Cuba between loss and perseverance

Some musings on everyday anarchy, contradictions and the future of the revolution

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Dodging new and antique cars alike while walking the narrow, cobbled streets in Old Havana. Photo: JC

by José Cienfuegos and Eliana Musterle

On a short but eventful trip to Cuba Eliana recently took – her first – she met José, an American researcher of Cuban descent. They met up several times that week and found themselves caught in engrossing conversations every single time. Because such conversational chemistry with strangers is both exhilarating and rare, and because both Cuba and the US have been experiencing fast political change in the past few months, they decided to recreate parts of their exchange in interview form. What follows is the result of their experiment.

EM: Can you tell me a bit about the way your family talked about Cuba and the Revolution as you were growing up? In what ways has that background shaped your interest in Cuba as a young researcher as well as your personal identity? Does your experience resonate with that of other Americans of Cuban descent1?

JC: I am not a fan of generalizations, and maybe this does not actually count as one, but I feel like the Cuban diaspora experience can be summed up with two seemingly paradoxical ideas: each family’s story is simultaneously completely distinctive, and yet, there is something specifically shared among them all. Cuba’s relation to its diaspora community is unique and has been for a long time in the sense that Cubans who have left developed a strong tradition of remaining intimately involved in the politics on the island. It seems like many of the Cubans I meet (and this is true of those who left before the revolution in 1959 and after) never planned on leaving forever. Whether exiled or voluntary (or somewhere in-between), the various periods of alternatively intense or trickling exodus has, throughout Cuban history, always been intended on a temporary basis. This is true of José Martí and the independence generation, this is true of Fidel Castro and his revolutionary generation, and it is also true of the modern generations that have left since the 1960’s.

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Persevering roots searching for soil among the concrete apartments of Centro Havana. Photo: JC.

For my family in particular, it was just that. My grandfather was born into a poor carpenter’s family from Santa Clara, one of 6 siblings (4 brothers, 2 sisters). He was born during the dictatorial years of the Machado era of the 1920’s and raised during the authoritarian age of Batista in the 1930’s and 1940’s. When he moved to the United States for an education in 1946, it was certainly not with a mind to leave forever. Then, history unfurled in a certain way and my grandfather eventually found himself coming home from serving in the US Army during the Korean war for a visit to Cuba in 1955–it was the last time he would visit home and see his parents alive, though no one was aware at the time.

When the revolution triumphed in 1959, there was no sense of its full geopolitical implications. For decades, Cuban governments had come and gone with such regularity that, up to that point in history, the notion of any particular regime lasting for 60 years would have been relatively unfathomable.

When the revolution triumphed in 1959, there was no sense of its full geopolitical implications. For decades, Cuban governments had come and gone with such regularity that, up to that point in history, the notion of any particular regime lasting for 60 years would have been relatively unfathomable. But for my grandfather and his two brothers who had left for the states, there was a moment when they realized that they would perhaps never return home. I have heard at least two of them (my grandfather and his youngest brother) recall that moment: it never entailed despair, but it did contained a profound sense of loss. The half of the family that remained in Cuba was never forgotten, but it seems for those who now made it to the US, that loss would have to be compensated for by investing heart and soul into family in the US.

Perhaps something else that seems an undercurrent in the story of my family is how intimately our lives have been tied to specific historical junctures and events, both things within our control, as a family and individuals, and things that were completely out of our control. For Cubans, this seems a particularly poignant reality. While my grandfather and his brothers realized that the US was now their home by default, it was always seen through the prism of being distinctly and undeniably Cuban.

Growing up, the stories I heard of Cuba from them imbued me with this almost mythical appreciation of the island. To me, Cuba was some amazing anti-paradise/paradise of a tough life but containing infinite beauty. Perhaps this is typical of Cuban culture–the paradox of life as being simultaneously both sides of a coin. The stories I heard of Cuba often contained plenty of strife–for instance, my grandfather’s story of the first girl he ever dated who lived a few kilometers out of town but whom he had to split up with because he was losing too much weight walking to and from her house–but always ended with humor and laughter. It was an attempt, through stories, passion and humor, to cope with the trials, uncertainty and absurdity of life. It is almost Sisyphean, in a way. I grew up hearing stories from my grandfather and inheriting the incredible, informal oral history of our family while also reading books from my father’s bookshelf about the revolution and Cuban history.

