February 1, 2011 | Commentary on Cuba
When i was a child and the communist authorities would send a volunteer worker to inquire why I had not yet joined the Pioneros or generally was not going along with the rhetoric of the Cuban Revolution, my grandmother would react in a way I found puzzling. She would show the visitor, usually a woman, to the sitting room my family used for people with whom we were not intimate, and then serve coffee in the good china (not the chipped and weathered cups used with family and friends). Then she invariably would launch into a version of the same routine.
Abuela would employ an exceedingly cordial but distant manner, with none of the comfortable banter that Cubans with bonds of friendship use with one another — though she was careful to drop here and there a well-calibrated cubanismo, to display her roots in the native soil.
A cold smile fixed on her lips, she would get around to informing our visitor that “this family has been in these parts for many generations — centuries.” Yes, she would go on, “we’ve noticed there is a Revolution going on outside. The important thing to us is that we’re a familia cubanisima. And what was it that you said about my grandson again? Oh, no, he won’t take part in that civic event Sunday morning. He will be at church, you see. He’s an altar boy there. Our family built that church, by the way, the one you saw on the way here. Yes, our name is on the first brick was laid there.”
Why on earth Abuela wanted to share these things with these visitors, I always wondered. Today, four decades on, I know why she proclaimed we were a corner stone.
We had memories of a time past, and history put things in context. From earliest childhood I was taught that my father’s family’s roots in Cuba ran deep. “Childhood” is perhaps too quaint a word for what was a daily anomaly: Outside raged the Revolution, with such foreign visitors as Angela Davis and Stokely Carmichael descending on Havana to join Fidel in marches, sloganeering, and taunting counterrevolutionaries; inside our walls, laden with portraits of ancestors, angels, and saints, we had ourselves, books, and hallways that echoed of La traviata and Cavalleria rusticana, emanating from my father’s record player and prized 78-rpm record collection.
Our knowledge of the past amounted to more than just the point of pride that people take in their family histories in stable countries. History gave us a sense of permanence that assured us of our daily survival, just as oaks can withstand gale force winds because of deep tap roots.
The people of Cuba today need that permanence, that stability and sense of belonging. This may jar those who have visited Cuba and seen a deprived but proud people. Yet, as the Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez has written, “Most young people’s eyes are looking to the outside, because they see that they cannot make change in their country. They desire to take a plane to Miami or Europe and in ten hours change their lives completely.” Convincing them that they have a future on the island will require wholesale change: massive amounts of capital, a huge infusion of technical know-how, and restoration of the rule of law (respect for private property, for starters).But even these major fixes won’t be sufficient to secure the island’s revival. As the Cuban writer Jose Azel recently observed, “Post-Castro Cuba will need to rebuild much more than its economy; it will need to rebuild its national identity.”
That is because wiping out that identity — one that had grown organically through the centuries and had produced an enterprising and creative national character — was Job One for the Revolution; it was a necessity, even an obsession, to communists intent on imposing an alien blueprint on the people of Cuba. “Cubanism” had to be wrung out of the people’s consciousness so that the much-touted “revolutionary consciousness” could be installed in its place. Timeless habits had to be changed, ways of thinking rewired, history rewritten.
One of the myriad ways the Revolution’s henchmen and apparatchiks went about doing that was to completely reorder the way history was imparted, teaching it — when at all — through a political prism that denigrated the past and explained why it had to lead to Castro’s Marxist experiment. To ensure that Cubans could not henceforth have access to history books that did not comport to the Marxist view, Cuba’s communists resorted to the same instruments their counterparts have used everywhere from Moscow to Beijing: strict censorship. Books that laid out a different view were confiscated and taken out of circulation. The island was hermetically shut. Since 1959, Cubans have not had access to a non-Marxist version of current or historical events about the outside world or about themselves. Today most Cubans are barred from accessing the internet.
