[Marxism] Gary Indiana: In Havana

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri May 17 16:19:54 MDT 2013

London Review of Books Vol. 35 No. 10 · 23 May 2013

Gary Indiana: In Havana

Events of a distant nature have an abstract, even occult quality in 
Cuba, as of things glimpsed through a scrim of fog. Last June, Granma, 
the country’s only newspaper, reported the death of Whitney Houston four 
months after the fact, like a suddenly declassified state secret, in an 
edition otherwise devoid of anything resembling news. (Granma features 
plenty of statistics, state and municipal documents, decrees, ‘human 
interest’ stories and recipes for pork. News, not so much.) The paper 
was keeping its readers current with the latest tweaks in Holguín 
poultry farming, and running Fidel Castro’s memoirs.

I have only spotted Castro once, 12 years ago, at a patriotic rally on 
the Malecón: a new statue of José Martí was being installed. Martí’s new 
replica pointed an accusing finger towards Florida and held the 
repatriated boat child Elián González in his other arm. (‘What on earth 
are you doing here?’ I asked a Cuban friend in the crowd. ‘If we come to 
this we get the morning off work,’ he said. ‘Also, a free sandwich and a 
T-shirt.’) Castro didn’t address the rally. The keynote speech was given 
by what appeared to be a Cuban Girl Guide, in a green uniform.

The statue of Martí has migrated to a traffic island in front of the 
Cupet-Cimex petrol station at Calle 15; it was originally planted below 
the cliff where the Hotel Nacional sits. At least I think it was. I’m 
not really sure. I spent much of 2012 in Havana writing my own memoirs, 
and the fact that I’m not sure only adds to the dismal impression I had 
as I was writing them that memory is never anybody’s friend.

Luis (my compañero, if you like) had just moved into a new house in 
Cerro. Men were there every day ripping gouts of plaster and rusted 
wiring from the walls, replacing tiles and pipes, while Luis’s sister, 
mother and father lived in the torn-apart rooms. Luis stayed at my 
place, but had to leave every morning to keep an eye on the workers. If 
we wanted to go out at night we called Miguel, who drives an unlicensed 
taxi that will come at any hour. If we wanted to push on from one place 
to another we called him again, to avoid being hassled in the street. If 
we absolutely have to walk anywhere, Luis walks several yards in front 
of me. Cubans are discouraged from mixing with foreigners and police 
often demand to see their identity cards, sometimes accusing them of 
‘molesting’ foreigners. Despite the predominance of coloured Cubans the 
police are often racist as well, and Luis is very black. The police 
stopped us several times last year. They detained Luis once for seven 
hours. In each instance he was with me, or his friend Leo from Montreal. 
And in any case whose business is it? Things have loosened up in recent 
years, but everyone knows the real social change will happen after Fidel 
dies. There was never any formal charge against Luis, but they made a 
notation on his identity card. It cost $300 in payoffs to get it removed.

When we decided to find Angel, ‘the little one’, who’s deaf-mute and has 
one blue eye, one brown, his mother said he’d gone to Pinar del Río to 
stay with an aunt for the holidays. We decided to go out there 
ourselves, but when we went back to his house to get his aunt’s address 
before making the trip we found he’d already returned. When I asked him 
why, he made a gesture of pushing away something inedible.

Angel is a different order of being from some other deaf-mutes I know in 
Havana, who belong to a gang. The gang travels in a subworld of 
pickpockets, robbers, handbag snatchers, fences, housebreakers and 
informers. The sordomudos gather information for more daring petty 
criminals by casing tourist apartments, the so-called casas 
particulares, or running to police, even to the military, with 
information. They are famous for blackmailing people they don’t like who 
happen to be renting out unregistered apartments, driving unlicensed 
taxis, doing unofficial currency transactions; also diplomats and civil 
servants who hire rent boys. In Havana everyone does something slightly 
illegal most of the time, either for money or convenience, and there are 
often ridiculously serious penalties for very frivolous transgressions. 
Cellphone cameras are a ubiquitous tool of the shakedown trade.