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A young girl walking home along the coast near Trinidad. Photo: JC

Which leads me to today: I have begun work as an adult doing research in Cuba. It seems inevitable now that I reflect: while I have travelled and lived abroad in many different places for much of the past decade, I have always gravitated back to Cuba. On one hand, it has been a great way to reconnect with family here, whom I see every time I visit. As my grandfather’s generation of the our family has gotten older, I feel this sort of familial responsibility–maybe keeping in line with generations of the Cuban diaspora before me–to maintain connections with my family in Cuba and with Cuba as a country. Just as well, it is also just such an incredible privilege to be able to show up in a country that, before 2012, I had never visited and to be treated like family, to be welcomed with such love and open arms.

Part of my Cuban family still lives in the same home my grandfather was born and raised in; they even use some of the same pieces of furniture my grandfather built with his brothers and father in the 1930’s. By working in Cuba and maintaining these connections, it is as if I can actually be a part of my grandfather’s life and through that, put images and memories to the stories I have been told that were otherwise just pieces of my imagination. It is a way for me to connect with him as much as the rest of my family.

Despite being on the periphery of many global events, Cuba has always had a way–through its own audacity and determination, and a sort of irreverence towards the pecking-order of global hierarchy–to force its way onto the world stage.

I had the amazing opportunity to bring my grandfather back to Cuba a few years ago as well. I really cannot begin to describe what that meant to me or what I learned from that experience, but it was another important chapter of this incredible puzzle that is my understanding of Cuba. No doubt, it is a puzzle that will never be complete, but it is also one to which I realize I am one small part. One could easily say that to understand contemporary Cuba, you must understand Cuban history, and to understand Cuban history, you must really understand the history of the world. Which is not to fall into the trap of a sort of Cuba-centric view of the world, only to illustrate the point that, despite being on the periphery of many global events, Cuba has always had a way–through its own audacity and determination, and a sort of irreverence towards the pecking-order of global hierarchy–to force its way onto the world stage.

Since we first met, Donald Trump was elected president of the United States, which is certainly going to cause some radical changes in US trade and diplomatic relations. Fidel Castro, a hero of the Cuban Revolution and Cuba’s leader for many decades, passed away on November 25th 2016, and it seems unclear what will happen to Cuban leadership after his brother Raúl dies or gives up power. What outcomes do you anticipate as a result of these changes? For instance, what do you think are the possible effects of the end of the decades-long US embargo on Cuban farmers?

Certainly, for better or worse, it is an exciting time in Cuba. I remember standing in the airport when I got the news alert on my phone about Fidel. It was like a light had been turned off. But not because I idolize Fidel, but because this was like the ultimate way to punctuate a reality that has been confronted slowly by Cubans for the past decade or so: that the revolutionary generation will soon have passed away, literally and figuratively. This is underwritten even more by Raul’s announcement that he will formally turn over power to Manuel Diaz-Canel in 2018. Because time passes, the writing has been on the wall for quite a while now, but these recent developments (perhaps initiated by Fidel turning over power to Raul in 2008) including the Obama administration’s change of stance on Cuba in 2014 are all elements of potentially great change.

Camilo Cienfuegos, a Cuban revolutionary who disappeared in 1959, watches over Havana’s Revolution Square, where drivers of pre-Revolution era American cars wait for international visitors willing to pay for a ride. Photo: EM

It would be naïve to try and predict what will happen in Cuba–if Cuba has been anything, it has always been surprising and unpredictable. So to try and think of what this brave new world might look like in the future, I am of the opinion that it is best to look at the way things are right now. The reality in Cuba is that the population is very young and well educated–you have an entire generation of Cubans who are getting access to uncensored information (although this has always been true to an extent), made all the more widespread because internet and cell phones are becoming more common place. These are young people, full of energy and potential, and they want to see the world and travel and have a voice and express themselves. They are pushing against the boundaries of the cultural policing of the revolution and have been for some time now, especially in places like Santa Clara. They are the revolutionaries within the revolution; they are the ones making the revolution today and it will be done in their image. I find this a useful place to start when thinking about how things will begin to unfold in the next few years.

