Photography by Gary Indiana
Between 2012 and 2016, academic semesters, I lived in Havana—a place I’d always wondered about, since the late 1970s, when almost everyone I knew in college traveled there, either with the Venceremos Brigade or as part of a University of Massachusetts anthropology class taught by Johnnetta Cole. When I lived there, I learned that those years were part of what the Cubans now call the “quinquenio gris,” the gray five years, which some would say were more like the gray ten years, and included the UMAP camps, from 1965 to 1968, where queer people were detained. Everyone I knew who went to Cuba in the 1970s was queer in the twentieth-century United States, and not one had escaped being either ostracized by family or insulted or spit on or beaten or arrested, or some combination of these; everyone came back saying that they’d remained in the closet for the duration of the visit, and that what they saw in Cuba changed their sense of what might be possible in a human society.
Before I lived in Cuba, I had a vivid sense of my country trying to train me to be white, and straight, and a woman, and to be a proud citizen of Colonial Empire 2.0—but I was less aware of how I’d been trained to be a consumer. There’s virtually no advertising in Cuba—the word in Spanish is “propaganda”—partly because there’s little to sell, thanks partly to the trade impediments the US has been imposing on them for more than fifty years. (The glamorous Obama visit touched none of these imperial arrangements.) When you cross into Havana to live, the conditions of consumer life all but disappear. I hadn’t realized how deeply those customs had formed me until I watched them surface there, in myself and in my students: the idea of knowing a city via what you see for sale in it; the idea that what you buy is who you are; the idea of integrity being rooted in getting what you pay for; the slight daze when trying to fathom the idea of someone doing something without an underlying, often hidden, financial motivation; the slight lostness when it’s impossible to connect to other people based on what you both buy, because there’s so little to buy, and no machine trying to get you to buy it. “We don’t know how to sell ourselves,” a Cuban I met said, in distress, and I congratulated her; I hadn’t known that that was something people from my country knew, when of course it should have been obvious, given that our ideas of individual freedom and justice were framed by men who either sold other people or helped build a political system that would peaceably permit this.
The Cubans started like that too, of course, but as you may have heard again recently, they then made themselves a revolution—one that upset and upsets casino-based empires, to the point, amazingly, of providing a credible stick with which to beat a political opponent in the United States in the second decade of the twenty-first century. The Cuban revolution wasn’t the kind where new masters replaced the old ones, but the kind where down became up and up became down—where the casinos of December 31, 1958 became the sites of a very different kind of high-stakes risk on January 1, 1959. When I lived there, the filmmaker Lourdes Prieto said she remembered Batista’s tanks in the streets near her house, and the bodies of the student rebels left along the uncrumbling sidewalks; about the Cuban ability to treat this not as sadly inevitable, but as a sign that it might be time to turn the world upside-down, she said, “Somos un pueblo muy sublevador”: “We’re a very uprisey people.” She showed the students newsreel footage of Havana ladies running with pocketbooks from police rifle fire in 1958, the tanks rolling past the lighthouse the taxis and tour buses pass now, scenes that looked like Santiago de Chile and Buenos Aires and Ferguson and Jerusalem. “They invented what happened later in Brazil and Chile and Argentina and Guatemala and El Salvador here,” she said. “All that horror started here, with Batista.” About the clarity and success and unlikely longevity of the Cuban resistance to these arrangements, she smiled and waved her hand and said, “They say it’s Fidel [he was still alive then], but Fidel nothing. It was the people.”
During my time in Cuba, one student group included a young man whose father had worked for the US State Department; he laughed harder than anyone when the New York Times suddenly started to publish multiple sequential editorials praising various aspects of Cuba in the fall of 2014. At our weekly meeting, we’d sit on the residence terrace passing around the stories someone had brought back from the hotel on a flash drive, marveling over living in Havana at the same time the free press of record spontaneously awakened to its complexities via six opinion pieces recommending engagement. One beloved university biology teacher told us she had a friend in Miami who’d say, “You’re from Cuba, you don’t have a free press,” and she’d smile and answer, “The difference is that I know that the press in my country is controlled by the government, and you don’t.” Then and through the time of Obama’s visit, you could feel the currents of US politics changing, symbolically if not yet substantively; it started to seem distinctly possible that the US establishment could try to run the well-oiled Cuba con, and a new generation of widely varying politics might not believe them.
Like all cons, the Cuba con is designed to focus your attention on one aspect of reality and distract you from others, while a hidden redistribution of resources unfolds; in this case it coexists uncomfortably well with what James Baldwin called “the American affliction,” “their stubborn, manic refusal to accept their history.” “Common property and civilization cannot coexist,” wrote Commissioner of Indian Affairs T. Hartley Crawford, in a letter to the Secretary of War, in 1839; this creation of pariahs as a pretext for theft didn’t start when Karl Marx appeared.
