Cuba: The Decade of the Creative Stampede

When Castro died, Havana began forming into a giant anthill that, when it wants to be, is my country / EFE

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Xavier Carbonell, Salamanca, 22 May 2024 — Ten years ago, I thought I would always live in Cuba. I knew where the graves of my relatives were. I knew how to speak Cuban, not the standard dialect, not Canarian, nor Iberian, which is what I speak now. I knew that my country was mediocre but Fidel Castro had one shave left — or perhaps several— judging from his beard. Maybe that would change everything. I had begun to study philology and worked in a library in Santa Clara. I had a cat and a lot of books. I had that life.

In effect, Castro died in 2016. (Judging from photos, only a few white hairs remained of his beard.) In Havana a giant anthill began to form that, when it wants to be, is my country. A battalion of insects and larvae and mosquitoes, all grieving, all with tears in their eyes, all there to see the corpse pass by. I knew that his death would disgrace the country, not because Castro had died – that was an epic relief – but because from then on the memory of the dead man would return, not from the future – he was known for being able to leap through time — but from the past, from newspapers and books, from the mouths of the nostalgic and apocalyptic. Fidel the Prophet, the Sacred Heart of Fidel, Fidel the Terminator.

The anthill would arrive in Santa Clara at dawn – nocturnal mourners, a pitiful spectacle – at the university where everyone had to be present. It was going to be unbearably historic, the newspapers warned. When I left the Central University, I made a point of being seen. “Where are you going?” a department head asked me. “I’m going home,” I responded, not knowing that years later the Cuban hip-hop artist Cimafunk would become famous for exhausting variations of that phrase until it became the motto of my generation.

I went home. A difficult task because it involved swimming against the tide of buses, cars and other elements that made up Castro’s funeral procession. From there, I kept going to closed spaces. My spaces, not theirs. Spaces that were becoming abstract. Ideas, novels, books. I went to Ecuador, I went to India. Remote places. Countries to which I would not have traveled had they not gotten in my way. And even though everything seemed to indicate that I would not go back, I always went home.

In an essay about the Cuban novelist Pedro Juan Gutiérrez, the Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño said that Havana – and by extension all of Cuba – lived in a perpetual coma. He later corrected himself, describing the city as “anemic and feverish.” We can forgive Bolaños this mistake because he made the diagnosis at the start of the millennium. By 2016, the patient was no longer responsive.

Perhaps the most radical difference between the “New Man” — the children of the revolution — and us is that we decided to wake up from the coma. We were reading, and I mean reading a lot, of independent media. When I came back from India in the midst of the pandemic, I did so under false pretenses. I had a clear escape plan. I came back with contacts and resources. I came back restive and aloof, like a cat. A couple of friends had already left. When protests erupted on 11 July 2021, the rest got out. The jailbreak was intense and I was happy to be part of it.

I do not think I have ever felt the sense of guilt that seems to overwhelm some exiles. The latest wave of Cuban emigration is full of courageous mothers, cool Marxists, impromptu Afro-Cuban writers and activists of all stripes. Also journalists of very diverse abilities. I have seen old Castro loyalists waving flags in Madrid, trying to persuade Spain’s prime minister not to resign, which gives me a bad feeling. Before he emigrated, I also saw a well-known poet leave a small blossom at the tomb of Fidel Castro. I have been alive for three decades and, at this point in the game, I do not think anything can surprise me when it comes to Cuba.

After ten years, the idea of homeland has eroded. We never wanted it to be this way but Cuba has become so depraved that many of us will find it difficult to return, if we ever do return, to the place where our life began. That life, which now seems like an April Fool’s joke, came to an end. Late in his life, Kant warned against succumbing to “the panic of darkness.” We have decided to live, not just survive.

For me – for all of us who left — reading this publication is a way of restoring ties with the country of our birth. “Updating oneself” by reading a news article is a nostalgic somersault. We still get to watch, experiencing it through those who lend us eyes and ears to see what we are missing. And so by not being completely disconnected — always with a mother or a friend or an orphaned cat on the other side — we continue to feel Cuban. Nonetheless. . . And yet. . . With the help of this full-color reality, we can see the future and the decisions we will face more clearly.

The first ethical dilemma an exile has to face is whether or not to return to to the source of his pain, to the point of departure

The first ethical dilemma an exile has to face is whether or not to return to the source of his pain, to the point of departure. What is there to build? What is left among the ruins? What will those Cubans who stayed behind be like? Can a post-Castro Cuba and Cuban identity coexist. What about the Cuban mercenaries who fight alongside Putin’s forces in Ukraine and those fleeing Cuba via Nicaragua? Will it ever be possible to write freely in Cuba? The answer depends on the individual. Nobody asked us to stay and no one has the right to tell us when to return.

Escaping from the anomaly of time and space that is Cuba, moving to a quiet city in Spain, opining on what was lost, reading and writing for “14ymedio” is what one has to do now. It does not resemble the life we left behind, or what we anticipated ten years ago, but maybe it is better. True to my old profession and to the books I left behind, I carry two snippets from Greek philosophers in my pocket. One by Iamblichus is for the present and wards off melancholy: “When you leave your homeland, do not turn back because the Furies are following you.” The other by Democritus, for when I am feeling relaxed, helps me not to get my hopes up about going back: “I came to Athens and no one recognized me.”


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