Almost Always Villains

Caricature that ridicules the Spanish soldier Valeriano Weyler, architect of the Reconcentration. (

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Xavier Carbonell, Salamanca, 4 December 2023 — Martí is good, Weyler is bad, Chibás is doubtful and a little hysterical. Cubans were always reckless; the Spanish, lazy; Americans, greedy. The independence movement was inevitable; annexationism, inadvisable; reformism, a symptom of laziness and lack of character. Céspedes is the father of the country; Mariana, the mother; Gómez, the grandfather; Martí the intellectual author; Batista, the mulatto stepfather; Che Guevara, the hippie, pot-smoking nephew; but Fidel… Fidel is everything, alpha and omega, Fidel is the San Antonio cape and the Punta de Maisí, the bearded caiman. Fidel is nothing more and nothing less than the sóngoro cosongo [poem by Nicolás Guillén], the tíbiri-tábara [album by the Cuban band, Sierra Maestro], the cornerstone.

From the ashes of Hatüey to the litanies of the Communist Party, the history of Cuba that remains in our heads is – to carry it well – Manichean and scholarly. It’s logical. A country almost always clumsy in its present will be forgetful of the past and blind to its future. I suppose that any citizen, if he is not a victim of a guilt complex, will take it for granted that his country is decent, that he has fought only just and inevitable wars and that he defends democratic values, culture, freedom and such. But in that the Cuban is bound to lose.

Those who commanded the Island were almost always villains, enjoyed an unusual talent for manipulating memory and messed with the intellectuals

Those who commanded the Island were almost always villains, enjoyed an unusual talent for manipulating memory and messed with the intellectuals until they said what suited them. If the writers paid a high price for their complicity – the current ruin and mediocrity of Cuban literature – historians must answer for something more serious: having destroyed Cuba’s past, the only thing that could give us a certain pride, a certain joy of being Cuban, despite the distance and disgust.

We lost the books, the tobacco fell to pieces, we were bitten by scorpions, everything went crazy. Instead of looking for history in A pie y descalzo [On Foot and Barefoot: Trinidad to Cuba 1870-71 (Memories of the Countryside) by Ramón M. Roa] or in Humboldt’s essays [Wilhelm von Humboldt, German philosopher and linguist who devised a system of education], in El libro de los peces [The Book of Fish, by William Gould] or El ingenio [The Sugarmill, by Manuel Moreno Fraginals], we return again to the primary school teacher, who forced us to remember, by means of chalk and blackboard, in which year of the Revolution we lived [Each year had a name; e.g., The Year of Education].

Even exile doesn’t save us, because the bad memory knows how to get a passport and cross the sea. Few Cuban publishers did what the Dutch Jew Johan Polak did; after escaping the Nazi extermination he founded a publishing house to save – in luxurious volumes, furthermore – classical literature. We share the exodus and misfortune of the Jews, but not their love of books. It is difficult to find a careful text by Julián del Casal, a facsimile of the engravings of the English invasion of Havana, the almost magical catalog of José Severino Boloña, the Novena to Saint Agustine or the brochure of 1722 that dethroned the Tariff of Prices and Medicines as the first printed matter of the Island.

But this is erudition, material for bibliophiles. What we urgently need is a book that lets Cubans – especially young people – know that Pepe Antonio was not a hero, but a local and undisciplined caudillo. A text that admits how much Cuba and Spain are owed – in both directions – that vaccinates us in advance against the idiocy of tearing down statues and demanding apologies. Let Varela be called a minister or parish priest, and not the aseptic “priest.” Let’s face the great millionaires of the colony, major conspirators; let’s talk about pirates and corsairs and intentional shipwrecks (the big business of the time).

Let the story of the Freemasons, the Jews, the santeros, the Oddfellows, the Rosicrucians and theosophists be told (Sarduy began in literature writing a poem inspired by Krishnamurti). Let them carefully analyze the Reconcentration, the year 1898, the Revolution of the 30th and Castroism (as metastases of a cancer that we have been carrying for decades). You have to edit Cuban libraries – inside or outside the country, it doesn’t matter – and write them down.

To tell a story is to lose it, says Piglia, but we only have the story we know

Only the Cuban exile today has the conditions to rebuild memory. Inside there is no desire, no money, no people. Without that past, you can’t assemble the pieces of a future country, free of communist dullness, with historians by profession who resume the business where Moreno Fraginals and Leví Marrero left it and ask what Oscar Zanetti or Rafael Acosta have been doing, and about the long list of National History Awards, which prides itself on having Raúl Castro among its ranks.

To tell a story is to lose it, says Piglia, but we only have the story we know. In Respiración artificial [Artificial Breathing, by Ricardo Piglia], the novelist dreams of the possibility of a man-museum. Someone, young or old, with a perfect memory of the country, of what it was and what it could be. A man who must be consulted, in the future, as the only and last witness of an era. Less optimistic, I don’t believe in Piglia’s dream. But yes, I do believe in libraries.

Translated by Regina Anavy


COLLABORATE WITH OUR WORKThe 14ymedio team is committed to practicing serious journalism that reflects Cuba’s reality in all its depth. Thank you for joining us on this long journey. We invite you to continue supporting us by becoming a member of 14ymedio now. Together we can continue transforming journalism in Cuba.