Much attention is paid to the economic failure and political repression that end up being the sine qua non of Marxism, but relatively little notice is taken of the attendant necessity to wipe out a culture and the deleterious effect this destruction continues to have on a nation even after the communists have had their guns taken away. China is slowly regaining a 5,000-year-old culture that was ruthlessly suppressed during the Cultural Revolution; Russia is working through difficulties in that arena. Regaining memory will be important for freedom itself. The reason is simple. As British historian Simon Schama puts it, “History and memory are not the antithesis of free will but the condition of it.” Memory allows humans to contrast different events and outcomes, a freedom which any dictator intent on enforcing a blueprint must eradicate. “And because history is the enemy of tyranny,” Schama notes, “oblivion is its greatest accomplice.”
To be sure, the roots for what went wrong in Cuba can also be traced to flaws in the Cuban character and identity. Given Cuba’s penurious state, the task of sifting through the historical record to have some sense for what these flaws are is urgent. Cuba, after all, wasn’t reduced to impoverished incarceration by Martians arriving on flying saucers. Something Cuban, very Cuban, allowed this situation to emerge. What character flaw was there and how might some future government go about ameliorating its effects?
In the case of Cuba, one flaw was obviously the institution of slavery and its pernicious generational impact. Another was very probably a strong class consciousness, one that was much more like Europe’s than what one finds in the U.S. Both provided some tinder for the revolutionary match to light. But we should also look at the strengths of the Cuban character that are products of the cauldron of history. They help explain Cuba’s success prior to Fidel Castro’s revolution. A review of the historical record helps us understand Cubans’ innate attachment to private property, entrepreneurial spirit, cosmopolitanism, and pursuit of individual freedom and self-government, all characteristics anathema to the Marxist ideal. Such a review would help explain why those who have tried to impose the foreign ideology of Marxism, with its initiative-killing collectivism, arbitrary and resentful division of the world between north and south, and political repression would out of necessity seek to quash a previous understanding of history. Imposing communism in Cuba required wiping the historical record and wringing Cuban-ness from each individual, especially since every element of Marxism’s New Man was diametrically opposed to the Cuban temperament. This is why Grandma acted as she did. She was registering her impatience with revolutionaries coming to her babbling about “revolutionary consciousness.” Her message was simple: Please don’t tell us about out national character; we have been refining it for centuries.
I saw the toll that the imposition of this unfamiliar ideology took on my family, how it eventually drove my grandmother insane, killed my father and tore my family asunder. The oak was shaken.
But the end of this bizarre experiment is now within sight — after a very long half-century, the displacement of hundreds of thousands, and the ruination of the once-stately Havana and the countryside. The revolutionary leaders have become gerontocrats. It is time now to peer into the historical record and understand the roots of Cuba’s character, so that Cubans themselves can start rediscovering why it is that they think a certain way and can start responding to ancient instincts once the shackles are removed. In this, America can be a model, because it especially has been well-served by a deep understanding of its history, of the Constitution, its earliest settlers and its founding generation, but also of how it has dealt with its problems, and how all have informed the American character. This has been a guarantee of its freedom and prosperity.
Recalling a national character
An anniversary upon us should spark interest in an often overlooked period of Cuban history. This year, 2011, marks half a millennium of Cuba’s existence.
In early 1511 (historians are not sure about the exact date, but they think it was in January), nearly a century before the settlement of Jamestown, a group of Spanish knights clad in heavy armor arrived on boats to conquer the island and recreate their medieval ways in the Caribbean. They couldn’t have been more unlike the Pilgrims, but like them, they sowed the seeds of success. Some have placed the spark that ignited Cuba’s identity at other times. Historian Hugh Thomas, for instance, places it at 1762, when the British invaded Havana. Others say 1898, when Spain lost to the U.S. in the Spanish American War; or 1902, when the U.S. left and the Republic began (Castro obviously believes Year Zero is 1959, when he took over). I believe, however, that the markers the conquistadors put down led directly to the formation of the Cuban character, though they are not often given credit.