When one sordomudo finds out something, the others know it in a 
telepathic instant, if she or he wants them to: where a person lives, 
where he goes, whom he talks to, whom he sleeps with, what he likes to 
do in bed, which country issued his passport, who his friends are. If 
the gang focuses on you you’re finished. They swarm around mooching 
drinks, packets of cigarettes, the car fare home to Casablanca, all the 
while setting up deaf-mute surveillance – it’s only with the sordomudos 
that I’ve ever felt like Sebastian Venable in Suddenly, Last Summer. 
It’s not a welcome feeling. I was followed home one night by a pack of 
drunken sordomudos and had to hurl leftover food at them from the 
terrace to make them go away.

Last summer I tried to interest some of them in performing a play in 
Spanish sign language. I would describe that experience like herding 
cats, except that I have had some success at herding cats, and none at 
all with the deaf-mutes. They got lost trying to find the main entrance 
to the Necrópolis de Colón, which is really hard to do. Yet in their 
central Havana beehive they know everything that’s going on.

The zone around the Capitolio, the tourist hotels and Central Park 
swarms with young men looking for other males to have sex with. Contacts 
are furtively established and quickly relocated to private settings. 
Homosexuality itself hasn’t been officially disparaged, and certainly 
hasn’t been punishable, for many years, a fact depressingly occluded a 
while ago by Julian Schnabel’s film Before Night Falls, a mostly 
accurate but unfortunately timed portrayal of gay persecution in the 
early 1970s. Since then Fidel himself has issued many mea culpas about 
the machismo and homophobia of the early Revolution; thanks mainly to 
Raúl Castro’s daughter, Mariela, director of the Cuban National Centre 
for Sex Education, LGBT rights have advanced amazingly in Cuba, more so 
on a national level than in the United States. A bill legalising 
same-sex unions is part of this year’s pending legislation, with an 
outright gay marriage bill, which has Raúl Castro’s endorsement, soon to 
follow. Gender re-assignment surgery has been available free of charge 
since 2010 as part of the universal healthcare system.

I went back to New York after New Year’s Day. After Havana the city 
always has the look of a mausoleum for termites.Nothing ever happens in 
Havana, but when I’m in New York I believe that something will, and that 
I’ll miss it. I immediately missed the Malecón at 3 a.m. and the 
pelicans diving in the harbour. I feed several families of cats at night 
on Calle G, and missed them too, as well as the bats that streak through 
the sodium glare of the lamp on my corner. I missed the crime-scene 
feeling on my skin in the Kid Chocolate boxing arena colonnade, where 
the poorest hustlers trawl until midnight before jumping on a bus to the 

I was curious to know if the migratory reform that went into effect on 
14 January caused any sort of island drama. It’s not the kind of thing I 
can ask Luis on the phone. His English and my Spanish are equally 
defective; our conversations are fairly telegraphic because of the 
expense at his end, and the connection is always crackly and tentative. 
Before the migratory reform, Cuban citizens needed official permission, 
in the form of the so-called tarjeta blanca, the ‘white card’, to travel 
abroad. It wasn’t as restrictive as is often claimed. Between 2000 and 
2012, 99.4 per cent of applications for the white card were approved, 
and 941,953 Cubans travelled abroad: 12 per cent chose not to return, 
which is either a lot or not so many. Now any Cuban with an air ticket 
and an entry visa for another country would be able to go, including 
members of professional elites who were formerly restricted.

There was a predictable, advance flurry of internet postings by Yoani 
Sánchez, dissident doyenne of the Huffington Post, who announced her 
plans to fly off – unless physically seized on the runway by Fidel 
Castro and beaten up by his goons! – to gather up the many uncollected 
trophies awarded her for exposing crimes of the regime. Sánchez claimed 
that epic lines had formed at all the passport offices in Cuba; a friend 
in Havana who lives one block from a passport office told me she hadn’t 
seen any such thing. Sánchez’s blog posts weirdly mirror the blocky 
prose of Granma in hortatory mode, suggesting a high-concept kind of 
dissident who throws herself under a stationary tank if she can’t find a 
moving one. But it’s often possible to keep up with blackouts and 
concerts and the ordinary movements of life in Havana by picking through 
her website, always allowing for the mindset that attributes every 
pothole and rupture of a sewer main to a government conspiracy.
Felix Dennis Tour 2013

Luis is an estate agent. (I should note that the concept of ‘real 
estate’ is of recent vintage in Cuba, and whatever image ‘agent’ 
conjures isn’t him.) He told me in December that a few of his clients 
were swapping houses and flats for stashes of hard currency, and 
preparing to scramble after 14 January. Where they were going, he didn’t 
know. When he asked them, they couldn’t tell him either.

