On December 31, precisely at midnight, a waterfall poured from every balcony of my Yugoslav-style building. Cubans keep the tradition of throwing a bucket of water at year’s end to clean all the bad brought by previous months and to spiritually “clean” the January about to begin. This year there were infinite reasons to throw water — that precious liquid that prepares us to face everything to come — from the windows, balconies and roofs. So my husband and I found the biggest container we could and together, from our 14th floor balcony, threw its contents into the void, thinking about everything we want to leave behind. The first sun of 2011 reflected brilliantly from the puddles in the street, formed not by rain but by our desires.
Few confess aloud the full list of hopes they harbor for the next twelve months, but it’s easy to guess that an important point on every list is the need for political changes on this Island. Each defines it in his or her own way. “This has to end now,” some say. “May Raul’s reforms succeed in improving our lives,” say others. Or, “May 2011 be the year that so many of us have been waiting for,” is the cryptic declaration of some who lost patience and faith long ago.
Curiously, the word “revolution” is absent from these popular predictions, as the vast majority of citizens no longer consider it a dynamic entity, alive, in transformation. When they refer to the prevailing model in the country they do so as if it were an immovable structure, as if it were the most confining straitjacket, rigid and unlikely to adapt to the new demands of the 21st century.
All those ideals of renewal brought down from the mountains by young bearded men have given way to a government where power is concentrated in figures in their seventies and eighties, deeply suspicious of innovation. Nonetheless, in official pronouncements January 1st continues to be spoken of as the birthday of a living creature, when in fact it is the anniversary of something that died long ago. The Revolution has been buried by stagnation. The social project lies deep within the earth and the question on everyone’s mind is what date should we carve on its tombstone.
For thousands of my compatriots the Revolution died in 1968 when Fidel Castro himself applauded the entry of Soviet tanks into Prague. The fierce bear hug that engulfed us, the omnipresence of the Kremlin, the thousands of barrels of oil it sent Cuba each year, its massive subsidies and its geopolitical demands, ultimately drowned any semblance of spontaneity.
The so-called Five Grey Years (1971-1975) turned out the lights on culture, as Socialist Realism clipped the wings of our creativity and reduced us to triumphalist stories whose protagonist was always the never-realized “New Man.”
For my parents, the Revolution ended in the first months of 1989 with the criminal trial of General Arnaldo Ochoa, charged with drug trafficking. The subsequent executions, of him and others, and the purges in the Ministry of Interior, clarified for many that the anxiety to maintain power took precedence over all ideals, Marxist manuals, scientific communism and everything we had been taught in school.
For my generation, the requiem of the Revolution was confirmed some years later, with the punches and stones thrown on the streets of Havana in August 1994. When, in response, Fidel ordered the coast guard to stop patrolling the shore and to “let the scum that wants to leave, leave,” Cubans climbed aboard rickety rafts all along the coastline.
For many, their departure destroyed the remaining illusions of those who thought the Revolution was a social project “of the poor, the meek, and the humble.” It was precisely the poorest Cubans, in those days of despair, who risked the sharks and the overcrowding at Guantanamo Naval Base, where they were taken by the American forces who plucked them from the waters to wait for planes to complete their escape to the north. The thirty thousand who set sail in a single month took with them the last shred of believability of our authorities’ insistence that the government represented all Cubans.
Now we are left with too-often stated reminders of an idealized past: “What could have been and wasn’t,” people say. Meanwhile, reality negates every word spoken from the dais, leaving the black market the only option for survival as apathy casts its corrosive acid over attempts to ideologically motivate us.
It is the long funeral that never gets to the end, where the family of the departed can’t bear to shovel the sod over the coffin. Somehow, a few of them can’t shake the belief that the deceased Revolution can rise up from its shroud, reinvent itself, shake off the wrinkles and chronic diseases.
The rest of us attend the funeral, asking the poignant question, “What went wrong? At what instant did the Revolution become a cadaver?” Deciphering this question may be of vital importance to our national future. We already know many of the chronic diseases that played a part in its death: personal ambition, bureaucracy, red tape, selling out to a foreign power, and copying a model that only looks good in a text book.
What we don’t know is if it was the push we ourselves gave it, if it was our hands, our minds, which finally choked the creature they tried to create. Or if the genetics of the process were based on the chromosomes of failure from the start.
A version of this post originally appeared in Peru’s El Comercio newspaper.
January 2, 2011