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Whither the Republic of Cuba in the Western imagination. In Libra, Don DeLillo’s novel outlining the paranoia behind the John F. Kennedy assassination, Cuba—the last-standing bastion of communism in the West—is simultaneously an obsession and a pawn. The Bay of Pigs invasion, in which US-funded paramilitaries set on overthrowing Fidel Castro’s government were defeated in just three days, marginalizes the careers of CIA agents Laurence Parmenter and Win Everett, who were involved in the planning. “They were . . . men who couldn’t let go of Cuba,” DeLillo’s archivist narrator, Nicholas Branch, concludes. Stubbing out Castro remains a priority for national security in the context of Cold War-era politics, but it’s also a pathway toward repairing Parmenter and Everett’s damaged egos. In order to galvanize national support for reigniting hostilities with Cuba, the agents hatch a scheme of an attempted assassination of President Kennedy, which inevitably gets away from them. More notable than the hijinks is the amount of mental energy expended by the characters on a nation that rarely appears on the page. As a place in America’s foreign policy orbit, Cuba is felt through its absence, a trophy yet to be collected. Everett might’ve “loved Cuba,” and “knew the language and its literature,” but the attention the country garners is contingent on the risk it imposes—“a disease that could spread through Latin America.”
Or perhaps Western-imaginative Cuba is closer to Ernesto Perez Mason, Roberto Bolano’s reactionary Cuban novelist in Nazi Literature in the Americas, a fictional encyclopedia of authors that range from fascist-adjacent to full-blown Nazis. Mason takes the iconic José Lezama Lima as a rival under the assumption that his politics, and therefore his career, is favored by the Castro government. (In reality, the closeted and liberal Lima found himself ostracized.) Mason serves a brief jail sentence for his continued accosting of Lima. Once released, he gets to work on his next novel, Poor Man’s Soup. As a middle finger to the censors, the first letter of each paragraph spells out an acrostic. Outside of the thematic (LONG LIVE HITLER) and the irreverent (KISS MY CUBAN ASS), one arrangement in particular stands out for its pleading tone: USA WHERE ARE YOU.
These dueling points of view—Cuba as an abstract enemy of freedom; the Cuban people as repressed, freedom-starved, and in need of a savior—would appear to cancel each other out. Revolutions don’t work without citizens willing to tip the scales, and there wouldn’t be a need for revolution if there wasn’t a sociopolitical grievance to begin with. Yet conversely, there is a deep pathos in rejecting what the philosopher Edmund Burke referred to as “total revolution,” primarily the schism from a collective narrative defined in opposition. What happens when a nation’s values shift is really a story of how the change affects its people, not international relations.
Reading The Tribe, Carlos Manuel Álvarez’s virtuosic collection of reportage from Cuba on the eve of Fidel Castro’s death and the “normalization” of relations with the US, one gets the sense that the author acutely understands this focus on the personal. “Once upon a time, Cuba had cherished the magnificent dream of the Revolution,” he writes in “Post-Castro Cuba, an Approximation,” the book’s first chapter, “and our tragedy stemmed from the attempt to prolong that dream.” This manifests in a ludicrous state of sleepwalking where selflessness in the name of patriotism is in constant need of tangible replenishment from the outside world. Thanks to former President Barack Obama’s agreement with Raul Castro, who became Cuba’s acting president as Fidel’s health declined, the amount of money Cuban Americans could send home annually increased fourfold. Commercial sales and export agreements expanded; tourism restrictions eased; visitors began arriving in droves, seemingly to witness the last dregs of a communism left unadulterated by market reforms. You can resent the fetishized spectating, but it becomes moot in the face of “two men sitting on upturned buckets,” playing chess on a board laid over their laps, “a plastic cup with a shot of rum” close by. “There is nothing about them that does not scream poverty, or even indigence,” Álvarez observes. How else to process this image of the average citizen, apparently deprived of even a table when playing one of the world’s most complex games, except by wondering if the people of Cuba are immensely superior to what they’ve been given by the government of Cuba?
