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Home arrow Language & Literature arrow Minima Cuba: Heretical Poetics and Power in Post-Soviet Cuba


In October 1988, as part of a larger performance (9 Alquimistas y un ciego [9 Alchemists and a Blind Man]), the art group Arte Calle spread out a large portrait of Ernesto Che Guevara that covered most of Havana’s L Gallery floor. On each side of the painting were written the words: “Hecho historia o hecho tierra [Victory or Defeat].” Right above the painting, there was another inscription reading: “^Donde estas Caballero Bayardo? [Where are you, Sir Bayard?].” This work, one of the bravest and most critical examples of the period, presupposes and calls into question the dominant ideological tendencies of the visual arts during the eighties in Cuba. In point of fact, the painting was challenging the legacy of the most popular and beloved revolutionary hero, and by extension the revolution and the fatherland. In addition, it was also criticizing one of the mythical poems written in homage to Che Guevara. “Where are you, Sir Bayard” was the first line of “Cancion antigua a Che Guevara [Old Song to Che Guevara],” a conversationalist poem written by Mirta Aguirre one month after Guevara’s death on October 9, 1967 (Aguirre 1979, 9). The fact that it had been written to commemorate the first month of his death sought to render its own subject just as iconic as the hero to which it alluded. Pierre Terraill de Bayard, a sixteenth-century French knight, was the subject of a popular legend, “Chevalier sans peur et sans reproche [Caballero sin miedo y sin tacha, Fearless Knight beyond Reproach]”—a title that was included by Aguirre as the poem’s second line.

Let us shift the focus to nine years later. In 1997, Tania Bruguera— one of the iconic artists of the earlier generation—gives her first perfor?mance of El peso de la culpa (The Burden of Guilt). She had begun her career by making a very engaged form of art, Memoria de la postguerra, consisting of a collage of news from all types of sources, even Miami papers such as the New Miami Herald. The second issue, which was published in 1994, raised the sensitive topic of migration (especially referring to the balseros, or rafters, who had left the island by the thousands that same year). The paper was censored before it could be distributed, and Bruguera resumed her artistic activity by shifting to solo performance, transforming her body itself into a site of suffering (Weiss 2011, 232-33). In her open house, for a piece entitled Estadisticas (1996-98), Bruguera posed in front of a twelve-foot Cuban flag made out of human hair. A slaughtered lamb hung from her body, and she consumed small balls of moist soil taken from dishes filled with salted water. These actions actually refer to a legend in which the indigenous Cuban population ate soil to commit suicide and thereby performed an act of passive resistance against the Spanish invaders (Mosquera 2009).

We have here two very different performances with similar resonances. Both of them respond to the heroic mythology present in the revolutionary poetry of the sixties and seventies, a mythology exemplified by Aguirre’s poem. The ironic and comic tone of the Arte Calle’s performance poses a stark contrast with the poignant agony of Bruguera’s actions. Bruguera embodies the revolutionary idea of sacrifice. She not only reenacts the gesture of suicide as self-immolation or resistance, but also takes the sacrifices of others upon her like a burdensome weight, initiating a never-ending cycle of guilt and responsibility. Aguirre’s and Bruguera’s representations of sacrifice speak of two different temporalities and understandings of violence and power, the complexity of which is the subject of this book. Whereas Aguirre’s sacrifice consists in a bloody, raucous, and imposing trauma, Bru- guera’s appears submissive and silent. Aguirre’s poem demands that revolutionary blood provide water for the soil, ultimately culminating in the life of a new fatherland: “Donde estas, caballero el mas fuerte/ . . . /En la sangre, en el polvo, en la herida/ . . . /Hecho saga en la muerte que muero;/ hecho historia, senora, hecho historia” (Aguirre 1979, 9).1 For Bruguera’s generation, however, the source of blood has dried up; it can no longer flow and give rise to filial relationships. Indeed, the performance, as well as Bruguera’s generation’s relation to sacrifice, culminates in a form of abjection, as Bruguera’s performing an ingestion of soil indicates. “Comer tierra” (eating soil) not only alludes to the indigenous population’s legend, it also points to its meaning in Cuban slang “to suffer hardship” (Mosquera 2009). The suffering in this case is double, since the ritual also alludes to the rituals of Passover, one in which salt water stands in for the Jewish slaves’ tears in Egypt. In “Cancion antigua a Che Guevara,” the knight responds confi?dently to the question where he is: “hecho historia, senora, hecho historia” (Aguirre 1979, 9). Thus, if Guevara represents history in Aguirre’s poem, in Arte Calle’s ironic version, the narrative of history has turned into one of defeat: “hecho tierra.” On the one hand, “defeat” is what the expression means, but taken literally, it designates the transformation of the hero into soil. In other words, the seeming birth of a new fatherland is resignified as defeat. In Bruguera’s version however, “comer tierra,” as a metaphor, becomes literalized, culminating in self-destruction. The soil of the fatherland becomes the site of a self-imposed death—one chokes on one’s own earth—which in turn marks the transformation of the nation from a locus of freedom to one of subjugation.