[Young Cubans] are the revolutionaries within the revolution; they are the ones making the revolution today and it will be done in their image.

Another reality, which will have more to do with the question on food and agricultural futures, is that Cubans have spent decades surviving hardship in spite of the US blockade (it is not called the embargo in Cuba, but instead, el bloqueo–the blockade) and economic crises. In a very Guervarian sense, there are strong cultural traditions of solidarity and community that have been the result of such strife (although, as my grandfather would say, this is as much if not more of a Cuban thing then it is a communist one). Far from the hyper-individualism of the capitalist economy more evident in places such as the US, Cuba’s sense of social capital and informal economic tradition will lend themselves very imperfectly to any model of an economy that any institution might try to impose. I am thinking specifically of places like the World Bank, IMF and WTO. Cuba’s economic heterogeneity–hardship is the mother of ingenuity, after all–will frustrate any attempts to manage the economy from the top-down (just ask the Cuban state, they have been trying to do so for 60 years). While this makes Cuba hard to predict, it might be safe to say that Cuba will continue to be unpredictable.

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One of Havana’s many urban gardens. Its workers are municipal employees and its street stalls provides local inhabitants with fresh produce from the garden itself and rural cooperatives outside Havana. Walking around Havana’s central area, one does not have to search for long to find such spaces, which seem to be central to local food security. Photo: EM.

One area in which these dynamics are on full display is within the agricultural sector. For many years, Cuban agriculture happened along Soviet-style industrial models that were incredibly unsustainable by virtue of huge petroleum- and input-dependency. Their focus was on producing massive quantities of sugarcane for export in exchange for other goods and food stuffs. In the 1990’s, after the fall of the Soviet Union, Cuba entered a phase of economic crises now called The Special Period in Time of Peace during which food availability on the island plummeted. Out of necessity, the government opened up the agricultural sector and turned to agroecological and organic models of food production. Such a shift on a national scale has since made Cuba a pioneer in these techniques, which have huge social and ecological implications, while also contributing to food security on the island.

Should the US blockade fall tomorrow, agriculture in particular will be one of the sectors most profoundly affected. Already, as my time in the conference circuit in Cuban has made all too clear, the forces of large agri-business, mostly corporate-owned, are already lining up on the US side of things, waiting for the day to pounce.

Should the US blockade fall tomorrow, agriculture in particular will be one of the sectors most profoundly affected. Already, as my time in the conference circuit in Cuban has made all too clear, the forces of large agri-business, mostly corporate-owned, are already lining up on the US side of things, waiting for the day to pounce. Not only would this threaten the great accomplishments of agroecology in Cuba in regards to food security, but it would entail massive social and ecological ramifications as well.

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Early morning on a small family farm west of Havana. Photo: JC.

This is not to say that the Cuban food system does not have issues: of course it does, as do food systems everywhere. But it seems that this alternative form of agriculture, in all its heterogeneity, would come into direct conflict with the priorities and understandings of the agrobusiness sector. In the end, it is my sincerest hope, that Cuban agroecology may continue to flourish and improve in the years ahead, no matter what happens geopolitically. In reality, however, it would be naive to ignore the serious threat posed by companies and interests that would seek to reform the agricultural sector to resemble the plantation-style production methods and exploitation that once made Cuba a sugarcane factory for the world.

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An agroecology farm in Pinar Del Rio overlooking the Valle de Vinales. Photo: JC.

As for Trump, he will try to do what he can to inflate his own ego and compensate for his own insecurities, perhaps reversing course on Cuba although he has made no indication of his intentions with Cuba as of yet. Ultimately, however, since the humiliation of the US imperialism that stole independence from Cubans at the turn of the last century, Cubans have insisted on being masters of their own destiny. Despite recent geopolitical changes in rhetoric and posturing, the changes that have been occurring on the Cuban side are still very slow, weary and cautious. Cuba has been down this road before with the US and they are well, well aware of where it can lead.