I don’t know anyone who wants to leave for political rather than 
economic reasons. These days, anti-government people in Cuba want to 
stay: society is generally moving in a direction advantageous to them, 
however instinctively they decry every change as a diabolical ruse. More 
than a few hearts in Cuba have long repined for the days of Meyer Lansky 
and Batista – which they could have enjoyed all along by crossing the 
Florida Straits to the Mafia version of Colonial Williamsburg, if only 
they had had the daring.

Since some Cubans want to emigrate and few can afford international 
vacation travel – the case in any so-called Third World country – places 
they might consider going to, and not returning from, will probably 
screen visa applications just as selectively as Cuba issued white cards. 
Nearby Mexico, the most plausibly affordable destination for a 
legitimate Cuban tourist, doesn’t welcome Cuban travellers, for the 
understandable reason that Mexicans who cross the US border without 
visas are deported if they’re caught, whereas any Cuban who manages to 
set a ‘dry foot’ on US territory is treated as a political refugee 
eligible for legal resident status. The ‘wet foot, dry foot’ policy 
means Cubans picked up at sea are taken back to Cuba, and those who make 
landfall get to stay. Coming in from Mexico, they wouldn’t get their 
feet wet at all.

It’s a stupid policy, down to its infantile name, but then all US policy 
towards Cuba has been stupid and spiteful since the Cuban Revolution. 
The policy on American citizens travelling to Cuba is so stupid that 
even the people who enforce it have difficulty keeping a straight face 
when they’re explaining it. Every Washington tweak of the trade embargo 
(the Torricelli Act, the Helms-Burton Act etc) foisted on Congress by 
the Cuba lobbies has encouraged countries that don’t have a vendetta 
going on – that would be all of them, from Israel to China – to expand 
their trade agreements with Cuba, pre-empting the opportunities the 
embargo was contrived to sequester for the US in the first place.

Given the less and less repressive state of things since Fidel handed 
over power to Raúl in 2006, it’s unlikely that reform will send 
thousands charging for the airports. But if history is anything to go 
by, the ‘dry foot’ US welcome wagon will head for the hills anyway. 
Whenever great numbers of Cubans have departed for the US in the past, 
their arrival (or non-arrival) has wrought havoc in both countries. 
Hundreds of Cubans drowned in the Florida Straits in 1965, after leaving 
Camarioca harbour with the Cuban government’s blessing, in makeshift 
boats that sank. The so-called freedom flights Lyndon Johnson and Fidel 
agreed on to relieve the drowning problem brought a massive influx of 
unskilled labour to South Florida and New Jersey, while draining the 
island of professional and technical resources. Rioting arrivals from 
the Mariel boatlift cost Bill Clinton his re-election bid for the 
governorship of Arkansas in 1980; the baleful consequences of Mariel for 
South Florida were illustrated in the movie Scarface. The last passively 
sanctioned mass migration, in 1994, resulted in only a few drownings, 
ergo thousands of new, not especially welcome, economic refugees. This 
caused a temporary suspension, by a wary Clinton, of the ‘automatic 
right to asylum’ encoded in the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act. It’s my guess 
that the US Interests Section in Havana has already cut back its hours 
for interviewing visa applicants.

The first post-Revolution exodus, following Batista’s departure with the 
national treasury on New Year’s Day 1959, resulted in the ongoing 
disaster of what Allen Dulles, director of the CIA, referred to as ‘the 
disposal problem’: a large cadre of former Batista torturers and 
enforcers. This restive core of fanatics includes Orlando Bosch and Luis 
Posada Carriles – terrorists by any credible definition – and has 
controlled South Florida for decades through byzantine corruption, 
intimidation and shockingly gleeful violence, sponsored at various times 
by the CIA, the Bacardi rum family and the vast, sleazily acquired 
fortune of the exile capo Jorge Mas Canosa, from the time of the Bay of 
Pigs invasion in 1961 until Mas Canosa’s death in 1997. Thanks to their 
Washington lobbies, primarily the now splintered Cuban American National 
Foundation (CANF), the Miami Cubans have kept the US embargo in place 
for more than fifty years, sabotaging every effort towards 
Cuban-American détente, and ensuring an institutionalised, knee-jerk 
hostility towards the legal government of Cuba by buying or intimidating 
a majority of the US Congress.