These two examples articulate a critique of the national ideology of revolutionary heroism, and in so doing, may serve to frame the main concerns of this book. On the one hand, Minima Cuba investigates the transformation of the sixties and seventies heroic “organic” intellectual— if there was ever one—into the apostate intellectual and antihero of the eighties and nineties. On the other hand, the book wants to capture the contradictory and yet simultaneous emotions of hopefulness, melancholy, and irony that coalesced during the latter decades as a result of those two eras’ political turmoil.

This book aims to analyze the reconfiguration of aesthetics and power in Cuba throughout three different periods: the early revolutionary years (from the sixties until the “Five Gray Years”); the eighties (with an emphasis on the Rectification Process of Errors and Negative Tendencies that began in 1986); and the postrevolutionary transition (1989 to 2005, the conclusion of the “Special Period”). Minima Cuba addresses trauma and ideology, a previously unexplored dyad in Cuban and postsocialism studies. The book places special emphasis on a form of cultural production from the island—mostly poetry and samizdats from the eighties and nineties—that has received little or no scholarly attention. Minima Cuba studies the transformation of emancipatory politics, cultural production, state power, and the subjectivity of the revolutionary hero in a period that extends from the early sixties to the first decade of the twenty-first century.

This book offers an alternative reading of contemporary Cuba, one that shifts the focus to rhetorical and symbolic discursivity as opposed to cultural identity and experience. Analyzing the rhetorical tropes of revolutionary and postrevolutionary discourse in their political and aesthetic rather than ethnographic forms of representation, this book addresses the following issues: the transformation of an allegorical and utopian representation of the Revolution into its antirepresentational and dystopian antithesis in the eighties and nineties; the influence of the melancholic nature of Guevara’s social construct of the New Man in the works of the eighties and nineties;

the passage from a cultural policy based on antagonistic politics to a biopolitical paradigm; the humanist and antihumanist political division between intellectuals during the eighties and nineties; the exhaustion of literature as a state-sanctioned bastion of official rhetoric in the nineties; and finally, the exhaustion of the political for the intellectuals born and raised after 1959.

The post-Cold War period that begins with Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika in 1985 and ends with the so-called “Periodo especial en tiempos de paz [Cuban Special Period in Times of Peace, 1989-2005]” marks the beginning of the current Cuban transition. This period of hope, uncertainty, and economic hardship is the time span covered by this book. It was, as it seems, the best of times and the worst of times for the Cuban Revolution. The period began with perestroika and the hope of change for Cuba, only to end with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent economic and political crisis. While this development might seem paradoxical, it is in fact perfectly intelligible: what initially made Cubans hopeful about political change (the Soviet perestroika) also brought about the worst economic backlash of the Revolution. Culturally speaking, political hope triggered a desire to question all the grand narratives that had inspired the cultural production of the Revolution. This hope nevertheless simultaneously concretized the existence of a utopian desire that needed to be fed new ideas. Politically speaking, there was a disavowal of a partial capitalization of the economy, although capitalization was simultaneously desired. Although there was never perestroika on the island, in 1986, the government initiated the Rectification Process of Errors and Negative Tendencies (Proceso de rectifi- cacion de errores y tendencias negativas). These policies, characterized by a return of Guevarian ethical principles, contributed without a doubt (whether intentional or not) to the eighties’ cultural and critical ebullience. Intellectuals recall the space for dissent and debate that emerged at the universities as a result of the weaker political control of the state: “Entre los anos 1989 y 1994 hubo una situacion de titubeo ideologico en las instituciones docentes y culturales del pais. . . . Fue un periodo de confusion para unos y de libertad para otros. . . . En las aulas, entonces, se podia hacer y hablar de lo que uno estimara; era licito invitar a cuanto intelectual de extramuros se deseara [Between 1989 and 1994 the state relaxed its ideological control over learning and cultural institutions. . . . It was a confusing period for some, and a period of freedom for others. . . . One could talk freely in class and have foreign—and also exiled—intellectuals from abroad]” (Ichikawa 2001, 134). From the eighties until the mid-2000s, all the arts were in one way or another focused on the Cuban Revolution and its leaders. This was a period of a major upheaval whose anxieties were reflected in all forms of cultural production, whether critical, melancholic, ironic, or hopeful.