Commissioner Crawford was articulating an aspect of consumer values still fondly reiterated in one corner or another of every United States election; this primary season may be different only in the sharp whiff of fear that seems to have provoked the current versions. There are few safer bets in American politics than those on bipartisan hatred of institutionalized sharing; where in Cuban contexts to be ”abandoned to your luck” is a disaster for a citizen and a shame for the people who’ve permitted it, in US contexts it’s a sign of the kind of “freedom” and “justice” framed by the aforementioned consumers, for whom people were among the commodities, and among whom women of all races were politically nonexistent. One risk of a con is that a mark may eventually catch on—provoking unlikely revelations like that nervousness in Michael Bloomberg’s voice as he addressed a Goldman Sachs gathering, as per a recently leaked recording: “If they can’t eat,” he said, re the marks, aka the dispossessed citizens of this country, “they’re going to set up the guillotines. And they don’t just have to be guillotines, they could be taxes.” Sitting in a restaurant near Harvard on New Year’s morning, I heard a smart, generous, liberal lawyer, who would probably find Michael Bloomberg’s politics repellent, telling her breakfast companion that she and her husband had just bought a house on Cape Cod; “If there’s a revolution,” she said, “People like us, I don’t know. It’s completely irrational, but.” “Yes,” her friend said, “This issue of where does one go.”
In the United States, where one goes for “opinions” on redistribution-minded Cuba is to the same magic media fountain that produced the Six Apparently Spontaneous Editorials leading up to Obama’s Cuba visit—so after presidential candidate Bernie Sanders was baited about Cuba, smart people could turn semi-instantly to articles like the one that appeared in the New Yorker by Masha Gessen, or in the Guardian by Out magazine editor Aaron Hicklin, who wrote about “the folly of romanticizing Castro,” “singularly ruthless in his persecution of gay men, lesbians, and transgender people.” Hicklin doesn’t like “those state-controlled book stalls” in the Plaza de Armas, full of the same books by and about the same Cuban writers and revolutionaries, approved by the government, with a little Hemingway thrown in; he runs a bookstore in a New York town called Narrowsburg, where the books are chosen by celebrities. “In this day and age, people don’t want everything,” he told an interviewer in 2012; “they want it to be highly curated, they want people to choose for them.”
In Masha Gessen’s article, the words “totalitarianism,” “authoritarianism,” and “socialism” seem to be synonyms; the phrase “the American way of life” (Michael Bloomberg’s life? Michael Brown’s?), one of the Psychological Strategy Board’s favorites, appears in her article as an assailed alternative to these menaces. Where Hicklin compares the Cuban government to Franco’s regime, Gessen at one point compares Cubans to Nazis. “It’s as if Sanders didn’t realize,” she ends, “that all of these good things that he cites—literacy, public medicine, access to culture and public transportation, and being lifted out of poverty—are good because they create the conditions for human dignity, which is precisely what totalitarianism destroys.” It’s not clear how these priorities may create and destroy dignity simultaneously—unless one is operating from the point of view that the material conditions of the lives of a people (all of them) are far less important than whether or not one may organize movements or make art or publish writing critical of a system. When early US Congressmen voiced their various versions of “I don’t agree with what you’re saying, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it,” their commitment to “free speech,” they were sharing what seem to be Gessen’s priorities: that material conditions are less important than freedoms of expression; that the absence of one cancels out the value of the other. But the unspoken material foundation beneath the ethic those congressmen were articulating was slavery, and an all-male electorate; they recognized that their interests, as white men of property, were tied together, whether they personally owned people or not. They were not concerned with, as poet Margaret Walker put it, “a world that will hold all the people.” The movement forming behind Bernie Sanders’s candidacy is articulating something else.
This is the same Masha Gessen who contributed such a sharp, brave, moving, vulnerable, insightful essay to the post-election whirlwind in November of 2016, about her great-grandfather, who lived in the Bialystock ghetto and worked for the Judenrat. “He also discouraged the young socialists from forming a resistance movement,” she wrote; “it would be of no use and would only jeopardize the ghetto’s inhabitants.” It’s not clear to me how the road of the lessons of her ancestor’s life leads to her recent article’s equations. Equally unclear is what her fine mind makes of the contradictions in what she said in an interview with In These Times in April of 2017: “If suddenly, tomorrow, there’s a military coup, that may not be a horrible thing. I sort of agree with some people who say, ‘Anything is better than him.’ In a static imagination, where we go directly from here to there, anything is better. The problem is, how much of American democracy do we actually destroy in the process? If we have destroyed trust in the media, if we have destroyed the understanding of government being separate from the intelligence agencies, of media being separate from the intelligence agencies, if we’ve destroyed all that, then the chances of recovery are that much more difficult.”
