Cuba: untold stories

Back from the Cuba Research Forum event in Nottingham. Came away thinking once again, as many times before, that Cuba is a mass of paradoxes. A small country which punches far above its weight in international politics, in dire economic straights but ruled by a strong regime which still upholds the communist ideology. This regime, which now officially admits that people don’t earn enough to live on, has prioritised social welfare, and the country has seen no essential fall in its exemplary rates of life expectancy nor any rise in infant mortality compared to before the collapse of 1991. This is not say the system is not under strain, but these rates are among the best in the world. (Cuba’s infant mortality rate is actually lower than that of the USA; meanwhile, opponents of Obama’s health reforms protest, among other things, that covering 46m uninsured Americans will ‘cost too much’—in the richest country in the world.)

Not only that, but at the same time Cuba supports a huge programme of international medical aid, such that almost a quarter of its doctors are abroad at any one time. The greatest story about Cuba never told, as someone quipped. As we learned from John Kirk’s thorough study of the impact of Cuban medical internationalism in Latin America, Cuban doctors have cured 1.7m cases of blindness across the continent, as well as saving thousands of lives, and back at home, thousands of students from the Third World are enrolled at ELAM, the largest medical school in the world.

It is true that many of these medics volunteer for the scheme because it enables them to earn salary in dollars which they cannot earn at home, but despite the enticements offered by President Bush Jr, only 2% of them defect (while 9% of Canadian medical graduates, Kirk told us, go south; the UK, one might add, is also an importer of qualified medics—especially from former colonies). When the Cuban doctors come back from their international tour of duty and report on their experience, they often start with ‘I thought things were difficult here, but over there…’

Since this was a small gathering where everyone had done field work in Cuba, and thus has first hand knowledge of how things are, there was neither political rhetoric nor speculation. We learned about episodes in the history of revolutionary struggle, the history of Cuban comics, sustainable agriculture, youth culture, shifts in official policy towards the Cuban music scene, and much more (forgive me for not mentioning everyone by name.) Mervyn Bain took us through the increasing strain in Cuba-Soviet relations during the Gorbachev years. I was put in mind of the excitement about glasnost that we discovered in Cuba when we filmed a television report on human rights in 1987; while Cuba was officially trying to dampen enthusiasm, people were crowding in to see previously suppressed Soviet films, Moscow News began to rival Granma, and
the American diplomats of the Interests Section invited us to come and meet the Russians!

Christopher Hull told us about the contrast between British and US policy towards Cuba in the first years of the Revolution: Britain, as an island that ‘trades to live’, rebuffed US attempts to have them join the embargo, and thought the Yanks were over-reacting. I could add that if subsequent British governments held to this position with regard to trade, they remained ideologically hostile. A journalist, even an MEP, going to the Foreign Office for a briefing before a trip, would be told they shouldn’t bother going there, it was a Washington story. At Brussels, the UK has generally taken the most unfriendly positions.)

All of these presentations provided much food for thought as we sat there trying to understand where Cuba’s at now, and thus arrived at the final session, which offered three very different readings. Lukas Port began by giving us a discourse-analysis of Cuba’s political ideology. Impossible to do it justice here; it was interesting but didn’t convince me, because by definition it allows no room for the non-discursive (like the subject of my own contribution, on photography)—in other words, cultural forms which can’t be treated as texts without losing their aesthetic, experiential or existential quality.

One of these non-discursive domains was immediately addressed in the next presentation, by Steve Wilkinson, who tried out on us a psychosocial interpretation of Fidel’s longevity in power, in a paper co-authored by the psychoanalyst Simon Western. This was probably the most polemical paper of the conference, because of course many people remain suspicious of psychoanalysis, but I found it highly suggestive. The nub of the argument, drawing on Melanie Klein and Wilfred Bion, was that projective identification with Fidel as the messianic leader was split by Che’s demise in Bolivia. Che became mythologized as the symbolic representation of the desire and aspirations of the socialist project, whereas Fidel represented the hard facts of economic, material and political reality. In psychodynamic terms, Fidel was able to mobilise the dead Che as the messianic leader, and deflect the hateful projections which often destroy messianic leaders when revolutionary hopes are dashed by brute reality. This is not about conscious political scheming, and there’s a certain amount of mythology in this kind of interpretation, but in simple terms, Che represented the dream, Fidel the reality principle.