When I first began thinking about this project in 2002, I wanted to discuss works emerging from the nascent civil society of 1989. Scholars have argued that underground movements such as hip-hop or the performing arts were the first expressions of an emerging public sphere that initiated a new movement of revolutionary critique (see Sujatha Fernandes, Cuba Represent! Cuban Arts, State Power, and the Making of New Revolutionary Cultures). Similar arguments are being made about the recent Cuban blogosphere and new technological interventions (see Katrin Hansing, “Changes from Below: New Dynamics, Spaces, and Attitudes in Cuban Society”). Poetry had its own critical groups and movements, and while some of them tried to open a conversation, others had to remain in the shadows. Discovering the poetry of the past three decades, changed the nature of my research, especially because I perceived that these works were speaking about the traumatic experience of revolutionary failure like no other genre. I was not interested in analyzing such works as modes of resistance to hegemonic ideology, because, as I will explain later, they are part of our postideological society. The notion of a public sphere in its Habermasian version as the constitution of a collective group where ideas are exchanged and discussed articulated an idea of clarity and transparency that resonated with revolutionary, rather than postrevolutionary, poetry. Postrevolutionary poetic works focus on the limit of language’s representation, which is a notion that actually challenges the idea of public sphere itself. If the notion of the public sphere entails a discursive relationship between the state and interest groups, what is the margin of critique that the state will be willing to tolerate? This question becomes particularly important considering that official cultural politics are still defined by Fidel Castro’s 1961 famous dictum “This means that within the Revolution, everything; against the Revolution, nothing.” (Castro 2001, 81).2

The intellectual group of poets and essayists that this book considers first were gathered under the name of Proyecto Paideia. After the members of this group had been denied an official space to meet, read their works, and hold conferences, they began to meet regularly on the poet Reina Maria Rodriguez’s rooftop (azotea). Some of these writers included: Victor Fowler, Rolando Prats, Omar Perez, Antonio Jose Ponte, Alessan- dra Molina, Rolando Sanchez Mejias, Pedro Marques de Armas, Carlos A. Aguilera, Francisco Moran, Ricardo Alberto Perez, and Almelio Calderon among others. In 1988 a group including Rodriguez, Fowler, Prats, Ernesto Hernandez Busto, and Radames Molina organized Proyecto Paideia, which proposed a cultural reform for the integration of independent intellectual ventures as part of the state’s official cultural program. They had envisioned a framework encompassing several working groups, a lecture series, and a creative writing mentoring group. After several years of failed attempts to convince cultural authorities, and after receiving dissuasive governmental signals, the group dissolved and regrouped in Rodriguez’s house.

In 1993, a few poets including Sanchez Mejias, Aguilera, Marques de Armas, Ricardo Alberto Perez, Rogelio Saunders, Ismael Gonzalez Castaner, and Jose Manuel Prieto separated from the larger intellectual project to form Proyecto Diaspora(s), and in 1997 they launched Diaspora(s), a print journal of no more than two hundred mimeographed copies distributed as a samizdat. They were radical, antireformists, poetically vanguardist, and critical of baroque and neobaroque poetics. Minima Cuba focuses mainly on poetic and philosophical works, which are the genres that these writers cultivated. Poets altered the forms and ideological patterns of canonical national literature in a way that no other genre was able to do. Thus, the name of my book refers to poetic language as the less discursive and more concise expression of that which escapes the arena of civil society subsumed under state control. The cultural production that arose under Reina Maria Rodriguez’s aegis and that was introduced by the generation of the “children of the revolution” is the subject of this study. Through a psychoanalytical reading of the traumatic transformation of the sixties melancholic hero into the New Man, finally becoming the nineties homo sacer (a figure divested of subjectivity) or schizo, I claim that a distinct body of literature from the eighties and nineties represents the political violence of a failed socialist imaginary on the body of the nation, giving rise to a poetics whose immanence performs at times the same negation that it tries to resist.

More specifically, this book seeks a deeper understanding of the complex and contradictory cultural and political representations triggered by utopia’s imaginary. Minima Cuba addresses the cultural meaning of revolutionary ideology understood not according to its political definition, but rather in its imaginary sense as utopia (etymologically meaning “no place,” lack or absence of place). It focuses on the initial revolutionary utopian imaginary, as well as its symbolic “death” after the disintegration of the Soviet bloc in 1989. Scholars have rightly argued that “bitterness and melancholia were going to be the dominant themes of Cuban literature and arts at this point,” but why melancholia and not hostility, for example? (Quiroga 2005, 20). After all, intellectuals had sufficient reason to be outraged by their powerlessness. If melancholia was indeed one of the dominant moods, what exactly had been lost? Was it hope or any concrete historical period or event? My main thesis is that melancholia was a paralyzing response to a political loss that could not be recovered, rather than a response to the withering of socialism.3 These melancholic regressive forces were already ingrained in the revolutionary project itself, and the events of 1989 reignited what had been repressed until then.