Placing the genesis of the Cuban nation at this Spanish landing is not meant to deny the existence of Indian nations, some of which had inhabited the island for centuries (others had come to Cuba only a few decades before the Spanish, hopping around the West Indies, island to island, all the way from the basin of the Orinoco River). But unlike with Peru, Mexico or, say, Ireland, in Cuba the population in place before the imperial power’s arrival left relatively little trace.
The Indians bequeathed the cultivation of some tasty tubers, the enjoyment of the hammock and, much more famously, the use of tobacco. But the country with the culture, ethnicities, language, religions, customs, and common history that it has today (in short, with all the attributes that make a nation) had its moment of birth at the point of the conquistadors’ landing. As soon as these Spaniards arrived, they started putting down the pillars on which the Cuban economy, culture, and national character were built. The leaders of the conquistadors came mostly from the landless gentry of Castile and especially Andalusia in southwestern Spain — on whose dialect Cuban Spanish is based. They cut through the serpentine island in a matter of months, subduing the natives. In four years they established the seven villages from which Cuba sprang. The seven foundational villages — Baracoa, Bayamo, Santiago, Trinidad, Sancti Spiritus, Puerto Principe, and Havana — are all cities today.
A quick historical review, guided by the ghosts of abuela’s ancestors, suggests why Cuba was once a success, why Cubans still tend to thrive outside communism, and — most important of all — why the country has its present problems.
Within decades of their arrival, the conquistadors thrust Cuba into a global trading system which produced conditions for wealth creation for centuries to come and gave Cubans a cosmopolitan outlook that allowed them to think of themselves as the equals of Europeans and North Americans. The conquistadors also laid the foundations of representative government. Yes, the conquistadors could be implacable, even sadistic. One of abuela’s ancestors — one Vasco Porcallo de Figueroa, a native of Extremadura, as were Cortes, Pizarro, and many other leading conquistadors — is said by many historians to have been among the cruelest. He had a hand in founding four of the first seven towns. He also reportedly mutilated and castrated many natives — and had children with scores more (it is to one of these “cross-cultural” encounters that my children and I owe our existence).
These first settlers were infamous for self-dealing in land, introducing the roots of the corruption and the strong sense of class consciousness that marked the island for centuries. They did this through the Havana Council (El Cabildo), which they took over early on. Conquistadors of noble birth got the best land, followed by those of baser origin, followed by simple settlers who hadn’t fought the Indians and shed blood, then followed by mixed-bloods and, finally, Indians and blacks. There’s no doubt that this created a wedge the communists were able to expand and exploit centuries later.
The identification of family honor with private property by these first Cubans did, however, prove a boon to Cuba for centuries to come, assuring its economic success. In ignoring edicts from Madrid to establish commons, they avoided the near fatal mistake of Jamestown and Massachusetts, where land was at first held jointly. In the English colonies commons led to penury, as they do everywhere. Luckily for Virginia and Massachusetts, settlers switched to private holdings in time to avoid starvation. By disobeying Madrid and apportioning land among themselves, the Cuban conquistadors eluded “the tragedy of the commons.”
The primacy of private property rights was finally encoded into legislation in the first decade of the 19th century, in a law that condemned “all government intervention in the management and development of private capital.” The revolution’s early historian, Manuel Moreno Fraginals, in his 1964 work The Sugar Mill, decried the fact that with this legislation, the Cuban “sugarocracy won its greatest legal victory.” Respect for private property lasted in Cuba from Vasco to Fidel, surviving numerous corrupt regimes. Abuela’s husband, my grandfather, Luis Miguel Gonzalez, fought against the dictators Machado and Batista in the 1930s and ’40s. Sometimes he had to flee to the countryside for weeks, to escape arrest. My father Miguel Angel was likewise thrown in prison by Batista in the 1950s. But never were their houses confiscated.
And this organic Cuban attachment to one’s own patch of land explains why the strongest rejection of the revolution’s “Agrarian Reform” — the expropriation of people’s property — came from the guajiros (which is translated as “peasants” by leftists and as “ranchers” by everyone else), not from the upper classes.