If Che ended up dead on a slab in that other famous photo of him looking like Mantegna’s dead Christ,


in Cuba the work of mourning for Che was never done, because they were robbed of his body, all they had was the photograph, and photos are not for burying. When his body was finally discovered and returned to Cuba in 1997, it was too late to lift Cuba out of its melancholy. On the contrary, it probably deepened it.

Here then is another paradox. When you think of Cuba’s music and dance, you hear and see an irrepressible joie-de-vivre, but when you’re on the streets, talking with friends over a trago—or visiting the film school and having conversations with staff and students, both Cuban and foreign—then you encounter the face of melancholy. You see it in the resigned endurance of daily difficulties, scarcity in the supply of everyday goods, the dire state of transport, without any prospect of alleviation in sight. It’s as if Cuba is paying the price of trying to live up to Che, and these things are suffered with a somewhat frayed sense of civic manners, of the old compañerismo—although compañero or compañera as a common form of address disappeared a long time ago (except among a few diehards).

Cuba is commonly pictured in the global mass media as a place of anachronism, a country stuck in the past. Not so. It is just as modern as we, but it’s a different kind of modernity, experienced from a position not outside but marginalised; not disconnected but forced into reliance on different networks. This produces another paradox: seemingly on the fringes of global interconnectivity, culturally the northern blockade never succeeded, and today, Cuba’s music and cinema and plastic artists are in the vanguard of many of the same currents that are found in the metropolis.

What is certain, for the visitor, is the sense on arriving of a shift in the register of time; not just the different daily rhythms but something more elusive. In fact the problem is not the past but the future, which seems to be suspended. The truth is what’s obvious, that it’s blocked by Fidel’s continuing presence, even if he’s now reduced to kibbitzing. But here the appropriate psychoanalytic shorthand would be drawn from Lacan—Fidel as the personification of Lacan’s Big Other, the symbol of the father figure (by the late 80s the youth were calling him abuelo, grandad), who looms above you asking the impossible question ‘what do you want of me?’, because he used to have the answers but not any longer.

No-one can foretell what will happen when the Big Other finally abandons the scene. As Senel Paz responded when he was asked the question on a visit abroad, ‘I suppose there will be a funeral’. But everyone’s waiting for the unforeseen, because only the unforeseen is going to bring about change—until then, everything remains the same. They’ve been waiting so long, despite the momentous historical changes in the world around them, that they seem to have forgotten that sooner or later the unforeseen happens. And when it comes, and if nothing surprising happens, that will also be a surprise.

Finally our host, Antoni Kapcia, rounded off with an elegant deconstruction of ‘Fidelcentrism’ of the kind that pervades the global mass media, directing us instead to look at the composition of the higher echelons of the political class across the years if we want to get an inkling of where things stand in the corridors of power. No predictions, because there have been major shifts of power under the leadership of Raul Castro in which previous candidates for the future highest office have disappeared from view. He pointed out that the leadership still includes several men of Raul’s generation who have either never been out of political power or in one case come back in.* The implication is that this group will play a key role in deciding the succession. Unless of course something unforeseen happens. In the meantime, the big question is not the succession, but the economy, or perhaps, the revenge of the economic—how to weather the ‘perfect storm’ of global economic recession and the double whammy of last year’s hurricane damage.

Something gets through the media even if distorted, and it’s striking that Cuba has recently acquired a new image in the mass media, as the site of pioneering forms of sustainable agriculture, with the development of organic or quasi-organic farming, city gardens, and now the recuperation of unused agricultural land. It’s another paradox, since Cuba is not becoming an ecological model from ideological motivation but by force of circumstances. But maybe it’s a real sign of the times, of the urgent need, not only in Cuba but everywhere, to bring about a coalescence of socialist and ecological thinking.

* The one is Ramiro Valdés, the others Machado Ventura, Colomé Ibarra, and Osmany Cienfuegos. Kapcia also included Juan Almeida, who however has just died (aged 82).


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