To demonstrate this hypothesis, the book goes back to the sixties, and looks specifically at two of the founding works of revolutionary ideology: Ernesto Guevara’s “El socialismo y el hombre en Cuba” and Fidel Castro’s La historia me absolvera. The analysis of those two texts leads me to two different conclusions. First, I show that the revolutionary project’s melancholic nature is already present in Guevara’s discussion of the New Man (the revolutionary intellectual subject). Second, I argue that the experience and rhetoric of violence, as well as its sublimation, were the main topoi of revolutionary discourse. More than a concrete political program (or lack thereof), the initial revolutionary rhetoric was based on the melodramatic exaltation of violence and heroism, a cohesive narrative of nation formation. If utopia (the object of desire) remained unattainable, violent insurrection had been indisputably successful: the rebel insurgency had resulted in the triumph of the revolution. According to official discourse, however, it was not the 26th of July Movement but the people who had won the war. For all these reasons, the rhetoric of violence appeared to be the natural continuation of the process of insurgency itself. The rhetoric of war and heroism was more prevalent than a discourse about utopia. For example, in the sixties’ cultural production, the destruction of the old order was never followed by its construction. A vast array of revolutionary works, including Tomas Gutierrez Alea’s Historias de la revolution (Stories of the Revolution), Luis Rogelio Nogueras’s Y si muero manana (If I Die Tomorrow), and conversationalist poetry, center on war, heroism, and sacrifice, ending with the Revolution’s triumph. In the melodramatic rehearsals of war victories, utopia was constantly deferred. Aesthetically speaking, this also pointed to the political failure and contradictions of socialist realism, as I discuss in the polemic stirred by Mirta Aguirre’s famous article “Apuntes sobre la literatura y el arte” (Notes on Literature and Art). All these works revealed the primary obstacle on which the revolution stumbled, that is, the belief that utopia had to be created anew and that history should be erased.

What was the fantasy that future generations would inherit, then? For them, utopia was an undefined and unattainable object of desire for which they nonetheless had to fight. Moreover, the New Man’s Guevarian tropology had actually replaced utopia (an object or a place) with a subject (the revolutionary New Man). The symbolic loss of that object, which resulted from the end of socialism, was indeed the loss of the subject himself as we see in the early poetry of the nineties, as well as in Enrique Alvarez’s film La ola (The Wave), and Antonio Jose Ponte’s short story “Un arte de hacer ruinas” (“An Art of Making Ruins”). This melancholic crisis resulted from the loss of a self who was the ghostly image (an undefined, subjectless presence whose subjectivity, had been, like the nature of utopia, forever deferred) unknown to begin with.

But melancholia was not the only ethos of post-Soviet Cuba. Gorbachev’s perestroika inspired some hope for change on the island, which translated into the critical and politically engaged cultural production of the early eighties. This production included the alternative cultural and political program of Proyecto Paideia. The symbolic death of the revolutionary project at the end of the nineties, as well as the repressive policies of the quinquenio gris (five gray years), resulted in the state’s loss of ideological legitimacy. The state made some ideological concessions, the beginning of timid reforms, since as Castro repeatedly emphasized Cubans had to fight to save the conquests of socialism. In cultural production, the political imaginary lacked its initial utopian impulse and presented not an alternative ideology but a rejection of the former one. Realizing the ensuing loss of political legitimacy, the state resorted to increasing its control over the lives of its citizens. Biopower is a way of exerting power more in consonance with the needs of a country that, on the one hand, is now taking part in global capitalism, but that, on the other hand, also wants to preserve its singularity as a socialist nation. The film Boleto al paroiso (Ticket to Paradise) as well as the Elian Gonzalez affair show how market ideology can be kept at bay with a politics that, instead of repressing, “lets live” and controls by creating docile subjects. This politics inaugurates the end of the Cuban utopian imaginary as shown by the ironic antiheroic figures that populate Proyecto Diaspora(s) samizdat’s poetics, and finally with the end of the lettered city represented by Juan Carlos Flores’s poetics.

Understanding the ideological and affective complexity of this period requires two different methodologies: psychoanalysis and power discourse analysis. A psychoanalytic reading is necessary to understand the ideological power of the revolutionary imaginary, which resulted from its transformation into a fantasy, more specifically understood in its Lacanian sense. The construction of fantasies about the object of desire represented by the revolution offsets the impossibility of reaching the full object, as shown in Ernesto Guevara’s writings. As I explain in this introduction’s final paragraph, I understand fantasy in its Lacanian sense as a narrative that allows us to mask the kernel of our desire. The book is simultaneously ingrained in historicity, and it could not be otherwise since my argument takes the narration of the revolution as the project’s point of departure. What can literature, or art in general, tell us about the ideological and emotional trauma left by the withering of “real socialism,” and how can we understand the relationship linking history, literature, and theory? These questions are what my next paragraphs discuss.

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