On this foundation of private property, success was built. Soon the descendants of the conquistadors were planting sugarcane, using technology brought to the island by merchant Genoese families. In a matter of decades, Havana was linked to different ports throughout the world, via Seville and the Canary Islands, honing the enterprising spirit that is one of Cuba’s most enduring traits. As the new Cuban expert at the University of Pittsburgh, the bright historian Alejandro de la Fuente, has documented in Havana and the Atlantic in the 16th Century, by the early 1600s, Havana had become a prime center in the Atlantic and the Caribbean web of distribution and commerce.
As de la Fuente puts it, the key was making Havana the nodal point of the Spanish colonial fleet system (la Carrera de Indias), which gave the port city “the ability to redistribute European products among colonial markets in the circum-Caribbean area.” He continues:Through this constant flow of vessels and commodities local merchants and residents got access to a large variety of goods. These goods came from production centers all over the world, from Amsterdam to Ceylon, and they were part of life in Havana and other Atlantic port cities. Local merchants, residents, and transients consumed and traded these commodities, shifting them from one sea route to another depending on the available information about local, regional, and distant markets and demands. (Italics added.)
In making full use of this world system, Cuba was soon producing the coffee, sugar, and tobacco that fueled the democratic explosion of the 1680s in London’s coffee houses, the incubators of Britain’s Glorious Revolution (whose understanding of freedoms informed the American Revolution).
This trading spirit was in full swing at the dawn of the 1700s, and made its adherents feisty enough to battle an empire. In the 1720s, the newly installed Bourbon dynasty in Madrid, in the person of Philip V, brought statist French ways. In France itself, of course, within 60 years this statism would lead to the French Revolution and the beheadings of the French Bourbons. In Cuba, the Spanish Bourbon king forced Cuban farmers to sell their tobacco to a state monopoly. The tobacco farmers rebelled, albeit unsuccessfully. Defeated, many of abuela’s ancestors fled to western Cuba — through sheer luck happening upon Vuelta Abajo, the best land in the world for growing the weed. Soon they were selling tobacco and other wares to privateers from Holland, France, and England.
Cubans, indeed, traded with all comers, often breaking the law if they had to. Many of the legal cases in the Archivo de Indias in Seville have to do with the authorities’ taking reprisals against smugglers. Pirates were so welcome from the start of the colony that the Cuban historian Levy Marrero quotes a 1603 letter from Bishop Juan de las Cabezas to Philip III in which he laments that the island was so lost to the pirate trade that there was even a man “who has not wanted to baptize a son until a pirate could be his Godfather.” Commercial liberty had to come amid constant attempts by the crown to regulate trade, just as the conquistadors ignored Madrid’s edicts on setting aside commons land. The settlers found different means to get their way on trade. As de la Fuente wrote, one of the ways “to circumvent legal limits and prohibitions was to falsify cargo registries.”
This commercial spirit gave the island a great deal of prosperity, especially after the British takeover in 1762, which lasted only a few months but which transformed Cuba by making trade with the entire world possible. After that, Seville and the Canary Islands could no longer be the only gateways to Europe, as they had been up to that point. As the British historian Hugh Thomas writes, Cuba in the 19th century became “the richest colony in the world.”
By the mid-20th century, as the Cuban-American business historian Oscar A. Echevarria has written in Cuba’s Builders of Wealth Prior to 1959, “Cuba’s entrepreneurial and managerial class was disproportionally large.” He concludes that it was not just good soil and proximity to the U.S. that accounted for Cuba’s economic and social success, but its entrepreneurial know-how. This resolve to trade freely with one another, defying authority when the law was an ass, was alive even under the revolution. In 1960s Havana, it propelled my poor father (and countless others) to risk prison by trading in the black market, so he could secure food for our family. Throughout my childhood, this highly illegal barter system was the only sector of the Cuban economy that I saw function.
