I had forgotten about Fidel, other things were on my mind: a Trump piñata, the Frank Ocean CD, the North Dakota Pipeline. The economic collapse of Puerto Rico and the junta Washington imposed. Turkey leftovers from Thanksgiving. Not falling back onto “business-as-usual” after the election fiasco. Aretha Franklin letting the fur drop like a natural woman facing Carole King and Barack and Michelle Obama.
For three nights before the Event I had been waking up every other hour–those awful nights when I smoke and read and then go back to bed. What was I reading that week? Cuban poets translated by Kristin Dykstra, an essay by Barbara Johnson that was extremely hard and superbly written, Lina Meruane’s account of temporary blindness titled “Seeing Red,” and every so often anything on “Moonlight,” because for a film conceived and taking place in Miami its refreshing to see that there’s only one self-confessed Cuban there, and a passing mention of black beans. We were not part of the picture, so magical effects of sand and skin and light could once again move to the front.
I heard the news from my lover, when I woke up at six or seven in the morning to read. But I left the book on the desk, took off my glasses and went back to bed. I mumbled to myself that I should turn on CNN, get immediately on the internet, wake up my nephew who was visiting from New York, and consume whatever visuals I could find. But sleep rules with upside-down ethics at moments like this, and I let myself sleep.
I’ve been immersed in that blob for a week, unclear as to what part of me died, what part of me remains. I had a hard time visualizing that body in Havana, just as I had a hard time recognizing my father in that open casket in San Juan: death does a body no good, even the clothes look unreal. We never got to see the body, but I’m convinced he was cremated in the uniform he used as a Commander in Chief. After all, there were only three costume changes in the three acts of his life. First, the suit and tie, in two permutations: white suit and black suit. With that outfit he was a student, a husband, and a lawyer; the father of one child, the man who raised funds in Mexico and in the U.S.A for an invasion aimed to liberate the country from the dictator Batista. After that, and from 1959 on, he wore an olive green military suit, sometimes shiny for matters of State, at other times not so much a uniform but a radical interpretation of the priesthood–he was a jesuit with a gun and boots. (How many boots did he have?) The black suit and tie made a discrete comeback towards the end–just long enough to leave us with an idea that he could have been, under different circumstances, a “man of State.” But soon enough he settled into the jogging suit and sneakers that he wore the rest of his life.
Was it a stylist who came up with that jogging suit as a deliberate lack of style? It worked as absolute contrast to the heroic black and white and sepia photographs that sealed his place in x. It defined the present as an always a diminished past. It made him approachable, even if it lessened the gravitas. In his old age, one could imagine him as a man on the move, stubborn in his ways, paying no attention to all those who counseled rest. In the end he was an old man in his comfortable but not luxurious house, with a purple rattan patio set, an easy reclining chair and a tray table to watch the Brazilian soap operas on TV, or write long “reflections” on the present state of the world.
Of course he had to come back, even if only to die. It was at the end of November when the hurricane season is over; when the days are cool and the nights are colder, and there’s only tourists on the beach. Others may question the true existence of that paradox–the Caribbean winter–but for us the magical, muted lights of December, invite us to ponder the future and the past–a past always lived anticipating this moment as the clearest notion of the future, hence, of change. All accounts agree that the mood in Havana was subdued; the few lucky souls that have internet at home posted videos of empty, silent streets–a ghost town in the land of music that has gone silent.
All the protocols had been put in place with military precision a while ago, in Havana and Miami. “Cubans are volatile by nature,” I can hear this as the lead for an early briefing at the police headquarters all around Miami-Dade and points beyond
The sum total of fifty-eight years under his rule will take some time to process. Those who visit Havana these days will surely understand one just doesnt leave a city like that without intending to come back, even if you have to fight for every last inch of territory. And yes, they left, they were kicked out, they escaped, they understood they had no other option. They were not all from Havana but most of them were. In the 1960s they went to Miami, Elizabeth, West New York, or San Juan. In the 1970s some of them tried to turn exile into civil war and lived in a world of secret pacts, bombing raids and training camps in the Everglades. In the early 1980s they turned up at La Escuelita in Manhattan–fabulous drag queens that couldnt walk straight, couldnt think straight, couldnt march straight, couldnt wear their hair short and part it on the side, or tuck their shirts inside their pants. The fact that in Cuba, of all places, “extravagance” was regulated by the legal code belies a twisted notion of social hygiene predicated on the narrowest and most obtuse delirium or desires of normative masculinity.
And in the end, the colosal failure of his plans and demands allowed Cubans to survive the revolutionary reassignment of the Nineties, as the State shed its old skin and created a “mixed economy” that’s closer to kleptocracy than capitalism. When the state legalized some private commerce it just moved it above ground, and when practicing religion did not count against you, its acts of resistance–it turned out–had been plain enough to see for those who had paid attention all those years. Homosexuals flaunting it and sashaying up and down the Malecón flipped the orthodox “New Man” dreamt by Che Guevara time and time again. In fact, only by defying the law did Cubans survive when the Soviet Union collapsed, and in the process laid to rest the idea that prostitution was solely a by-product of capitalism. When Spanish and Canadian tourists came to see what sort of utopia 40 years of Revolution had conceived, they had to pay a bribe to sneak the women into their hotel room and wait until they wrapped leftover restaurant food in a napkin so the rest of the family could eat. The tourists had front seats to an unravelling they could not quite understand, so they just viewed it according to their own “realistic” understandings, and reminded (more often, lectured) the complaining Cubans on the fate of the poor Haitians, or Bolivians, or even Mexicans.