In the winter of 1999-2000, however, the six-month tug of war between 
the US Justice Department and Elián González’s very loco in loco 
parentis cousins in Miami gave most Americans a prolonged, belated, 
scary look at the way the exile lobby operates. Most didn’t like what 
they saw. The Elián saga also brought TV images of everyday Cuban life 
into American living rooms, along with the startling perception that 
ordinary Cubans didn’t view themselves as residing in the Gulag 
Archipelago. Nonetheless, foreign policy mavens believe that the Bush 
dynasty’s intimate business ties to Mas Canosa, starting with the Bush 
family’s major loss of Cuban sugar investments after the Revolution’s 
land reform, might easily have prompted another American invasion of 
Cuba by George W. Bush, if another family vendetta, against Saddam 
Hussein, hadn’t sidetracked him.

First-generation kingpins of Miami’s Little Havana are now dropping dead 
from old age; their offspring have little interest in blowing up 
civilian airliners or reclaiming houses and sugar plantations 
expropriated fifty years ago. Obama’s second-term win in Florida proved 
that the Cuban lobbies are no longer needed to carry the state in a 
national election. Despite all this, American policy on Cuba remains 
mired in ressentiment over the Bay of Pigs failure, paranoia left over 
from the Missile Crisis, and proprietary assumptions about Cuba that 
predate the American Revolution. Surveying Guantánamo harbour in 1741 
with Britain’s Admiral Vernon during the War of Jenkins’s Ear, George 
Washington’s half-brother, Lawrence, concluded that Cuba would make an 
ideal 14th American colony.

Every American president from Jefferson onwards schemed to annex the 
island, either to monopolise the slave trade and the shipping through 
the Gulf of Mexico, or to alter its racial composition by promoting 
white settlement. At the time of the Missouri Compromise, Southern slave 
owners militated for Cuba’s incorporation as two discrete slave states, 
an ambition mooted by the Civil War and the Cuban Ten Years’ War of 
Independence (1868-78), which abolished slavery.

Cuba became a de facto colony under William McKinley after the 
Spanish-American War. The Platt Amendment of 1901 defined Cuban 
‘sovereignty’ in terms that ceded control of the island’s military, 
trade agreements, infrastructure and most of its agriculture to 
Washington. It has somehow been impossible for any American government 
to deal with Cuba, before or after the Revolution, as an independent 
nation, instead of a fiefdom for American corporations, whose holdings 
were nationalised after Shell, Standard Oil and Texaco refused to 
process 300,000 tons of desperately needed Soviet crude oil at their 
Cuban refineries in 1960.

American mainstream media – not just Murdoch’s revanchist Wall Street 
Journal and Fox News – instinctively describe Cuba as a ‘Stalinist 
dictatorship’ or a floating prison camp, and blame the country’s 
alternately wobbling and lurching economy, sporadic shortages and 
decrepit infrastructure on ‘the failure of socialism’. The enormous 
recent structural changes in Cuban society – private ownership of 
property and businesses, joint ventures between private companies and 
foreign partners, incremental loosening of control over public 
expression and internet access – have gone unreported in the US, or been 
dismissed as ‘cosmetic changes’. The focus has always been on Castro as 
the sort of dictator America usually sponsors in the ‘developing world’, 
filling Swiss bank accounts with billions as insurance against the 
inevitable coup d’état. The standard evocation of a brutal, kleptocratic 
cadre of communists munching on caviar as they gloat over the miseries 
of an enslaved people corresponds to absolutely nothing in Cuba, but 
such is the preferred American narrative. It is less often heard in 
Washington these days, if only because it is hard to square endless 
rhetoric about human rights with the operation of a torture camp on the 
single piece of Cuba the US does control.

Cuba is, as Christopher Columbus said, the most beautiful place on 
earth. But the history is too heavy for an island, and the place is 
often daunting and sad. I know Cubans who can go anywhere they wish, who 
like how it is for them in Cuba, and will stay in Cuba until they finish 
up. I know others who want to move away and never will, and some who 
don’t want to leave but think they have to, or else the only life they 
have will not add up to anything. I tell them, I don’t think you’d like 
it much better where I live. How do you know? they always say. And I 
always say, I don’t.

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