Revolution, Obama, the Rolling Stones

Text: Tommaso Ragonese | Photos: Marco Crupi

“Living a life of constant change
Every day means the turn of a page […]
Who wants yesterday’s papers
Nobody in the world”


The Rolling Stones

everaging on a lasting friendship and commonality of views, Marco Crupi and I traveled to La Habana in March 2016 to trace the enduring sentiments of the Cuban Revolution, its motives and its legacy, 58 years after its resounding triumph. This is our unambitious account from the streets of La Habana: a recollection of the time spent with more or less ordinary Cubans, pacing their streets, eating, drinking and smoking in their company, playing baseball or domino, listening equally avidly to gossip, opinions, hopes or life stories.

We strive to convey our impressions unadulterated by romantic ideas and preconceptions, in an attempt to immortalise people, places and events, portraying the state and bottling the zeitgeist of contemporary Cuba. If, in Fidel’s words, ‘writing is a way of being useful’, then the text endeavours to complement the photos by providing context and inducing one to reflect on the salient issues of a country in deep historical transition.

A better world is possible

This sign wasn’t here when, on the 31st of August 1959, the guerrilla columns of Ernesto Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos left the Eastern provinces to march on the Western part of the island; yet, the sentiment expressed by the utterance ‘a better world is possible’ was very much alive in the hearts and minds of many Cuban Revolutionaries.

An entire generation could sympathise with those sentiments; the same generation which repudiated the Vietnam War, listened to John Lennon, John Fogerty or Bob Dylan, occupied universities and tried to mobilise against a world order polarised between two superpowers which Cuba itself would soon bring to the edge of nuclear war.

Almost 60 years later, rather than communism, the world order is threatened by rising atmospheric temperatures and increasingly depauperate natural resources, growing social inequality and slowing rates of economic growth, extremisms of various sorts, religious terrorism, xenophobia, homophobia, EU-phobia and the like.

Needless to say, such sentiments of social disarray are markedly different from the ones expressed in the road sign in the picture. And it is equally evident that today’s is a very different world to be confronted with. Perhaps more confusing, as political affiliation has substantially ceased to be appealing as a source of individual and collective identity.

Alas, unlike other road signs, the above one does not offer much sense of direction; it does not tell us how or in which direction we need to head if this ‘better world’ is to be brought about. And if there is such a thing as a crisis of identity in the modern western individual, it is only made more evident by his perception of the beliefs of extremists and terrorists as ‘irrational’, and of their behaviour as ‘mad’ as they seek a sense of belonging in this world or immortality in the beyond through self-sacrifice.

Why were Cuban Revolutionaries, leaving today, 58 years ago, willing to put their life on the line for Cuba, for independence and a new, more just society? Why was martyrdom for a higher cause so appealing then and why are nations and religions still appealing as opposed to our morally mature, ‘rationally constructed’ western capitalist, liberal democracies?

Provocatively put, these are the questions that come to my mind as soon I join Marco in La Habana and we take to the streets with a smile. Perhaps there is no higher meaning in our quest, but I know that the quest for higher meaning is part and parcel of the ideological backdrop to the struggle that begot Cuban society as it is. Just as death is said to beget the human in us.

With the abundance of road signs hailing a “better world”, street murals portraying iconic personalities of the revolution and newspapers titled “Juventud Rebelde” landing on the table at breakfast, it is only natural that a myriad of philosophical questions should storm into my mind like wind through a door left open during a tropical squall. The events of Cuba – from the struggle to shake off the yoke of Spanish colonialism first, then of US neo-colonialism, to establish socialism and finally to reform it, are interwoven with some of the most critical questions about the modern age, or so I would argue.

Papito and the Rousseauian memento

Jean-Jacques Rousseau once warned that abstract reflection impaired cosmopolitanism and stifled ‘pity’, intended as the necessary capacity to empathize which we need in order to be able to really engage with others as they are. “A taste for philosophy loosens all the bonds of esteem and benevolence […] Continued reflection on mankind, continued observation of men, teach the philosopher to judge them at their worth, and it is difficult to have much affection for what one holds in contempt.

