will only be a reality when there is a democratic and pluralist society, with an independent and dynamic civil society. This is the only productive way of overcoming – not forgetting, or defaming – Eusebio Leal.