My wife and I recently returned from a cruise to Cuba. It was a small ship and we were able to circumnavigate the island, stopping in Havana, Cienfuegos/Trinidad, and Santiago. Since our return I’ve been struggling with how to write about Cuba without being overly trite or over generalizing. On the superficial (or potentially trite) level, there is, of course, the beautiful architecture, the ubiquitous old American cars (much more common than I had thought), and the music. On the more subjective (and subject to potential generalizations), there is the people and the politics.
Judging from the discussions on our ship, which were led by two Cuba “experts,” most people’s fascination with Cuba is grounded in the mystique of its geopolitical history, the uncertainty of its future, and the indomitable spirit of many of its people. Of course, had that mystic not been clothed in the delightful gifts to the senses, to Americans I suspect Cuba would be just another country with a troubled past and decades of hardship.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from traveling the world, and particularly Africa, it’s that making learned-sounding pronouncements about the history or politics of a particular place is ill-advised and usually only partially correct. I liked the fact that the speakers on our cruise were perfectly willing to answer a question with “I don’t know.”
The Cuban guides, on the other hand, were armed with statements and answers with which they had obviously been programmed through their education. None of the guides we came into contact with had been alive at the time of the revolution, yet one guide in particular never uttered the word “revolution” without combining it into the phrase, “the triumph of the revolution.” All of the guides had adopted Fidel Castro’s term “special period” as a euphemism for the period following 1990 when the Soviet Union collapsed and Cuba lost its ‘sugar daddy.’ The “special period” was a period of virtual starvation.
While on the cruise one of the speakers gave me a novel by a Cuban writer, Leonardo Padura. It was a mystery set in Havana in the late 1980’s, a good story, beautifully written. But what struck me was how much more one can learn about a country’s culture from a novel versus from a lecture or essay. The day-to-day lives of people can come alive in the course of a well-written novel. And, indeed, the daily hardships of Cubans, even in the years leading up to the “special period,” when not romanticized by propaganda, are part and parcel of Padura’s description of life in Havana. [I am now reading another Padura novel which takes place during the “special period” and the portrayal of people’s struggle to survive is enlightening and compelling.]
The people of Cuba have gone through some seriously bad shit. Assign whatever cause you want to it: America turning its back on Castro following the revolution, Castro turning to the Soviet Union, Communism, Cuban-Americans’ stubborn refusal to ease or lift the embargo, Castro himself, etc. The point is, there is more than enough geopolitical blame to go around and a phrase I think would be more applicable than “the triumph of the revolution” would be “the triumph of spirit.”
David Myles Robinson
As will become readily apparent, my blogs will not just be about my books or even writing in general. They will be about whatever suits my fancy--and yes, I'm sorry, but that may include politics from time to time. We live in an interestingly tempestuous time and as a writer I find it impossible to ignore the worldwide psycho-drama (and, at times, psycho-comedy) being played out before us on a virtual daily basis.