I am all too aware that the “ridiculous prejudices which have not died out even among men of letters” may alter my sight. This would be particularly risky when strolling about in Havana (Marco fell into a manhole on the second day), yet worse than falling into a hole, would be to defeat the purpose of our travels, which is contemplation, before reflection. During the course of our stay, we met three or more generations of Cubans and it is a strange fancy that we could penetrate their preoccupations and motives in life by juxtaposing them to ours. This is what Europeans who proclaimed their devotion to the ‘study of men’ all to often did and why Rousseau complained that “in vain do individuals come and go; it seems that philosophy does not travel”.

Compassion for the Cubans!’ intimates Papito, echoing Rousseau’s memento. Should I be taken aback when receiving the same injunction by a contemporary 70ish-year-old black cuban and by a XVIII century philosopher? Who is this man, intent on taking apart his Soviet sidecar? Within half an hour of conversation, he has mentioned Socrates and Voltaire, quoted Jose Marti and Francisco de Miranda, spoken of the Louvre Museum as though he had been there many times before and described military tactics at the battle of Waterloo. “I read a lot” he says; “you are very lucky to be able to travel and see many things”. He says he was an industrial engineer; he never left Cuba.

Papito is worried that we will get the wrong impression of cubans. “Some of them are shameless” he says, “but it’s a difficult situation, you must understand”. From what I understood he earns his living by running errands on his sidecar. He wants to take me on a ride when he has finally put the engine back together. But he will not accept money for that, and to further prove his point he makes for the door and beckons us to follow him to have lunch with him and his wife. “Que pasa, compadre!?”, he is very upset that we must decline his invitation; I have to swear we will be back tomorrow to quell his animosity.

Vivian, Papito’s wife, holds her ‘libreta de abastecimiento’. A bureaucratic fossil from war communism, this rationing booklet sets the minimum, guaranteed monthly allowance of sugar, rice, beans and other primary goods which every cuban citizen is entitled to.

Papito leads us into one of the tiny mezzanines carved out of a space which had probably been the living room of an apartment on the second floor of a building hosting no less than ten families. A piano sits in a corner with stacks of dried laundry on the keys. “I bought this for my son, but then he fell in love with this girl and … you know how stupid young people can be … do you know how to play?”.

A historic visit

President’s Obama’s itinerary during his visit in Cuba – the first US presidential visit in nearly a century, was far from being a publicly available piece of information. Security measures were indeed extraordinary, according to every local we spoke to: the details of the extensive road closures in Havana took up entire pages of the newspapers. Yet, following certain rumours, a small crowd had gathered in Plaza de la Revoluciòn, expecting a ceremony whereby Barack Obama was to pay tribute to Josè Martì, Cuba’s independence ‘apostle’. Standing carefully away from the crowd, Marco Crupi and I stood, waiting to see history in the making.

Down the streets in Havana

“It’s a difficult situation”. Papito’s words inevitably reverberate in my head as we round the corner of Calle 15 and head towards downtown Havana. We can hear the noise of the battered Chevrolets and of the undying Ladas cruising up and down Calle 23, the air ubiquitously filled with the smell of burned heavy-lead fuel which Cuban cars are running on. One’s first time in Havana is bound to be memorable. Even after travelling rather extensively across Latin America and the Caribbean, I cannot recall a feeling quite like the one assailing me upon darting the first glances around the streets of the Cuban capital.

This straight-out-of-the-time-machine wonderment is impossible to shake off: the frailty and pitiful state of once sumptuous buildings, the shoddy paintwork of cars, all the nuances of shapes and colours resulting from the negligence and the levies relentlessly imposed by time on every thing material exert almost an aphrodisiac effect on one’s imagination.

