History Will Absolve Me

Event Scenes

History Will Absolve Me

When Castro produced his great guilt speech in 1959 indicating that “History” would absolve him from creating a trauma which might be called a revolution, none of us then thought that “history” would be subsequently incarnated in the person of Pope John Paul II and that the absolution would be necessary not because Castro regretted the Revolution but that he needed a moment or two to regret the individual moments (a bayonet or two up adversarial asses) on the road. Cuba today is a monument to the contradictory notions of the Spaniards who thought they could construct a new world after their own image, the Americans who tried to impose a pattern of consumerism which would turn the country into the playground of the rich and near-rich, the Specters of a Marx who live in different guises (a Che there, a Fanon here, a little bit of Mao, a Du Bois peeking through the corners), and much, much more of the mestizo and the fragments of a native history buried in the corals and rocks and ruins. And, oh God! C. Wright Mills and Graham Green and thinking about Yankees.

Cuba is the sole existing monument to the dreams in the 1960s of a third-world country which was poised to defy all the evil empires, Trotsky beyond Trotskyism. Those package tours to Nicaragua, Algeria, Chile, Vietnam, Kerala, Hungary, Bengal, Yugoslavia where all the left congregated to find the one spark of hope, against the betrayal of all vision by the left and right, now have only one location left in this Caribbean country. There is no-where else to go (and surely North Korea never counted). It is perhaps fitting that it exists just fifty miles from the USA.

Thinking about Emancipation on the Occasion of the 150th Anniversary of the Communist Manifesto in Havana in February 1998 necessarily raised these ghosts, but also others which we, a dissolute collection of American, Venezuelan, Chilean, Spanish and Turkish Communists, aged New Leftists from everywhere, cultural theorists from the nether reaches of almost every university in the North Atlantic hugged to ourselves. And then the practitioners of revolution, the apparatchiks, whom we had known about, even met before in earlier and other locations, but did not expect to be around now, were suddenly revealed in all their masterful arrogance. Heels were clicked, toes forwarded, forelocks stroked. Emancipation was a slogan, but for what? Bernard Levine from New York spoke in Spanish uttering words which might have been spoken by Fidel (indeed probably written for Fidel’s welcoming speech for the Pope).But why? Why would a Brooklyn Jew become the apologist for a Communist who seems, in the face of all adversity, to be returning to his Catholic roots (including a bizarre speech attacking abortion as being unChristian and unRevolutionary). The answer might be a combination of several things. The age of Lenin in ruins is almost a decade ago, now a theme park outside Budapest, over there a group of Slavs in Alma-Ata invoking the dead Stalin, here a Marxisant leader of a coalition government in India, but further over there a genuflecting President of a Caribbean island realizing that the end is nigh. And, of course, all of these are symbolic of events that happened in 1989, but also in 1968, 1959, 1956, 1945, and at serial intervals long before. The deaths and entrances, the moments of voodoo, the inspirational rhetoric of the Santeras, and the dressing and redressing of ourselves as walk-on parts of history offer, perhaps, moments of the dialogic, of the telling and mis-telling of antinomian and gnostic hope.

So what did we say as we celebrated the 150th anniversary of the Manifesto? Oh the Speed of Capital which runs us out of the ground on which we stand (Stephen Crocker)! Don’t, don’t give into the tourist trap (Susan Buck Morss), because how wonderfully the Cubans have preserved those old 1950s American cars! Take the spirit of the Manifesto and translate it into the streets of Toronto to campaign for the homeless (Norman Feltes). And (by Che!) smoking dope in El Salvador as we contemplated the significance of the Manifesto for our seemingly insignificant lives. No Russians, of course, but Danny Goldstick did them proud by invoking the imperviousness of Dialectical Materialism. But it was Norman Feltes who kept alive the elan of what the Manifesto seemed to be about by asking us to take it home to where we live.

Meanwhile, on the top floor of the Hotel Sevilla, some of us thought about Al Capone, Graham Greene, Meyer Lansky and the previous inhabitants of the hotel formerly known as the Casino Biltmore Sevilla, when Capone held sway. Their pictures lined the walls. Outside, the hookers plied their new and ample trade while downstairs the band played on to the Internationale and Guantanamera. This was the spectacle of multi-spectacles. The Spectres of Capital ponced around as murky ghosts of the new that would inhabit the spaces of the old.

Some of us took away to the country, to John Berger’s country, where the peasants are gritty, hard-working with pre-modern tools, and very reliable. We were not disappointed. They had a pride, a resilience. Their houses were painted white. They spoke to us as people, as those who might recognize that we had something to say beyond the romantic ruminations of those who lived in permanent mental exile. This is the Cuba that Fidel protects, the real treasures of the Sierras. But this is a marxism outside Marx, a peasant identity forged in spite of Marx’s urbanism.

Back in the city, a vision of Cuba of the intellectual imagination, of the what-might-have been of the revolution. In the old Havana Country and Golf Club, once the home-away-from-home of Richard Nixon, lives the Institute for the Arts. Mario Maovidel, semiotician, radio host, art historian shows us the visual arts bubbles (surely the most original architecture of the revolution), the theatre castle, the music, dance and video centres. Independent of the bureaucracies of the universities, this is a space (and Castro must have known it when he decreed that the Institute should be set up here) where art might exist for its own and the peoples’ sake. It is the only trace of auto-gestion in the whole of Cuba.

For Cuba, what are the Emancipatory lessons of the Manifesto? As a trope, Communism has acted as catalyst and as obfuscation: as a catalyst for nationalism and an element of the idea of resistance, but as pure obfuscation for giving meaning to the lives of a very poor people. Its monuments to trying to construct socialism are the incredible efficiency of a collectivized agriculture, its health system (but general practitioners are paid the equivalent of about $20 a month), and the Institute for the Arts, all of which still try to survive with the peso economy. The abstractions of dialectical materialism do not enter into the living discourse of the people.

And so now to the canonization among the ruins. The icons of St. Guevara are found everywhere, overwhelming those of the re-emerging Christs, Black Madonnas and Iagos. Marx is hidden, Lenin is discarded and Stalin never made it. As yet another, and another, old colonial building in Havana collapses because of its own decomposition, it is hardly surprising that Castro should seek allies in the Vatican. But he should remember the peasantry, the health service, the dignity of his people, and the art colony, and ponder on the words of Octavio Paz when contemplating the failure of the Mexican revolutions:

the religion of my people is as deep as their misery and helplessness, but this has done nothing but make them return time and again to a well that has been empty for centuries.

Castro’s rediscovery of Catholicism will have to be shown as more than a merely convenient buffer en-route to being re-engulfed by the processes he started off trying to resist. Ur-history is hardly going to absolve him for that.

Ioan Davies is professor of Sociology at York University, Toronto, and at Doshisha University, Kyoto.