Saturday, March 8, 2008

el participante, volume 1 issue 3

Yanqui, Go Home

I arrived in Cuba with a guilty conscience. When I landed at the Havana airport, I was the only passenger detained by security. This was fine, I knew I had it coming to me. Two hostile guards rifled my bags, watching me with the suspicious glares that I deserved – I was a representative, after all, of the great Imperialist peril to the North. These sentries could not be expected to know how sympathetic I was to their nation’s achievements. I was more than happy to allow them this speck of revenge.

I celebrated New Year’s Eve with a family of exiled Basque separatists. In their kitchen, we smoked romeo y julieta cigars, drank anejo rum, and debated revolutionary theory until long past midnight. Then, the conversation stopped and the singing began. We sang epics from the Basque lands, peasant hymns, and anarchist fight songs. The older generation knew the verses. The rest of us shouted the refrains, beating our glasses on the table. When the last one ended I stood and offered a song of my own: a ballad about Americans who had fought in the Spanish Civil War. I remembered most of the words, and everyone joined in for the chorus. Singing about the Abraham Lincoln Brigades to Basque revolutionaries in the socialist capital of the world—this was a superabundance of forbidden political delights. If only the airport guards could have seen me then.

This was six years ago. Like most American leftists, I had been raised to idealize the Cuban revolution. Fearing that Castro would not be around much longer, I wanted to see a socialist state when I had the chance. Last week, after fifty years in power, Fidel, 81, transferred authority to his brother, Raul, who is 76. Though this was just a half-step toward a post-Castro Cuba, the change renewed concerns about the consequences of that eventual transition.

Cuba’s fate is not a recent concern for American leftists. My family’s involvement is typical of the connection many have felt with the island. My grandparents visited the country just one year after the revolution. They returned home to found the Brooklyn chapter of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee. Then, when Fidel came to New York in 1960, they wrote to Havana and asked him to stay with them in their house near Prospect Park. The Cubans thanked my grandparents for their “generous offer,” but said they had made other arrangements. In 1969, my mother traveled to Havana with a group of SDS activists. She met with Cubans, as well as South Vietnamese guerrillas, to coordinate a global strategy for the antiwar movement. The Vietnamese were quiet and awe-inspiring; some had walked for weeks along the Ho Chi Minh Trail before flying to the conference.

For fifty years, Cuba has embodied American leftists’ dreams and frustrations about their own country. Before Castro’s revolution, the Soviets had served this purpose. In the 1920s and 1930s, radical students in the United States saw their own ambitions in the successes of Lenin and Stalin. Long after the Soviet reality had destroyed its initial possibilities, American leftists clung to its example. Stalin’s reputation among leftists here survived better than it did among his own citizens.

Critics might see this as a sign of radical naiveté, but in fact the idealization of the Soviet Union was perfectly practical. In order to reform the United States, leftists needed to find a model with which to compare it. The Russia of their imagination had nothing to do with Stalinist realities. Instead, it symbolized their hopes for their own country. As such it was a powerful ally to invoke in domestic struggles. In the 1930s and 1940s, American leftists continually compared U.S. government policies—on racism and the rights of labor—with their imagined conception of how the Russians behaved. When the evil of Stalinism became impossible to ignore, many pinned their hopes on China. In the 1960s, Vietnam and Cuba became the beacons for American radical ambition.

Only Cuba retains a system that can be construed as really existing socialism. This is partly because Cuba had no choice. It has none of the explosive potential of the Asian nations, and thus investors have had less of an incentive to interfere in its economy. Likewise, the US government’s hostility to the Castro administration plays a significant role. The embargo, as well as continuous diplomatic tension, has prevented Cuba from loosening its domestic policies. It is the United States, ironically, that keeps Cuba socialist.

The island, to be sure, is not completely isolated. It participates in the global economy, but does not trade with the United States. These days, the cars in Havana are equally divided between the classic Detroit models for which the nation is famous, Polskis, Ladas, and other Soviet-bloc imports, and late-model Japanese or European imports. Of all Cuba’s exports, the most important is its people. Several generations have been trained and brought up by the Revolution—they are its greatest achievement. But these educated professionals have no opportunity to pursue their careers at home. In recent years, they have been forced to leave the country to find work in Canada or Spain.

The American Left is not the only group concerned with Cuba’s future. Its hope that the revolution will continue to serve as the last redoubt for fading twentieth-century ideologies may be a bit self-involved, but it is positively altruistic compared with the vulturine ambitions of the White House, or the anti-Castro lobby in Miami. In the next few years, things will change, and the only constituency that really matters is the Cuban people. They neither want to serve as sacrifices to the sentimentality of American leftists, nor do they want to usher in the inequities of unalloyed capitalism, as happened in China or Russia. They want to maintain the gains of the revolution, and to improve upon them. They want the ability to travel and stay in hotels, to have internet access and cable TV. If Cubans can achieve these concessions, and find the opportunities they seek at home, then the Revolution will no longer be an abstraction onto which foreigners can inscribe their hopes and fears. It will once again be a model of a global alternative to capitalism.

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