The juxtaposition of intellectual wealth with financial destitution factors heavily throughout The Tribe. “Exiled sportspeople, major figures in conceptual art, internationalist physicians, celebrated musicians, and . . . dissident poets,” are implicated. Álvarez claims not to have not organized the stories of this book in a unified form, or to have presented them as indicative of a thesis—some Rosetta stone of what it means to be Cuban. He means it: the thematic prologue of “Post-Castro” quickly gives way to a free-for-all of experiences that, in their poignance and insistence on being heard, gathers the momentum of a bumrush to get through a door. What saves this hurried tension from devolving into a stampede is the care of the author. Álvarez inserts himself as a character often, either as a bystander or a parallel subject whose experience as a Cuban is juxtaposed with that of whom he interviews. This is well within bounds of the crónica, a narrative-driven form of Latin American writing with a more acknowledged relationship with subjectivity and a kinship with the New Journalism tradition in the US. But what’s striking about The Tribe is its restraint. A book full of so much suffering could easily veer toward policy positions, yet generations of being corralled into a correct way of living have left everyday Cubans (including Álvarez) wary of the cliched trope of citizens awakening to freedom. Politics, when it enters the mix, is viewed askance, while money is addressed purely as a necessity. What does register throughout the book is a sense of existential placelessness. Questions such as how it feels to arrive home after choosing one’s career over national pride, or the value of protecting one’s culture from outsiders while tacitly acknowledging that, without their interest, the nation would be in worse shape, surface and disappear like rafts in the Straits of Florida.
Those who leave Cuba for professional opportunities don’t fare much better. Reynaldo Villafranca, a nurse with the Henry Reeve International Medical Brigade who was sent by Cuba to Sierra Leone to help get the nation’s Ebola epidemic under control, dies of malaria with cerebral complications while abroad. “Cuban doctors are saving lives in Africa and Latin America,” Álvarez writes in the first chapter. “Meanwhile, these doctors and the lives they save are being used by a regime with no civil liberties as calling cards, as political ambassadors, as cheap labor, as a smoke screen to hide the accelerating collapse of the public health service in the country . . .” The money Villafranca was generating from his trip was supposed to help get his mother, Justa Antigua, out of the slum she lived in, where the decor is riddled with “a thick crust, bare patches of soil, grease stains on the clothes, the fans, the curtains, the tablecloths.” It takes three years to repatriate Villafranca’s body; the Cuban government says his salary will be paid out to a beneficiary, but that leaves a heavy tension as the deceased’s relatives clamor for the few material possessions he acquired before his death.
One of the more chilling facets of The Tribe is how little effect one’s education or professional level has on the overall outcome of their life. The usual paths toward advancement are shaded by one’s infrastructure going in, which is normal enough, but Cuba’s unique structure of scarcity, filled in by black markets and criminality, makes what’s required to overcome hereditary roadblocks more outsized. Mauro Godinez, while he was a classmate of the author, was supporting his whole family by trafficking consumer goods. A monthly income between 8,000 and 9,000 pesos sounds pretty good to Álvarez, minus the scheming and the paranoia. Yet Godinez is an attentive student. The only certifiable difference, to Álvarez, is that his own parents send him money to survive every month and Godinez’s don’t. The piece is shaded by the author’s wavering faith in how society is organized—articulated by visions of his father’s depression after losing his state-appointed job as an engineer. “He shouldered the blessing and the burden of an integrity that those of my generation would never know,” Álvarez writes. In the second decade of the twenty-first century, “man . . . doesn’t care whether he is new or old, only that he is.”
This, of course, brings Cuba closer to the end of history. The US is as guilty of jingoist mythmaking as the next country, but its essential ethos is that the circumstances of one’s birth don’t necessarily dictate where one winds up in life. It’s a liminal space of both acknowledging and being unburdened by history that mirrors Álvarez’s Cuba portrayal, with the crucial difference of agency. The United States is the disruptor, and Cuba—or, at the very least, Cubans—are left to pick up the pieces. The emotional tumult of running against communist orthodoxy in this context appears much more fraught than finding out George Washington owned slaves, or that Andrew Jackson literally walked indigenous peoples to death during the Trail of Tears—for reasons of state-sanctioned acquiescence, if nothing else.
Thus, the pieces in The Tribe centered on Cubans who’ve found fame in the US carry a distinct energy. You know they’re real because you know their names, but the details of their collective subversion assume an almost tragicomic mode. Their notoriety in Cuba wouldn’t be nearly as large had they remained in Cuba; the fact that they left imbues them with an aura of skepticism from the government, and in certain cases, their own countrymen.