Politically, too, the conquistadors made the first strides in electoral politics, with lasting consequences, and, as it happens, another of abuela’s ancestors played a part. They were not all rogues like Vasco, but included also such pious Christian men as Manuel de Roxas, an early governor who in the 1520s made a point of complaining to the court in Madrid about the cruelty being meted out to Indians, and about the incipient licentiousness in the colony. Unsurprisingly, given de Roxas’s moral rectitude, he also secured for the fledgling Cuban colony a level of political self-determination and, yes, democracy, that Madrid ended up denying the towns and cities in the Iberian Peninsula itself. These embryonic political developments show that a desire for representative government — one quite at odds with what Cubans have now — has existed in Cuba from the very beginning and was culturally ingrained before Castro’s half-century experiment in Marxist oppression.
De Roxas’s achievements have been chronicled by a few historians, but the most comprehensive look I have seen was by the great chronicler of Cuba’s early years, the intrepid American Irene Aloha Wright, in her 1916 classic, An Early History of Havana. The key event, according to Wright, came in a communication to the Emperor Charles I in 1528, in which de Roxas requested for the fledgling Cuban settlement the same privileges for which European towns and guilds were fighting at the time. The gist of the request was that the 17-year-old colony be able to elect its own judges and legislators. After some consideration, Charles did accede to a mixed system: Some judges and legislators would be appointed by the crown — but some would be elected by the settlers in Cuba. The suffrage was limited to landowning heads of households, to be sure, but, lest we forget, this was the case in the United States and Britain as late as the 1800s. Local elections continued throughout most of the colonial period, albeit with limited suffrage.
It was only with the arrival of Governor Miguel Tacon in 1834 that Madrid began to take back the degree of autonomy that landowning Cuban families had enjoyed for three centuries. Tacon canceled local elections in 1836, expelled the archbishop of Santiago and even engaged in something as silly as attempting to delay the installation of railways in Cuba so tracks they could be laid in Spain first. Needless to say, such a power grab alienated Cubans, leading to their insurrection, and eventually to the Spanish-American War and the defeat of Spain in 1898.
The Cubans colonials who likewise had economic and some political freedoms saw themselves as very much a part of Spain and the rest of Europe, and they felt their lives were interwoven with events on the other side of the ocean. A copy in my possession of the 1817 will and testament of Matias Jose Duarte, the brother of abuela’s great-great grandfather, shows that among the legacies he left to churches, relatives, and slaves, he also worried about Napoleon’s victim’s in Spain and left 1,000 pesos “to Europe so it can distributed at the rate [of] 10 pesos for each poor person who lost a husband or a father in the wars that they have had with France.” It is important to note that Matias Jose Duarte was a fifth-generation Cuban. It is also noteworthy that this will was written seven years after Mexico had declared its independence from Spain, and while Simon Bolivar, Jose de San Martin, and their peers were fighting to liberate the South American continent from Spain. Until Tacon, the majority of white Cubans had wanted no part of this independence.
To be sure, the privileges of Cuba’s cities and towns in the colonial period were not as far-reaching as the rights that American colonists in Virginia, Massachusetts, and the Carolinas enjoyed in the 1700s. It is important, however, to lay out a predicate for representative government in Cuba.
And free elections were part of Cuba all the way to the 1902–1959 republic. Abuela’s father was elected in free elections of 1902 to the first Havana Cabildo in the republic, and my grandfather ran for the Constitutional Assembly in 1940 (he lost). Much is made of dictators Machado and Batista in the 1930s and 1950s, and rightly so, but there were more democratically elected presidents than dictators during those six decades.
In the 16th, 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, economic freedom was reserved for the free, white or black. Excluded were the island’s slaves, until slavery was abolished in the 1880s, and anyone who goes looking for the roots of Cuba’s present-day ills must stop and consider slavery’s pernicious and lasting influence. And how could it be otherwise? Here in the United States, the New England Yankee John Adams worried about the colonies in the American South and wondered how people who deny liberty to others could ever obtain it for themselves. Slavery existed in Cuba from 1511. Because it associated personal degradation with one race, it led directly to racism. It runs as deeply in the Cuba of today as it ever has, in ways that the revolution’s starry-eyed supporters often fail to grasp. One of its most lasting and corrosive political impacts may have been a toleration of subjugation, which was accepted by all races, the subjugated and the subjugators. Cuba having had slavery till the 1880s, the folk memory of an institution that lasted for centuries can reach across the generations.