Between the old and the new

Marco and I are Sicilians. We are islanders. I am not sure this would be classifiable as an epistemological stance in itself. Yet, I suspect islanders are bound to be bestowed with a common trait: an elective affinity with contrast. Islands are surrounded with sea, exposed to its caprices, its mitigating effects on winter’s chills as well as its fury as one season takes over another. An island’s watery boundaries expose it to outside invaders; as a result, their population is often of mixed origin and the melange of a somewhat ungraspable complexity.

Such are islanders’ souls too. At this point in its history, Cuba is a place of contrasts. As the old economic model convulses in its death throes, the regime’s grip slowly untightens over a society in ferment. When we walked past the building in the picture, I could not help noticing both the contrast in colours and the sameness in shape and position of openings on the façade. It looked to me as a metaphor of the current state of Cuban affairs. Over a monochromatic ideological backdrop stands the prismatic image of Cuban society, a mosaic destined to change in ways which cannot be anticipated. Within that mosaic, the most apparent contrast is that between the old and the new, which is also the foremost token of a changing Cuba.

In the previous chapter’s closing picture, contrast was inherent in a building’s features. I like to think that the above one captures the tension between the old and the new by depicting this elder sitting still, facing the camera and the young, standing and walking away from it. We can see the face of the old man clearly, with its spots and wrinkles – not unlike those on the wall he is leaning against, and its expression, somewhere between inquisitive and indifferent. We cannot see the faces of the youngsters as they are facing the opposite way. The signs of the past are still ubiquitously visible in today’s Cuba, and there is a sizeable population of elders whose lucid memory can trace events back to pre-revolution days.

Above, Antonio Llibre poses in front of his medals and of a photograph portraying him next to Ernesto Che Guevara during the final days of the revolution: the 84-year old was Che’s guerrilla column political chief. Below, Ricardo also served as a soldier in the revolution: he agrees times are rough but, he says, that’s when an iron fist is the best way to rule a people.

By contrast, there is no shortage of young people who are after the latest Nike model, a flashy smartphone and a fashionable hair style. Living in Cuba puts a distance much greater than the Florida straits between them and the comforts and opportunities enjoyed in ‘Yankeelandia’, which, in turn, makes the latter all the more attractive.

In addition, intensive emigration has widened the gap between those who were too old and those who were too young to leave; until a few years ago it was unlawful to take children out of the country. There is a Cuba resembling the old man, bearing the tokens of all of its recent history’s mistakes, false starts, ‘what-might-have-been’s, and a Cuba whose traits are unknown, like those of the youngsters in the background. What will it look like when the young will have become the old? That is the question resounding in this picture.

Rolling Stone live @ Ciudad Deportiva

A truly festive atmosphere, of those so easily found in many corners of the Cuban capital after dusk, is building up as we approach the gates of the Ciudad Deportiva. Someone is flying a Cuban flag above an Union Jack. Closer to the stage, a young man is being thrust skywards by his mates performing backflips in the air; next to us, an Englishman who flew in just for the concert tells us he saw dozens of the Stone’s gigs and for nothing in the world was he going to miss this one. The air is electric and the crowd roars deafeningly as the British band makes its entry. ‘Finally, times are changing’ cries Jagger: I can see the headlines of tomorrow’s papers quoting him already.

Goodbye Comandante, Goodbye XX century

A rare photo of Fidel Castro and Ernesto Che Guevara hangs off the wall in a Cuban home. Were the two to meet in the otherworld, would Guevara now be the one tapping on Fidel’s chest with an air of admonishment? The Commander in Chief who beleaguered 11 American presidents died on the 26th of November, leaving his beard untrimmed and the dream of a socialist world order unaccomplished. Having entrusted the fate of Cuba to his brother, who inherited full powers from him in 2008, Fidel leaves a country struggling to catch up with the world and torn between its eventful past and a hazy future. The legacy of the Cuban revolution and its leader is already written indelibly in history books. But how enduring will it be amongst Cuba’s civil society and how will it survive the inevitable modernisation of Cuba’s economic program and political institutions? Will it all soon become no more than just “Yesterday’s Papers”, like the title of the Rolling Stone’s song?