I cannot tell you how many people I have heard recite something along the lines of, “I want to visit Cuba before it changes forever,” which implies a few really frustrating things.

The fear many people have is that Cuba might potentially run the risk of becoming some retirement community for wealthy retired white people from the US, like some dystopic Caribbean Florida. I cannot tell you how many people I have heard recite something along the lines of, “I want to visit Cuba before it changes forever,” which implies a few really frustrating things.

First of all, it implies that foreigners feel as if, simply because Cuba has been isolated from the West for 60 years, that it somehow has not changed. That just because there are old cars in the streets, that Cuba has somehow been stuck in time. Perhaps change in Cuba looks quite different from the paradigms set forward by other post-independence colonies in the 20th century, but it has certainly changed radically, reinventing itself many times over. ABMTR should be the Cuban mantra: Always Be Making the Revolution. Not necessarily because of revolutionary fervor–there are not a lot of ideological Marxists out there plowing the fields–but because of the necessities of life. The “revolution” in whatever way you interpret that, must always be made and re-made as conditions change and time passes.

[Some people] feel, almost like conservationists look to National Parks as the refuge for wilderness in an age of unholy capitalist environmental destruction, that as long as Cuba can remain “as an alternative” in the world, there might still be hope for those alternatives. Few are willing to let those alternatives into their own lives.

Secondly, it also implies that people recognize the craven fallacies and gross contradictions in their own models of capitalist social and economic life, and feel Cuba represents some sort of saving grace from those fundamental flaws. Instead of addressing these issues within their own society, they instead project their idyllic anti-capitalist fantasies towards the island and see what they want to see instead of what really is. They feel, almost like conservationists look to National Parks as the refuge for wilderness in an age of unholy capitalist environmental destruction, that as long as Cuba can remain “as an alternative” in the world, there might still be hope for those alternatives. Few are willing to let those alternatives into their own lives. And most will be unwilling to stand up for Cuba’s right to continue to be alternative in the coming years. As has traditionally been the case, however, Cubans will continue forging their own path in the world, as imperfect and difficult as it may be, the US and any other imperial power be damned.

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A makeshift but very efficient irrigation control device, the Programador de riego Franchi, is shown at a model agroecological farm in the province of Mayabeque. It functions without electricity and is made from upcycled materials such as IV drips, a soda bottle, old pipes and metal scraps. The device allows farmers to “program” irrigation to certain crops in advance and eliminates the need for someone to do the thankless job of spending long hours watering each plant by hand. Photo: EM.

Cuba is not some pure utopia or ideal alternative. It is messy and complicated place. It is always changing in distinctly Cuban ways that are often illegible to outsiders (myself included). Whatever happens in the coming years, it will at the very least be exciting and interesting. All of which is not to say there are not real threats to Cuba from external forces that would seek to remake Cuba in certain ways to facilitate the siphoning of wealth and the capitalize upon the vulnerability of these transitions. But never underestimate Cuba’s potential, or I should say, never underestimate the Cuban people. Just as most Cubans who, even when not identifying as communistas, still identified as fidelistas after Fidel Castro’s death, it is the sense of national pride and anti-imperialism that is shared commonly more universally by Cubans than any political ideology. That is a powerful thing against any potentially domineering force.

We met in Varadero, which is in your own words a bubble within Cuba. The place is indeed mainly known for its high-end tourist resorts where Europeans and Canadians spend their winter holidays and whose luxury is unavailable to Cubans. A large percentage of the city’s working population has a job at a resort or hotel, or in the transportation industry, and many others offer rooms for rent and meals for sale in their private home. As Cuban people receive very small food rations from the government and salaries are low, you mentioned all kinds of exchanges, non-monetary trade and barter goes on behind closed doors as people try to get their hands on food items and everyday items. When I visited Havana, I also noticed a large part of the economy revolved around tourism and selling an „authentic“ image of Revolutionary Cuba to Westerners, which is pretty ironic given the Marxist ideology all of this officially operates under. Can you tell me more about the tensions and overlaps between dependence on capitalist tourism / foreign capital, Marxist state ideology and what we could call „Cuba’s secret anarchist economy“ in these places? How are things in other areas of the island that are less dependent on tourism but overall poorer – for example Santa Clara, where you mentioned you have family?