In terms of the Cuba con’s effectiveness as what armies call an information operation, at some point it’s less important whether someone is actually paid to provide a particular power-friendly point of view than that the megaphones are handed only to those who provide them. After the curated opinions are reiterated long enough, they start to seem like knowledge; the fact that it’s a kind of imperial consumer knowledge starts to disappear. “All justice is our justice.” “We’re not discussing Operation Bounty,” where the US offered payments to potential assassins “to provide inducement to Cuban citizens to overthrow the Cuban Communist Regime,” as the Pentagon put it. “We’re not discussing the mercenary army we raised to overthrow the Cuban government.” “We’ve never heard of Project Northwoods, where the Joint Chiefs of Staff discussed killing random people in Florida or Washington and blaming it on Cubans.” “We did not just try to provoke a coup in Cuba through a USAID fake Twitter campaign.” “Permissible subjects of discussion include: (a) Cubans in prison (b) Cubans executed in the 1960s (c) Cubans’ treatment of gay people through the 1980s.” “Freedom has nothing to do with eating or hospitals or education or a place to sleep other than the street. Freedom is about being able to do whatever you want, and about protecting other people’s right to do that too.” Rinse every generation and repeat.
Maybe it’s inevitable that a country whose first revolutionary provision was about the freedom to say whatever you want, in which most of the people were not considered people, will find it hard to comprehend one whose first revolutionary provision banned the plantation—but even ancient misunderstandings sometimes come to an end. Especially in this moment of such turbulent transition, it may not be impossible for people in this country to understand the citizen of Japanese descent interned in a camp who went on to serve in that same nation’s army, or the Cubans denounced in meetings who still live there, whose denouncers now live in Miami: the Catholic and Lucumí faithful, the musician boys with long hair, the queer people of all descriptions, persecuted by the persecuted revolution and then embraced by it. As a man who’s referred to himself as a socialist rallies unignorable political support in the United States, particularly among the young, it may start to be possible to understand people like those above, who thought of collective survival as more important than the suffering in their individual lives—where the fact that your country may treat you badly doesn’t mean that you abandon it, and ally yourself with those intent on its destruction. It seems less impossible by the minute for a people whose nation has devoted dizzying amounts of public money to counter-revolution to see that a collective response to some levels of emergency might include upendings and remakings more thorough than speaking firmly to one’s representatives.
A historian I met in Cuba, a young man at the beginning of the revolution, said his father left because he wasn’t a communist “not by policy, but by taste.” Even without the relentless hose of propaganda, some people in the United States might share that taste and gravitate in other political directions. My hope is that they, that we, might have the grace to answer the traditional baiting of Cuba and its supporters with something better than the traditional oblivious imperial arrogance, regardless of one’s politics. Maybe we’ve finally arrived at the point where we can understand ourselves as living in an empire, with a foreign policy devoted to “human rights” on the surface and to “full-spectrum dominance” beneath. (“Your elections worry us,” said my landlady in Havana in the spring of 2016; “And who’s that one with the hair like a nest?”) Maybe we could start to see that the political systems of other countries who’ve tried to resist this dominance are not a menu for you to choose what you like from, or a list of desirable or undesirable qualities among which you should register your preferences, like those data-mining surveys to which we’ve become so accustomed. Maybe we in the United States are starting to become less curious about the failings of the Cuban revolution and more curious about the domestic propaganda machine so interested in our focusing on this.
When I hear those questions about the crimes of Cuba, and read the curated responses to them, I think of spending one Friday night in Havana packed into a classroom with fifty Cubans, in the former mansion that now hosts CENESEX, the Cuban National Center for Sex Education, protector of all things queer, down to state-funded transition surgery, founded in 1988. We were there to hear a young black lesbian professor speak, who had to raise her voice to be heard above the thunderstorm, which some in the room called an aguacero homofóbico, a homophobic downpour.
She was talking about radical traditions, and mentioned “the great black lesbian intellectuals of the United States”; I was thinking about those first times I heard Cuba mentioned, in college, when this teacher young enough to be my daughter, a world away from Amherst, Massachusetts in the counter-revolutionary year of 1981, asked me how to say in English This Bridge Called My Back and All the Blacks Are Men and All the Women Are White but Some of Us Are Brave. On the screen behind her was a picture of Audre Lorde, with the caption AUDRE LORDE WORRIER POET. When she mentioned the Combahee River Collective, lightning flashed through the room.
This young professor was a fierce critic of the gaps between Cuban revolutionary rhetoric and Cuban revolutionary practice; her angle of vision came not from full-spectrum dominance, but from what she called “el pensamiento lesbiana,” lesbian thought, which she linked to Martinican poet Aimé Césaire’s African thought: his suspicions of pseudo-Enlightened reason, his ethics of care, like those of a lesbian focus on all the people you’re taking care of and all the people taking care of you. In the question and answer part, someone eyed my Barney’s umbrella and politely referred to “lesbianismo lite, muy elegante,” “Lesbianism Lite, very elegant,” vs. putting “the political, the politics of poor black lesbian feminism” at the center. If there are criticisms of the Cuban revolution to be made, they belong to the people in that room, not to me. I have plenty of my own work to do.