The least impressive aspect of these pieces is the sheen of People magazine profiles. Celebrity becomes neutralized by Álvarez treating every person with the same dramatic verve, regardless of their station in life. Expressive but avoidant of melodrama, the outsized storytelling serves as both equalizer and magnifying glass. Formally, it’s less about eliciting sympathy than articulating a disbelief that human beings have had to endure so much. In the US, Jose Contreras is known as a skilled but erratic baseball pitcher who won a World Series with the Chicago White Sox after a sporadic stint with the New York Yankees. But, to Cubans, he’s the Black son of a sweet potato farmer, swooped up by pitching coach Jesus Gurerra and put on the Cuban national team in 2001 only to defect for Major League Baseball a year later. “I left because I was ambitious,” Contreras tells Álvarez. “I wanted to prove myself . . . I wanted to try. It came at a cost, but I wanted to prove myself.” The cost was the temporary estrangement from his father, a staunch communist and militant who couldn’t fathom his son leaving for something that Cuba could not provide. Contreras never saw his father alive again; they spoke a handful of times on the phone before he died, in 2004, of an obstructed bowel. More valuable than the material success afforded Contreras was what he acquired internally. Álvarez notices the difference between photos of Contreras on the Yankees—“courageous and cheerful,” with a body built “like a concrete tree”—with a picture of Contreras while he was playing baseball in Cuba, “staring far beyond the camera lens . . . nostalgic and contemplative” and lacking “the glow, the glamour, the weight.” He is a self-actualized person with confidence on the Yankees, and the poignancy of the moment emanates from such a stature being unattainable in the place of his birth.
The conceptual artist Tania Bruguera actually did obtain fame, or at the very least notoriety, in Cuba. Hearing about Pope Francis I’s encouragement of thawed Cuba-US relations got her thinking about systems of control. “I found it suspicious that the government was selling the idea that everyone was happy about the treaty between Cuba and the United States,” Bruguera says.
The government has always considered itself an owner, and as the only body that can legitimately speak to the feelings of its citizens.
[. . .]
To my mind, to say ‘you have to do this’ is just as violent as saying ‘you cannot do this,’ especially when the very people you are encouraging are those you previously censored, without acknowledging their role in the process.
The conceptual piece that emerges, El susurro de Tatlin (Tatlin’s Whisper), harnessed the attention generated by the Havana Biennial to promote free speech. Over a microphone, everyone is allowed to say whatever they want for one minute, with the exception of inciting violence. It feels crude to refer to it as such, but the beauty of this exercise is not what everyday Cubans say with their platform; it’s the mechanisms of the Cuban government trying to absorb, control, and neutralize their message—and Bruguera in the process.
“They’re looking to create conflict, cause confusion and disorder, at a time when fascist right-wing forces in Miami are trembling at the prospect that their hegemony of terror will end,” writes Raul Capote, a former member of Cuba’s intelligence service, Seguridad del Estado, in a blog post about Tatlin’s Whisper. Cuba’s state arts organization, the Consejo Nacional de las Artes Plásticas, suggests that Bruguera perform the installation someplace other than the Plaza de la Revolución, then withdraws support when she refuses: a sign that its president, Ruben del Valle, knew of the crackdown that was coming her way. Before she has a chance to restage the performance, the Cuban government confiscates Bruguera’s passport and jails her. She is subjected to more than thirty interrogations—“a Kafkaesque machine roar[ing] into life,” Álvarez says. Bruguera has the support of the US arts apparatus at her disposal, and the charges of contempt and inciting public disorder are eventually dropped. But the trickle-down effect is jarring. Several activists and political dissidents in Cuba were jailed during the period as well, seemingly just in case.
In this collateral damage, Bruguera’s actions again raise the dichotomy of Cuba as an oppressed state versus the Cuban people pleading for interference in the face of state oppression. “It’s impossible to think of a relevant artistic action in the second decade of the twenty-first century that hasn’t been mediatized,” Pablo Helguera, the former director of Adult and Academic Programs at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, tells Álvarez. It’s “a campaign, in which anything that happens or doesn’t happen is part of the work.”
The artist Lazaro Saavedra isn’t so sure. “Tania will leave Cuba having scored another ‘goal’ on her artistic curriculum,” he wrote in an article.
Certain critics or curators will opportunistically include her in contemporary art publications, exhibitions, etc. Thousands of Cubans will carry on fighting for civil rights in this country, and, as always, hundreds or thousands of people outside Cuba will be cheering them on: but the cheerleaders are not the ones who get beaten.
There is still much to read at this point, but positioning Bruguera as an interloper distributing irreconcilable damage to the nation’s day-to-day operations by handing out a microphone feels like both a masterstroke and a nexus. Cuba’s preeminence in several fields throughout the globe cannot be denied. More pressing is how to cultivate self-respect with one nation extending its hand to you piteously as the one you’re in tries to spin the gesture into a parable. That rarest of books about a people that achieves a restorative function without idling in a documentarian mode, The Tribe’s gift to its subjects is not raising them as a hot topic, but by preserving their dignity in spite of the headlines.