AN AMERICAN IN CUBA
by Mitchel Cohen
Liberal newspapers and journals as much as overt
right-wing ones have long been fond of
denouncing the Cuban government as an
authoritarian "regime" that oppresses its people
in the name of socialism. They characterize those
who support the Cuban revolution as "Stalinists."
A number of U.S. leftists have bought into these
arguments and accept the prevailing demonization of the Cuban government.
On the other hand, many on the Left in the U.S.
take the opposite path, allowing little debate
over the nature of the revolution in Cuba.
(Please note -- "Liberal" and "Left" are not the
same, or even part of the same continuum, despite
the congruence imposed by the corporate media.)
Those leftists who criticize Cuba's policies are
condemned as "tools of U.S. imperialism"; those
who find a silver-lining in the U.S. government's
trade embargo among them socialists,
anarchists, even some marxists are considered
"enemies of this hemisphere's only socialist
revolution." These are the flames to which
leftists gravitate like moths. Both poles are dangerously flawed.
In the summer of 1992 I visited Cuba as part of a
delegation to the Fourth Conference of Cuban and
North American Philosophers, organized by the
U.S.-based Radical Philosophy Association. I had
occasion to travel quite a bit around Havana, and
others in the delegation ventured all over the
country. There are many problems in Cuba and
the people living there are the first to complain
about them and feel free enough to do so. Despite
tremendous hardships caused or exacerbated by the
U.S. embargo, life “on the ground” in Cuba simply
felt more joyous than the way it’s represented from afar.
In assessing Cuban socialism most leftists in the
U.S. to say nothing of the corporate media
simply miss the point. I found that proposals I
and others made for "Green" forms of
"development" were welcomed by most Cuban
agencies, some quite independent from the
national government; they are eager for skilled
international input. What many in the U.S. fail
to understand is that unlike the situation in
pre-unification Germany where the authoritarian
bureaucracy in the East was imposed from the
outside, it is the involvement of the mass of
Cuban people and not the structure of the Cuban
government that is the defining feature of the revolution there.
Regardless of how one assesses Cuba, those of us
living in the U.S. would better serve our
movements here by paying more attention to the
dynamic revolutionary culture, philosophy,
morality and vision of the Cuban people. I hope
that this account of my experiences in Cuba will
contribute to restoring context and a human scale to the current polemics.
Back to the Future
HAVANA, CUBA, June 1992 HAVANA IS A CITY OF
VINTAGE AMERICAN CARS from the 1940s and '50s and
single-geared Chinese bicycles from the '90s. The
old Spanish architecture, which predates the 1959
revolution by centuries, is stunning, although
everywhere in need of painting (due to the U.S.
embargo, paint is scarce). Brilliant red-flowered
flamboyante trees line the major avenues and
parks the breathtaking Cuban equivalent of New England's maples in autumn.
My dorm room is in a beautiful house in the
Miramar section. The June weather is sweltering.
My roommates and I are tempted to use the air-
conditioners provided by the university, but we
refrain. We appreciate the sacrifices they are
making to meet the "bourgeois" needs of U.S.
visitors, but our awareness of their dire
economic situation keeps us from using up their
precious electricity. The Cubans think we're
crazy, ungrateful, it's super hot out, they'd die to have an air conditioner.
I am overwhelmed by the unanticipated generosity
and gentleness in Havana, especially among the
panhandlers and occasional prostitutes I
encounter. Humor pervades all interaction; there
is a vibrancy that is tangible, sexual, a
twinkling of the eyes that is hard to describe
and even more difficult to get used to.
I walk and bike all over the city; contrary to
stories we heard in Miami, there are no
commissars breathing down my neck or looking over
my shoulder. Except for tourist hotels, where
Cuban citizens are no longer allowed a double
standard provoking serious dissension, to which
our translators are in denial Cubans and
tourists alike are free to go anywhere and talk to whomever they please.
I stop everywhere to talk with people, take
pictures, read, interview officials and
environmental activists, hunt for hard-to-find
avenues, gay venues, tea rooms and alternative
medicine practitioners. Where are the billboards
trying to sell me something? Where are the
taxi-drivers yelling out to me? Everywhere the
general absence of interpersonal street violence
and aggression is, to this New Yorker, wonderful ... and disorienting.
Cuban machismo is always evident, but it takes a
different form than what I am used to in the
United States. For instance, it rarely translates
into physical violence on the street. And yet,
everything is relative, I suppose. Aurora
Hidalgo, a young lawyer at the Ecology Ministry,
told me she now carries a knife “because a woman
who lives in my building was raped a year ago” --
the only rape in her whole neighborhood near
downtown Havana, in the last two years. Still,
when we visit the art museum, which is free and
virtually empty, the guards stand two-feet behind
us as though we're going to run up and draw
mustaches on the sculptures and paintings.
I find myself thinking about the ways capitalism
distorts us – not only “others,” but what it has
done to me, twisted me, shaped my interactions,
relationships, love life, expectations, desires
and sense of self, without my even knowing it.
Here, in Cuba, my cells are in revolt. My
mitochondria are conjuring energies that are more
fully me than I’ve ever before experienced. I am
coming alive, and I never even knew I was dead.
I didn’t expect Cuba to be so “personal” a
revelation. Like most North American urbanites, I
have taken for granted “who I am” all my adult
life. Can my friends in New York appreciate this
feeling, the way in which violence has so shaped
our interactions, relationships and sense of self
that we don't even see it? If, as Ferlinghetti
metaphored, there is a "Coney Island of the
mind," then there is also something of a Havana
of the spirit. For now, I don't want to go back home.