14ymedio, Miriam Celaya, Havana, 16 July 2017 — The walls full of photographs of old city landscapes and a whole host of famous artists from the Cuban Republic, record album covers from the same period, and old advertising posters from the 40’s and 50’s.
In a central space, an old off-duty Victrola captures the prominence of the small restaurant. On the tablecloths, old long-playing vinyl records double as tray holders, while the coasters are vinyl 45’s.
In this private business –as in many similar ones that began to proliferate in Old Havana and in other parts of the city since the so-called “Raul reforms” — the whole atmosphere exudes that unmistakable inspiration on the past, a cult that has been seizing the capital as an epidemic. “Any former times were better,” states a refrain that is being fulfilled in Cuba.
But it is not just any past. No. Because, curiously, these enthusiastic private entrepreneurs show no interest in appealing to the socialist aesthetic of Soviet encouragement that occupied thirty years of Cuban national life without silencing the native spirit. There are no matrioskas, balalaikas or “Russian dolls” characters decorating the stained glass or interiors of these businesses or on piñatas and private catering salons dedicated to children’s parties.
There’s nothing that evokes the indestructible Cuban-Soviet friendship of an era when almost all the members of that Cuban proto-entrepreneur were born, who today prefer to revive the Republic’s prosperity of strong Yankee influence and forget the hard years of drunken rule on the Island.
That explains why one can find decorations of a Benny Moré’s album cover and not ones of Van Van or Isaac Delgado in any of these environments. The glossy and smiling face of Kid Chocolate may be staring at us from the walls, but not the face of Teófilo Stevenson.
There is no doubt, glamour is a Western capitalist product. Although, as is the case, it is a glamour as old and encased as that of Cuba in the 1950’s, which — as is always the case in societies without rights, where mediocrity prevails — ends up being a model that tends to be standardized.
Because, as usually happens in the presence of any opportunity to thrive advantageously, there is no shortage of scoundrels who have decided to take advantage of the new lode that offers this sort of aesthetic for nostalgia to extract their own revenues, as is clear from a detailed announcement published in the very popular web site Revolico, where for the price of 25 CUC, or its equivalence in CUP (625 pesos), you can buy a collection of 27,000 Cuban photographs from before 1959, “for the walls of your business.”
“The history of our country lives through image,” a message tries to encourage while promoting the sale of a “wide selection of photos of cafes, hotels, streets, houses, monuments, shops, historical sites and main streets and avenues of the Cuban capital.”
Such an offer is not limited to photographs, but also includes “old maps, postcards, bus lines, architectural drawings, prints, very good quality scans of old beer advertisements such as Cristal, Hatuey and Polar, the loose propaganda of Cigar brands, hotels, casinos, beverages and much more that constitute a large and valuable treasure trove of value.” A whole cult to the pre-revolutionary past that shows the persistence of a lost paradigm, the more ingrained and endearing, the more decadent and ill-fated the present and the more uncertain and gloomy the future.
The paradox is that, after almost six decades of Castro regime, during which the ruling power spent the greater part of its efforts trying to erase the era of the 57 years of the Republic — “pseudo republic”, they call it — trying to impose a model (this one is truly “pseudo” socialist), falsely proletarian and alien to the national culture and aspirations, the liberal ideal of the Republic is returning, camouflaged in its cultural symbols, and today it grows as a cult to the memory of those “better times,” when prosperity and wealth were plausible goals and not crimes.
As a result, and in view of the inability to project a promising future, the much-vilified Republic has become the symbol of paradise lost, and returns to occupy a place of preference in the collective imagination, despite the fact that more than 70% of Cubans today were born after 1959 and have been (de)formed under the doctrine of austerity and sacrifice.
However, the use of symbols pertaining to the Republic is not exclusive to the small niches of the private economy. The mediocrity and lack of imagination also reach the almighty State-Government-Party that almost controls the entertainment industry. Recreating the past before 1959 has become a very lucrative source of income even for the slayers of the Republic themselves, especially since American tourism became the main target of socialist marketing.
This is demonstrated, for example, by the careful reconstruction of old hotels, bars and other spaces destined for international tourism, which for decades were decadent localities or simple ruins, whose architecture and interior spaces were recently rescued to recreate the elegance and style of the ambiance of pre-revolutionary Cuba.
In this way, while ideological battles and fiery anti-imperialist discourses are maintained in public spaces and in the official press, for the indoctrination and control of the native proletarians and for the sake of regional progress, both the nascent entrepreneurial class and the chameleonic Castro regime have invented themselves a marketing Cuba, a parallel reality disguised as Republican era tradition and artificially rescued for the solace and delight of foreign visitors, who pay in dollars for attending this kind of theme park: a country frozen in the middle of the twentieth century.
And it is not necessary to deny a past that, which, for better or worse, is part of Cuban culture and history and represents a period of prosperity and expectations of that young nation. What is truly sad is that six decades under the regime have left us with the legacy of a people who, instead of pushing towards the future, assumes the past as a paradigm that, beyond its lights and democratic conquests, was sufficiently imperfect to incubate in its core the longest dictatorship in the hemisphere, in whose hands the destinies of all Cubans continue to be. It’s a shame.
Translated by Norma Whiting