But revolutions are not fought and won by populations dulled and overdosed on realism and the first decade of the Cuban Revolution is certainly an example of that. In the give and take of survival, one side was always fooling the other, and that side in turn pretended to be fooled. Those who think that repression explains the survival of the Cuban state fail to understand that those old Chevys are still running in Havana as a result of an improvised mechanics capable of passing them off as the real thing. In a similar fashion, by the time his rocking chair was placed on the terrace so that he could enjoy the smell of over-ripe mangoes falling from the tree in the patio, each and every one of his edicts and imperatives and policy decisions was undone, revised, annulled and forgotten.
That hundreds of thousands assembled to pay him their last respects should not surprise the citizens of a country that has now voted Donald Trump into office. Even if both make no secret of their dictatorial streak, it’s clear that to compare one to the other is absurd. Cubans were never suckered into voting or fighting against their own self-interest, by counting the pennies and cents that some “others” receive for social welfare and deciding it’s still too much for the richest country on earth to sustain. Cubans, on the other hand, were seduced by the prospect of everyone having more, of distributing it fairly, and freely, for the good of all. If it was an ideology that called for sacrifice and frugality, it was built upon a foundation of largesse. Everything was bigger than big, every achievement surpassed previous goals, and every disaster was catastrophic. The particulars of his rule are overshadowed by such collective endeavours; his immortality was gained at the expense of individual lives coming off as accidental, selfish, blinded by petty desires–sore losers, after all, the scum of the earth, the “Cuban Mafia.”
“Making money was our best revenge,” said the losers, and they point with pride at two of their “rags-to-riches” sons taking center stage in a US presidential campaign heavy on xenophobia and racism. They were expected to celebrate, in order to make that death absolutely real, and celebrate they did– in the gaudy sandwich shop that sits on an otherwise lifeless avenue. Not because there are no suitable places in Miami where you can find collective redemption–the Freedom Tower comes to mind, where at least two generations of Cubans got their refugee checks upon arrival. But Cubans know better than to celebrate a political victory, they know that in spite of being the “model minority,” the “token whites” of the Hispanic world, they have to tread lightly. Miami-Dade went for Obama and Hillary, and Marco Rubio lost his own state in the primaries. The Cuban Representative for Miami-Dade is the Republican staunch conservative Ileana Ross-Lehtinen who for years kept secret the fact that she had a transgender son until the Miami Herald published the story in 2010. If she had previously voted for the Defense of Marriage Act, she was later the sole Republican who voted to repeal it, and is the only Republican member of the Congressional LGBT Equality caucus. She has always supported her son, just as Gloria Estefan has done the same for her daughter. It’s not clear if the Estefans celebrated Trump’s victory but I would not be surprised if they borrowed an ordinary car to honk their horn around the streets of Little Havana.
In Miami the video of an old Cuban lady went viral: she suffered from advanced Alzheimer’s, was shown his official picture as one of the dead, and she immediately recognized him for what he was But her dancing and her joy are not the most important parts of this story. as her daughter told her he was dead, She miraculously knew precisely who the Monster was, and jumped and danced and raised her stroller for the cameras. In Paris, in Memphis, Barcelona, Ecuador and Los Angeles, that same day, Cubans individually filmed their thoughts, as scattered as the diaspora of which they form part. A Cuban woman walking home from work in Rome, says she doesnt give a fuck about the corpse, because she has worked very hard to eliminate him from her life. And to all those that want him alive forever, she grabs her tits and slaps her ass and says “you’re never gonna have a piece of this.”
Before he died in Miami a couple of years ago, Lorenzo Garcia Vega, one of the greatest Cuban poets, was fond of stating that our Republican period, from 1903 to 1959, had been neither a drama or a tragedy nor a farse, but actually a light opera, a musical comedy, a cartoon strip on the Sunday paper. After the Republic collapsed like a soufflé, Lorenzo left Cuba, found himself in New York, spent a brief period in Caracas and then moved to Miami where there have always been old Cubans and few poets. He worked as a bag boy in Publix and spoke about his job in many of his poems and books. He called himself “the great loser,” not with the sense of classical beauty that Elizabeth Bishop moulded into a perfect line (“the art of losing is hard to master”), but as the starting point for a slipshod, messy, dirty aesthetics of repetition and reiteration.
That was Cuba to Lorenzo–the trains never ran on time, cars kept breaking down and the traffic lights were out of sync. It was a complicated musical comedy with so many implausible twists and turns and plot devices that at certain points surely everyone becomes a martyr only to end up acting like a thief. And what about sacrifice, fatherland or death? It could be even funnier if it weren’t so tragic, if it didnt have such complicated grammar, if it weren’t aiming for nothing short of utopia. Lest we confuse Lorenzo with a cynic, let us underscore his time in Purgatory at Albino Beach (his name for Miami) where you may find a way out of poverty and lack of means because from poverty of spirit there are no survivors.
In the end, the world more or less survived his foolish play with the nuclear arsenal. And if the past sixty years have rendered Cubans into beings Cubans themselves fail to understand, by turning families against each other, and demanding that friends betray their closest friends and attack them for attempting to leave the country. In the midst of all this, it bears repeating one simple fact learned from these past five decades: it is no small consolation that one can come out of material poverty and need, while not even the Chinese doctor can cure you of poverty of spirit.
A nation overdosed on history can respond to solemnity with a pork croquette.After retracing the route of his triumphant march to Havana in 1959, his ashes were placed inside a brown granite rock that, they say, was not painted olive green lest it look like a turd. And that’s the end of it all. Like the great Maria Teresa Vera said, “Play a rumba on top of that tomb”
for José M.
December 4, 2016