While my family straddles the Cuban-US divide, the half that remained in Cuba also straddles the economic divide within Cuba itself–perhaps somewhat of a contradiction in the nominally-classless Socialist country.

I was sitting on a park bench in Santa Clara one morning a while back having a coffee and smoking a cigar for breakfast when I was approached by a middle-aged black Cuban who asked to sit down on the bench with me. He did and we began the most interesting and intense conversation, especially for 8 in the morning. It was a conversation about the, “7 socio-economic classes in Cuba” during which he described each class in great detail. The short version of this conversation was that Cuba had class lines drawn along different contours, the most prominent of which is perhaps the divide between tourism and non-tourism. This divide is both geographic, with certain parts of the country having more tourism and therefore, more tourist money and investment, and also personal/familial with certain people having jobs in the tourist sector while others do not. In tourist areas, there is more flow of external capital, in no small part thanks to the implementation of the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC), whose value is roughly pegged to the dollar (the CUC is called fula by Cubans) and the Cuban Peso, which is theoretically and typically only available to Cuban citizens.

The short version of this conversation [about social stratification] was that Cuba had class lines drawn along different contours, the most prominent of which is perhaps the divide between tourism and non-tourism.

Cuban citizens that have jobs in the tourist industry or who live in tourist areas have more contact with this form of external capital in the form of dollars and CUC. It is not uncommon to find fully licensed doctors driving taxis in tourist areas because they earn better money from tips than they do for practicing medicine.

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Inside one of Varadero’s high end resorts, rhetorical gratitude for Fidel Castro is one of the many elements included in an all-included vacation, whose material luxuries are however completely inaccessible to Cubans – except as employees. Photo: EM

Additionally, Cubans who work in the tourist industry can also conseguir (get their hands on) food and goods from hotels and restaurants, which are better stocked and have better quality items than the state run stores or markets. This is illegal of course, but it is also part of the economic lifeblood in certain areas. Illegal as well is the black market and various informal forms of exchange, including lots of direct bartering and gift-giving, which exists in parallel with all these other economic practices.

I don’t think that it would be even remotely an exaggeration to say that one of the reasons that Cuba and the revolution have been able to survive the hardships of the past half-century has been directly because of all the diverse, informal, and illegal things that Cuban citizens have been able to do for themselves in spite of the regulations of the state.

Of course, the government has tried to clamp down on these informal, illegal practices at various points throughout the revolution’s history, but the fact remains that, given the material limitations of the Cuban state, these alternative practices have kept the ship afloat for decades and underwritten much of the successes, solutions and triumphs in Cuba over the past 60 years. In fact, I don’t think that it would be even remotely an exaggeration to say that one of the reasons that Cuba and the revolution have been able to survive the hardships of the past half-century has been directly because of all the diverse, informal, and illegal things that Cuban citizens have been able to do for themselves in spite of the regulations of the state. In many ways, like all economies but particularly pronounced in Cuba, is the existence of this economic anarchy in a very Emma Goldman sense of the word. No state can completely colonize all spaces, physical and psychological, within its own territory; this is even truer for a centralized state such as Cuba.

No state can completely colonize all spaces, physical and psychological, within its own territory; this is even truer for a centralized state such as Cuba.

As such, in those spaces that are left, the Cuban people have learned to take advantage of and utilize their resources, particularly their social resources, to navigate the difficulties of life. Regardless of the ubiquity of these informal institutions of economics and exchange, however, serious socio-economic disparities still exist. For part of my family living in tourist areas, life is much more comfortable and manageable. For part of my family living elsewhere, such as Santa Clara, which has been traditionally poorer, especially when compared to nearby Havana, life is lived much closer to the chest.

1According to the 2010 US population census, there are roughly 1,8 million people of Cuban descent in the US, mostly living the Miami area.

José Cienfuegos is a researcher, freelance writer and consultant based in the US. He works on agriculture and development issues in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa.

Eliana Musterle is a feminist researcher based in Germany. She works on Latin American food sovereignty movements and is involved in the climate justice movement.