In many respects, the cuban revolution was Fidel Castro, it came to be identified with him, they became synonyms. After Castro overthrew Batista, he did not establish representative democracy and the constitution of 1940; instead, he increasingly centralised power into his own hands. Castro served as Prime Minister, First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Cuba, President of the Council of Ministers and President of the Republic for a total of 49 years. This is longer than any other other head of government. There is generally little sympathy for the notion that it is a sound idea to have the same person run a country for half a century, especially when this person is free to make arbitrary use of coercion. El Comandante en Jefe was both a charismatic and controversial figure, and the Cuba of contrasts noted in the previous articles somewhat a reflection of his personality. Even his death inspires either extreme sorrow or joy as Cubans in Miami predictably sang and danced in the streets upon receiving the news.

Detractors say Castro was nothing more than a cunning megalomaniac who controlled the country via an army and a secret police rapidly put together after the Revolution with the help of his brother. In the meantime, popular reforms kept his popularity through the roof whilst he proceeded to annihilate private initiative in the economy. It is a well-known fact that he was morbidly obsessed with details, unshakeably convinced of his own rightness, stubbornly intolerant of critiques, and chronically ill-disposed to compromise. The Economist’s briefing column after his death, titled, ‘The will to power’, reads: “The Cuban revolution was above all an expression of Mr Castro’s will and unbridled exercise of his massive ego”. Not long ago, I read a few lines by italian publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, jotted down on his way back from Cuba in 1964. Perhaps frustrated by the fruitless attempts to publish a book co-authored by Castro he grumbles:

“I have very mixed feelings about this man. He is a sort of Garibaldi, utterly inapt to government work, incapable of working, reasoning and hard thinking. Impulsive. Rhetorical. High Pitched. Ideologically confused […] he looks so confident in himself, of things learned and memorised disorderedly, of the overheard cliches, that talking to him is useless. He does not listen […].”

Regardless of one’s fondness for democracy, it is difficult to argue that enlightened absolutism is a definitive antidote to ochlocracy, the government of the ignorant, tasteless mob. Any version of Plato’s philosopher king has failed the trial of history and Castro’s case will not be the exception to the rule. He always said to be confident about the future of Cuba “because the ideas of the revolution are so deep-rooted in the Cuban people that it will be difficult to eradicate them”. I would not be so sure. But I must candidly admit that it is difficult to shake off the romanticism, the utopia, the hope which emanate from the images of bearded cuban revolutionary heroes. Just read the quote from one of Fidel’s speeches in the gym above; it was chosen by the cuban newspaper grandma to be published the day after his death.

It was very difficult to find, amongst the ‘generation of the centenary’, that is, Fidel’s contemporaries, and at least among one or two of the following generations, people with a genuine distaste for the revolution and its Comandante. To be sure, depriving the image of Fidel Castro of the ideals and aspirations it came to stand for leaves little besides his charisma and political astuteness, which per se constitute no reason to hold a leader in high esteem. On the contrary, what one is left with is the profile of a tyrant. Yet, at times of profound distress for an entire society, culminating in the 1968 protest movements, “probably no other head of state […] had more enthusiastic listeners than this bearded man […]”. Fidel’s relentless struggle to preserve his revolution and the relevance of his message unchanged has ended and, with him, perishes the XX century. Strolling around Havana, we tried to imagine the days when the revolution became “a sort of collective honeymoon. Where would it lead? Somewhere there must have been a better future”. How close is that future to a present when, with an ironic twist of fate, on the other side of the Florida Straits the result of democratic elections sends a message to the world that people are democratically choosing fear over hope.