14ymedio, Xavier Carbonell, Salamanca, 13 March 2022 — I examine my conscience about our dictators and warlords. Educated for war, violence and insomnia – are we not descended, perhaps, from conquerors and navigators? – we are fascinated by the silhouette of power, we are pursued by the voice of the strong man, of the great captain. It is not about obedience, about the primitive fear of the cacique, but about an almost metaphysical morbidity for authority. That morbidity encouraged and continues to drive the destiny of the nation, our political life, our literature and even our family world.
Cuban history often seems to boil down to the tension between the president and the struggle to free ourselves of him. In each case we were exhausted after a long war; disappointed – in the mambises, in the liberals, in democracy – pained by a previous tyrant – Batista, Machado, Weyler – and willing to give up anything, land, freedom, family, as long as there is a little peace, a little silence between the bullets.
I look at the photo of a great-uncle of mine in the thirties: a picket line of friends, in a T-shirt and suspenders; they pose shamelessly in a Machado prison. They laugh, the damned. They were journalists and troublemakers. City cockerals who made fun of the illiterate and obese president (’a nice fat man’, Langston Hughes said of him).
Hunched and nostalgic over a desk, I see my great-uncle again in a photograph from the sixties. After battling Machado and Batista, he was now fleeing Castro in his New York exile. I add – as an additional credential – that he was a close friend of Martínez Villena, the poet, and he kept some photographs of him that are now in my Cuban home.
His political conversion was methodical and slow, screened through the death of his friends and police repression. He was hardening, becoming more disbelieving. When Castro came, he recognized the whiff of despotism and understood – that dog had bitten him before – the cliff we had gotten ourselves into.
In other words, I come from a long tradition of being uncomfortable and distrustful of power. I carry that suspicion in my blood and I don’t believe in any of those who sit in the Palace armchair, I say this to avoid future inconveniences.
When I see myself so far from home, in the coldest and most memorable corner of Castile, wondering what remedy there is for what happens to my generation – writers, painters, philosophers, filmmakers, young people and good people, prisoners and exiles – how can we manage our national salvation, I return to my great-uncle, laughing at the Machado policeman who threw his photo in prison.
That memory gives me strength.
Physically we inhabit a space, but sentimentally – said Saramago – we are inhabited by a memory. We have the experience of our dead and a catalog of totalitarian bastards whose movements we analyze. We have culture and knowledge to avoid falling into the traps of nationalism, shouting and oblivion, which are the marks of the tyrant.
For my part – and after reading a lot about stabbings and flash fires in Asturias, Carpentier and Vargas Llosa – I am giving a public reading of my brief manual to sniff out dictators, in case it helps.
The despots understand our history and take advantage of it, they know how we functioned fifty, one hundred, two hundred years ago. They juggle time and words – they are excellent storytellers – they convince us of their logic, of the correctness of their statements. They aspire to be masters of history, which rarely absolves them.
They bring the rhetoric of the messiah, of the chosen one. Since Céspedes couldn’t, nor could Martí, since the others are corrupt or dead, I am the capable man. The one who came to save them. In their support they invoke the evil enemy: the imperialists, those from the other shore, those who are not with us, always better armed and with more viciousness.
They grudgingly tolerate intellectuals, journalists, artists, priests, military officers, diplomats, and international managers, because they need them. But if they can manipulate and educate them, the better. They don’t always show their faces. Batista or Castro is not the same as Díaz-Canel – a guy who looks more like Laredo Bru, a forgotten Republican figurehead – gray eminences scare me more, the tropical Richelieu, like the famous Orestes Ferrara or the sinister López-Calleja.
There is always something grotesque about them: a couple of severed fingers – Machado was a butcher among my people – a dirty beard and too long fingernails; an intolerable, Quevedian nose that cannot be covered with guayaberas. Or a demon appeal. There is everything.
They gave us free rein for infamy, denunciation, fratricidal crime. And even so, all of them – perhaps less so now, which is not the time for enthusiasm or open forums – were applauded or admired. Machado asked the time and they told him “whatever you want it to be, president.” Castro was the horse; Batista, the man; and so all our monarchs have had their dose of adoration, molasses, idolatry.
God, who saves the metal, said Borges, saves the slag. Tradition retains all our leaders, to give us a feast in conversation and reading; so as not to skid on the old enemy of Cubans: bad memory. And meanwhile, sitting on this balcony where I seem to see the island from afar, smoking, I wait.
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