But it is important to remember that racism did not prevent free blacks from having private property. There are records in the Archivo de Indias in Seville of blacks and mixed race individuals receiving grants of land from the Havana Cabildo as early as the 1560s. A history of slavery and racism also does not condemn a society (if it did, the whole world would be doomed). During the 20th century, Cuba was so prosperous that it attracted hundreds of thousands of immigrants from Europe. Four of these 20th century European immigrants were my mother’s grandparents. They came penniless to Cuba. Yet one generation later, my mother was graduating law school.
The 20th century republic succeeded because it was a direct descendant of the colonial center of commerce incubated in the 1500s. Cubans’ sense of enterprise was sharpened over the centuries; it became part of the national character. Cubans were ferociously competitive, and international competition sharpened on the island global managerial best practices. United Nations statistics for 1959, the year Castro took over, bear this out. In infant mortality, Cuba’s 32 deaths per 1,000 live births was well ahead of Japan, West Germany, Luxembourg, Ireland, France, Italy, and Spain (40, 36, 39, 33, 34, 50, and 53 respectively) among other nations. In terms of calories per day, Cuba was ahead all of Latin America except beef producers Argentina and Uruguay. In cars per 1,000 inhabitants, Cuba’s 24 was ahead of everyone in Latin America expect oil-producing Venezuela (27). And so on. In most vital statistics, Cuba was on a par with Mediterranean countries and Southern U.S. states.
One reason for Cuba’s economic and (to a lesser degree) political success in the 1902–59 republican period was the beneficial impact of the 1899–1902 U.S. occupation, and the strong role the U.S. continued to play in the island during the first half of the twentieth century. That is, of course, not something that you will find in the history books read in Cuba today. But Cuba in 1898 was prostrate after three decades of war with Spain, and the U.S. occupation not only made it possible to have a transition to an elected government, but also considerably fixed other ills such as public sanitation. One of the first things Governor Leonard Wood did was set up a sanitation commission, which was led by abuela’s father, the surgeon and sociologist Ramon Maria Alfonso.
Reclaiming a history
Discussion of the Cuban national character often emphasizes other aspects than I have — individualism being a positive one, informality one less so — and places the historical formative period of national character during the independence wars fought against Spain in 1868–78 and 1895–98. Castro’s Revolution emphasizes these wars of independence in its teachings of history, and reinterprets them as proto-Marxist events.
The wars of independence have been purposely left out of my treatment, which has concentrated on the roots of such Cuban characteristics as attachment to private property, an entrepreneurial spirit, an international cosmopolitanism, and the pursuit of freedom (the latter of which was the title of Hugh Thomas’s classic work on Cuban history). I posit that the seeds for these traits were laid in those early years of the conquest. My use of personal events, from my life and my family’s past, are meant simply to demonstrate the always implicit contract between the dead, the present generation, and those to still be born.
Today, the overwhelming majority of Cubans have been denied any of this history. A global trading system and wealth creation not being part of the socialist grand plan, virtually all pre-revolutionary history has been denigrated in Castro’s Cuba. Castroite ideologists especially spurn what they call the “pseudo-republic” of the 20th century — the state that was the land of promise to my four Spanish maternal great grandparents. Yet, it should be clear to all that the revolution’s victory in 1959 reversed the flow of humanity; after that event people stopped coming in and began to exit en masse. To think that Europeans today would immigrate to Cuba is risible, whereas I, like hundreds of thousands of other sons and daughters of Cuba, have had to go elsewhere to make a good life and find happiness.
Castro knew he had to smash Cuba’s old identity, smear its old pride, and degrade its traditions in order to create the “new man” called for in the bizarre 19th century collectivist cult — Marxism — that he forced the poor Cubans to embrace. The British writer Theodore Dalrymple even theorizes that Castro needed to wipe out the physical evidence of the previous culture, and that that is why the Revolution purposely destroyed Havana and its once stately architecture and left it to crumble. Dalrymple is not optimistic about what it will take to rebuild Havana, that symbol of Cuban identity:The terrible damage that Castro has done will long outlive him and his regime. Untold billions of capital will be needed to restore Havana; legal problems about ownership and rights of residence will be costly, bitter, and interminable; and the need to balance commercial, social, and aesthetic considerations in the reconstruction of Cuba will require the highest regulatory wisdom. In the meantime, Havana stands as a dreadful warning to the world — if one were any longer needed — against the dangers of monomaniacs who believe themselves to be in possession of a theory that explains everything, including the future.
In that way — and other ways — Castro has been just another banal dictator. Every tyrant from Hitler to Pol Pot has tried to restart the clock in order to put in place their plans. And like all of them, Pol Pot and Hitler included, Castro has found useful idiots outside to parrot his denigration of his country’s previous history.
The historian Manuel Moreno Fraginals’s own trajectory brings to light the revolution’s distaste for history. He started out as a darling to some, and Che Guevara even praised The Sugar Mill for its “rigorous Marxist analytic method.” But the revolution’s men quickly decided that Fraginals was writing too much history. As the American Historical Association puts it in its entry on Fraginals, The Sugar Mill “was not sympathetically received by Cuban official historians, who claimed at the time that Marxist historians should apply themselves to reinterpret the past, not to reconstruct it using new evidence and methodology.” Poor Fraginals fell into disfavor quickly; the Revolutionary government in fact never allowed him to teach at the University of Havana. He ended up dying in exile in Miami in 2001.
To convince young Cubans today that there are better goals than becoming a foreigner, as a wry Havana joke puts it, Cubans will need to look at the whole vista of the past 500 years, and put the past half century in that context.
That process can start today, up to a point, by adding more cultural and historical content to American transmissions to Cuba. Radio Martí, despite its many problems, has a following on the island and could certainly be improved. The concept is good even if the implementation may sometimes fall short. But the real heavy lifting will need to come after the Castros have passed from the scene and a real transition to freedom is under way. The transitional administration should give high priority to celebrate Cuba’s heritage, all of it, with honesty.
History and culture, from Vasco to Castro, needs to be taught again. Cuba’s zarzuela, “Cecilia Valdes,” needs to play at Havana’s main theater again. This cultural recapturing is a process that was undertaken in Eastern Europe after it regained its freedom. Not for nothing was the first president of a free Czech Republic a novelist. America will unquestionably play a role in post-Castro Cuba. The only question is whether America will be well prepared to accept this responsibility or will be dragged unwillingly into it. It will be the latter only if the U.S. government accepts that it is a force for good in the world — that it already has been that in Cuba — and has a deep understanding of the challenge at hand.
I have a cousin who lives in Europe. He and I have led parallel lives. I left Cuba almost 40 years ago, when I was twelve. He left seven years ago in his mid-30s, and knows little of Cuba’s history, except the skewed version the revolution taught him. Of Vasco, the centuries in between, and the presidents of the republic, he knows next to nothing and, honestly, doesn’t much care. He also thinks it pretty bizarre that I like guajiro music from the countryside. He would not go anywhere near it, and prefers Lady Gaga. I get him. After being force-fed Cuba as “revolutionary consciousness” for decades, he wants to turn the page.
But if Cuba is to have a shot at being as successful as it was before, the Cubans who will make a go of the country need to know what came before them. They need to understand what abuela intuited.
My grandmother, that great transmitter of culture, knew what she was doing . Her father, husband, brother, and many of her ancestors were all involved in the making of Cuba to one degree or another. My grandmother’s whole life had been about history, the present and, through me, the future. Her attachment to Cuba and its survival was personal.
And that’s where national identity and character must be felt — at the personal level. Without the romanticism of culture, life becomes purely transactional and not worth living. And only by transmitting to present-day Cubans the importance of the contract between the generations that are dead and those not yet born can Cuba hope to survive.
Michael Gonzalez is vice president of communications at The Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in Policy Review